Retracing an Explorer’s Quest is Neither Romance Nor Picnic

Disappointment River


Disappointment_River CoverFinding and Losing the Northwest Passage
By: Brian Castner
Narrator: Brian Castner

PRHA | Random House Audio
Genre: History – United States – State & Local – Pacific Northwest (Or, Wa)
Release Date: March 13, 2018
12 Hours and 7 Minutes

I voluntarily reviewed an advance readers copy of this book. No remuneration was exchanged and all opinions presented herein are my own except as noted.


In 1789, Alexander Mackenzie traveled 1200 miles on the immense river in Canada that now bears his name, in search of the fabled Northwest Passage that had eluded mariners for hundreds of years. In 2016, the acclaimed memoirist Brian Castner retraced Mackenzie’s route by canoe in a grueling journey — and discovered the Passage he could not find.

Disappointment River is a dual historical narrative and travel memoir that at once transports readers back to the heroic age of North American exploration and places them in a still rugged but increasingly fragile Arctic wilderness in the process of profound alteration by the dual forces of globalization and climate change. Fourteen years before Lewis and Clark, Mackenzie set off to cross the continent of North America with a team of voyageurs and Chipewyan guides, to find a trade route to the riches of the East. What he found was a river that he named “Disappointment.” Mackenzie died thinking he had failed. He was wrong.

    In this book, Brian Castner not only retells the story of Mackenzie’s epic voyages in vivid prose, he personally retraces his travels, battling exhaustion, exposure, mosquitoes, white water rapids and the threat of bears. He transports readers to a world rarely glimpsed in the media, of tar sands, thawing permafrost, remote indigenous villages and, at the end, a wide open Arctic Ocean that could become a far-northern Mississippi of barges and pipelines and oil money.


My Take Oblong Shaped

I love tails of exploration, adventure, and survival. That’s pretty strange for me as I would never enter into such an enterprise except by accident.  Also, my husband’s family has Arctic explorers in its past (see CHASING ALASKA, by Chris Bernard, Published by Rowman and Littlefield, 2013) so I took an interest in Castner’s account of one search for the Northwest Passage by Alexander Mackenzie, a 19th-century, Scottish Immigrant and fur-trader, following a route suggested by Captain Cook.

The book slips between Mackenzie’s past, the history of Canada’s trade with the People of the First Nations, the story of Mackenzie’s exploration, and the story of Castner’s own re-creation of the same.

There are a lot of people involved and, as usual, the format can make that confusing.  With audio, you cannot flip back and forth the way you can with print or e-books.  But, Castner is a good narrator if his own work.  It could not have been easy to relive the sometimes painful tale of his trip.

The story is both significant and not so significant.  Of course, the search for a navigable route across the North American continent was important and would have resulted is faster trade, as well, probably, faster European or American colonization of the west coast. But, in its failure to locate an ice free route it was certainly not alone.  It did lead to some changes in how two major trading houses operated and also lead to a better understanding of the aboriginal tribes in the area.

I didn’t really understand Castner’s quest but he explains it on his website:

I came upon the story of Mackenzie and Awgeenah through an errant Google search, pure serendipity. Like most Americans, I learned in fifth 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.

I was surprised at the beginning to find Castner using phrases from the popular and political lexicon at the beginning of his story.  It just felt weird when he first goes through a bit about using appropriate language in reference to the aboriginal peoples of Canada and the USA. He seemed to discontinue the use, although his language throughout is occasional colorful.

He does a wonderful job summarizing Mackenzie’s story: his own journals and other historical sources, to create an interesting tale.   I preferred the story about Castner’s own journey: both the preparation and the execution.  I liked hearing about the people he met and his paddling companions. He looks at some issues with the people and economy of Northwest Canada but without condescension or proposing overly simple solutions.

His description of the weather and insect life was enough to possibly prevent me from going outside at all, ever, nevermind camping. But, I would still read it and found it a compulsive read I did not want to turn off. 


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