Alexander Mackenzie and the River of Disappointment

On the day that the Bastille was stormed, writes George Woodcock, the explorer Mackenzie stood on the Canadian Arctic shore at the mouth of the river that now bears his name.

On July 14th, 1789, the people of Paris stormed the Bastille, and the French Revolution began to take shape and direction. On the same day, many thousands of miles from France or from his own Hebridean home, the fur-trader Alexander Mackenzie also marked a point in history by “a very wild and unreflecting enterprize.”

He was awakened on the shore of the Arctic Ocean by one of his canoemen, who had seen what “he at first supposed to be pieces of ice.”

“I immediately perceived they were whales; and having ordered the canoe to be prepared, we embarked in pursuit of them... It was a very fortunate circumstance that we failed in our attempt to overtake them, as a stroke from the tail of one of these enormous fish would have dashed the canoe to pieces.”

Mackenzie named the place Whale Island. “I ordered a post to be erected close to our tents, on which I engraved the latitude of the place, my own name, the number of persons which I had with me, and the time we remained there.”

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