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Disappointment River: Finding and Losing the Northwest Passage

By Brian Castner

Review By Stan Tag

June 13, 2018

BC Studies no. 199 Autumn 2018  | p. 176-8

“You can get anywhere if you have the time” (106). Kylik Kisoun, an Inuvialuit guide from Inuvik, said this to Brian Castner when Castner, with the help of four friends, canoed the length of the great river flowing west and north from what we now call the Great Slave Lake, in the Northwest Territories, to the Arctic Sea. This river, known by many names – Deh Cho, Nagwichoonjik, Kuukpak, Mackenzie – is one of the largest river systems in the world. “Nothing,” writes Castner, “compared with the scale of the river or withstood its scrutiny” (214). Like other great rivers, this river has been, from time immemorial, a pathway, a way for humans and animals to move from one place to another, upstream or down, and along its edges there are carrying paths that are “ancient, as much a natural part of the landscape as any tree or stone” (66).

Disappointment River follows the detailed accounts and journeys of two parties down this river: Alexander Mackenzie’s in 1789 and Castner’s in 2016. Mackenzie – with a crew of four voyageurs, two of their wives, a clerk, and Awgeenah, a great Chipewyan trader also known as the English Chief, and two of his wives – hoped to find the long-sought-after Northwest Passage, believing that this river could be the very waterway that fed an enormous inlet into the Pacific Ocean that Captain James Cook described in 1778. Mackenzie’s belief turned out to be wrong, but he did not realize his error until nearly to the mouth of the great river. Castner, driven by “writerly inquisitiveness” about Mackenzie’s journey and “a paddler’s desire to explore new waters,” organized and completed his own epic journey down the river in the summer of 2016 (11). Disappointment River moves back and forth between these two journeys, giving us on the one hand rich details of fur trade history, including the lives of various First Nations leaders like Matonabbee and Awgeenah, members of the North West Company, and the voyageurs themselves, those “human draft horses, known for their brawn, their drinking, their song, their whoring, their cheer, but most of all for their work ethic” (3), and on the other hand an intricate account of Castner’s own personal adventures with his friends down the river experiencing and surviving what he eventually calls its seven plagues: heat, cold, wind, tempest, bugs, timelessness, and emptiness (238).

It is a remarkable book. It invites us to imagine what it is like to possess, both historically and contemporaneously, as Mackenzie says about himself, “a constitution and frame of body equal to the most arduous undertakings” (36). Each body who descends this great river in a canoe (whether in 1789 or 2016) faces severe challenges: swarms of mosquitoes and black flies, wind and rain storms, lightning strikes, rapids and rocks that can crush a boat and its paddlers, lack of food, loss of essential supplies, bone-deep weariness, and even, for some like Castner, tediousness. The book invites us to consider how often those, like Mackenzie, who may have called themselves “discoverers” were merely exploring (and many times exploiting) someone else’s home. Castner offers us a deeply sympathetic perspective toward First Nations people who have been living on this river and in this landscape for as long as they remember.

One critique I have of the book is when Castner undercuts Sigurd Olson and Henry Thoreau for their Romanticism. This feels unnecessary and misguided, especially given the extensive writings by both Olson and Thoreau detailing the history of canoe travel and their own exhaustive canoe expeditions through the North country, including facing many of the hardships that Castner and Mackenzie experience. If anything, Castner’s Disappointment River shares many of best qualities of Olson’s The Lonely Land and Thoreau’s The Maine Woods, for even Castner finds, near the end of his journey down the great river “a place of peace, the likes of which [he] had not yet experienced on the river. A moment of pure solemnity” (257). If you have the time, read Disappointment River. It may surprise you. It may get you anywhere.

Disappointment River: Finding and Losing the Northwest Passage
Brian Castner
New York: Doubleday, 2018. 379 pp. $35.00 paper.

Sigurd Olson. The Lonely Land. New York: Knopf, 1961.
Henry David Thoreau. The Maine Woods. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1864.