It happened today - July 14, 2016
On this date in history Alexander Mackenzie didn’t reach the Pacific and probably said a bad word. Because July 14 of 1789 wasn’t just one more day he didn’t reach the Pacific because he was still trudging down the river that now bears his name, the 2nd-longest in North America. It was the date he discovered he was never going to reach the Pacific that way because he did reach the mouth of the river and darn it all it was polar bears, icebergs and the blasted Arctic Ocean.
OK, I don’t know exactly what he saw or what he said. But I do know he named the river “Disappointment River” and that’s quite an eloquent name for a river 1738 kilometres long from Great Slave Lake to the not Pacific.
The thing is, it’s not really his fault. He didn’t put the rivers where they were. One guy started exploring the Mississippi, the longest river in North America, and it came out somewhere warm. Another guy, at least as tough, started exploring the Deh-Cho, as the locals called it, and it came out somewhere cold. It’s not a less impressive river, its tributaries extending into four of Canada’s current provinces, draining some 20% of Canada’s land mass. And it’s not a less impressive achievement just because the punchline was “ha ha this isn’t a trade route” and the 20% of Canada it drains is the part you’d least like to win in a poker game.
As for Mackenzie, he wasn’t a man to give in to disappointment. He went back to Britain to study this new-fangled longitude or, more precisely, methods of actually knowing how far east or west you were instead of just hoping you weren’t hopelessly lost or about to crash into something big and hard. The next year he came back and aimed west instead of north from Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabaska, which only Great Slave Lake would consider “south of here”, along with two native guides, one cousin, six voyageurs and a dog called creatively “Our Dog” (since a possible alternative was “Dog Disappointment” perhaps it got off light). And barely nine months later he breezed into Bella Coola, completing the first recorded land crossing of North America north of Mexico only to be chased off by hostile locals before actually reaching the open ocean.
Eight years after that, his journals were published, then he was knighted, and served in the Lower Canada legislature before returning to Scotland and in his late 40s marrying a 14-year-old heiress, having three children, dying of Bright’s Disease in 1820 and being named a National Historic Person this year.
Canadian history is not exactly dull. But it is mercifully free of major crises within its borders compared, say, to France. Or the United States. Or Britain. We never had a brutal civil war. A lot of our great explorers found stuff nobody wanted enough to fight a major war over it. We settled most of our arguments without sticking anybody’s head on a pike. And so it is that Alexander Mackenzie explored our longest river with incredible determination, fortitude and hardiness, found nothing very interesting on the same day they stormed the Bastille in Paris, and went away again with only a snow storm and possibly a torrent of strong language.
My hat is off to him nevertheless. My thick fur hat. Can we go home now?