“Whether recounting the historic search for the Northwest Passage or his own epic journey on the Mackenzie River, Castner is an able guide, a steady hand, a voice of reason. You’ll want to sit in his canoe and ride this out. I couldn’t put Disappointment River down.” – Dean King, author of Skeletons on the Zahara and The Feud
Fourteen years before Lewis and Clark led their famous expedition across the continent, a fur trader named Alexander Mackenzie also attempted to cross North America by canoe. He was searching for the fabled Northwest Passage, accompanied by his partner and guide, Awgeenah, the trading chief of the Chipewyan, and their voyageurs, wives, and hunters.
Mackenzie was a refugee from a tiny island in northern Scotland, and he had the misfortune to land in New York City in 1775, just as the American Revolution erupted. Mackenzie was still a teenager and fled north, where he apprenticed as clerk in a Montreal counting house. Eventually, he became a trader in Detroit, and from there he worked his way into the continent’s interior, always north and west, following the richest furs, seeking his fortune. At a remote outpost known as the Old Establishment, a grizzled trader (and suspected triple-murderer) named Peter Pond showed him a map of a massive river that led to the Pacific Ocean and the riches of China. In 1789, Mackenzie and Awgeenah followed that waterway to its unfortunate end.
Mackenzie would name that river “Disappointment.” He died thinking he had failed. But he was wrong. Mackenzie was just 200 years too early.
I came upon the story of Mackenzie and Awgeenah through an errant Google search, pure serendipity. Like most Americans, I learned in fourth grade that Lewis and Clark were the first to cross the continent; it was a bit disconcerting to find out my teacher lied to me. I wanted to learn more, and explore that country for myself.
In the summer of 2016, I set out to retrace Mackenzie’s steps. I drove from my home in New York to Hay River in the Northwest Territories, through the boreal forest of Manitoba and Saskatchewan where the eighteenth century fur traders laid out their posts among the Cree. I launched my canoe at Great Slave Lake, and then paddled the 1125 mile Mackenzie River to the Arctic Ocean.
This is the land of the Dene, Gwitch’in, and Inuvialuit First Nations, and they know the river as the Deh Cho, the Nagwichoonjik, and the Kuukpak, all of which roughly translate as “Big River.” And it is enormous, the second longest in North America; often, we could barely see the far shore.
The trip took 40 days, positively Biblical. I lost as many pounds, and felt like skin and bones at the end. “Disappointment River” is the story of two journeys, mine and Mackenzie’s, and how and why we each found something very different at the end of that river.
Excerpts of “Disappointment River” can be found at Canadian Geographic and Task & Purpose. For more on the maps that led Mackenzie on his search, see my feature in Atlas Obscura. And for additional background, see my essay at Powell’s on the misplaced romance of the wilderness, my pieces at Signature and LitHub on my process of writing, or, finally, my essay for the New York Times Sunday Review, on other inventions and ideas that were way ahead of their time.
“Brian Castner’s Disappointment River: Finding and Losing the Northwest Passage, a mixed history and travel memoir, goes a long way toward correcting the record of discovery in North America … Discovering history, and not just new landscapes around the next bend in the river, is one of the delights of Disappointment River. And, during a time when so many American descendants of foreign extraction rail against immigration, it’s useful to recall that all of us originated in a diaspora.” – Rinker Buck, Wall Street Journal
“Castner has the Conradian ability to make you see and feel … Disappointment River abounds in vivid details.” – Washington Post
“A compelling writer with a fluid style that mirrors the smooth passages of his canoe through the Mackenzie….Disappointment River is an adventure tale that will keep you happily reading while safely in your armchair.” – Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“A vital addition to the library of the far north and of exploration,” for which “Castner pays…with no end of sweat, toil, and even some blood and tears.” – Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“Brian Castner and Alexander Mackenzie seem to be paddling in the same canoe as they head out on the Mighty Mackenzie River. ‘Disappointment River’ is a remarkable achievement [and] a rollicking read.” – Roy MacGregor, longtime columnist at The Globe and Mail and author of Original Highways
“Brian Castner is that rare breed of adventurer, a rugged individual who travels into the unknown like a modern-day Alexander Mackenzie and writes with the poetry and eye for detail of all great writers. Disappointment River does not disappoint.” – Martin Dugard, author of Into Africa and The Last Voyage of Columbus
“Disappointment River is both a well-researched work of history…and a compelling modern-day adventure story. Once again Brian Castner demonstrates his writerly prowess in combining literary genres to illuminating hybrid effect.” – Brian Van Reet, author of Spoils
“…an exhilarating historical narrative [that] evokes vivid personalities and drama from the archives. Castner is an engaged narrator and writes from a visceral connection to the natural world.” – Publisher’s Weekly