Let’s mark a 25th anniversary at Arctic site

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Cameron Treleaven, Louie Kamookak, and Ken McGoogan at the John Rae cairn

In 1999, author-historian Ken McGoogan, along with two other men, placed a plaque overlooking Rae Strait, commemorating John Rae’s 1854 discovery—the final link in the first navigable Passage. Twenty-five years later, McGoogan finds himself reflecting on his return to this very spot. Experience the Arctic through his perspective as he shares behind-the-scenes insights from his award-winning book, Fatal Passage, in the first of this six-part series.

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During the previous two decades, while earning my daily bread as a journalist—Toronto, Montreal, Calgary—I had published three novels and one nonfiction book. Sure, before that, I had gone adventuring à la Jack Kerouac, hitchhiking and riding freights from my native Montreal to San Francisco, and spending one summer as a fire lookout in the Canadian Rockies. But I considered myself literary, political, and contemporary. Mcgoogan07 portraitThe year before, when I won a fellowship to spend three months at the University of Cambridge, I went intending to start another novel. My model was A.S. Byatt’s Possession, which builds a present-day framing tale around a historical mystery. My mystery would involve Arctic explorer John Rae, whose 1854 journal ended abruptly in mid-sentence at a crucial point in the narrative. Where was the rest of that journal?As it happened, Rae’s papers were housed in Cambridge at the Scott Polar Research Institute. As I pored over them in the archives, I realized that Rae had been ripped off—robbed of his rightful recognition. For more than a century, historians had been celebrating Sir John Franklin as the discoverer of the Northwest Passage. In fact, Rae had discovered the final link in what would prove to be the first navigable Passage. In 1854, he built a cairn on the west coast of Boothia Peninsula, overlooking the channel he had found—Rae Strait. He had reached that location with the only two men who could keep up with him—an Ojibwe, Thomas Mistegan, and an Inuk, William Ouligbuck, Jr.

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To me, Rae was mighty impressive. As a young man, he trained as a doctor in Edinburgh and became a superb hunter in his native Orkney. Yet when he arrived in the north country with the Hudson’s Bay Company, he brought no pretensions but set about learning from Indigenous peoples. How do you cache meat to protect it from bears? How do you build snow huts as you travel? Between 1846 and 1854, to chart unmapped territory, Rae led four major Arctic expeditions. The chief hunter of every sortie, a prodigy of endurance, resilience, and resourcefulness, he trekked, sailed, and canoed more than 37,000 kilometres (23,000 miles). On that 1854 outing, Rae encountered Inuit hunters who produced artefacts from the Franklin expedition, lost since 1845. With Ouligbuck translating, Rae determined that many of the sailors had abandoned their ships and dropped dead while trekking south. The final survivors had been driven to cannibalism. When he reported this back in Britain, powerful Victorians refused to believe it. Jane, Lady Franklin, the widow of Sir John, and Charles Dickens launched a campaign slandering Inuit as probable murderers. Rae fought back hard, repudiating those charges, and as a result became the only major British explorer of his day never to receive a knighthood.

At CamMc Googan04 portraitbridge, when I realized what had happened, I set aside the novel I was preparing because people could always say, “Oh, that’s just fiction.” Instead, I would set the record straight by writing a nonfiction account: Fatal Passage. I did further research in Edinburgh and Orkney. Then, back in Calgary, I felt compelled to go to the Arctic and locate the cairn Rae had built to mark his greatest discovery. I tracked down Cameron Treleaven, an antiquarian bookseller who had travelled with Louie Kamookak, and he agreed to go with me. To a slab of mahogany wood, we screwed an aluminum plaque with an inscription I wrote honouring Rae, Mistegan, and Ouligbuck. It began: “This plaque marks the spot where Arctic explorer John Rae (1813-93) discovered the final link in the Northwest Passage.” It described the trek through “gale-force winds, blowing snow, and bitter cold,” and noted that his original party of four was reduced to the two hardiest men, naming Mistegan and Ouligbuck. “Standing here,” it continued, “looking out over a channel covered by ‘young ice,’ Rae realized that ‘King William Land’ was an island. The channel before him, which joined known points accessible by sailing ship, constituted the missing link in the Northwest Passage. He named it Rae Strait.”

Cameron and I flew north to Uqsuqtuuq (Gjoa Haven), home to Kamookak. He welded the plaque onto a metal stand and, in his twenty-foot boat, we pounded across Rae Strait, a distance of roughly twenty-two kilometres (fourteen miles). On Boothia Peninsula, we camped overnight in a dirt-floor tent. Next day, guided by Rae’s longitude, Louie led the way to the ruined cairn.

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The day after that, having agreed to take turns carrying the heavy, awkward plaque, we set out from camp. But then, the mischievous Louie made a break for it, threatening to complete the task alone. Cameron and I managed to catch him and take our turns. At the site, we planted the metal base in the ground near the cairn and piled stones around it. We drank a toast to the three men who had first identified the significance of this location. All this I related in an epilogue to Fatal Passage. Published in 2001, the book won half a dozen awards. Margaret Atwood read it while sailing with Adventure Canada. Every year, at her Toronto home, she and Graeme Gibson would host a post-Christmas party for “literary waifs and strays.” She invited me and my artist-wife, Sheena, now living in the same city as her—Toronto. At one point, she emerged out of nowhere, seized me by the shirt sleeve, and said: “Come with me. There’s someone I want you to meet.”

© Dennis Minty: Matthew Swan/Margaret Atwood.

M Swan and MatwoodShe led me from that first jam-packed room into a second, where she introduced me to Matthew Swan, owner and founder of Adventure Canada. “You two should talk,” she said and disappeared. So we did. A few weeks later, Matthew called and asked if I would like to sail as an expedition team member on an Arctic voyage. I said yes, did it once, and then just kept doing it. As for the mystery at the heart of my projected novel, never written, you can read the answer in Fatal Passage.





Join the 2024 voyage Into the Northwest Passage: 

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© Dennis Minty: Adventure Canada’s ice-strengthened vessel the MS Ocean Endeavour anchored in Croker Bay

In August and September 2024, the Ocean Endeavour will be going through the Northwest Passage again where we hope to visit Rae’s cairn. We invite you to join Ken in August 2024 on the Into the Northwest Passage expedition when we hope to visit the John Rae cairn—and the plaque that three madmen installed twenty-five years ago.

This voyage is part of the Adventure-Canada, Searching-for-Franklin, Three-Ocean, Book-Tour Extravaganza. Ken has already brought his latest book, Searching for Franklin, to the Pacific Ocean. In June, he will bring it to the Atlantic Ocean. And in August/ September, the book will turn up at a yet-to-be-determined location in the Arctic Ocean.

Meanwhile, on March 21 and 22, 2024, Ken will be presenting the book in New York City at The Explorers Club and the New York Public Library. https://kenmcgoogan.com/2024/01/17/big-franklin-book-takes-manhattan/. On March 27, Ken will be speaking in Ottawa at the Canadian Geographic Society. Attend either of these events to get a chance to win a $5000 voucher towards the 2024 voyage  Into the Northwest Passage, August 27 to September 12, 2024.

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