Pacific or Arctic?

Approximate extent of the Mackenzie River wate...
Approximate extent of the Mackenzie River watershed Longest river in Canada, the Mackenzie River. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Alexander Mackenzie began his exploration of the Mackenzie River on June 3, 1789, four years before becoming the first man to cross the North American continent.

Mackenzie came to Canada from Scotland when he was fifteen to become a clerk for the Northwest Company in Montreal.  he became a minor partner and was sent to take charge of a trading post at Detroit.  However, the Nor’westers needed young, rugged men in the north, and Mackenzie was sent to build a post on Lake Athabaska in 1785.  He named it Fort Chipewyan.

Mackenzie soon became familiar with the surrounding territory, even Great Slave Lake, larger than Lake Ontario.  There was a giant river running north from Great Slave Lake and Mackenzie wanted to know where it went: to the Pacific, or the Arctic?

He set out in a canoe with a German, four French-Canadian voyageurs and two of their wives.  The women’s skills were essential on a long trip such as Mackenzie planned.  The expedition paddled the 230 miles to Great Slave Lake, where they had to wait for two weeks because it was still frozen.  By July 1, they were able to continue down the river which was, at times, six miles wide.  After they had gone 500 miles, they met some Indians who tried to stop them from going farther.  The Indians told such tales about the horrors of the river, and the evil spirits, that the German and the voyageurs were ready to turn back, but not Mackenzie.

By July 12, they had reached the river mouth.  It was dreary and disappointing.  The great river divided into narrow channels and flowed through marshy land into the Arctic Sea. Mackenzie spent three days there under the midnight sun, and then burned back.  Two months later he reached Fort Chipewyan.

It seems incredible that Mackenzie and his companions could have covered such a distance by canoe in such a short time, especially as they had to paddle back against the current.  From Great Slave Lake, the Mackenzie River is 1,200 miles long.  The distance to and from Lake Athabaska, where Fort Chipewyan is located, must also be added.

If you would like to read some more about this, I can suggest a few places. To start, I recommend, and then Beyond the Map, and The Alexander Mackenzie Voyageur Route. Another interesting site is at Mackenzie River Bicentennial Dollar.


  1. I actually love history and getting a perspective on Canadian history has been a real joy. My last name is Ledoux and my Granddad was born in Ontario and moved to Pearce, North Dakota where my dad was born. I have always been interested in the French Canadian but never found the time to pursue their history much due to the time spent in studying for ministry. I guess it’s been kind of a “guilty pleasure” to come by and read your posts!
    God bless and thanks so much for the history lessons. I mean it sincerely.


    • Such kind and encouraging words .. I also thank you sincerely for that. I hate to say this, but any time you wish to indulge in “guilty pleasures”, I am always here!

      God bless you, and I thank you! 🙂


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