Following John Rae’s path

Fur trader, explorer, surgeon and surveyor, Orcadian John Rae was born in 1813 in Orkney, Scotland. It was on the windswept moors of Orkney, walking, hiking, hunting, fishing and sailing in the nearby sometimes treacherous waters, that Rae’s outdoor skills were honed and hard-earned.

His father ran the local Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) post and so the young Rae grew up knowing the commerce that took many of his fellow Orcadians (and other Scots) across the Atlantic to the shores of Canada and the (then) lucrative fur trade.

In 1829, Rae signed on as a surgeon with the HBC and ventured beyond the horizon due west from his Orcadian roots to one of his first postings at Moose Factory. Showing respect, humility and understanding, Rae immediately set about learning land and survival skills from those who knew them best — the Indigenous people of the area.

In 1854, Rae and his Indigenous companions set out from Naujaat (Repulse Bay) on a journey to survey and map what is now called Boothia Peninsula in the central Canadian Arctic. It was during this journey that Rae discovered (at Point De La Guiche) the long-sought after missing link to the first navigable Northwest Passage and the most salient facts pertaining to the fate of the failed Franklin expedition.

A limited number of special commemorative Arctic Return flags were made for the expedition. One was presented in Naujaat and one (shown here) was presented to the Mayor and Hamlet Council in Gjoa Haven upon completion of the expedition. © Marvin Atqittuq

Upon returning to London with this news, the Admiralty did not take kindly to the evidence (truth) presented to them by Rae, namely that Franklin’s party had resorted to cannibalism as their last ghastly resort before death. Lady Franklin (Franklin’s wife) joined forces with the literary giant of the time Charles Dickens to discredit Rae and the evidence he held. The rest, as they say, is history.

For too long, the name John Rae has remained in the shadows of Arctic history and exploration. In September 2017, author and historian Ken McGoogan and David Reid discussed such matters while travelling together through the Northwest Passage. It was over dinner one evening that the idea was conceived and hatched that Reid would put together an expedition team and re-trace Rae’s 1854 journey from Naujaat to Point De La Guiche.

In late March 2019, the Arctic Return Expedition team left Naujaat, Nunavut, and embarked upon the 630 km (roughly 400 miles) trek by ski across Boothia Peninsula to Rae Strait. Reid was joined by Garry Tutte, Frank Wolf and Richard Smith.

The goal of the expedition was to raise awareness and appreciation of Rae, his accomplishments, Indigenous knowledge and help the John Rae Society in Orkney in their efforts to complete the restoration and conversion of his family home, the Hall of Clestrain, into an interpretive Arctic history centre. In addition, the journey would honour someone who has been, as McGoogan would say, “ripped off by history”.

What set Rae apart from other explorers of his era was his eagerness and willingness to learn from the people of the regions in which he travelled. The Arctic Return team was no different, taking the time in Naujaat to talk to hunters and others who spend a lot of time on the land. Rae lived in igloos, hunted, ate country food and wore clothes and used implements given and made for him by the Inuit of the region.

The start of the expedition was delayed due to a blizzard that brought high winds and -30C temperatures to the small community — located on the Arctic Circle. The weather improved enough that the team finally left on March 30. The incredibly cold temperatures continued throughout and contributed to two members of the team (Garry Tutte and Frank Wolf) having, unfortunately, to leave the trip early. The first leg of the journey saw the team visit the stone house Rae built in 1846 and then head North through the North Pole River system and emerge at the southern end of Committee Bay (many thanks Laimmiki from Tuugaalik High School in Naujaat). In places, due to high winds, much of the snow had been blown from the river system and some of the lakes. This meant good progress could be made. In places, the team traded skis for micro-spikes — one day 28 kilometres was achieved (the best of the entire expedition). When the conditions were this good, the occasional glance over the shoulder was needed to check both sleds were still attached! Each team member pulled two sleds, weighing approximately 100 pounds each.

Wildlife sightings and encounters were sparse throughout the month-long journey. Arctic fox would appear occasionally, along with the ubiquitous raven. Wolf and polar bear tracks were seen. During five days skiing on the sea ice of Committee Bay, the team saw two wolverines. Given their dark brown and tan fur, these (sometimes) feared animals were not hard to spot. More than likely they were hunting baby ring seals near breathing holes. These shy and elusive animals (the largest member of the weasel family) appeared curious about the strange interlopers at first but with their unmistakable gait and run, quickly made their way back to the land where they would have established dens.

Keeping (and following) the shoreline to the left, navigating on the sea ice was relatively straightforward. That ease of travel would not last as the team turned west and crossed part of Boothia Peninsula to the southern end of Pelly Bay. The challenge of the environment, route finding and topography continued but was more than compensated for by the welcome and warm meetings that took place with Inuit from Kugaaruk travelling on the land to reach their preferred ice fishing areas. Just as John Rae had done 165 years earlier, the team listened and took advice on travel conditions and what to look out for.

The community of Kugaaruk lay just to the North of the route but would play a part in facilitating Frank Wolf ’s departure. Topography changed for the remaining two team members Richard Smith and David Reid as progress was made through the lake systems and the Ross Hills of Boothia Peninsula.

As the west side of the peninsula was sought and beckoned, the land became incredibly flat making navigation a challenge. Finally, after a month of hard sled pulling, the two reached Point De la Guiche. Reid and Smith did however share some anxious moments upon reaching the area. Very little remains of the stone cairn built in 1854 by Rae and his companions. Where exactly was it!? Luckily, in 1999 a commemorative plaque (Homage to John Rae) was built and placed on the exact spot by Louie Kamookak, Cameron Treleaven and Ken McGoogan. It was the small plaque that was eventually spotted in the distance, much to the relief of two weary travellers!

After two days at Point De La Guiche, the team made the final short leg to Gjoa Haven by snowmobile, expertly guided by Jacob Atqittuq, his son Marvin and friend Leroy. Time was spent and enjoyed in the community before the journey back south.

The success of the Arctic Return expedition was due in large part to the drive, enthusiasm and commitment of all those involved. The challenges encountered by the team on the long journey only helped solidify the respect and appreciation that John Rae deserves.

With the expedition now over, work begins to support the John Rae Society in Orkney and the planned restoration of the Hall of Clestrain.