Arctic ski trek retraces steps of little-known Scottish explorer

A small team of modern-day explorers led by an Ottawa man have returned from their 650-kilometre trek across Canada's Arctic — on skis. Their goal: retrace the steps of John Rae, who found the last link in the Northwest Passage in 1854.

John Rae discovered the Northwest Passage's final link in 1854

Richard Smith, left, and David Reid, right, holding the flag of Orkney. Explorer John Rae, who discovered the final link of the Northwest Passage, was born on the Scottish island in 1813. (Submitted)

A small team of modern-day explorers led by an Ottawa man have returned from their 650-kilometre trek across Canada's Arctic — on skis.

The goal of their 29-day voyage was to retrace the steps of John Rae, a little-known Scottish explorer who, in 1854, located the last link in the Northwest Passage with help from Indigenous people in the region. 

They returned from their northern odyssey with two souvenirs: frostbite and amazing stories, some of which Ottawa-based leader David Reid recently shared with CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.

Intense cold

The temperature during their expedition ranged between –30 C and –35 C, Reid said.

"You add a wee bit of wind to that and that makes all the difference," he told Ottawa Morning host Robyn Bresnahan.

The conditions were so brutal, he said, that two members of the four-person expedition were forced to drop out.

The modern-day expedition battled -30 C temperatures, but it was the wind that cut to the bone. Two of the team's four members were forced to abandon the 650-kilometre trek in Canada's high Arctic. (Submitted)

"Once you lose ability in your hands, it just makes normal everyday tasks like boiling water, making dinner, putting the tent, even zipping your jacket up … a wee bit more difficult," Reid said.

In fact, Reid added, he's also recovering from minor frostbite.

"My fingertips are still a bit numb. My big toe on my left foot isn't talking to me right now."

And when it's that cold, what happens when Mother Nature calls?

"You can either think about something else at 3 a.m. or you go outside or you have a Nalgene bottle. I shall leave it at that."

Expedition leader David Reid poses beside a rock cairn where Scottish explorer John Rae discovered the final link to the Northwest Passage in 1854. (Submitted)

'Where is your Ski-Doo?'

Orkney Island-born John Rae was helped by Inuit, who shared information about the ill-fated Franklin Expedition.

Fast forward to 2019, and Reid and his expedition also got help from locals around Gjoa Haven, now officially known as Uqsuqtuuq (ᐅᖅᓱᖅᑑᖅ).

They steered him away from potentially deadly thin ice. 

Reid said they were approached with curiosity by groups of men on snowmobiles heading out to check their fishing nets they'd set up under the ice.

"[They asked] 'What on earth are you doing? Why are you walking? Where is your Ski-Doo?'" Reid said.

What on earth are you doing? Why are you walking?- David Reid

Reid said he plans to write a book about the group's experiences while also raising awareness and funds for the John Rae Society in Orkney, to honour the little-known explorer.

Expedition leader David Reid is still recovering from frostbite on his fingers and toes. (Matthew Pearson/CBC)


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