Sleeping Island: A Journey to the Edge of the Barrens

Sleeping Island: A Journey to the Edge of the Barrens


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Sleeping Island: A Journey to the Edge of the Barrens by Prentice G. Downes

In an age when bush planes and outboard motors were opening up previously inaccessible regions of the Canadian North, Prentice G. Downes, a graduate of Harvard who worked as a schoolteacher just outside Boston, chose to travel alone by canoe to explore the Great Barren Lands. Sleeping Island is the sensitively written and moving account of one of his trips, a journey made in 1939 to remote, and at that time unmapped, Nueltin Lake. In Sleeping Island, Downes records a North that was soon to be no more, a landscape and a people barely touched by white men. Downes describes the excitement of wilderness canoe travel, the delights of discovering the land, and his deep feeling for people met along the way. His respect for the Indians and the Inuit and their ways of life, and his love of their land, shine through this richly descriptive work.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781933937038
Publisher: Dundurn Press
Publication date: 03/28/2006
Edition description: Illustrate
Pages: 268
Product dimensions: 9.00(w) x 6.00(h) x 0.65(d)
Age Range: 12 Years

About the Author

Prentice G. "Spike" Downes (1909-1959) was an American school teacher and author, who travelled by canoe to explore the Great Barren Lands and learn the ways of the Cree and Dene people. Downes' journals record a disappearing people, and a landscape unknown to all but the Canadian natives at that time. His daughter Annie Downes Catterson said of him that he traveled a great distance "in order to learn the things of long ago."

Read an Excerpt

Awakening in the cold pouring rain, we set out, both of us feeling a little grimly that this could not last forever. Passing our shoals of the night before, we soon became involved in the longest rapid either of us had ever known. It was simply mile after mile of fast water and boulders. At noon we were still in it. We boiled up the kettle at a spot which showed some portage signs. We followed this on foot for a long way. It had been made some time in the past by a white man, for the trees showed white man's blazes. The portage was a very bad one; it twisted on endlessly and crossed several stretches of muskeg into which we sometimes plunged up to the knees in water before touching solid ice. At last it faded out into nothing but a big swamp. Coming back to the smoldering fire hissing and sputtering in the downpour, we sat and watched the seething, rushing water for a long time. Both of us were reluctant to portage everything through the rain and the mosquitoes over such a quagmire. When John went into the bush to cut himself a new tamarack pole, he came back with the back of his black sweater a solid brown mass of wriggling, crawling mosquitoes. It gave his back an odd pulsating appearance.

Sitting by the fire and half suspended over it to envelop myself in the smoke and escape the mosquitoes, I wrote: "Both of us, I feel, are tired from the headwinds, rain, and constant strain of rapids, direction-finding, poor camps, and lack of sustaining heavy-work food." When I snapped the little diary shut, seventeen mosquitoes were caught between the pages. . . .

Then, from a subsequent chapter entitled "Nueltin Lake":

Nu-thel-tin-tu-eh, or as the maps have it, NueltinLake, has a very fragmentary though interesting history. Today, even with the wide use of the airplane in the North, it remains one of Canada's largest unmapped lakes and one of its least known. . . .

From our evening camp some six miles above the point of entrance, the lake stretched before us, a maze of islands and channels. Indeed, nowhere was there any really large open expanse of water. The west shore was bounded by a high esker so undercut by the waves that it stood out gleaming and yellow in the late twilight.

Whether we could ever find our way through this labyrinth of islands, whether we could find the Hudson's Bay post at the outlet of Windy Lake, some ninety miles to the north of us, were problems we did not discuss. For the moment we reveled in the happiness of our arrival at this great lake which we had been seeking since the late afternoon of July 6. Night found me writing the date "July 24" in my diary.
Throughout the trip I had harbored the conceit that I might map not only the route but also the shoreline at least of this vast lake, but this was to receive an abrupt answer the following day. That day I wrote: "We started out after the strong northwest wind moderated a bit. Our course was north and a bit west. We followed the main shore of high sand banks as we had been given to believe that the main west shore was moderately straight. We kept the islands on our right hand. We went along for some hours into a headwind, and at last it became apparent that we had run into a long dead-end bay. This was discouraging as we seemed hemmed in everywhere by points and islands.

We began to circle back, coming out on the east side of the islands we had previously passed on the west side; this of course making them practically unrecognizable. It was all very confusing and a little discouraging. This lake has been variously estimated from one hundred and twenty to one hundred and eighty miles long, and to be hopelessly trapped in the first three hours was not at all a good prospect.

This excerpt is from the book Sleeping Island by P.G. Downes. Copyright © 1943 by P.G. Downes.

Our special thanks to Mrs. E.G. Downes for permission to reprint this excerpt.

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