People Past & Present

The greatest Arctic explorer of them all: John Rae 200 years on

Written by Howie Firth

He set out from his home in Orkney when he was just nineteen, a newly qualified medical graduate, off to Hudson’s Bay to try a summer, but it was fourteen years before he could return – as a seasoned explorer with the company rank of chief trader; and later he would rise further yet, to become a chief factor in the company.

In that time, he learned to tackle anything that the harsh climate of the Arctic could throw at him. He could walk on snowshoes fifty miles and more in a day, travelling when needed through darkness and snowstorms, and carrying a pack or pulling a sledge. On one occasion he walked in a day sixty-five miles on snowshoes – ‘with a day’s provisions, blanket, axe etc. etc. on my back’.

He could paddle a kayak for long distances, through river rapids and amongst the swirl of broken sea ice. On one occasion he did so when soaked to the skin, with his wet clothes and his moccasins frozen hard, and he paddled nine miles against a strong current to carry a friend to safety. Another time he and several of his men stood waist deep in the sea for more than half an hour, holding their essential supplies on their shoulders to keep them dry, while others went to fetch a boat.

He made long journeys – going on one occasion over a thousand miles on foot, and at another time close to 1,400 miles by small boat, during which time he charted over 600 miles of unexplored coastline.

He travelled fast, starting with a breakfast of fruit, biscuit and frozen pemmican, and then going non-stop for the rest of the day, taking at times food from his pocket to munch while he walked.

He could live off the land, and the life within it, and that was one of the reasons that he became the first European to winter in the High Arctic. It might be cranberries, or vetch to make soup; and it might be fish, caught in nets or on lines; it might be a bog rosemary plant, to burn as fuel; or it could be caribou or musk-ox, partridge or ptarmigan, for he was a deadly shot. He once brought down two deer with a single musket-ball, at a distance of 190 yards.

From Orphir to Fort Confidence

He had learned to shoot as a young boy, going out on the Orphir hills with an old flintlock from his father before he was even in his teens. He learned too to climb rocks, to fish and to sail a boat, out in almost all weathers with his brothers, enjoying races in Stromness harbour.

Whenever it blew hard and the sea was especially rough we never lost an opportunity of racing,” he said.

On one occasion, out at Fort Confidence on the Great Bear Lake, he designed his own 22-foot boat, clinker-built, with two lug sails, tough enough to cope with hard conditions but light enough for four men to carry.

Being a sort of ‘Jack of all trades’ (no recommendation I am sorry to say) I made the draught of it, as the carpenter had never before built a boat of the mould required. Of course there are none of my men that know anything about rigging a craft properly, but this I can easily manage, having practised a little some years since, at splicing ropes and roping sails.”

He could indeed turn his hand to just about anything.

Nothing from the securing of the buttons and seams of my travelling breeks to the splicing, fitting and servicing of our boats’ rigging but I had my hands at. Such duties and occupations for a C.F. [Chief Factor] may be thought infra dig by my brother officers, but I care little about that as long as the work is done.”

He would lead by example. When on one occasion he found himself with an untrained team of British servicemen who were carrying less than their fair share on portage, when boats and provisions were being taken over stretches of land or ice, he showed them himself what they should be doing.

I felt so annoyed at seeing a great strong man walking off with perhaps one or at most two oars on his shoulder, that occasionally I used to take up all the oars, the mast, and poles of a boat at one time, not a heavy load, and carry them over the portage with ease. This had some little effect but not much. At length, however, pure fear of being frozen in or snowed up caused them to exert themselves and they did sometimes work with energy.”

To learn and adapt

It was almost certainly in his childhood in Orkney that he learned to respect the skills of others, and to live with them and learn from them. Out in the Arctic, he carefully planned each expedition, choosing his men carefully, looking after their welfare every step of the way. He treated the Indians and the Inuit with the same respect, in one particularly hard winter ensuring that a group of thirty Slavey Indians were fed.

I am determined,” he wrote, “that none are allowed to die of starvation as long as we have anything eatable in store. At the same time, those that are able are made to exert themselves in setting hooks (for which they receive lines and baits) for trout, and spearing herrings. The latter mode of taking fish altho’ very common near fort Franklin had never been attempted in this part of the Lake, until a short time since when learning from the fisherman that he had seen a number of small fish near the ice when setting a net, I made a small spear, and killed 70 herrings in a very short time.”

And it was this ability to learn and adapt that was one of his great strengths. After seeing snowshoes in his first Arctic winter, he began to design his own. He learned to coat his sledge runners with a mixture of moss and damp snow, for a faster and smoother motion than with bare iron. He also learned the technique of building an igloo, and would carry a saw with them for cutting ice blocks. And as both a trained doctor and a practical man, he realised the value of native clothing.

When travelling, Rae wore Inuit-style clothing, the first European explorer to do so,”

writes the Canadian author Ken McGoogan is his classic work on Rae, Fatal Passage, a book that when, once started, is impossible to put down.

His everyday suit was a fur cap; large leather mitts with fur around the wrist, lined with thick blanketing; and moccasins made of smoked moose skin, large enough to accommodate two or three blanket socks and with thongs of skin stretched across the soles to prevent them from slipping. He also wore a light cloth coat with its hood and sleeves lined with leather, a cloth vest, and thick mooseskin trousers, all of which were ‘neither so heavy nor so warm-looking  as the dresses very commonly used on a cold winter day in England.’ In addition he carried ‘a spare woollen short or two and a coat made of the thinnest fawn skin with the fur on, weighing not more than four or five pounds, to put on in the snow hut, or when taking observations.’ ”

Those observations were meticulous. He did not simply survive in the Arctic, but record a mass of detail about the land and the life on it. With compass and sextant he surveyed the land, and although in tent or igloo it could be so cold that the ink froze and he had to warm it, he would write notes on topics ranging from the sound of the aurora borealis to the migration of the wagtail. After coming back one day with his clothes so wet that his boots were frozen solid and had to be cut off his legs, he sat in his blankets and wrote about the process of ice formation.

Blankets and buffalo robes

And this is one of the most remarkable aspects of him – a sheer joy in the world around him, in what would otherwise seem the very harshest of conditions: a warm appreciation of whatever life might provide. Here he is at night, in his tent of buffalo skins supported by oars and timbers, with the temperature outside around minus 30 degrees C outside:

The door is low and is shut by means of a skin suspended over it and faces the south-east as the prevailing winds are from the opposite direction. At the back of the tent is my bed consisting of three blankets and a couple of buffalo robes in lieu of a feather bed – a very snug sleeping place to one who never, until within the last year or two, carried more than one blanket when travelling.”

And here he is on New Year’s Day 1847, with the temperature at minus 31 C and the men having a breakfast of venison steaks and playing football in the snow and roaring and laughing as they fall over. Then comes dinner, with hare, venison and reindeer tongue, and a currant pudding to follow, and he serves brandy to the men, and then in his journal that evening records:

I do not believe that a more happy company could have been found in America, large as it is. ‘Tis true that an agreeable companion to join me in a glass of punch, to drink a health to absent friends, to speak of by-gone times and speculate on the future, might have made the evening pass more pleasantly, yet I was far from unhappy. To hear the merry joke, the hearty laugh and lively song among my men, was itself a course of much pleasure.”

And in such spirit he travelled, tirelessly and courageously, on a four-year search for the lost Naval explorer, Sir John Franklin, and after combing thousands of miles in a huge trackless land of ice and rock met a party of Inuit who provided evidence for the fate of Franklin and his men. In doing so, he solved a second and older Arctic mystery – the question of the existence of a Northwest Passage between Atlantic and Pacific. He found that what had been called King William Land was in fact an island, separated from the mainland by what is now called Rae Strait – he saw that it contained ‘young ice’ which would melt in the summer, and that King William Island (as it would be called from then on) protected it from the pack ice which blocked other bodies of water to the north. And when half a century later Roald Amundsen made the complete journey from east to west – and it took him three years – his route was through Rae Strait. Amundsen followed the methods of Rae; he used native technology and native clothes and he lived off land and sea.

A harsh and bitter response

But Rae never got the full recognition for his achievements. After successfully coming through the harshest and bitterest conditions that nature could provide, he had to face something harsher and bitterer – the resentment of Lady Franklin that her husband’s failure had been revealed. She claimed that Franklin had before his death succeeded in discovering the Northwest Passage and a memorial in Westminster Abbey endorses her, and she focused particularly on the evidence reported by John Rae regarding the last men left, long after Franklin’s own death, eating some of the bodies of their dead companions. Rae’s report had been made privately, but the Admiralty made it public, possibly hoping for relief from the sustained pressure to continue the long, dangerous and expensive search for Franklin. Lady Franklin enlisted the assistance of Charles Dickens in a prolonged attack on Rae and on the credibility of the Inuit. The Admiralty took various opportunities in their charts to attribute some of the surveys of the north to their own men.

But Rae had his recognition as well, with respect over the years from some of the greatest explorers, and the love and support of his wife Catherine. He had met her in Toronto, after his years in the Arctic and at a time when he had been battered by the campaign mobilised by Lady Franklin; and her father had opposed her marrying a man who had been so close to native people and who was twenty-five years older than her. She wrote to John Rae when he was on a hunting trip with friends and back he came at once to make the case to her father and insist on marrying her, and it was a close and happy marriage. It was she who brought his body north for burial in the kirkyard of St Magnus Cathedral, where the memorial in the building shows him resting under a buffalo robe, with an open book and a musket by his side.

And a second memorial, on the other side of the Atlantic, complements this so well. In the spring of 1854 John Rae built a small cairn overlooking Rae Strait, and recorded its position. Ken McGoogan and two friends – Cameron Treleaven and Louie Kamookak – went in search of it; and they found it.

It was the only man-made structure for miles. And the GPS told us that although the longitude of this spot differed from Rae’s by three minutes and thirty-six seconds, the latitude agreed within a few yards. This was indeed Rae’s cairn.”

Wronged by history but vindicated here

In Fatal Passage, Ken McGoogan notes the extent of Rae’s achievements on the quest for Franklin.

Between 1846 and 1854, he led four major Arctic expeditions, travelling more than 23,000 miles. The chief hunter of every one, Rae surveyed 1,751 miles of unexplored territory, including 1,538 miles of northern coastline. A cost-efficient marvel of stamina, resilience, and resourcefulness, he trekked 6,504 miles in the Arctic alone, mostly on snowshoes, and travelled another 6,634 miles in canoes and small boats.”

There by the cairn, the three of them set in the ground a plaque of weather-resistant anodized aluminium that they had screwed to a slab of Honduran mahogany, with an inscription that begins:

This plaque marks the spot where Arctic explorer John Rae (1813-93) discovered the final link in the Northwest Passage.”

And they raised glasses in a toast that really says it so well:

To a consummate traveller, a man wronged by history and vindicated at this place. To the greatest Arctic explorer of them all. Gentlemen, to John Rae!”


Further reading

Dale Idiens, Ian Bunyan, Jenni Calder, Bryce Wilson, No Ordinary Journey: John Rae, Arctic Explorer – published in 1993 along with an exhibition in Edinburgh to mark the centenary of John Rae’s death, this collaboration between the National museums of Scotland and Orkney Museums Service brings together a wealth of information about his life and achievements.

The Arctic Journals of John Rae – a collection of John Rae’s writings, including pages of his unpublished autobiography, the complete text of his account of his expedition of 1846-7, the report of the fate of the Franklin expedition, and the exchange of words with Charles Dickens; selected and introduced by Ken McGoogan.

Ken McGoogan, Fatal Passage: the untold story of John Rae, the Arctic adventurer who discovered the fate of Franklin – “A passionate redemption of Rae’s rightful place in history” (Edinburgh Times)

About the author

Howie Firth

Dr Howie Firth is a writer and physicist from Orkney, with a deep interest in history and philosophy. He is director of Orkney International Science Festival.