Part 1: Discovering John Rae—Once More Into the Passage

In 1999, author-historian Ken McGoogan, along with two other men, placed a plaque overlooking Rae Strait, commemorating John Rae’s 1854 discovery—the final link in the first navigable Passage. Twenty-five years later, McGoogan finds himself reflecting on his return to this very spot. Experience the Arctic through his perspective as he shares behind-the-scenes insights from his award-winning book, Fatal Passage, in the first of this six-part series.
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(Left to right) Cameron Treleaven, Louie Kamookak, and Ken McGoogan at the John Rae cairn

In August 1999, when I found myself chasing Louie Kamookak across the Arctic tundra, I had no intention of spending the next quarter-century immersed in exploration history. Louie, an Inuk from Gjoa Haven, would one day be recognized as the foremost oral historian of his generation. Now, although he was carrying an awkward plaque on his shoulders, he appeared to glide effortlessly over the land. I was struggling just to keep up, much less overtake him. We were on our way to an inconspicuous stone cairn overlooking Rae Strait—one that explorer John Rae had built in 1854. If people had tried to tell me that I would be returning to the same site exactly twenty-five years later, I would have called them crazy.

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© Photo courtesy of Ken McGoogan

Louie Kamookak examines the ruins of the Rae cairn in August 1999.

During the past two decades, while earning my daily bread as a journalist—Toronto, Montreal, Calgary—I had published three novels and one nonfiction book. Sure, before that, I had gone adventuring à la Jack Kerouac, hitchhiking and riding freights from my native Montreal to San Francisco, and spending one summer as a fire lookout in the Canadian Rockies. But I considered myself literary, political, and contemporary.

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© Dennis Minty

Ken McGoogan in the Northwest Passage with Adventure Canada.

The previous year, when I won a fellowship to spend three months at the University of Cambridge, I went intending to start another novel. My model was A.S. Byatt’s Possession, which builds a present-day framing tale around a historical mystery. My mystery would involve Arctic explorer John Rae, whose 1854 journal ended abruptly in mid-sentence at a crucial point in the narrative. Where was the rest of that journal?

As it happened, Rae’s papers were housed in Cambridge at the Scott Polar Research Institute. As I pored over them in the archives, I realized that Rae had been ripped off—robbed of his rightful recognition. For more than a century, historians had been celebrating Sir John Franklin as the discoverer of the Northwest Passage. In fact, Rae had discovered the final link in what would prove to be the first navigable Passage. In 1854, he built a cairn on the west coast of Boothia Peninsula, overlooking the channel he had found—Rae Strait. He had reached that location with the only two men who could keep up with him—an Ojibwe, Thomas Mistegan, and an Inuk, William Ouligbuck, Jr.

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© Photo courtesy of Ken McGoogan

William Ouligbuck, Jr., the foremost Inuit translator of the 1850s.

To me, Rae was impressive. As a young man, he trained as a doctor in Edinburgh and became a superb hunter in his native Orkney. Yet when he arrived in the north country with the Hudson’s Bay Company, he brought no pretensions but set about learning from Indigenous peoples. How do you cache meat to protect it from bears? How do you build snow huts as you travel?

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© Photo courtesy of Ken McGoogan

John Rae at thirty-nine, photographed in New York City by Matthew Brady (1853).

Between 1846 and 1854, to chart unmapped territory, Rae led four major Arctic expeditions. The chief hunter of every sortie, a prodigy of endurance, resilience, and resourcefulness, he trekked, sailed, and canoed more than 37,000 kilometres (23,000 miles). On that 1854 outing, Rae encountered Inuit hunters who produced artefacts from the Franklin expedition, lost since 1845. With Ouligbuck translating, Rae determined that many of the sailors had abandoned their ships and dropped dead while trekking south. The final survivors had been driven to cannibalism.

When he reported this back in Britain, powerful Victorians refused to believe it. Jane, Lady Franklin, the widow of Sir John, and Charles Dickens launched a campaign slandering Inuit as probable murderers. Rae fought back hard, repudiating those charges, and as a result became the only major British explorer of his day never to receive a knighthood.

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© Photo courtesy of Ken McGoogan

Portrait of Lady Jane Franklin by Thomas Bock, 1838 (Public domain).

At Cambridge, when I realized what had happened, I set aside the novel I was preparing because people could always say, “Oh, that’s just fiction.” Instead, I would set the record straight by writing a nonfiction account: Fatal Passage. I did further research in Edinburgh and Orkney. Then, back in Calgary, I felt compelled to go to the Arctic and locate the cairn Rae had built to mark his greatest discovery. I tracked down Cameron Treleaven, an antiquarian bookseller who had travelled with Louie Kamookak, and he agreed to go with me.

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© Photo courtesy of Ken McGoogan

The author wrote Fatal Passage to set the record straight.

To a slab of mahogany wood, we screwed an aluminum plaque with an inscription I wrote honouring Rae, Mistegan, and Ouligbuck. It began: “This plaque marks the spot where Arctic explorer John Rae (1813-93) discovered the final link in the Northwest Passage.” It described the trek through “gale-force winds, blowing snow, and bitter cold,” and noted that his original party of four was reduced to the two hardiest men, naming Mistegan and Ouligbuck. “Standing here,” it continued, “looking out over a channel covered by ‘young ice,’ Rae realized that ‘King William Land’ was an island. The channel before him, which joined known points accessible by sailing ship, constituted the missing link in the Northwest Passage. He named it Rae Strait.”

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© Photo courtesy of Ken McGoogan

The author taking his turn carrying the plaque to the John Rae cairn.

Map showing Rae Strait

Cameron and I flew north to Uqsuqtuuq (Gjoa Haven), home to Kamookak. He welded the plaque onto a metal stand and, in his twenty-foot boat, we pounded across Rae Strait, a distance of roughly twenty-two kilometres (fourteen miles). On Boothia Peninsula, we camped overnight in a dirt-floor tent. Next day, guided by Rae’s longitude, Louie led the way to the ruined cairn.

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© Photo courtesy of Ken McGoogan

(Left to right) Cameron Treleaven, Ken McGoogan, and Louie Kamookak setting out from Uqsuqtuuq (Gjoa Haven).

The day after that, having agreed to take turns carrying the heavy, awkward plaque, we set out from camp. But then, the mischievous Louie made a break for it, threatening to complete the task alone. Cameron and I managed to catch him and take our turns. At the site, we planted the metal base in the ground near the cairn and piled stones around it. We drank a toast to the three men who had first identified the significance of this location.

All this I related in an epilogue to Fatal Passage. Published in 2001, the book won half a dozen awards. Margaret Atwood read it while sailing with Adventure Canada. Every year, at her Toronto home, she and Graeme Gibson would host a post-Christmas party for “literary waifs and strays.” She invited me and my artist-wife, Sheena, now living in the same city as her—Toronto. At one point, she emerged out of nowhere, seized me by the shirt sleeve, and said: “Come with me. There’s someone I want you to meet.”

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© Dennis Minty

Matthew Swan/Margaret Atwood.

She led me from that first jam-packed room into a second, where she introduced me to Matthew Swan, owner and founder of Adventure Canada. “You two should talk,” she said and disappeared. So we did. A few weeks later, Matthew called and asked if I would like to sail as an expedition team member on an Arctic voyage. I said yes, did it once, and then just kept doing it. As for the mystery at the heart of my projected novel, never written, you can read the answer in Fatal Passage.

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© Dennis Minty

Adventure Canada’s ice-strengthened vessel the MS Ocean Endeavour anchored in Croker Bay, Nunavut, Canada.

In August and September 2024, the Ocean Endeavour will be going through the Northwest Passage again where we hope to visit Rae’s cairn.

We invite you to join Ken in August 2024 on the Into the Northwest Passage expedition when we hope to visit the John Rae cairn—and the plaque that three madmen installed twenty-five years ago.

This voyage is part of the Adventure-Canada, Searching-for-Franklin, Three-Ocean, Book-Tour Extravaganza. Ken has already brought his latest book, Searching for Franklin, to the Pacific Ocean. In June, he will bring it to the Atlantic Ocean. And in August/September, the book will turn up at a yet-to-be-determined location in the Arctic Ocean.

Keep reading Ken McGoogan’s six-part series! Chasing Kane from Beechey to Greenland—Once More Into the Passage

About the Author

Ken McGoogan

Ken McGoogan

Author, Historian

Ken McGoogan has published more than a dozen books, among them Dead Reckoning, Celtic Lightning, 50 Canadians Who Changed the World, How the Scots Invented Canada, Fatal Passage, and Lady Franklin’s Revenge.

He has won the Pierre Berton Award for History, the University of British Columbia Medal for Canadian Biography, the Canadian Authors’ Association History Award, the Writers’ Trust of Canada Drainie-Taylor Biography Prize, and an American Christopher Award for “a work of artistic excellence that affirms the highest values of the human spirit.”

Before turning to books, Ken worked for two decades as a journalist at major dailies in Toronto, Calgary, and Montreal. He teaches creative nonfiction writing at universities in Toronto and Halifax and sails with Adventure Canada as a resource historian.

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