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Ancient Mariner: The Amazing Adventures of Samuel Hearne, the Sailor Who Walked to the Arctic Ocean

by Ken McGoogan

In his previous book, Fatal Passage, Ken McGoogan masterfully rescued John Rae, the underappreciated explorer, from obscurity. Because his subject was not well known, even amongst Arctic aficionados, McGoogan was able to create a non-academic book that could be enjoyed by specialists and the general public. In Ancient Mariner, he attempts a similar feat with Samuel Hearne, the first European to reach Canada’s Arctic coast.

Because his latest subject is much better known, McGoogan faces difficulties that he only partially overcomes. Samuel Hearne went into the navy at age 12 and fought as a midshipman in the Seven Years’ War before joining the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1769. In the following years, he completed his epic three-year journey across the Barren Lands to the mouth of the Coppermine River and established Cumberland House on the Saskatchewan River. As governor of Fort Prince of Wales, Hearne married and lived what were probably the happiest years of his life before he had to surrender the fort to a vastly superior French force in 1782. Faced with the death of his wife and his great friend Matonabbee and unsupported by his employers, Hearne resigned and returned to England where he died three years before his famous exploration journal was published.

Hearne was a hardy and flexible traveller who, like Rae 80 years later, appreciated the local natives’ ability to survive in the harsh wilderness. In all his travels, he took time to describe in detail what he saw around him, from the landscape, flora, and fauna to the culture of his native companions. His journal is considered a masterpiece of exploration literature, and the powerful passages describing the massacre of the Inuit families at Bloody Falls are widely quoted.

A new general biography of Hearne is long overdue (the last one dates from the early 1960s), and McGoogan does an excellent job of expanding the reader’s awareness of Hearne’s life beyond his well-known journey. His postulations that Hearne was haunted by guilt at not being able to prevent the massacre at Bloody Falls and was crushed by the death of his wife ring true.

Using the same structure as Fatal Passage, McGoogan mixes imagined scenes and dialogue with historical reconstruction, and enlivens the whole with well-chosen quotes. The imagined scenes occasionally have too modern a ring, as when McGoogan has Hearne being aware that he “belonged to a collective life process that extended back through the Middle Ages into Roman times and beyond.” McGoogan’s technique increases the accessibility of the story, but leads to some minor repetition, as when the reader is told three times that Hearne believed that 90% of the Chipewyan died in the smallpox epidemic of 1781-82.

The maps and illustrations complement the text, and McGoogan’s research is generally of a high standard. He paints a valuable picture of the Hudson’s Bay Company in a time before the much better-known period when it was ruled by Governor Simpson.

McGoogan obviously admires his subject, and he portrays Hearne as a cultured, almost vice-free follower of Voltaire and Rousseau. This is at odds with the accepted portrait of the hard-drinking, womanizing cynic painted by biographer David Thompson. Hearne was unusually open to new ideas, met many of the intellectuals of his day, and wrote prose that occasionally soars. However, given his education at a charity school and his hard life in the navy and the wilderness, there was a harsher side to his character, even if this side was exaggerated by the intensely religious Thompson.

McGoogan occasionally seems to be trying too hard to recreate the success of Fatal Passage. In that book, the epilogue describes McGoogan struggling to place a memorial plaque to Rae, providing a fitting close to the book. A similar epilogue in Ancient Mariner lacks a strong focus and drifts to its conclusion. This minor quibble is compensated for by the literary detective story that convincingly places Hearne as the inspiration for Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

While not as important a book as Fatal Passage, Ancient Mariner remains a significant contribution to the history of Canadian exploration. It will tell scholars little that they do not already know, but it provides a fine read for the history buff and a stirring tale for anyone interested in the past.