Writing out Loud: Rivers of Disappointment

By: George Stahl

Many of us have, at one time or another, started out to accomplish one thing, only to find out that through our poor planning, misguided ambitions, or just dumb luck, stumbled on to something else. Sometimes, entirely different from what we had planned, but sometimes, even more, advantageous as the original destination.

Today is the 231st anniversary of such a journey. On June 3, 1789,
a 29-year-old Scotsman, named Alexander Mackenzie living in Canada, whose father and uncle fought in the American Revolution, for the British, was working for Finlay, Gregory & Company, aka. North West Company. Mackenzie began his career with the company as an apprentice, but then he was tasked to explore a route from Fort Chipewyan in Lake Athabasca, Canada, to the Pacific Ocean.

That was 12 years before President Thomas Jefferson, after reading Mackenzie’s journals, commissioned two other young explorers with a similar challenge. Mackenzie’s epic journey, however, was only epic to him and the six men, and his cousin, who accompanied him.

History gives credit to Lewis and Clark for forging the first Northwest Passage to the shores of the west, but Mackenzie did eventually find the trade route he was looking for. It was on a different course than Lewis and Clark’s, but still, Mackenzie’s route did find the Pacific waters.

However, it is his first journey, the one that ‘failed’ that is celebrated today. They found an ocean, yes. They established a trade route, yes, but they were miles north of their intended destination, and what would be a more profitable destination.

The men came out of the wilderness and touched the shores of the Arctic Ocean, where the northern tip of the Pacific begins. Mackenzie was so disappointed that he turned the men around
and headed for home.

Trying desperately to figure out what went wrong. How did they land so far north? As it turns out, the error was not made public. In Scotland, people were making plans to come to Canada and seek their fortunes, taking advantage of Mackenzie’s much bragged about the route, over 3,000 miles of land and rivers.

However, in Mackenzie’s mind, he had failed, he even named the river outlet to the Arctic, ‘Disappointment’. Determined, and frustrated, Mackenzie pulled himself up, and with the latest technology in reading longitudes, and his cousin again, 6 Canadian voyageur fur traders, and a dog called ‘Our dog’, he left Fort Chipewyan a second time.

That was on October 10, 1792. This trip lasted 10 months, and on July 20, 1793, the men reached their destination, the Pacific coast, well before Lewis and Clark were even thought of. However, Mackenzie is not a household name, he is not the one the world credited with forging the route, he is the one history sees as the explorer who went the wrong way, and stumbled onto something he never intended to find.

Turns out though, he actually found two routes to the same destination and expanded the influence of the North West Company a great deal. He was Knighted for his efforts and discoveries and is a national hero in Canada.

We may not have the same results that Mackenzie did when we get a little lost on our journey, but we can take advantage of what we find, even if we get sidetracked at times. Many of the great discoveries in history have been found by accident.

Alexander Mackenzie is proof of that. Looking back on your life, how many of the milestones you enjoyed would have turned out differently if you had completed your journey as planned? How many would not have been so good if you hadn’t gotten a little off track?

True, we may not find an equivalent to the Northwest Passage, but we might find a passage as it were, to the next step on our journey through life. Mistakes have a way of revealing the right way to reach something, if we see them like that, and not as failures or our ‘Rivers of Disappointment’.

It’s a good thing we have men and women like Alexander Mackenzie to remind us of that, don’t you think?