By Conor Mihell
To say Concord, Mass., resident P.G. Downes (1909-1959) was ahead of his time is an understatement. Between 1936 and 1947, the Harvard-educated schoolteacher spent his summers exploring the then-unmapped reaches of the Canadian subarctic, sensitively documenting the plight of fading aboriginal cultures and creating detailed maps of the waterways he followed by wood and canvas canoe. Downes made a habit of traveling north and spending his summers in exotically named locales like Ungava, Great Slave Lake, and Reindeer Lake. Once he arrived in the north, Downes would secure an outfit—a canoe, grubstake and camping gear—rustle up a companion or travel solo into the unknown.
In Sleeping Island, Downes documents his 1939 journey from the tiny northern Manitoba village of Brochet to a remote fur trading post on Windy Lake in the northern territory of Nunavut with an ace woodsman, canoeist and trapper simply known as John. The pair set off in a big cedar-canvas canoe, provisioned lightly with tea, flour and a too small supply of tobacco, expecting to live off the land. Even today, with the aid of modern GPS technology, accurate maps, lightweight gear and resilient canoes, the route they followed remains amongst the toughest in Canada. Yet despite the challenges of route-finding and navigating unknown sets of rapids, Downes still managed to keep a detailed journal, which evolved into his 1943 travelogue—a cult classic amongst canoe trippers.
Ottawa-area canoeists and history enthusiasts Patrick McGahern and Hugh Stewart started a publishing label to reproduce classic outdoors literature like Downes’. The first title in their Forgotten Northern Classics series is a “new and improved edition” of Sleeping Island, edited by retired University of New Brunswick professor R.H. Cockburn, who has spent over 30 years researching Downes’ travels.
“Here are vivid descriptions of trial and error on rivers and lakes,” writes Cockburn in the introduction, “of poling and paddling, of sweat-drenched portaging; columns of smoke rise from bush fires on the horizon, across miles of water; deserted trading posts decay along abandoned trade routes; canoeloads of Chipewyans appear suddenly, down from the Barrens; foul weather and windbound camps are followed by days of surpassing beauty; depression and exhilaration, companionship and separation, are tellingly conveyed.”
Besides engaging readers with the hardships of the trail, Downes recorded the stories of the landscape and its people. Cockburn ranks Sleeping Island’s digressions into ethnography, cartography and geology amongst Downes’ greatest strengths. Indeed, Downes was ahead of his time in his insightful and literary depiction of the fading traditions of aboriginal life. Among his other accomplishments was an unpublished dictionary of the native Cree and Chipewyan languages and extensive research into the aboriginal dreamscape that garnered him the Cree moniker, “The-man-who-talkes-about-dreams”.
McGahern Stewart Publishing’s 2011 edition of Sleeping Island includes a new epilogue and new photographs. Though the price of $34.95 (Canadian) is steep for a soft cover, the book should be considered essential reading for anyone who has ever dreamed about experiencing the freedom and tribulations of canoe travel in the Canadian North. What’s more, it’s good to support an upstart publishing house whose next title, Distant Summers, will compile more of Downes’ journals from his travels from 1936 to 1947.
Just before his death in 1959, Downes summed up his travels in the Canadian north: “I liked that life and I liked the people there. I saw a lot of it just as the old north was vanishing… I remember one time after a dreadful trip, camping on the edge of the tree line, again it was one of those indescribable smoky, bright-hazy days one sometimes gets in the high latitudes. I had hit the caribou migration and there was lots of meat; it was a curious spot, for all the horizon seemed to fall away from where I squatted, and I said to myself: Well, I suppose I shall never be so happy again.”