A frontier going but not yet gone: “Sleeping Island” by P. G. Downes

Manitoba by the Book:  an occasional series of introductions to writings about our city and province, with an emphasis on the strange, obscure or forgotten fragments of our past.

“Once more I was back in the Barrens. Here I was free, here there was no time…”

Even in 1939, it was a journey off the map.

This book by Prentice Downes relates his trip by canoe to remote Nueltin Lake, on Manitoba’s northern boundary with the Northwest Territories. The author was in search of the wild and the self-reliant people who roamed there, still living a relatively traditional lifestyle.

Nueltin is the Chipewyan’s Sleeping Island Lake.

The lake is on the edge of the Barrens, where boreal forest gives way to tundra. Today the southern third is in Manitoba, the rest in Nunavut. Happily, for Downes, it was “quite unmapped.”

Downes was a Harvard grad who taught at a Boston area private school. In the mid-1930s, the avid outdoorsman began a series of summer trips in northern Canada. He was a confident paddler who would plunge into the bush with minimal kit.

Readers will find him a sympathetic observer of the North. In 1939, he decided not to return to the Mackenzie region: “The country was becoming too full of white people.”

Instead, he set out from Winnipeg. First by train to Flin Flon. Then by bush plane and canoe to Brochet Post on Reindeer Lake, his real jumping off point.

Although he always preferred to travel with Indian companions, he had to settle for a white trapper who hadn’t been a step of the way either.

Samuel Hearne had seen the lake in 1770 on his epic crossing of the Barrens. The next confirmed visit by a white man was not till 1912.

Caribou crossing on the Kasmere River. ©Coward-McCann, Inc.

The journey north from Brochet involved plenty of hard travel and trial and error.

There were unknown rapids to run and portages to search for. The insects-mosquitoes, moose flies, black flies and sand flies-attacked “on an organized and well-timed schedule.”  It was a journey perhaps best enjoyed today from an armchair.

“Lakes, lakes, lakes innumerable. Some seem interlocking, some do not. This is a crazy jigsaw puzzle of sand and water, dry potholes, coulees, kettle holes. God help the man who gets off the route in this country! Nothing-nothing to go by, just up and down, around sandhills and dry washes, and thousands and thousands of caribou trails.”

Finding their way was a challenge, particularly in the maze of islands on Nueltin, one of the largest lakes in the region. The lake meanders for some 120 miles.

Nothing pleased the author as much as finding the tents of the Chipewyans on its shore, a “fine, brave, colorful spectacle.” And nothing meant more to him than recording the myths, legends and ways of the Indians. Downes had an insatiable interest in the lore of the North.

“I was glad to be traveling with Indians once more. Not the least of the pleasures of traveling with them is their immediate response to the country. Pointing out and commenting on the shapes of islands or hills, spotting ducks or birds, trying to imitate the cries of gulls and terns – all the hundreds of small things which make up the world about one they seemed to appreciate. This is a quality lacking in most white travelers.”

The author emerges as a humble and perceptive traveler

Author Downes bringing breakfast – hauling the hindquarters of a caribou he shot. When his shirt turned to rags, he patched it with pieces of caribou skin.  ©Coward-McCann, Inc.

Later, as he waited at a HBC post for a float plane, he was struck by the restlessness and constant movement in the North. It was the exact opposite of popular belief in a static, unchanging North:

“The living world, the animals, the birds, the very winds, storms, and lastly the ground itself, seems in a constant state of flux and movement. The caribou are wandering over the country, day and night. The wolves, the foxes, even the tiny lemmings roam and migrate and pass, it seems, never resting. The birds migrate and change, are here today and silently gone tomorrow. The fish appear and disappear, ever migrating, moving from the lakes up the rivers and back again. The weather is never constant for a day-sunshine, storms, and always the winds are blowing and herding the distraught clouds across the sky. The gray rocks crack and crumble…In this macrocosm of change and flux is man. He too must catch the strange beat or perish; the Idthen-eldeli wandering, changing their camps here and there from lake to lake, river to river, caribou-crossing to caribou-crossing, hunting, fishing, searching.”

Barrens band members.  ©Coward-McCann, Inc.

When he flew out with a bush pilot headed for Churchill, Downes had a Farley Mowat moment. His own movement was stalled when the plane ran out of gas and they had to spend several days waiting for rescuers (bearing gas) on an anonymous lake.

The author was not that fond of Winnipeg, due to its summer heat and its association with leaving his beloved North behind. It did have one advantage for him: “a multitude of cool beer parlors strategically placed so that one can just make one’s way to the next and feel that each is a refuge in the nick of time from heat prostration.”

War and marriage would stop his annual expeditions.

Sleeping Island was published in the U.S. in 1943 and a British edition followed in 1944. Nueltin would not be properly charted until the advent of aerial mapping after 1945.

Downes would die young, succumbing to a heart attack in 1959, the year he would turn 50.

In later years, there was a long-established lodge operating on the lake for sports fishermen, boasting of record size lake trout.

Today, the southern shore of the lake is a provincial park. Nueltin Lake Provincial Park was established in 2010, protecting 4,472 square kilometers of roadless wilderness. As the Manitoba Parks website baldly states, “There are no facilities.”

FOR:  lovers of wilderness travel, Northern and First Nations history, and canoe-heads in general

FINDING:  the original edition slumbers in the Local History Room at Millennium Library.  Most readers are more likely to find a used copy of the 1988 reprint by Western Producer Prairie Books, which has a good foreword by Robert Cockburn.


Photographer and local historian in spare time. Hiked Sinai, kayaked Superior, capsized on the Nahanni. Tracing (slowly) the Trans-Canada Trail across Manitoba by bike.

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