By Conor Mihell
As a teacher at a distinguished New England preparatory school, Prentice G. Downes was known for returning to class in a harried state each fall. Between 1936 and 1947 the native of Concord, Mass., made several summer-long expeditions in the sprawling unmapped wilderness of subarctic Canada. Working on a tight budget, Downes would round up a canoe and tripping gear, food and typically a local traveling partner and set off for parts unknown. He was notorious for cutting trips close, and rushing back to Boston bearded, tanned and clad in tattered bush clothes just in time for school.
Sleeping Island, Downes' only published work of his northern travels, is a cult classic of canoe literature. First published in 1943, it received a rave review from the New York Times for its lyrical description of an expedition across a rugged landscape of lakes and rivers in northern Saskatchewan, Manitoba and present-day Nunavut. Besides its polished and engaging prose, Sleeping Island stands out because of Downes' empathetic fascination with native Cree and Dene traditions at the time of looming socio-economic upheaval in the Canadian North. Besides a great tale of adventure, Sleeping Island documented lost ways of life.
Now, Ottawa-based McGahern Stewart Publishing has reprinted the original journals from Downes' northern expeditions. Distant Summers, a hefty two-volume work edited by Canadian scholar Robert Cockburn, brings to light Downes' observations from the field. Distant Summers draws on Cockburn's decades of research and interviews with Downes' widow to present a clearer picture of the colorful "old North."
"He was fascinated with the history of exploration, the fur trade, was a very able geologist and studied topography as he traveled," says Cockburn, an avid canoe tripper and retired professor emeritus of English at the University of New Brunswick. Besides engaging readers with the hardships of the trail, Downes recorded the stories of the landscape and its people. Cockburn ranks Downes digressions into ethnography, cartography and geology amongst his greatest strengths.
Also evident in Downes' journals is a euphoric sense of freedom that contemporary canoeists will undoubtedly relate to. Oblivious to hardship, Downes paddled long days in heavy wood-canvas canoes, camping without the luxury of the tent and thriving on meager food rations. "The country is spoiling me," he wrote in his 1937 journal. "The freedom…the wandering…responsible to no one, magua [the loon] calling out on the lake, and, far away, lakes and rivers, rapids, the Barrens and the caribou."
In the end, World War II curtailed Downes' exploration just as floatplanes, mineral exploration and accurate maps changed the nature of the Canadian north forever. He joined the U.S. war effort as a cartographer and returned north for the last time in 1947, before dying of a heart attack at age 50 in 1959. "The transitional period before the Second World War was the last of the old North," says Cockburn. "Very little has been written about that era. Downes saw a lot of it, and his journals are his greatest legacy."
Distant Summers Volume I (1936-1938) and Volume II (1938-1947) are available directly from McGahern Stewart Publishing for $25.95 each.