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Canoeing a Continent: On the Trail of Alexander Mackenzie Paperback – Mar 21 2005

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Paddling, personality and persistence March 17 2005
By Stephen A. Haines - Published on
Format: Paperback
Over a decade before those icons of Manifest Destiny, Lewis and Clark, finally camped on Pacific shores, Scots fur trader Alexander Mackenzie had already crossed the entire North American continent. Mackenzie's traverse prompted President Jefferson's counter with the government employees' well-equipped expedition. Mackenzie had undertaken the journey at his own initiative. Likewise, Max Finkelstein suddenly convinced himself it would be a fine idea to duplicate, as far as he might, the traverse Mackenzie made at the end of the 18th Century. Due to time constraints, Finkelstein had to follow Mackenzie's track in stages over several years. This book is an account of those expeditions.

The opening chapters portraying Mackenzie's journeys and more recent continental crossings reveal the immensity of the task. Finkelstein then describes his personal crises, an aged mother and his own doubts, as he prepares [with a list of equipment at the back of the book], then is blocked from launching by Ottawa River Valley weather. Once under way, he imparts his successes and challenges with deep feeling. It's a wonderfully descriptive, evocative story of a man almost driven to explore Canada's river and lake systems. Max is helped, coaxed, encouraged, frustrated and elated by turns. You are with him at every portage; you share his joys and illnesses; you feel his rapture at being on Canada's rivers. Mostly, you gain some insight as to what kept both Mackenzie and Finkelstein going as they sought the vast Pacific shore.

It's easy to disparage the modern canoeist, particularly one on such an immense, but well-planned, journey. Finkelstein carries a GPS locating device, video recording equipment, Kraft Dinners [TM] and even "Sir Alex", a Teddy Bear, for good luck. With modern conveniences, friends who provide dinners and showers, getting a lift over crossings in a ute, it's clear he's not portaging into the past. That wasn't his intent. Finkelstein wanted to see, so far as possible, what Mackenzie saw. He succeed and imparts his observations in a readable and truly captivating account. Along the way, he gently reminds us that GPS devices and Kraft Dinners fade into obscurity when you're alone in a Lake Superior storm or shooting rapids down the Blackwater River in British Columbia. Then, Finkelstein is every bit the man the Scots explorer was and deserves much credit for his endeavours - and his narrative of the adventure. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]