Book Review: Disappointment River: Finding and Losing the Northwest Passage

By david adamec - Own work, Public Domain

Brian Castner, the author of “Disappointment River“, is a fellow whitewater raft guide in Western New York. I have never known an author (in real life) or have read a book written by a friend until I met Brian. The closest has been a book written by a professor I was forced to buy. Reading this book was like listening to a friend telling a story around a campfire.

Mackenzie traversed those waters via canoe, and so I planned the same. My choice involved more than historic homage; it is the perfect slow vehicle to see the country.

Brian’s more celebrated book, “The Long Walk” is about his time as the head of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit in the Middle East. Although, interesting and I thank him for his service, the subject matter of “Disappointment River” was more relatable to me. So I decided to make it my first Castner read. And after reading “Disappointment River“, it will not be my last!

Disappointment River” is part history lesson of Alexander Mackenzie’s expedition to find the fabled Northwest Passage and part adventure where Brian retraces the route of Mackenzie’s failed voyage in a two man 18.5′ Sea Clipper canoe. I tend to enjoy books where the author recreates “historical firsts” while providing the reader with ample historical background.

Map of the Mackenzie
Shannon [CC BY-SA]

I particularly liked “The Lost City of Z” by David Grann which retraces Percy Fawcett’s journey into the Amazon and “Turn Right at Machu Picchu” where author Mark Adams retraces Hiram Bingham III’s “discovery” of Machu Picchu. “Disappointment River” has a very similar style where the author researches the history of the feat and then under takes the same long journey. In “Disappointment River’s” case, the 1789, 1,125 mile Alexander Mackenzie journey down the Deh Cho river (now the Mackenzie) to find the Northwest Passage.

The book’s chapters alternate between the historical narrative of Alexander Mackenzie’s life and journey and Brian’s attempt to follow Mackenzie’s path. It contrasts the the incredible hardships of Mackenzie’s expedition where modern technical equipment was not available for navigation. And then time switches to the present adventure that was equally demanding and breathtaking with its own hardships and risks. Mackenzie had a large team while Brian had just one team member comprised of a group of friends that tagged in for different segments of the trip.

Every waterway was full of the Mamaygwessey, tiny spirit creatures with six fingers that snatched the voyageurs’ paddles and untied their lines and tipped their canoes in rapids.

Disappointment River” captured my attention on every single page. It was well written and thoroughly researched. Spoiler alert, Castner and his paddling partner made it to the Beaufort Sea traversing the Northwest Passage. Where Mackenzie failed, Castner succeeded due to the lack of ice caused by climate change. For those who are canoe, whitewater or camping enthusiasts, this is a “must read”!

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