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2017 Greatest Hits feature Scotland, Atwood, and the Arctic

Last day of the year, I find myself driven out of bed at 5 am to look back at 2017, and to say hey to readers who have been checking in here. We're up over 20,000 views per month -- a far cry from pop-culture blogging numbers, but I'll take it. And I'll defer to the "overview stats" page at the back of this blog to offer up an orderly, top-five guide through the past year. . . .

And so we beat on, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, like boats against the tide, borne back ceaselessly into the past . . . .


Ken McGoogan
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2019 John Rae Arctic Return Expedition rockets into cyberspace

The website is live. The expedition is all systems go. The team is still growing. Sponsors are flocking to the cause. To learn all about the Arctic Return expedition, click on . . . this link! Meanwhile, see below for truncated introductions to some key players.

Expedition Team:

For over 20 years, expedition leader David Reid has been involved in the Arctic expedition and travel business. To date he has led, organized or participated in more than 300 Arctic and Antarctic expeditions, trips and projects. In that time he has traveled thousands of miles by dog sled, ski, snowmobile, boat, kayak, ship, foot and most recently by bike, becoming the first person to cross Baffin Island by fat-tire bike.

Andrew Bresnahan is a physician and anthropologist from Labrador, Canada. An explorer and visual storyteller, Andrew's work brings him from rural and remote northern clinics to the communities and wild backcountry of the circumpolar world. Andrew has worked as an expedition doctor and anthropologist throughout Inuit Nunaat, from Greenland and the Labrador coast across the Northwest Passage to the western Arctic. An avid skier, climber, kayaker, and outdoor educator, Andrew is at home on Canada’s north coast.

Expedition Partners:
Ken McGoogan is an award-winning author-historian who has published more than a dozen books, among them Fatal Passage, Lady Franklin's Revenge, and Dead Reckoning: The Untold Story of the Northwest Passage. In 1999, with Louie Kamookak and Cameron Treleaven, he placed a memorial plaque in the High Arctic beside the ruins of the cairn that John Rae built in 1854.

GJOA HAVEN CONSULTANT: Louie Kamookak is an Inuit historian and educator whose research into Inuit oral history has been crucial in unlocking the secrets of the lost Franklin Expedition, including the whereabouts of Franklin's ship, the Erebus. Louie is an honorary vice-president of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, which awarded him the Erebus Medal for his role in the search and discovery of HMS Erebus. He spends a lot of time out on the land, teaching younger people the ways of his ancestors.

Andrew Appleby: "I was drawn to Orkney and John Rae since childhood. On a tall ship cruise in Scapa Flow in 1992, we passed The Hall of Clestrain. The Captain remarked on the state of The Hall. I determined I would do something about it. I helped form The Orkney Boat Museum at Clestrain. When that dissolved I was determined to initiate The John Rae Society. We have achieved a great deal since then!"

Ken McGoogan
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BIG ICE never fails to work MAGIC!

Final posting from our Adventure Canada voyage Out of the Northwest Passage . . .
Day 15: Ilulissat

Late afternoon in Ilulissat, voyagers returned from a 90-minute zodiac cruise among the icebergs looking and sounding exhilarated. The message they carried: BIG ICE! BIG! FANTASTIC! Ilulissat is the third-largest town in Greenland, with 4,541 people (as of 2013) and 6,000 dogs. This is the birthplace of explorer-anthropologist Knud Rasmussen (1879-1933), and his childhood home has become a notable museum. But the main attraction is the Jakobshavn Glacier, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2004.
The Ilulissat Icefjord flows past the town at 45 metres per day. It produces 35 billion tons of ice each year, and spawns vastly more icebergs than any glacier in the Canadian Arctic. And that explains why, for the cruise, our expedition leader, M.J., put a full complement of 20 zodiacs in the water.
After debarking in the morning, most voyagers undertook the avidly awaited three-kilometre walk through the colorful town, where construction is the order of the day. We hiked to the boardwalk and beyond, scrambling up a hilltop vantage point to look out over the flowing river of ice. This river is believed to have spawned the iceberg that sank the Titanic. Instead of retracing our steps, a couple of us followed the Big Blue Dots and mini-cairns around the back, looking out over the ice all the while, switching eventually to a line of Red Dots that led us back to the start of the boardwalk. This was a good stiff hike and scramble.
Back on the ship, we had intended to follow the zodiac cruise, on this super-packed day, with the polar plunge. But because a good number of people were feeling the chill, we postponed that until tomorrow and set out sailing south through Disko Bay. That inspired the inevitable Disko Party in the Nautilus, complete with crazy costumes, and the rest is best passed over in dignified silence.
[Merry Christmas, y'all!]
Ken McGoogan
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Arctic landscape calls out for Return

Voyaging Out of the Passage with Adventure Canada
Day 13: Qikiqtarjuak

“The whalers used to call us Yaks,” Billy Etooangat said as he rode back to the ship in the zodiac to retrieve his luggage. He was arriving home in Qikiqtarjuak in the sunshine. “After Yaks, we were Eskimos.” He took a beat. “I didn’t mind that, but then I became aboriginal . . . an aboriginal person. Now I am indigenous.” The man at the helm of zodiac, David Reid, said, “What would you like to be called?” Billy answered: “A Canadian.”
Billy’s hometown, called Qik by those in the know, has a population of 600, which makes it the smallest community we visited. The handy-dandy postcards that people were giving out note that Qik is 100 km north of the Arctic Circle and 483 north of Iqualuit. A favorite slogan, especially popular on the backs of white sweatshirts, is, “Qik’in It / Above The / Artic Circle.” The town has everything you find in the larger centres – health centre, visitor centre, Co-Op, Northern Store – and also a larger percentage, or so it seemed, of fluent and friendly English speakers.
The scenery is the biggest highlight. We made our way, most of us, to the massive inukshuk on a high hill at the back of town, wending upwards along a rock-lined path, and wow! what a vista of harbor, beaches, mountains and, as it happened, a large flat iceberg, sparkling in the sun. The half dozen snorkelers who went out with Rick Stanley and Neil Burgess returned to the ship abuzz with the excitement of ranging along near the iceberg.
Mid-afternoon found travelers partying at an Inuit Social in the Nautilus Lounge. People crowded around a table near the back to sample Narwhal muktuk, char, smoked or dried, and dried caribou. Fifteen or twenty were playing a game on the dance floor when a whale sighting – “Bowhead! thar she blows!” – lured everyone outside, including master of ceremonies Derek Pottle. He called it a “whale break” and afterwards returned to the festivities.
As we sailed southeast along the coast of Baffin, we spotted a cargo ship at work. It was clearing detritus from an old Dew Line Site. Then came a sighting of multiple bowheads fluting and blowing, and the captain managed to draw the ship to within less than 200 metres. Marine mammal expert Pierre Richard said we saw more than ten bowheads. Best viewing of the voyage!
Later, during recap, David Reid stepped forward. Last spring, Reid led a four-person, four-dog expedition in circumnavigating Bylot Island: 29 days, 540 kilometres. During this Adventure Canada voyage, while chatting with friends, Reid settled on a challenging new project -- a re-enactment. As an emigrant Scot who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company, and lived two decades among the Inuit in the High Arctic, Reid feels a special affinity for 19th- century explorer John Rae.
For his next project, he will reprise Rae’s 1854 expedition – the one on which he discovered both the final link in the first navigable Northwest Passage and the fate of the Franklin expedition (cannibalism among some later survivors). This will mean traveling on skis or snowshoes roughly 650 km from Repulse Bay to Gjoa Haven via Point de la Guiche, where Rae built a cairn on the west coast of Boothia.
Reid will undertake this 35-day Arctic Return Expedition to call attention to the magnificence of Rae's achievements, and in hopes that it will draw attention to the drive to restore the Hall of Clestrain in Stromness, where Rae was born. He will put together a three-or-four person team with a view to setting out from Repulse on March 31, 2019.
Ken McGoogan
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Wrestling Visions of Climate Change in the Northwest Passage

Sailing Out of the Passage with Adventure Canada
Day 12: Aujuittuq National Park

Katabatic winds came roaring down off the mountains of the fjord. By some estimates, they were gusting up to 80 km, carrying higher-density air under the influence of gravity. Just before noon, the winds forced a brief closure of all decks for safety sake. But then, without explanation – though maybe we rounded a corner -- the winds suddenly died to nothing. The whitecaps ceased frothing and, once again, all was right with the world. We were back out on deck, cruising along among spectacular mountain peaks. Afternoon would bring more adventure.
But first, early in the morning, Jackie Dawson gave a memorable presentation, arguing that the Canadian Arctic is not experiencing a shipping boom and won’t be doing so any time soon. Currently serving as Canada Research Chair at the University of Ottawa. Dawson has been examining Arctic shipping trends for more than ten years with as many as 15 graduate students at a time.
Dawson said climate change is causing reductions in sea ice. “We have 19 more days of open water in the Northwest Passage than we did ten years ago.” But the break-up of the ice-pack in the Arctic Ocean is pouring multi-year ice directly into the northern route of the Passage. “It could be 75 to 100 years before that ice pack is melted,” she said. “The northern route will be choked with ice for a long time.”
The Northwest Passage is nowhere near “open for business.” Canada has a long way to go to make the Arctic a viable region for ship traffic: “We don’t have the infrastructure.”
More ships are indeed sailing through the southern route of the Passage. But the traffic volumes in Arctic Canada remain tiny as compared with those of other regions, such as Svalbard, Greenland, and Franz Josef Land. ‘We don’t have a million vessels,” she said, “but the risks in Canada are much higher.” Ice and wind are among the greatest hazards for ship navigation, and while Canada has established corridors, most of its Arctic waters remain uncharted.
While climate change is reducing the amount of ice in the Canadian Arctic, other factors play a major role in any decision to ship goods through the Passage. The cost of insurance, for example, is currently creating a bottleneck. And the port and railroad facilities available via Prince Rupert, British Columbia, may well offer a cheaper alternative for decades.
But did I mention the afternoon? At Auyuittuq, we went ashore onto the mud flats of an alluvial plain that wound slowly uphill among striking mountain peaks. We went for various hikes – extreme, long, medium, short – and we wandered within a wide perimeter. Many passengers went for a half-hour zodiac cruise, and were surprised to see the hotel manager, Eckhart, arrive in a white polar bear suit, along with two assistants. They brought hot chocolate and Bailey’s, and most of us managed to choke it down.
Come evening, host David Newland built on the presentation of Jackie Dawson by showing everyone an especially cogent table demonstrating that the American Navy believes in climate change. The table predicts that by 2025, a viable passage will cross the Arctic region from east to west– but it won’t be the Northwest Passage. Rather, climate change will open a route almost directly across the North Pole.
[Pix by Sheena Fraser McGoogan]
Ken McGoogan
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Beechey Island whiteout inspires Dead Reckoning video

Scenes from September, voyaging Out of the Northwest Passage with Adventure Canada.

Day 8: Beechey Island
For visiting Beechey Island, the best-known historical site in the Arctic, the day was perfect: cool and overcast. We went ashore in zodiacs and climbed the rocky, snow-swept slope to the graves of the first three sailors to die during the 1845 Franklin expedition. The men perished here in 1846 and, given that Sir John was famous for his sonorous sermons, we can be sure he buried them with due ceremony. Franklin and 125 men sailed on south down Peel Sound in their two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, to meet their own fate.
On Beechey, in the 1980s, forensic scientist Owen Beattie autopsied the bodies of Franklin’s men, John Torrington, William Braine, and John Hartnell. At the gravesite, archaeologist Latonia Hartery vividly described the process. A fourth sailor was buried here in 1854 – Thomas Morgan, a man from Robert McClure’s ship, the Investigator. He had been rescued from that vessel, which was trapped in Mercy Bay on Banks Island, some distance west, but was already so sick that he did not survive.
After viewing the graves, first discovered in 1850, most passengers hiked 1.6 kilometres along the shoreline to check out Northumberland House (now a ruin). Searchers built it in 1852-53, mainly from the wreckage of an old whaler. They deposited supplies for the use of Franklin, should he return this way, and also for any later searchers. Several later memorials and markers placed here are of tangential interest.
But on the ground behind the remains of the house, we saw tin cans from the original expedition, filled with stones and lined up to form a cross. Also, we saw a wooden two-by-four etched with the name of another explorer: “J.E. Bernier / 1906.” Canadian Joseph Bernier visited here during his multi-year expedition to assert Canadian sovereignty over the entire Arctic archipelago.
Finally, here too we saw what’s usually called the Bellot monument, which features a marble slab sent from England by Lady Franklin. It was installed to the memory of the Franklin expedition by Leopold McClintock in 1857. Four years before that, while anchored nearby, Joseph-Rene Bellot had volunteered to trek north along the ice of Wellington Channel to deliver a message. He took two men. The ice broke off as they walked and they spent the night in a tent on a large ice floe. Come morning, Bellot stepped outside the tent . . . and never reappeared. Obviously, he had slipped off. The other two men waited until the floe returned to shore and jumped off to safety . . . . and sorrow.
Back on the Ocean Endeavour, Dr. Andrew Breshnehan -- always merry and bright -- gave an insightful talk on Circumpolar Health. Later, while in the Nautilus Lounge we studied an image of the Beechey Island graves, passenger Keith MacFarlane introduced a moment of silence with a moving tune on the bagpipes. And later still, a number of staffers – David Newland, Julie Bernier, Daniel Freeze, Lynn Moorman, Julie Knox, Gay Peppin, Dr. Andrew – went the extra mile to organize an unforgettable book launch for Dead Reckoning: The Untold Story of the Northwest Passage. They made the author mighty grateful.
[You can check out the dazzling, 3-minute, Beechey Island book-launch video by clicking here.]
[Pix by Sheena Fraser McGoogan]

Ken McGoogan
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Gjoa Haven features Amundsen, Kamookak, Martin Bergmann

Voyaging Out of the Northwest Passage with Adventure Canada, September 2018:

Day 4: Gjoa Haven

The little kids stole the show. Five to seven years old, they emerged in pairs, jigging out into the centre of the high school gymnasium. Within seconds, we visitors were dabbing at our eyes. These innocents were dancing so intently, trying so hard, that somehow it was beautiful -- one of the most beautiful moments, for one jaded writer, of this or any previous Arctic voyage.
We had arrived in Gjoa Haven, in the heart of the Northwest Passage, the previous evening. Population in the 2016 census: 1324. When morning dawned, there it was, snow-dusted and clearly visible in the sunshine. Matthew James got things moving early and passengers were piling into zodiacs by 0830. On shore, having accomplished our first wet landing, we split into half a dozen groups, said hello to one of the local guides, and headed out to explore the town.
While making for the Amundsen cairn on the hill, apparently the only group to do so, we saw the Martin Bergmann tied up to a dock.
Last year, while sailing on that ship, searchers found the long-lost HMS Terror. Following our Inuit guide, George Bachmann (“like in BTO”), we waded through the occasional snow drift and got to see where, on the hills around us, Amundsen placed magnetic instruments in a bid to locate the ever-shifting Magnetic North Pole.
He never quite managed, though starting in 1903, he spent two winters here in Gjoa. While wandering through town, George pointed out “the house of Amundsen’s grandson,” and revealed that he himself is “married to the great granddaughter” of that explorer. Together, they have four boys. Along the way, we deked into the hamlet office, where we admired a massive bust of Amundsen and saw some impressive soapstone carvings.
We gravitated to the high school – apparently, we were the sixth set of passengers to arrive in ten days – and enjoyed Inuit hospitality. We saw drum-dancing, we heard throat-singing, and we announced the winners of both writing and art-making competitions. I touched base with historian Louie Kamookak, my friend and fellow traveler. And then came those beautiful children. The zodiac ride back to the ship, pounding through six-foot waves in winds gusting to thirty knots, reminded us why, when confronted with rougher-still gale-force conditions, Adventure Canada prefers to avoid putting zodiacs in the water.
Back on the Ocean Endeavour, David Reid, who lived in the High Arctic (mostly Pond Inlet) for more than two decades, walked us through life in an Arctic village. He noted that Nunavut occupies one fifth of Canada’s land mass, but has a population of only 33,000. Villages rely on supply ships for supplies, though First Air provides most of them with three to five flights a week. Expectations to the contrary, he said, the Arctic does not get much snow, not compared with, say, Montreal.
Reid explained the genius of the komitik. That wooden sled, thanks to its flexibility, enables travelers to cross crevasses in the ice. He noted that more northerly communities do experience three months of darkness, and also three months of never-ending light – and that these last can be harder to endure.
In a talk entitled Land and Sea-Ice Journey, Susie Evyagotailak brought to life several travel adventures. And Ashley Savard provided a final highlight with a unique one-woman show that mixed poetry, song, and drum dancing. All those who were there adjourned saying: yes!
[Photos by Sheena Fraser McGoogan]
Ken McGoogan
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Parks Canada expects to find human remains on Franklin ships

Voyaging Out of the Northwest Passage last September with Adventure Canada.
Day 3: Simpson Strait

“I expect to find human remains.” So said Marc-Andre Bernier this morning in response to a question about diving on the Erebus. “Most likely bones, skeletons.” He noted that Inuit testimony speaks of at least one body on what would appear to be Erebus, and added that he had seen flesh on bones before. Many artifacts on Erebus are covered in sediment, he said, “and if sedimented, the remains could be very well preserved.” Bernier cited the example of a wreck from 1770, the HMS Swift, which researchers located in Patagonia: “They found a complete skeleton in uniform.”
Since discovering the Erebus in 2014, Bernier said, Parks Canada has conducted more than 250 hours of diving – “open water, through the ice, and now we’re setting up to dive from a barge.” That barge arrived recently in Gjoa Haven. The top of the Erebus is just 10 feet below the surface of the water, and that has facilitated the initial exploration of the ship.
“Some of the deck planks are gone,” Bernier said, “and in some instances we have been able to peek inside to the lower decks.” Using state-of-the-art technology and computerized graphics, the underwater archaeologists have been able to create a three-dimensional, grid-system map of the wreck. From the headquarters of the Royal Marines, they have recovered shoes, ceramic pestles, and medicine bottles reused as shot glasses. Parks Canada has established a protected zone, a national historic site 10 kilometres square, around the Erebus. The Inuit guardians at the site, where yesterday three tents blew down, were being evacuated today.
The Erebus is not badly preserved, Bernier said, but the Terror – discovered just last year – “is in phenomenal condition.” There, researchers have identified a ship’s boat, a 23-foot cutter, sitting on the ocean floor directly under the davits designed to release it. They also identified two outhouses sitting on the top deck. To laughter, he said: “Imagine all the DNA samples in there.” He noted that the window over the officer’s mess is partly open. So far, the team has collected about ten hours of video, and the next step will be to introduce Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) into the ship.
Just before lunch, many passengers went out on the top deck to stand in the wind – still gale force – and gaze out at King William Island. Those men who, in the late 1840s, abandoned Terror struggled along this coastline. On his 1857-59 expedition,
Leopold McClintock found the skeleton of one of the men who died here, and identified him as Thomas Armitage. After experiencing those winds, nobody with any sense harbored dreams of going ashore.
Late in the afternoon, with the wind still wailing at more than 20 knots, Matthew James made it official: we would attempt no landing. The sun came out and the Ocean Endeavour set off eastward through Simpson Strait, bound for Gjoa Haven. Passengers crowded onto the top deck and marvelled at the nearness of the shore, the narrowness of the strait.
Ken McGoogan
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Lighting the Kudlik in the Northwest Passage

As a rule, when we sail in the Northwest Passage with Adventure Canada, I end up writing the "official" logbook that goes out to passengers as an illustrated booklet. Towards the end of the year, I like to post a few excerpts. It gets me remembering . . . and excites me about next year.

Day 2: The Erebus Site
We sailed into a blizzard at around 1530 hours. The timing seemed fortuitous. Marc-Andre Bernier, manager of underwater archaeology for Parks Canada, was halfway through a presentation on The Search and Discovery of Sir John Franklin’s Lost Ships. Suddenly we could see for ourselves the kinds of conditions the Franklin expedition encountered in the mid-1840s in relatively tiny, wooden ships. We could see and hardly fail to understand.
Bernier planned to remain with the Ocean Endeavour for the next three days. He would lead us to the site of the wreck of the Erebus and proceed to Gjoa Haven. While outside a gale-force wind gusted to upwards of 50 knots, Bernier talked about Parks Canada search operations over the past eight years. His presence on board – and that of four other federal government agency representatives – emerged as part of a new partnership between Adventure Canada and Parks Canada.
In this first of three presentations, Bernier highlighted the importance of Inuit accounts as relayed through such explorers as John Rae, Charles Francis Hall, and Frederick Schwatka, who relied on interpreters William Ouligbuck, Tookoolito, and Ebierbing. He noted that these accounts “gave us an area, but did not establish a location.” That is why the search required so much time and energy. It consumed eight years, covered an area equal to 215,686 soccer fields, required 322 person-days of field work, and entailed the consumption, roughly speaking, of more than 500 litres of coffee.
The storm continued unabated into the late afternoon, as passengers sat entranced through an Inuit ceremony of welcome. Led by Susie Evyagotailak (who lit the kudlik/ qulliq), John Houston, Louee Okalik and Derek Pottle, it involved no fewer than eight culturalists (all speakers of Inuktitut), and was highlighted by Jennifer Kilibuk, who charmed passengers by combining a song with a drum dance.
The day had begun with an archaeological briefing by Dr. Latonia Hartery, who explained guidelines for visiting any sites or features more than 50 years old, and a talk by the resource historian (yours truly) based on Dead Reckoning: The Untold Story of the Northwest Passage.
Through the afternoon, the blizzard raged. And at evening briefing, what had seemed fortuitous in the morning stood revealed as foreboding: we would not, after all, be visiting Erebus. Expedition leader Matthew James Swan (MJ) laid it on the line. The weather had gotten worse instead of better. On land near the wreck, Parks Canada had built a five-tent campsite that would enable visitors to warm up after snorkeling. Marc Andre Bernier took the microphone to reveal that “three of those tents have been blown off.”
Bernier and his team had also arranged for a Twin Otter to fly in from Gjoa Haven, bringing Inuit historian Louie Kamookak and several elders to interpret the site. But while that plane could handle the expected winds of 35 to 40 knots, the pilot needed at least 1,000 feet of visibility. And the Inuit guardians on the spot said that, engulfed by fog, they had no visibility whatsoever.
Finally, the thought of putting zodiacs into the water when the winds were blowing at more than 25 knots . . . and sending passengers out in what, because of the ship’s location, would be a 40-minute zodiac ride each way . . . no, MJ couldn’t see it: “The zodiacs would just flip.” What about waiting in the vicinity for a couple of days? Bernier explained that, by stirring up sediment, the storm had already rendered that a non-starter. Nobody would be able to see a thing in the water – not for days.
Our leaders were unanimous, their decision ineluctable. We would not be visiting the Erebus site. Like the explorers themselves, as host David Newland suggested, we would have to swallow this disappointment and sail on. And for the first of many evenings, Newland did yeoman service, singing us into the night with The Northwest Passage in Story and Song.
[Pix: Jennifer & Susie, and Marc-Andre Bernier by Sheena Fraser McGoogan; and a favorite image I used in Dead Reckoning: Frederick Schwatka crossing Simpson Strait . . . together with those unsung heroes, Tulugak and Ebierbing.]

Ken McGoogan
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Arctic Return Expedition backs Orkney vision of a John Rae World Heritage site

While announcing the 2019 Arctic Return Expedition, which will follow in the footsteps of Arctic explorer John Rae, team leader David Reid spoke of yearning to do something about the dilapidated condition of Rae’s birthplace in Stromness, Orkney: the Hall of Clestrain. “Clestrain stands as an example of something once proud, dignified, and strong,” he said. “The passing years have not been kind to it.” He and his fellow travelers are hoping that this expedition will inspire the funding of a restoration – indeed, a transformation.
Clestrain was built in 1769 by Patrick Honeyman, whose family had been prominent in Orkney for more than a century. The architect is unknown, but Clestrain bears a notable resemblance to Gayfield House in Edinburgh, built five years earlier for the Earl of Leven by Charles and William Butter. According to architect Leslie Burgher, Clestrain was “the first Palladian Villa and the first significant building in Georgian style in the far north of Scotland.” It became one of a handful “of buildings of national quality and importance in the Northern Isles.”
Patrick Honeyman’s son William (1756-1825) became a Session Court judge: Lord Armadale. He married a lady, Mary McQueen, who became the subject of a 1790 painting by Alexander Nasmyth: Lady Honeyman and her family. Later that decade, a storm blew the roof off Clestrain and Honeyman had to replace it.
Early in the 1800s, with properties in Edinburgh, Sutherland, Lanarkshire, and Lothian, Honeyman appointed a factor to oversee his holdings in Orkney. That factor, John Rae Senior, moved with his family into Clestrain. And there, John Rae was born (in 1813) and raised, eventually to become one of the greatest explorers of the 19th century. That story figures in Dead Reckoning, but I tell it most fully in Fatal Passage.
In August 1814, Sir Walter Scott visited the Standing Stones of Stennis with Rae Sr., and wrote later that “the hospitality of Mrs. Rae detained us to an early dinner at Clestrain.” Scott drew on this visit to Orkney for his novel The Pirate, and Rae’s older sisters are said to have inspired his fictional characters Brenda and Minna. John Rae grew up in and around Clestrain, hunting and fishing and sailing small boats.
Flash forward to 1925, when a farming family, the Craigies, acquired the estate and moved into Hall. They occupied it until 1952, when a devastating gale blew off the slate roof, forcing the family to move into a new farmhouse. Since then, Burgher writes, “the house has suffered a slow decline.” The Craigies replaced the roof with corrugated sheeting and used Clestrain as an outbuilding for farm animals.
Since 1990, several local bodies have tried and failed to raise enough money to restore the Hall – the Orkney Heritage Society, the Orkney Building Preservation Trust, the Orkney Islands Council, the Friends of the Orkney Boat Museum. In 2004, Clestrain showed well in a Britain-wide BBC Restoration Programme, but could not win out over buildings in more populous areas.
Late in 2007, backers of the boat-museum idea secured a Heritage Lottery Planning Grant, but their proposal went no further, rejected in 2009 as artificially appended to the site. The Landmark Trust showed interest in 2010, but bailed out late in 2012 after a downturn in the market for “large holiday lets.”
In 2013, the John Rae Society took up the challenge . It’s a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organization bent on increasing knowledge about Rae’s achievements, and on advancing arts, heritage, culture and science while fostering friendship between “the people of Orkney, and those in Canada,” particularly in those areas associated with Rae. More urgently, with the Hall deteriorating -- windows broken, chimneys decaying, water damage -- the Society is striving to raise funds to salvage and restore Clestrain, and to turn it into the heart of an international John Rae Centre -- a World Heritage site for exhibitions, lectures, research, and scientific study.
Society patrons include the Earl of Orkney (Winnipeg-based professor Peter St. John), writer and broadcaster Ray Mears, author-historian Ken McGoogan (yours truly), and, most recently, actor Michael Palin,
best-known for his work in Monty Python. Last month, a Scottish woman living in Canada donated 40,000 pounds to the cause -- almost $70,000 Cdn!
Still, much more is needed. And David Reid -- who hails from Bishopton near Glasgow, not 300 miles south of Stromness -- is hopeful that the Arctic Return Expedition will inspire donations for both the expedition and the restoration of Clestrain. “It would be wonderful if our expedition could help to breathe new life into the Hall -- not just for the people of Orkney, but for people from around the world.”
Ken McGoogan
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Arctic Return Expedition will seek Northwest Passage in the footsteps of John Rae

“A snow storm of great violence raged during the whole of [April] 14th, which did not prevent us from making an attempt to get forward; after persevering two and a half hours, and gaining a mile and a half distance, we were again forced to take shelter.” -- John Rae on his 1854 expedition

In the Canadian Arctic, the month of April means below-zero temperatures, ice-jammed waterways, blinding blizzards and challenging traveling conditions. April is the month, in 2019, when Arctic explorer David Reid will lead a four-person team on a 640-kilometre trek across Boothia Peninsula in the Central Arctic. Travelling on skis and snowshoes, Reid and his team will follow the route Scottish explorer John Rae took in 1854, when with two indigenous companions, he accomplished one of the three most significant expeditions in the history of Arctic exploration.
Together with the Inuk William Ouligbuck and the Ojibway Thomas Mistegan, Rae discovered both the catastrophe that had engulfed the failed Franklin expedition and the final link in the first navigable Northwest Passage. On Friday night David Reid, who recently led the first-ever circumnavigaton of Bylot Island on skis, unveiled his next undertaking -- the ARCTIC RETURN EXPEDITION: Discovery, Northwest Passage, John Rae -- while presenting in Toronto at a meeting of the Canadian Chapter of the Explorers Club.
His 540 km Bear Witness journey in 2017 around Bylot required 29 days. Reid proposes to complete this longer expedition -- 640 km from Repulse Bay (Naujaat) via Point de la Guiche to Gjoa Haven -- in 35 days. He is now selecting team members, each of whom must be capable, he says, “of hauling a 200-pound sled every day for a month while meeting the mental and physical challenges of travelling in a harsh, cold environment -- one of the most extreme on earth.”
This expedition is his most ambitious yet, the Scotland-born explorer said, because it is not just linear, man against nature, a purely physical test. Certainly it is that, but it also has a significant historical dimension that invites multi-faceted comparison between today and yesterday. Climate? Technology? Culture? Gear and equipment? Communications? All completely transformed since Rae’s time. Not only that, but Reid has also enlisted an experienced co-author -- full disclosure: yours truly -- to write a book about the expedition, one that we hope will give rise to a documentary film.
“This is purpose-driven travel,” Reid said. “And it’s a serious undertaking. It is certainly not lost on me that people die doing things like this, travelling in this part of the world at the time of year Rae did.” Reid notes that for centuries, Inuit have travelled through this area, and “because of blizzards, whiteouts, and other dangers, the reality is some have not made it home.”
Then he asked rhetorically: “Why do it? Why, at considerable personal risk, why try follow in the tracks of John Rae? Well, because historical achievement needs to be recognized, honoured, and celebrated. This expedition is designed to highlight and bring attention to excellence and achievement. It will bear witness in a remote part of Canada where history was made.”
History, he added, is often evoked in bricks and mortar. And that brought him to another motivating factor -- the dangerously run-down condition of Rae’s birthplace in Stromness, Orkney: the Hall of Clestrain. For the past several years, the John Rae Society has been striving to raise funds to purchase, salvage, and restore the edifice, with a view to turning it into an international John Rae Centre -- a World Heritage site for exhibitions, lectures, research, and scientific study. Last month, a Scottish woman living in Canada donated 40,000 pounds (almost $70,000 Cdn.) to the cause.
But much more is needed, and Reid -- who hails from Bishopton near Glasgow, not 300 miles south of Stromness -- is hopeful that the ARCTIC RETURN EXPEDITION will attract funding not just for the undertaking itself, but also for the restoration of the Hall. “Clestrain stands as an example of something once proud, dignified, and strong,” he said. “The passing years have not been kind to it. It would be wonderful if our expedition could help to breathe new life into the Hall -- not just for the people of Orkney, but people from around the world.” Reid would also like to see some private funds go to a youth group based on King William Island -- a group identified as deserving by historian Louie Kamookak, who has agreed to serve as Gjoa Haven consultant.
And the three most significant Arctic expeditions? The first was that of John Franklin, who in 1846 established the existence of an open waterway from Parry Channel as far south as King William Island. The second was that of John Rae, who with Ouligbuck and Mistegan, discovered Rae Strait -- the final link in the first navigable Northwest Passage. The third was that of Roald Amundsen, who vindicated both Franklin and Rae when, in 1903-06, he became the first to navigate the Northwest Passage. Of these, the only expedition that did not require a ship was John Rae’s.
And that, in 2019, is the one ARCTIC RETURN will re-enact.

[Potential sponsors should contact David Reid at]

[Next up here: The remarkable true story of the Hall of Clestrain.]

Ken McGoogan
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Before turning mainly to books about arctic exploration and Canadian history, Ken McGoogan worked for two decades as a journalist at major dailies in Toronto, Calgary, and Montreal. He teaches creative nonfiction writing through the University of Toronto and in the MFA program at King’s College in Halifax. Ken served as chair of the Public Lending Right Commission, has written recently for Canada’s History, Canadian Geographic, and Maclean’s, and sails with Adventure Canada as a resource historian. Based in Toronto, he has given talks and presentations across Canada, from Dawson City to Dartmouth, and in places as different as Edinburgh, Melbourne, and Hobart.