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It’s Not the Pacific, It’s the Arctic!

For the week of Monday July 10, 2006

On July 12, 1789, explorer Sir Alexander Mackenzie reached the Arctic Ocean at the mouth of what is now the Mackenzie River, forever changing and extending Canadian influence into the north.

Sir Alexander Mackenzie
© T. Lawrence / LAC C-1348
Mackenzie was born in 1764 at Stornoway, Scotland, and immigrated to New York with his father and two aunts in 1774. Mackenzie immigrated to Montréal in 1778 to escape the American Revolution. A year later, Mackenzie, captivated by the adventurous fur trade industry, joined a trading firm in based in Montréal, Findlay & Gregory. The company sent Mackenzie to Detroit as a trader in 1784 and the firm’s partners, taking note of his leadership skills, offered him a partnership in the company if he would trek into the “Indian country” of the Northwest to find a new frontier.

Departing from Fort Chipewyan on June 3, 1789, Mackenzie, along with four French Canadian voyageurs, a young German, a Chipewyan guide and Aboriginal traders, slowly travelled along the difficult Slave River, where rapids were frequent and ice delayed their trek along Great Slave Lake. Mackenzie expected to find a route to the Pacific, but it became apparent that his progress continued further north rather than west.

Early map of the Arctic coast using some Mackenzie voyage data
© A. Arrowsmith, "The World" 1806 (Private Collection- P.Goldring)
On July 10, Mackenzie wrote in his journal, “I am much at a loss here how to act…but certain that my going further in this Direction will not answer the Purpose of which the Voyage was intended, as it is evident these Waters must empty themselves into the Northern Ocean.” Nevertheless, he decided to push on and two days later he reached what is now the Mackenzie Delta. At the time, the weather was incredibly foggy and the party wondered if they had reached a large lake or the salt water ocean. After spending four nights on an island, which he named Whale Island (now Garry Island , Northwest Territories) after the many whales in the vicinity. Mackenzie began the return trip to Fort Chipewyan on July 16 and arrived on September 12.

In total, Mackenzie pushed his round-trip voyage just over 5,000 km in 102 days. Despite the difficulties, he planned a second expedition towards the Pacific, which was very successful. More importantly, his journey opened up new frontiers and revealed previously unknown land – familiar to the local Inuvialuit – but unknown and uncharted by Europeans. The Discovery of the Mackenzie River is a National Historic Event and is one of many HSMBC commemorations for Mackenzie.

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