Arctic Return Expedition will seek Northwest Passage in the footsteps of John Rae

“A snow storm of great violence raged during the whole of [April] 14th, which did not prevent us from making an attempt to get forward; after persevering two and a half hours, and gaining a mile and a half distance, we were again forced to take shelter.” — John Rae on his 1854 expedition

In the Canadian Arctic, the month of April means below-zero temperatures, ice-jammed waterways, blinding blizzards and challenging traveling conditions. April is the month, in 2019, when Arctic explorer David Reid will lead a four-person team on a 640-kilometre trek across Boothia Peninsula in the Central Arctic. Travelling on skis and snowshoes, Reid and his team will follow the route Scottish explorer John Rae took in 1854, when with two indigenous companions, he accomplished one of the three most significant expeditions in the history of Arctic exploration.

Together with the Inuk William Ouligbuck and the Ojibway Thomas Mistegan, Rae discovered both the catastrophe that had engulfed the failed Franklin expedition and the final link in the first navigable Northwest Passage. On Friday night David Reid, who recently led the first-ever circumnavigaton of Bylot Island on skis, unveiled his next undertaking — the ARCTIC RETURN EXPEDITION: Discovery, Northwest Passage, John Rae — while presenting in Toronto at a meeting of the Canadian Chapter of the Explorers Club.

His 540 km Bear Witness journey in 2017 around Bylot required 29 days. Reid proposes to complete this longer expedition — 640 km from Repulse Bay (Naujaat) via Point de la Guiche to Gjoa Haven — in 35 days. He is now selecting team members, each of whom must be capable, he says, “of hauling a 200-pound sled every day for a month while meeting the mental and physical challenges of travelling in a harsh, cold environment — one of the most extreme on earth.”

This expedition is his most ambitious yet, the Scotland-born explorer said, because it is not just linear, man against nature, a purely physical test. Certainly it is that, but it also has a significant historical dimension that invites multi-faceted comparison between today and yesterday. Climate? Technology? Culture? Gear and equipment? Communications? All completely transformed since Rae’s time. Not only that, but Reid has also enlisted an experienced co-author — full disclosure: yours truly — to write a book about the expedition, one that we hope will give rise to a documentary film.

“This is purpose-driven travel,” Reid said. “And it’s a serious undertaking. It is certainly not lost on me that people die doing things like this, travelling in this part of the world at the time of year Rae did.” Reid notes that for centuries, Inuit have travelled through this area, and “because of blizzards, whiteouts, and other dangers, the reality is some have not made it home.”

Then he asked rhetorically: “Why do it? Why, at considerable personal risk, why try follow in the tracks of John Rae? Well, because historical achievement needs to be recognized, honoured, and celebrated. This expedition is designed to highlight and bring attention to excellence and achievement. It will bear witness in a remote part of Canada where history was made.”

History, he added, is often evoked in bricks and mortar. And that brought him to another motivating factor — the dangerously run-down condition of Rae’s birthplace in Stromness, Orkney: the Hall of Clestrain. For the past several years, the John Rae Society has been striving to raise funds to purchase, salvage, and restore the edifice, with a view to turning it into an international John Rae Centre — a World Heritage site for exhibitions, lectures, research, and scientific study. Last month, a Scottish woman living in Canada donated 40,000 pounds (almost $70,000 Cdn.) to the cause.

But much more is needed, and Reid — who hails from Bishopton near Glasgow, not 300 miles south of Stromness — is hopeful that the ARCTIC RETURN EXPEDITION will attract funding not just for the undertaking itself, but also for the restoration of the Hall. “Clestrain stands as an example of something once proud, dignified, and strong,” he said. “The passing years have not been kind to it. It would be wonderful if our expedition could help to breathe new life into the Hall — not just for the people of Orkney, but people from around the world.” Reid would also like to see some private funds go to a youth group based on King William Island — a group identified as deserving by historian Louie Kamookak, who has agreed to serve as Gjoa Haven consultant.

And the three most significant Arctic expeditions? The first was that of John Franklin, who in 1846 established the existence of an open waterway from Parry Channel as far south as King William Island. The second was that of John Rae, who with Ouligbuck and Mistegan, discovered Rae Strait — the final link in the first navigable Northwest Passage. The third was that of Roald Amundsen, who vindicated both Franklin and Rae when, in 1903-06, he became the first to navigate the Northwest Passage. Of these, the only expedition that did not require a ship was John Rae’s.

And that, in 2019, is the one ARCTIC RETURN will re-enact.

[Potential sponsors should contact David Reid at]

[Next up here: The remarkable true story of the Hall of Clestrain.]

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