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Exploring Canada with Alexander Mackenzie


Image: Alexander Mackenzie
Hudson’s Bay Company Archives

We like looking into the Brits who explored unknown parts of the world. I have a personal interest in Alexander Mackenzie, because I practiced in Mackenzie as a young doctor when I wanted a Canadian adventure. Mackenzie is a small town north of Prince George in British Columbia, and when it was still wilderness, Mackenzie camped here.

Alexander Mackenzie seems to be a popular name for high achievers. One Sir Alexander Mackenzie was a composer, violinist, conductor, and head of the Royal Academy of Music from 1888 to 1924. Another was the second Prime Minister of Canada. The third and most renowned Sir Alexander Mackenzie was the explorer and fur trader who crossed the continent at considerable speed, often travelling by birchbark canoe, specially designed to handle rapids.

Mackenzie was one of those Brits who enjoyed the challenge of exploring unmapped wilderness and surviving on courage and skill. Leaving Montreal to work for the North West Company in the fur trade he became convinced they needed a base on the Pacific coast, and in 1789 set out with a small crew and supplies to map a route to the west.

Slowed by rapids and ice, they followed the Mackenzie River, which was erroneously believed to head west, until they reached the Arctic Ocean. This was not where Mackenzie wanted to be, but he had learned a great deal while making a round trip of 3,000 miles in 100 days.

Back home he corrected maps, and made plans to head back west. By this time he could compare Captain Cook’s Pacific longitude with longitude established inland, and knew the distance to the Pacific was far greater than he had thought.

Undaunted he set off for his second expedition in 1792 with Indian companions and French voyageurs, travelling up the Peace River, overwintering at Fort Fork, following the Parsnip, McGregor and Fraser rivers then heading back up the Fraser until he reached the West Road River and turned westward.

Reaching the Bella Coola Gorge, he followed the river down to the Pacific Ocean. There on a rock near the sea he inscribed "Alex Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, 22 July, 1793" in red paint made of vermilion and bear grease. Considerable publicity has been given to the Lewis & Clark expedition across the United States in 1804 - 1806, but Mackenzie reached the Pacific coast in 1793, becoming the first man to cross North America.

He kept up his record for speed on the return journey and brought the whole party home safely. He had added immeasurably to knowledge of western geography, but his employers were ungrateful since it was clear the country was so rugged it would never allow a trade route. Mackenzie was disappointed, too. He could never persuade the competing trading companies to pool their resources and cooperate, and the rest of his life seemed an anticlimax, though he published an account of his two journeys, Voyages from Montreal to the Frozen and Pacific Ocean, and was knighted in London.

Whitewater rivers, precipitous mountains, wild animals, great cedars and finally, opening before him, the vast expanse of the Pacific – I imagine arguing over business might seem a bit of a letdown.