Alexander Mackenzie’s expeditions were notable for many reasons. Mackenzie pushed the boundaries of the Canadian fur trade further west with the information he brought back from his journeys. He is accepted as the first person of European background to cross North America north of Mexico. But perhaps it is the speed with which he completed his expeditions that is most remarkable. He kept notes and returned with observations and measurements, yet his expeditions took mere months to complete. Although mariners were charged with charting and coastal exploration, both time consuming endeavours, their vessels could reach good speeds in favourable winds, yet maritime expeditions could take years to complete.
Both Mackenzie’s Arctic and Pacific expedition parties were made up of experienced voyageurs, skilled in the use of canoes for lake and river travel. These men, including French-Canadian voyageurs, First Nations interpreters and guides, and Mackenzie’s kin, were expected to paddle all day in treacherous waters. When they were not paddling, they were crossing on land, portaging, which meant carrying a load of supplies and equipment weighing over 30 kilograms, as well as the canoes.
The Arctic expedition of 1789 travelled the full length of the Mackenzie River in two weeks. The expedition departed in early June and returned to Athabasca in September. This means they covered over 4,800 kilometres in 102 days, an average of over 120 kilometres per day. The expedition to the Pacific departed in May and returned in August. They achieved a 3,700-kilometre expedition to the Pacific in just 108 days.