When one thinks of Arctic travel, the names that probably come to your mind first are Scott, Peary, Shackleton, Amundsen, Henry Hudson, Davis and, of course, Sir John Franklin.
Wait a minute ... what about John Rae?
"John Rae?" you say ... "Who's John Rae?"
Well, exactly! One might say that this is precisely the point of the book. Ken McGoogan's "Fatal Passage" is a thrilling biography of John Rae who is probably the least known, least understood and least respected Arctic explorer in history but he is also arguably the finest, the strongest, most accomplished, most extraordinary and most skilled white man to ever set foot into Canada's far north!
The list of his accomplishments, frankly, beggars the imagination. Endowed with almost superhuman physical strength and endurance, he led four major Arctic expeditions traveling more than 23,000 miles. Educated in Orkney as a medical man, he essentially taught himself the mechanics of surveying and cartography. Having done so, he then proceeded to accurately survey over 1,700 miles of unexplored territory including more than 1,500 miles of Canada's northern coastline. Demonstrating unparalleled stamina, resourcefulness and resilience, he trekked over 6,500 miles in the Arctic alone, most of it on snowshoes with a fully loaded pack and sledge, and he traveled an additional 6,600 miles in canoe and small boats. Whether alone or leading a group of men, he traveled light and fast often walking 30 to 40 miles per day (on snowshoes, in frigid temperatures with that fully loaded pack, mind you!).
In a career of exploration spanning almost twenty years as a doctor in the employ of the Hudson's Bay Company, he lost but one man during his travels and that was due to accident - nary a single fatality due to illness, malnutrition or starvation, murder, hypothermia or mismanagement. True to his character, he regretted the loss of that single man to his dying day.
But that wasn't enough. In the course of these travels, he also solved the two greatest Arctic mysteries of the day - the fate of the doomed Franklin expedition and the location of the final navigable link in the fabled Northwest Passage.
Despite this unmatched record of accomplishment, John Rae passed away in England never having been truly acknowledged, recognized and rewarded by his peers. He received no knighthood. He had to fight and struggle to receive even the Hudson's Bay Company compensation that was his due. He struggled against the lifelong bitter animosity and unreasoning hatred of Lady Jane Franklin. He was even soundly criticized for living "like a savage - in snow houses and so forth. This behaviour did not seem cricket to the British public ... the object of polar exploration was to explore properly and not to evade the hazards of the game through the vulgar subterfuge of going native."
"Fatal Passage" is exciting history written with an enthusiasm and a flair that easily rivals the style of Pierre Berton, one of Canada's favourite home grown historians. I certainly hope that Ken will direct his writing skill to further subjects in the pantheon of Canadian history. Goodness knows, we could stand to applaud ourselves and our past much more loudly than we are typically wont to do.
Count me a fan, Mr McGoogan. Well done and highly recommended.
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About the reviewer
Paul Weiss (cpw1952)
A modern day dilettante with widely varied eclectic interests. A dabbler in muchbut grandmaster of none - wilderness camping in all four seasons, hiking, canoeing, world travel,philately, … more
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