“Fierce winter never relented”: searching for a little-known explorer who left his name on many places, themselves little known, in the Canadian Arctic.
It’s not enough for Castner (All the Ways We Kill and Die, 2016, etc.) to have survived roadside bombs in Iraq, an experience he recounted in The Long Walk (2012). Now he sets off in search of Arctic explorer Alexander Mackenzie (1764-1820) and the river named for him, the second longest in North America, which traverses a country of few humans and plenty of bears. As the author writes appreciatively at the opening, the Mackenzie River is “so wide that the far bank appeared to be little more than a slight film of green,” while the island that stands at the river’s egress into the Arctic Ocean “is larger than five Manhattans.” He adds, “everything about [it] is enormous.” So it is, with an appropriately big story to match. Castner handles its several components skillfully, covering all the bases: for one, he provides a lively biography of Mackenzie, the youngest principal in the Northwest Company, contending not just with the rigors of exploration, but also with early corporate politics. For another, he covers the territory, traveling in what he conjectures to be Mackenzie’s footsteps and paddle traces in search of the fabled, elusive Northwest Passage, a pathway now easier to chart given thawing permafrost and melting ice caps. Every American knows the story of Lewis and Clark, Castner writes, surely too charitably; why, then, would we not know of Mackenzie and his legendary explorations? “And if I could trace the Missouri and Colorado rivers,” he writes, “if I knew how the Hudson and Lake Champlain got their names, how could I not do the same for this river, greater than them all?” In the end, that challenge is rhetorical, for Castner pays for that knowledge with no end of sweat, toil, and even some blood and tears.
A vital addition to the library of the far north and of exploration.