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Manitoba History: Book Review: P. G. Downes, Sleeping Island: The Narrative of a Summer’s Travel in Northern Manitoba and the Northwest Territories. Edited with a new Introduction and Notes by R. H. Cockburn

by Graham A. MacDonald
Victoria, British Columbia

Number 68, Spring 2012

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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P. G. Downes, Sleeping Island: The Narrative of a Summer’s Travel in Northern Manitoba and the Northwest Territories, Edited with a new Introduction and Notes by R. H. Cockburn. Ottawa: McGahern Stewart Publishing, 2011, 294 pages ISBN: 978-0-9868600-0-3, $34.95 (paperback)

There is a modest post-1890 literary tradition associated with a patrician type of American writer, mainly resident in the northern border states or New England, preoccupied with the northern reaches of Canada. As a tradition, it has its origins in an understanding of what it meant for the western American frontier to have “closed” in the 1890s, as Frederick Jackson Turner would have it. For glimpses of a North America still not radically touched by modernity, it was necessary to look to Alaska and the vast interior of Canada north of the railway belt.

Theodore Roosevelt can be linked with this tradition, for it was related to an interest in sport hunting and fishing. Thus, in the early 1900s one finds Harry Auer of Cleveland writing of his wanderings around The North Country of Lake Superior, and Kirkland Alexander of Chicago forming his North Shore Club of canoe adventurers keen to probe the landscape north of Sault Ste. Marie. A few years later, Charles B. Reed of the Chicago Historical Society ventured into the lands east of Superior and produced a valuable commentary, Four Way Lodge. [1] Most striking was the 1912 canoe trip of Ernst Oberholtzer, the future conservationist on Rainy Lake, who, with his Ojibway companion, Billy McGee, travelled to The Pas and then penetrated to the Nueltin Lake Country and east out to Hudson Bay and Churchill. The literary fruits of that audacious journey are only now appearing, although the valuable photographic record has been known to scholars for some time. [2] Well known, too, are the works of Sigurd Olson of Ely, Minnesota, an outstanding writer and conservationist of the border lakes region. In the 1950s, he teamed up with several Canadians to travel the “lonely land” of the Churchill River.3 Between the trips of Oberholtzer and the Olson party, only a few fur traders, geologists, adventurers, missionaries and policemen had entered the lands north of the Churchill River. Even the ubiquitous J. B. Tyrrell in his 1894 geological survey of the Kazan River area missed seeing Nueltin Lake, although he made a rudimentary map of it. When Oberholtzer reached the lake in 1912, he was the first, of known record, to see it since Samuel Hearne in 1771.

Prentice Downes (1909–1959) takes his place in this tradition of writers who sensed, as had the Group of Seven painters, that time was running short to see relatively undisrupted fragments of the pre-Imperial northern world. Born in Connecticut, he was acutely aware of the Canadian historical background through close reading of basic sources. In 1935, he commenced exploration of the lower St. Lawrence on board the Hudson’s Bay Company ship Nascopie. His first venture into the Arctic came a year later, travelling to Churchill and then probing inland to Pelican Narrows and Reindeer Lake. In 1937, he engaged the support of the New England Museum of Natural History and went north to Ellesmere and Baffin islands and the Boothia Peninsula. He returned to the Territories in 1938, working his way from Isle à la Crosse to Great Bear Lake. By 1939, then, he had paid his dues. Now came the opportunity he sought: to go overland from the south in search of Nueltin Lake on the Manitoba-Northwest Territories border. The result was the publication of Sleeping Island in 1943. The reprint edition here under review is happily supplemented with many of the author’s photographs, which did not appear in earlier editions, along with additional maps, which assist the reader greatly.

The editor, Robert Cockburn, Emeritus Professor of English Literature at the University of New Brunswick, is the closest student of both Oberholtzer and Downes and a regular contributor to sub-Arctic studies. The photos selected are well reproduced in black and white (many of the originals were colour transparencies) and have been placed appropriately in the text rather than grouped. This is helpful, for the book is very much travel literature rather than an exercise in “dry as dust” reporting. Incident, personality, historical observation and landscape regularly coalesce with the result that we have a great philosophical adventure told, rather than a trip recorded. There are, indeed, many striking passages where one suspects the author of being a landscape poet of the Ruskin kind. Consider this passage composed at Brochet, at the north end of Reindeer Lake, before his final push northward:

An interim of perplexity and inaction was now forced upon me, anyway, for since my arrival the wind had become very violent. Mostly from the south, these winds whirled over Brochet with a tremendous force. Sometimes there fled with them shreds of black clouds but there was no rain. They had a peculiar character. They were like walls of air which pressed forward with a terrible eagerness, shrieking and menacing. Sunset would bring a brief interlude of calm, and then once again they would start to roar through the pale night while the moon, nearly full, rode blood-red in the sky (p. 69).

Many intriguing personalities come and go in this narrative, including the long-serving Priest at Brochet, Fr. Joseph Egenolf, OMI. He was instrumental in obtaining the services of John Albrecht as a companion for Downes for the next phase of the trip. Albrecht was a superb canoe poleman, and Downes never regretted teaming up with him despite initial doubts, for Albrecht was a Prussian émigré, a former British prisoner of war, rather than an original man of the country (p. 284). The fine art of poling a canoe in rapids has probably never been better described, so skilled was Albrecht in this important function (pp. 88, 142).

The journey from Brochet, via the Cochrane River and the Kasmere Lake country, was long and gruelling. It took them through areas seen by few outsiders, past abandoned fur trade posts such as Fort Hall, and into the northern limits of the Idthen-eldeli (Chipewyan) and their small settlement at Putahow River. For the final push to Windy and Nueltin lakes, Downes and Albrecht were now joined by two Chipewyan, Lopi-zun (Crooked Finger) and the mysterious Zah-ba-deese (Shaggy Head). The detailed recording of the constant overcoming of obstacles quickly convinces the reader that this was no journey for the faint of heart or for those who cannot bear insects and privation. The moment finally arrived:

Then, turning to the north, a long narrow bay, and great Nueltin Lake, Nu-thel-tin-tu-eh, Sleeping Island Lake—one hundred and twenty miles of it lay before us. All the doubts, the rapids, the portages, the bad omens, the mournful predictions, the fearsome warning, all these were behind us now.

The men were now on the edge of the Barrens, the “land of little sticks,” that great boundary area of long contention between the Chipewyan-speaking Dene peoples and the inland Inuit—the “Caribou Eskimos,” first well described by Kaj Birkett-Smith of the Fifth Thule Expedition in 1924. [4] Downes spent relatively little time on the Barrens, but there are important passages of an anthropological nature presented in these later chapters on the historic relations between the little known inland Inuit and their more southerly Chipewyan and Cree neighbours. A striking photo of Caribou Inuit hunters at Nueltin Lake is included, a valuable addition to the important photographic record of the “people of the willows” left by the Anglican Clergyman, Donald B. Marsh, who served at Eskimo Point (Arviat) between 1926 and 1948. [5] In the closing chapters there is also much about the lore and the regional importance of the caribou and the vagaries of the ways of this great migratory creature.

The conclusion finds Downes leaving his friends, including Albrecht, by flying out to Churchill from Nueltin Lake, with an unintended, but interesting stopover at South Knife Lake, Manitoba. From Churchill he worked his way back to New England. It had been the adventure of a lifetime, but, only shortly, for he was soon preparing to return the following year. Some of the photographs of this second 1940 trip have been worked into the text where they aid discussion.

As literature, Sleeping Island is of a very high order owing to the objective and non-romanticizing eye of the author. Being of an introspective and philosophical nature, Downes consistently recognized unique qualities in those he encountered. An astute student of human character, his instincts were those of the travel writer who knows that he is always a guest and at the mercy of his hosts. Every page is a fund of information and the book invites a slow rather than a rapid read. While there is little to complain about in terms of production values, in any future reprinting this reviewer would urge the inclusion of a detailed index. This third edition (the first is now rare) includes a taste of the Downes daily journals in the endnotes and in the new Sequel. An Epilogue has also been added, drawn from some of the author’s post-1950 writings. Readers of Sleeping Island will no doubt want to read the complete journals, which Robert Cockburn is editing and which will be published by McGahern Stewart Publishing.


1. Harry Anton Auer, The North Country, Cincinnati: Robert Clarke, 1906; Kirkland Alexander, The Log of the North Shore Club, New York: G. P. Putnam, 1911; C. B. Reed, Four Way Lodge, Chicago: Pascal Covici, 1924.

2. Toward Magnetic North: The Oberholtzer-Magee 1912 Canoe Journey to Hudson Bay, Marshall, MN: Oberholtzer Foundation, 2000. Ernest Oberholtzer’s journal record of this trip is being prepared for publication by the Foundation.

3. Sigurd F. Olson, The Lonely Land, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961.

4. Kaj Birket-Smith, The Caribou Eskimos: Material and Social Life and Their Cultural Position, Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition, Vol. V, Parts 1 and 2, Copenhagen: Nordisk Forlag, 1929.

5. Donald B. Marsh, Echoes from a Frozen Land, W. P. Marsh, ed., Edmonton: Hurtig, 1983.

Page revised: 7 January 2017

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