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Braving storms in search of John Rae

What was he thinking, explorer John Rae, when he built a stone house in the High Arctic? He hired local Inuit to use their dogs to bring him big rocks. This was at Repulse Bay in 1846 with winter coming on. He got the house finished, a big room for the men and, because he did not smoke, a smaller one for him. With temperatures plummeting, he named the place Fort Hope.
What was he thinking? He was thinking of home, of growing up in Orkney, of riding out from the Hall of Clestrain with his musket to hunt for hare, and for curlews and grouse and lapwing.  He was thinking of one place in particular, a stone-built house near his favourite hunting spot in the rolling hills, where because of the distance from home, roughly fifteen miles, he would sometimes ask and receive permission to stay overnight.
This afternoon, on Orkney's Mainland, four of us visited the ruins of that stone house: me and Sheena and historian Tom Muir, our sortie led by Andrew Appleby, president of the John Rae Society. The house is located at Cottascarth in the Harray district, directly behind the Eddie Balfour Hen Harrier Hide – a bird-watching sanctuary.
Rae would have seen many such houses, of course. But this was the one where, according to local lore, he stayed more than once. And, though we have no documentary evidence, this was almost certainly the one that sprang to his mind when he needed to build a shelter. The style of construction is identical.
During our visit, after an initial half-mile slog from where we parked, the rains came on. We clambered around regardless, snapped a few photos, and even made our way through the grass to a winding stream or burn. This was it: another house in which John Rae once slept.
At Fort Hope, in the Arctic darkness, Rae learned the meaning of Real Cold. But then he visited some Inuit in a snowhouse they had built. He realized: wait a minute! it’s far warmer in here. He converted on the spot and, nostalgia be damned, never built another stone house. Oh, and one thing more. Next spring, when the Arctic Return Expedition sets out to retrace Rae's route of 1854, the team will visit Fort Hope before striking westward.

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.