The Man Who Mapped the Arctic: The Intrepid Life of George Back, Franklin's Lieutenant

by Peter Steele

Vancouver: Raincoast Books, $39.95


Reviewed by Paul vanPeenen


The history of Arctic exploration is replete with tales of hardship and heroism, but few more so than the epic that is the life of George Back. Sadly, and somewhat unbelievably, languishing in various archives, Back's journals, letters and paintings tell the story of an adventurous life unknown to all but Arctic scholars. Until now, that is, because author Peter Steele has brought to life the story of one of the nineteenth century's most remarkable Arctic explorers.

From the tender age of eleven when he entered the Royal Navy, until his death at age eighty-two, George Back's life was marked by fantastic adventure. From being captured off the coast of Spain at age twelve and spending five years in a French prison, to trudging starving across the frozen white wasteland of the Canadian north looking for help, to limping back home across the Atlantic in a ship wrecked by the grinding ice of Hudson Bay, to overseeing the search for his one-time boss John Franklin, Back's life was many things, but it certainly was never dull.

What makes Back's life so remarkable is that he survived all of the adventures life sent his way. What is even more remarkable is that Steele's book, The Man Who Mapped the Arctic, is the first biography of this stalwart explorer and artist. Biographers seem to have been far more concerned with those explorers who did not live to tell their tale.

As a young first class volunteer on board Arethusa, Back's life was in constant danger. Many of his fellow sailors succumbed to a myriad of dangers: falling from the topmast, dying of scurvy or yellow fever - merely one of a host of tropical diseases - or at the hand of an enemy's cutlass. In short, the odds of becoming an adult were not great for a young teenager in His Majesty's Royal Navy. Steele goes into great detail of what life was like for young Back as a "king's letter boy" and his subsequent capture by the French.

Back spent five years in a French prison at Verdun before finally being released back to England in an exchange of prisoners that was quite common between the warring nations of Europe. Steele's impeccable research provides a detailed description of the life of a prisoner of war in Napoleon's gaol. It was a life surprisingly different from what one might expect, and shows us that Back did not let those five years pass idly by. The most useful talent he acquired was proficiency in the French language, one of the skills that would set him apart from his future boss John Franklin.

In 1815 Back joined the crew of Akbar and sailed for North America for the first time to take part in the British blockade of the continent near the end of the Anglo-American war. On board Akbar, Back sailed between Halifax and Bermuda and nearly lost his life when the ship almost foundered in a hurricane off Cape Hatteras.

During this trip, Back's father died, and upon his return home he spent six weeks with his mother before deciding to sit for the lieutenant's exam, which he passed with flying colours. Back took his education seriously and continued to study aboard the Bulwark, under the command of Captain McKinley, while he waited for a vacancy in the list to become a full lieutenant.

Meanwhile, the powers that be at the Admiralty were planning a grand expedition for a renewed effort to discover a Northwest Passage. Under the supervision of John Barrow, the second secretary at the Admiralty, two ships, Dorothea and Trent, were readied for the journey. The expedition was under the command of Captain David Buchan sailing in Dorothea while Back was commissioned as a midshipman aboard Trent under the command of Lieutenant John Franklin. And so, the lives of the two men became forever entwined. The ships sailed on 25 April, 1818, but were thwarted by ice and only got as far as just north of Spitzbergen before being forced to turn back by October of that same year. Little was achieved by the expedition, but Back had been noticed by Franklin who wrote that his junior "uniformly conducted himself as a correct, zealous and attentive officer . . . I consider Mr. Back to be much entitled to my approbation."

The following year, the Admiralty sent William Parry into Lancaster Sound to look for a Northwest Passage while sending Franklin on an overland expedition from Hudson Bay to the mouth of the Coppermine River, a tiny piece of the Passage that had been written on a largely blank map of northern Canada by Hudson Bay man Samuel Hearne in 1771. The aim was for the two expeditions to link up and continue westwards to Russian Alaska. Franklin chose his officers carefully and appointed Doctor John Richardson as surgeon and naturalist of the expedition, and midshipmen Back and Robert Hood as map makers and artists. These journeys predated the invention of photography by some 30 years and young officers in the British Navy received art training as part of their education so they could document the scenery and flora and fauna, but it remained secondary to their duty as surveyors. The Arctic Land Expedition left England on 23 May, 1919, and would not return for four years.

The expedition was a disaster. Franklin was ill-prepared and unfit for the rigours of overland travel in the north. Back, on the other hand, seemed to be in his element. His strength as a northern explorer was proved over and over again during the four-year ordeal. One of the most remarkable feats was a journey of 1,100 miles (1,770 kilometres) on snowshoes during the winter of 1820-21 when he travelled from Fort Enterprise, on the edge of the Barrens, to Fort Chipewyan and back in order to secure necessary supplies for the success of the expedition. In early June, Franklin's party, consisting of the officers, voyageurs and a complement of Indian hunters and their wives, set out from Fort Enterprise to the Coppermine River. The details of the expedition are well known and do not need retelling here, however, a controversy arises in Back's journal that Steele unfortunately does not address in any great detail.

One of the most sensational passages of exploration literature was written by Samuel Hearne in A Journey from Prince of Wales's Fort in Hudson's Bay to the Northern Ocean in the years 1769, 70, 71 & 72, describing his overland journey from Churchill to the mouth of the Coppermine River with Matonabbee, a Chipewyan Indian. Hearne describes witnessing the massacre of a group of Inuit by Matonabbee and his band of warriors in July, 1771, at Bloody Falls, the last major rapid on the Coppermine River. Fifty years later, Back wrote:

We were now at Massacre Rapid [Bloody Falls] - celebrated in Hearne's voyage for the shocking scene that occurred there - the most interesting part of which I imagine to be unfounded - as one of our guides who accompanied him - said that he [Hearne] was two days march from them at the time of their attacking the Exquimaux.

Who that guide was is unclear. In the notes to Back's dairy, published as Arctic Artist (McGill-Queens, 1994), C. Stuart Houston identifies him as White Capot (ch. 10, note 16) on one occasion, and as Humpy (Ch. 4, note 54) on another. Steele identifies White Capot as the guide who travelled with Hearne. He writes: "White Capot who was also with them, remembered Samuel Hearne passing through the country fifty years before. Dr. Richardson refers to White Capot as the hermaphrodite - but this tantalizing snippet is all we know."

Tantalizing, indeed, but Steele makes a mistake which further confuses matters. White Capot was not The Hermaphrodite, according to Richardson's journal published in Arctic Ordeal (McGill-Queens, 1984), also edited by Houston. In the entries of June 21, 23, and July 6, 1821, The Hermaphrodite is clearly identified as a separate person. On June 21, Richardson writes about an "old Indian, who by the by, is considered as a hermaphrodite by his countrymen, and who remembers Mr. Hearne's passing and is well acquainted with the country to the northward of the Coppermine River." Richardson continues: "The Hermaphrodite being better acquainted with the route than our Guides has been engaged by Akaicho to accompany us." White Capot had already been hired by the expedition, along with his brothers Akaicho and Humpy, and other band members.

Back's statement definitely casts doubt on Hearne actually having witnessed the massacre, but he does not claim it never happened. In fact, he confirms it not only in his writing, but in one of his drawings as well. It shows skulls in the foreground with the expedition's tents occupying the middle and the Coppermine River stretching off in the background, and he writes that evidence of the massacre "was but too clearly verified - from the fractured skulls - and whitened bones of those poor sufferers - which yet remained visible."

Franklin mentions another "old Chipewyan Indian, named Rabbit's Head" who was introduced to him by Peter Warren Dease, a fur trader with the North-West Company, who had passed several winters in the area and was familiar with much of the terrain north of Great Slave Lake. Rabbit's Head claimed to be a step son of Matonabbee and that he had "accompanied Mr. Hearne on his journey to the sea, . . . but being a mere boy, he had forgotten many of the circumstances. He confirms, however, the leading incidents related by Hearne," writes Franklin.

So, who was this guide who travelled with both expeditions? If White Capot or Humpy had travelled with Hearne and Matonabbee, they must have been children or young teenagers in 1771, and in their late 50s or early 60s in 1821 when they travelled with Franklin. Rabbit's Head admits as much. The Hermaphrodite, referred to as an "old Indian" by Richardson, was likely a teenager or young adult in 1771, and may also have travelled with Hearne to the mouth of the Coppermine, but this is not clear. Richardson only confirms that The Hermaphrodite "remembers Mr. Hearne's passing."

It is possible that Hearne and Matonabbee passed through an encampment near Takijuq Lake, between the Coppermine and Contwoyto Lake, where The Hermaphrodite and his band were spending the summer. Hearne writes in Journey that they met Yellowknife Indians along the way between Contwoyto and the Coppermine and spent time with them eating and socializing. Some of them decided to accompany Hearne and Matonabbee to the Coppermine River.

Unfortunately, Steele does not shed any new light on this controversial conundrum of the Coppermine River's history. If anything, it is more confusing than it was before. Ken McGoogan, in his new book Ancient Mariner, a biography of Samuel Hearne (also reviewed in this issue of ABR), does analyze some of these conflicting stories and most decisively sides with Hearne. However, McGoogan's theory rests mostly on assumptions, and he dismisses the Indians' claims without taking into account Richardson's references to The Hermaphrodite. And so, the mystery continues.

From Bloody Falls, the expedition continued on to the mouth of the Coppermine where Franklin reduced the size of the party to 20: Five Englishmen, including the four officers and one seaman, eleven voyageurs, twoInuit interpreters, and two Indian interpreters. Despite Franklin's promise of ample reward, none of the Yellowknife Indians agree to accompany the expedition along the coast, and attempts at recruiting Inuit hunters fail miserably. The voyage along the coast is a harrowing experience for the voyageurs who were not accustomed to ocean travel, unlike the officers who were all old navy tars.

By the middle of August, after having spent a great deal of time circumnavigating Bathurst Inlet and its many islands and bays, the expedition camped on a barren point on the Kent Peninsula where Franklin wasted precious time wandering aimlessly around that desolate part of the coast before deciding to turn back. On 26 August, desperately short of food, the expedition arrived at the mouth of the Hood River where they begin their deadly retreat south, also the title of the next chapter. In it, Steele vividly recounts the struggle of the starving men as they try to get back Fort Enterprise across unknown territory and without Indian guides.

In the end, eleven of the twenty members of the expedition died. Most of them succumbed to a combination of starvation, exhaustion and scurvy, except Hood, who was murdered by one of the Indian voyageurs, who as a result, was summarily executed by a desperate Richardson who feared for his own life. Back and three voyageurs had been sent ahead by Franklin and they eventually stumbled upon Akaitcho and his band of Yellow knife Indians who nursed the survivors back to health before their return to England with a new map of a large part of the northern continent. Back was promoted to Lieutenant and the expedition survivors were received as heroes; Franklin's narrative became an instant best seller. Afterwards, tales of cannibalism were carefully covered up, only to resurface in subsequent Arctic expeditions.

Steele's book is peppered with snippets that fill in the mundane blanks of the Back's life. This detailed research is what makes his book very readable. As Commander of the expedition, Franklin receives all the recognition while Back disappears into obscurity, but not before being fêted by the leading men in his hometown of Stockport. Quotes from the Stockport Advertiser describe the evening in which Back "favoured the company . . . with several excellent songs, and raised a powerful interest by exhibiting with great effect specimens of the original airs with which the Canadians solace their labours as they paddle along the perilous rivers of North America."

Back joined HMS Superb in November 1823 and sets sail for the West Indies. During his absence, the admiralty planned to send Franklin on a second land expedition to the Arctic. Franklin immediately invited Richardson, but not Back. From correspondence between the two, Steele reveals it was obvious that Franklin did not care much for Back, despite the fact that the junior officer had saved his life on at least two occasions. In spite of Franklin's efforts to keep Back from the expedition, he was forced to hire him at the Admiralty's prodding after the untimely death of one of the selected lieutenants, John Bushnan.

This expedition was much better organized by Franklin than the previous disaster because he had more time and the benefit of bitter experience. On 15 February, 1825, Franklin, Richardson and Back again set off for North America on their second Arctic Land Expedition. They sailed to New York aboard Columbia, travelled by steamboat to Albany, and by coach to Niagara from where they sailed across Lake Ontario in a schooner, and bumped along a rough road by ox-cart and wagon to Lake Simcoe. There they embarked canoes which took them to Georgian Bay and onwards along the Voyageur route, for the second time, to Great Slave Lake in the northwest of Canada.

The main difference between this expedition and the 1821 journey was that they were travelling mapped territory. They were to descend the Mackenzie River which had been successfully navigated in 1789 by the man whose name was given to the river. At the mouth, the party would split up. One group, under the command of Richardson, would travel east to the mouth of the Coppermine, and the other group, under Franklin's command, including Back, would travel west in an attempt to meet up with Captain Frederick William Beechey aboard HMS Blossom in Kotzebue Inlet on the northwest coast of Russian Alaska.

The party overwintered at Fort Franklin which had been constructed by Hudson Bay Company trader Peter Warren Dease on Great Bear Lake (not Great Slave Lake as Steele incorrectly writes in his opening chapter (p. 22), a mistake missed by the editors and not repeated later in the book). During the fall of 1825, Franklin travelled as far as the mouth of the Mackenzie before returning to Great Bear Lake where Back and Dease had completed the buildings and had begun laying in stores of fish and meat for the looming winter. Richardson, meanwhile, had taken a boat to the far east end of Great Bear Lake where, only three days' march from the Coppermine River, he left a canoe for his return journey the following year.

So far, the expedition was a success and the completion of the fort was celebrated with a party. It was a multi-cultural affair with British seamen, Scots Highlanders, French Canadian voyageurs, Indians, an Inuit and only three women. The men danced and drank, played party games, and Back put on a puppet show.

The winter was passed much like the one in 1820 at Fort Enterprise. There was not enough food because of the hunters' lack of success and there were too many mouths to feed when a large complement of starving Indians showed up. However, the winter was not as cold as the one spent on the Barrens at Fort Enterprise, and by March the caribou returned to the region easing the threat of starvation. Richardson set off by dog team to survey the south shore of Great Bear Lake while preparations were being made for the upcoming continuation of the expedition as soon as the rivers shed their icy mantle.

On 28 June, 1826, the expedition set off in four row boats down the Mackenzie River. Franklin had learned from his previous experience that fragile birch bark canoes were not suitable for navigating the icy Arctic Ocean beyond the river delta. A barge had also been built to carry supplies as far as the delta. With help from sails, the expedition ran the flooding river to Point Separation where the barge was left and, as the name suggests, the parties split up.

The boats were provisioned for three months as Lion and Reliance, skippered by Franklin and Back respectively, sailed into the west channel of the Mackenzie delta. Within days, they made contact with a large group of Inuit. After being reassured the Englishmen were friendly by Augustus, the Inuit interpreter from the 1821 expedition who had joined up again, the natives paddled out to meet the strange white men. Franklin counted seventy-three kayaks and five umiaks, as more than a hundred men, women and children swarmed the two boats in an attempt to trade. Trapped in shallow water on a retreating tide, pandemonium ensued as the Inuit pilfered all they could. The situation was quickly getting out of hand as the mob threatened to overtake Franklin and his crew, but when Back ordered his men to take aim the Inuit panicked and fled up the beach. The crews hastily refloated the boats and rowed off. Amazingly, nobody was hurt or killed. The standoff at Pillage Point lasted a full day before the expedition was able to get away.

Hampered by ice and stormy weather, the expedition made fitful progress along the Arctic coast. Small groups of Inuit appeared seemingly out of nowhere, and were always happy to receive gifts from Franklin in exchange for information about the local geography. They passed Herschel Island and struggled westward for 374 miles without finding a single harbour suitable for large ships. At Return Reef, just beyond Prudhoe Bay, Franklin ordered the expedition's retreat not knowing that Beechey's party was a mere 160 miles west of them.

On the return journey to the Mackenzie delta, the expedition was caught by a gale off King Point. Back describes it as "the most severe storm . . . which was terrible to behold." Once in the protection of the delta, the expedition made good time and avoided a repeat of previous events at Pillage Point, but not without being on constant guard with muskets cocked. By 21 September, less than three months after setting out, the party arrived back at Fort Franklin where they met Kendall who informed them he and Richardson had arrived three weeks before after successfully sailing east to the mouth of the Coppermine before travelling up the Coppermine River and overland back to Great Bear Lake.

"Our united discovery is about 1,700 miles, and the [total] distance travelled will be near 10,000," wrote Back of the successful expedition. Preparations were made to spend another winter at Fort Franklin and in October a packet of mail arrived from England informing Back of his promotion to the rank of Commander.

Back in England in 1830, Back found himself unemployed as he was unable to secure a posting of any kind. To relieve the boredom and take his mind off his troubles, Back went on a Grand Tour of the Continent "to reap such advantages, as we are told are to be had by travelling among our neighbours."

He visited Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and crossed the Alps into Italy. Back's journals of the trip reveal a romantic tryst with "xxxxx" who may have been a married woman in Naples. His trip lasted 18 months when in 1832, he rushed back to England upon learning of a rumour that an expedition might be sent to the Arctic to find out the fate of Captain John Ross and his nephew James, who had set out aboard Victory in 1829 and had not been heard from since.

Back offered his services to the Admiralty and proposed to travel to the Arctic Ocean down the Thlew-ee-choh-dezeth, or Great Fish River, about which he had been told by an Indian named Blackmeat during his first expedition with Franklin. The Admiralty excepted his offer and on 17 February, 1833, Back and Dr. Richard King, hired as the expedition's surgeon, left Liverpool and sailed to New York aboard Hibernia. From New York he followed the exact route from 1824 to Montreal where he recruited some personnel for the journey to Great Slave Lake and beyond. At Norway House, Back signed on James McKay and George Sinclair, reputedly skilled steersmen who would distinguish themselves later in the expedition.

By August, Back and four men set out to find the source of the Great Fish River under the guidance of an Indian named Maufelly. Dr. King, fur trader Alexander MacLeod and the other expedition members had been ordered by Back to travel to the east end of Great Slave Lake and find a suitable place to build Fort Reliance adjacent to the mouth of the Ah-hel-dessy, or Lockhart River.

Maufelly, who claimed to be familiar with the area northeast of Great Slave Lake, guided Back's party upstream on the Hoarfrost River to the Barrens and the large lakes of the Lockhart River which are a confusion of large bays and islands with little or no discernable flow. The Indians at Fort Resolution had told Back of two great rivers rising in this area: the Teh-lon (Thelon) and the Thlew-ee-cho-dezeth (Great Fish). None of the Indians seemed to know if either of the rivers flowed north into the Arctic Ocean, but the consensus was that both flowed northeast across the Barrens. However, the Great Fish River had a reputation for being a tough, dangerous and rapid-studded river that even the Indians did not travel down. Back correctly trusted his instincts and believed Blackmeat's claim from 1820 that the Great Fish River flowed into the Arctic Ocean.

Maufelly's guidance was questionable, to say the least, but regardless of his floundering, Back found the source of the Great Fish River when the party wandered along the eskers bordering Sandhill Bay at the northeast end of Aylmer Lake. There, a narrow neck of land separates the Ah-hell-dessy from the Thlew-ee-cho which flows northeast out of Sussex Lake. With delight Back threw himself down on the bank and "drank a hearty draught of the limpid water."

On the return trip to Fort Reliance with winter rapidly encroaching, Back had a chance encounter with two Yellowknife Indians from Akaicho's band. He gave presents to the men for their chief and his brother Humpy. Back followed the Ah-hel-dessy down to Artillery Lake where the treeline began, and only 20 miles north of Great Slave Lake. Two days later, Back arrived at the mouth of the river to find the construction of Fort Reliance nearly complete.

Again, the Englishmen at the fort attracted starving bands of Indians from miles around. Meat was so scarce that Back had to send MacLeod and several men away to a bay on the south side of Great Slave Lake to establish a fishery. All of the other men were dispersed to different locations to hunt and fish in the hopes of securing enough food for what had become another unmanageable situation. Akaicho and some of his men showed up unexpectedly and was delighted upon meeting his old friend again. Back urged Akaicho to take responsibility over the starving Indians.

The temperature plummeted to -75°F (-59°C) and the fort filled with starving, miserable Indians huddled around the fireplaces inside the buildings. Food was in very short supply but despite the misery, Back and his men tried to make a cheerful Christmas dinner out of pemmican they took from stores laid aside for the following year's expedition.

In the Spring a letter arrived from England telling Back of the safe return of the Rosses and ordered him to focus his attention to his "second object, viz. the completing the coast line of the north-eastern extremity of America." Back immediately altered his plans to using only one boat, instead of two, with the strongest possible crew. Back's experience from the two previous expeditions was evident in his decisions. He had become a seasoned northern traveller and very able commander.

"There is something exciting in the first start even upon an ordinary journey," Back writes at the beginning of June when he and his crew set off from Fort Reliance. Steele writes this was to be Back's greatest adventure. It was the first expedition under his command and he more than lived up to expectations by descending and meticulously mapping the full length of the longest river entirely within the Barrens measuring 673 statute miles (1,083 kilometres), not 530 geographical miles (981 kilometres) as calculated by Back. The river has more than 80 rapids and a maze of "fine large lakes with clear horizons, most embarrassing to the navigator," Back writes in his journal.

The journey began with the party mostly walking north on the ice of the Lockhart River and its big lakes. The total weight of the boat and and three months' provisions was some 5,000 pounds and had to be dragged on sledges. Once the party reached Muskox Lake on the Great Fish River, Back sent MacLeod and the Indians back to Fort Reliance and ordered them to lay in enough provisions for the following winter. Back had selected nine of the best men, including Dr. King, to descend the river. Here, Back again met with Akaicho and he recognized his "old acquaintance and Indian belle . . . Green Stockings [who] was still the beauty of her tribe."

Akaicho warned Back to be careful and avoid being "caught by the winter, and thrown into a situation like that in which you were on your return from the Coppermine, for you are alone, and the Indians cannot help you." Akaicho's warning was a testament to the nature of the country and the difficulty of the river down which the Indians did not travel. Back and his men made good progress despite despicable weather. From Beechey Lake, where the river turns almost due east, the expedition's progress was remarkable. The party travelled nearly two-thirds of the length of the river, about 450 miles, in only 15 days, including more than 100 miles through seven large lakes where Back admitted getting lost. Beyond the big lakes, the river is studded with large, dangerous rapids: Rock, Escape, Sandhill, Wolf and Whirlpool Rapids. Portaging the heavy, water-logged boat was impossible, so all of them were run. On several occasions, the boat was nearly lost, but because of the skill of the steersmen, McKay and Sinclair, the boat was safely manoeuvred through the rock-filled rapids.

It was not until the last rapid that Back and his party met with a group of Inuit who, brandishing weapons, did not seem to want contact with the white men. In spite of this, Back stepped ashore and skillfully, or perhaps foolishly, walked up the beach and shook hands with each one of them, diffusing what must have been a tense situation. The Inuit helped get the boat down the final rapid and in return, Back rewarded them with some buttons and fish hooks. Back unsuccessfully tried to learn about the local geography from the natives, but lack of a skilled Inuit interpreter made communicating difficult. On July 29, 1834, Back sailed out onto the Arctic Ocean after having successfully navigated the river that would eventually bear his name.

The expedition struggled through ice and gales as far as Ogle Point at the northern end of Chantrey Inlet, but was forced to retreat by the middle of August. Amazingly, Back devoted only a few pages of his journal to the return journey to Fort Reliance. It must have been even more difficult than the descent, especially given the lateness of the season as winter rapidly encroached. A year later, in October, 1835, more than two and a half years after leaving England, Back returned home having mapped yet another route to the Arctic Ocean without losing a single life, a remarkable feat considering previous experience.

Back was promoted to Captain and with only a few months rest, on 13 May, 1836, was appointed to command HMS Terror in yet another sea-mounted expedition into the Arctic to map the final piece of the Northwest Passage puzzle. It was a disaster. Almost as soon as it arrived in Hudson Bay, the ship became beset in ice and drifted for 10 months along the shores of Southampton Island, nearly being crushed in the process. Miraculously, the ship was freed in the summer of 1837 and limped home across the Atlantic. Back's health was never the same and he did not command another mission. Despite the failure of his last expedition, Back was knighted in 1839 by Queen Victoria. In 1843, Back began courting recently widowed Theodosia Elizabeth Hammond whom he married on 13 October, 1846. Surpassing his old boss John Franklin in rank, Back was made admiral in 1867, and served on the Arctic Council which directed the search for Franklin's lost expedition. Back died in 1878 at age 82.

Steele himself is not a stranger to arduous travel having driven overland from Europe to Nepal in 1960 where he and his wife Sarah, a nurse, worked in a hospital and explored the Dhaulagiri range of mountains. The Steeles then moved to Canada where he ran the Grenfell flying doctor service in northern Labrador, travelling the coast by snowshoe, dog sled and boat. His first book, Two and Two Halves to Bhutan (Hodder & Stoughton, 1970), was the story of his return to the Himalayas, where he and Sarah embarked on a six-month hike with two children under the age of four.

In 1971, Steele was the medical officer to the ill-fated Everest expedition in which one climber died. His account of the expedition was published as Doctor on Everest (Hodder & Stoughton, 1972). He then hitch-hiked around South America with his ten-year-old son and wrote an unpublished novel. In 1975, the Steele family settled in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, and continued to travel through northern Canada, China, Tibet and India as well as southern Africa and Patagonia.

For this book, Steele retraced part of Back's northern routes by plane, boat and on foot, and it has resulted in a well-researched portrait of one of the Arctic's most remarkable, yet, little-known explorers. What made Back so remarkable was his toughness under arduous conditions, his more than excellent writing skills, and, above all, his talent as an artist. Back's exquisite watercolours and drawings of the northern landscape are kept in Canada's National Archives in Ottawa. They were some of the first representations of the northern landscape Europeans were exposed to, and with which a nation came to identify itself. Except for some black and white reproductions of Back's art, Steele's meagre mention of the paintings and drawings leaves a dimension of the intrepid life of George Back yet to be discovered.


Paul vanPeenen is a photographer and writer who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. He has retraced two of George Back's routes: from Fort Reliance to the Arctic Ocean along the Back River in 1999; and from Fort Enterprise overland to Point Lake, down the Coppermine River and east along the coast to the mouth of the Hood River in Bathurst Inlet in 2001. Both expeditions were done by canoe and lasted 10 weeks. The first was made with three companions. The latter was a solo journey. Paul is planning to retrace Back's 1826 route down the Mackenzie River in 2004.