Mackenzie's voyage retraced

by Ric Stryde
Northern News Services

NNSL (Aug 06/97) - It took almost three months, but a 67-year-old Ontario man has completed the last leg of Alexander Mackenzie's first voyage across North America.

John Donaldson, originally of Scotland and now calling Kingston, Ont. home, travelled from Fort Chipewyan, Alta., to Inuvik on this, his second canoeing marathon, because he wanted to complete the first voyage Mackenzie took in 1789.

"There were trees falling all around me," said Donaldson, "The rain was incredible!" He was referring to the last leg of his trip from Arctic Red River to Inuvik, when he encountered a massive storm.

He said that he was sleeping on shore, and because of the torrential rains, "the bank was eroding around me."

This was nothing, though. He has seen worse.

Seven years ago, he set out from Montreal and travelled approximately 8,500 kilometres across water and land, to Bella Coola, B.C., a coastal community about 400 kilometres north of Vancouver.

Along the trip, which took three years to complete, he was attacked by a two-metre brown bear, had three grizzly bears patrolling around his tent, his canoe was wrecked, his paddles got lost and he was up-ended and had to portage 300 kilometres, including a portion through the Rocky Mountains.

Donaldson has always had a keen interest in the travels of Mackenzie. His dad was born in the Scottish town of Avoch, Mackenzie's birthplace and his grave.

He took the original voyage because he wanted to retrace the steps Mackenzie had taken. "He was the first white man to cross the continent," said Donaldson.

He also believes that students in Canada do not learn enough about their history. They should embrace Canada's historical figures, and the feats that they have accomplished, he said.

"Mackenzie was a hero to the native people," he said, "They called him the great spirit."

After completing the original Montreal to Bella Coola trip, a museum in Scotland asked to have the canoe donated in honor of Mackenzie's expeditions. Donaldson then thought that if he was going to donate a canoe in the name of Mackenzie, then he should at least complete the two trips made through Canada by Mackenzie.

This brought him back up north to Fort Chipewyan, where the Peace and Athabasca rivers become the Slave River, which flows up to Great Slave Lake.

To reach B.C. from here, travellers must use the Peace. To reach the NWT, they take the Slave. Mackenzie has done both, so Donaldson thought he should, too.

He set out on his trip in mid-May and touched shore in Inuvik, just a few days ago.

"At some points I was travelling 70 kilometres a day," he said.

Donaldson said that everyday he was in the canoe was a great moment, and really can't pinpoint one particular moment that was the most enjoyable.

He called the solitude he experienced at times, "meditational" because of the tranquillity of the nature surrounding him. "We're so lucky to have this, we have to preserve it," he said.

Donaldson was in Yellowknife Tuesday to donate one of the paddles that he used in both voyages to the government of the Northwest Territories, in hopes it could be used in a future display at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.

The wood-and-canvas, James Bay Cree-built, 16-foot, 38-kilogram canoe that Donaldson travelled in is soon to be on its way from Inuvik to Scotland -- by air, not sea.