The rains fell, the winds blew. An introduction to Hurricane Irene thundered on the tin roof of my cabin in the Poconos where I recently spent a week in the company of other writers. Nothing like a good book to take one’s mind off a threatening storm. While Irene tossed her wet and shaggy locks like a quick-tempered drama queen, I sailed the Polar Sea with Captain Mac.
CAPTAIN MAC: The Life of Donald Baxter MacMillan, Arctic Explorer, by Mary Morton Cowan, Calkins Creek, 2010
The son of a seaman, Donald Baxter MacMillan was an orphan by the time he was twelve. He faced and overcame many hardships, but at the end of a long and adventurous life, he could look back on a career of Arctic exploration that lasted almost 50 years.
Author Mary Morton Cowan combed notebooks, diaries, and ship’s logs to craft this fully researched text that reads like a novel. She takes the reader out to sea with Captain Mac to endure homesickness, cold, isolation, and darkness for months at a time. 5 of Captain Mac’s 25 sailing expeditions, the last in 1954, lasted longer than a year. On some expeditions, the crew was forced to subsist on seal, walrus, polar bear meat -- or starve. Excellent maps and photos are well-placed to expand the reader’s understanding of the action in the Polar North.
Bowdoin College figures prominently in Captain Mac’s life. He worked diligently to pay his way and graduate with a degree in geology in spite of financial and health problems. His schooner, which he captained for 18 expeditions, was named the Bowdoin. In 1918 Bowdoin College awarded him an Honorary Doctor of Science degree. The Peary-Macmillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College, dedicated in June 1967, houses stuffed, mounted polar bears, Mac’s camera, the watch Commander Robert Peary gave Mac that he took every time he sailed north and the letter he took on every expedition: “To be opened when everything’s gone dead wrong.”
There is so much more to know about Captain Mac. His sense of fairness. His sense of humor. Cowan lightens dark moments with anecdotes about the man himself.
The bear cub he rescues and names Bowdoin causes mayhem, becomes playful and somewhat trainable, but eventually leaves. It’s a bittersweet good-bye.
Mac learns to choose his crew with these criteria: to sign on, a scientist must be or become a sailor and a hunter. He must also be personable. Who would want to be stuck in the dark and cold for months with a man who complains all the time? Cranky men need not apply! (Interpretation mine.)
And then there are the college students, “Mac’s boys,” that Mac and his wife Miriam treat like family. Additionally, their care and concern for the Inuit children and the Inughuit culture becomes a legacy.
The author provides a time line of expeditions, a list of awards and major recognitions, chapter notes, an index, and a selected bibliography as well as suggestions for further reading. For more, see the author’s website.
Author Cowan weaves a tantalizing tale. Readers ten and up and their parents will find this information packed adventure story accessible and enjoyable.
Irene may have turned off the lights, shut off the water, and closed down all the airports offering me a ride home, but I was equipped with a small clip-on book light, a Christmas present from my son. That book light goes where I go. Take note, you East and Gulf Coast weather watchers. Another hurricane or two is spinning toward us. Along with fresh batteries and a supply of bottled water, you might want to have a copy of Captain Mac on hand.