For Prentice G. Downes, the question was never why to go North, but rather, where? It was this adventurous spirit that found Downes, a Massachusetts preparatory school teacher, starving and pretty near lost during a canoe trip across northern Manitoba, just south of the present-day Nunavut line, in the summer of 1939. The stocky, powerful, 30-year-old Yankee with thick eyeglasses and a penchant for suffering in the bug-ridden Subarctic had roped local trapper John Albrecht into his misadventure. Now, Downes’ gumption and Albrecht’s bush savvy were going nowhere in filling their bellies and finding their way out of the watery maze at the cusp of the 60th parallel.
The root of their struggles was the American’s near-fanatical quest to reach Nueltin Lake, the mysterious Sleeping Island Lake of the Dene, in what today is southwestern Nunavut. Over the centuries, it had been seen by only a handful of white explorers – legendary men like Samuel Hearne, who passed through it en route to the Arctic Ocean in 1770. Otherwise, Nueltin’s sprawling, island-pocked waters remained the unmapped home of nomadic Chipewyan hunters and gatherers. For Downes, the allure was part academic – a plum opportunity to map and study unrecorded geology, flora and fauna, and to document the fading customs of a hardy indigenous culture – and part romantic. Wild Nueltin embodied the last of the “Old North,” a place to realize dreams of adventure and discovery.
“The country is spoiling me,” he had written in 1937. “The freedom … the wandering, the eating meat, responsible to no one, magua [the loon] calling out on the lake, and, far away, lakes and rivers, rapids, the Barrens and the caribou.”
This time, however, the wilderness would be less indulgent. The search for Sleeping Island would entail no small amount of adversity, punctuated by pangs of hunger and a constant fear of having wandered, quite literally, off the map.
“It is an interesting venture, starting out with neither of us knowing the way.”
Between 1936 and 1947, “Spike” Downes made six summerlong expeditions to Northern Canada, filling dozens of notebooks with observations. His journals fell into obscurity until they were assembled in 2012 under the title Distant Summers, by Robert Cockburn, a retired University of New Brunswick professor who made studying Downes’ journeys his life’s work.
Downes cut his teeth on a canoe trip with a Cree guide from Pelican Narrows to Reindeer Lake in northern Saskatchewan, and in 1938 he paddled the Athabasca and Slave rivers, ultimately reaching Eldorado on Great Bear Lake. Sleeping Island, the book-length account of his 1939 expedition, garnered rave reviews from the New York Times upon its release in 1943, and became a cult classic of canoe literature. “Downes was fortunate to have travelled when he did, into little-known, unmapped country where the natives still lived on the land and there remained a tangible aura of wilderness,” wrote Cockburn in a 2011 reprint of Sleeping Island. “His ruggedness, while admirable, was not uncommon up North; its being accompanied by a questioning, tireless intelligence was what set him apart.”
The quest for Sleeping Island began in June 1939, when Downes left his home in Concord, Massachusetts and rode the rails to Manitoba. He stopped in Winnipeg to spend some of his paltry, carefully hoarded teacher’s salary on a single change of “bush” clothes at the Hudson Bay Company, and received a glowing letter of support from the district manager, addressed to interior posts: “Mr. Downes is an old friend of the company and has travelled widely in northern and northwestern Canada,” it read. “Please give him every assistance you possibly can.”
From the mining camp at Flin Flon, Manitoba, he hired a motorized canoe to take him to Reindeer Lake, a 225-kilometre-long inland sea that reaches across northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba. There, he caught a supply steamer to the village of Brochet on the lake’s north shore. Finally back on the fringe of unmapped wilderness, Downes took stock of his summer plans. “What first strikes one most forcibly is … how ill-prepared Downes was for this undertaking,” notes Cockburn. “He reached Brochet with no certain arrangements. No working trapper, prospector, Mounted Policeman, or government surveyor would’ve thought about pushing off so poorly equipped and provisioned.”
Downes’ first setback occurred when he was unable to recruit a native guide in Brochet. This was distressing because it meant travelling without local knowledge, but also because he would miss the opportunity for a window on the social and spiritual customs of the Cree and Dene, a critical component of his fascination with the North. So he settled on Albrecht, a German national who’d arrived in Canada via a World War One prisoner-of-war camp, whom he paid $50 for his services. Albrecht knew “absolutely nothing about the route” and didn’t speak the native tongue, but he was an expert canoeist and “a most cheerful and agreeable fellow.”
The pair departed Brochet on July 6, canoeing upstream on the Cochrane River. “It is an interesting venture,” Downes remarked in his journal after settling into camp on the first night, “starting out with neither of us knowing the way.”
Yet, as he later wrote in Sleeping Island, “Neither of us looked back.”
“All the doubts, the rapids, the portages, the bad omens, the mournful predictions, the fearsome warning, all these were behind us now!”
On the morning of July 13, Downes and Albrecht hungrily picked over the remains of their last night’s fish dinner and contemplated the stiff headwind that awaited them on Misty Lake. The first week of the expedition had been difficult. On day two, Albrecht’s eye became irritated enough to cause him to consider abandoning the trip. Although Downes stoically promised to continue solo, he obviously relied heavily on the strength and skill of his companion. Half-blind and with a bandanna wrapped around his face like a pirate, Albrecht poled the canoe against the current of the Cochrane River almost singlehandedly. In camp, clouds of blackflies, mosquitoes and sandflies inundated their tarp shelter. Fishing and hunting proved disappointing: Downes took fleeting shots at passing mergansers and mallards and caught the odd pike, but the caribou he was banking on were non-existent. “We want meat!” he wrote. Meanwhile, their few store-bought supplies were depleting rapidly.
Downes and Albrecht must have been a bizarre and bedraggled sight for Louis Naygli, a “most genial and informative” Dene who stumbled upon their camp on Misty Lake. Using sign language and Downes’ basic understanding of Chipewyan, Naygli produced a hand-drawn map that differed significantly from the rudimentary Hudson Bay Company chart Downes was following. Naygli’s map was “surprisingly accurate,” noted Downes. “[It] helped from time to time not to show the way but to satisfy us that we were on it.” The encounter marked a critical juncture in the trip: With the upstream leg on the Cochrane behind them, Downes and Albrecht turned to Naygli’s map to eventually deduce their whereabouts on labyrinthine Fort Hall Lake, at the headwaters of the Kasmere (now called the Thlewiaza) River.
“The route is so indefinite and long that I hardly know how we find the way,” admitted Downes. Naygli’s map hinted that they were following an ancient travelway, and soon Downes was marvelling at native gravesites and encampments where he found stone tools and other relics that harkened back to time immemorial. Soon, he was no longer surprised to discover obvious portage trails between lakes and around rapids. Such a well-trampled path occupied the bulk of a long 12-hour day to Kasmere Lake, where the water route finally trended downhill. Downes portaged a triple-load of packs and traded off with Albrecht in manhandling the waterlogged, 17-foot wood-and-canvas canoe and wooden “grub box.” “I was dripping with sweat,” Downes wrote. “The mosquitoes were frightful.”
A whitewater novice, Downes was awed by Albrecht’s “thrilling and masterful” performances in piloting the canoe along the rocky Kasmere. Of course, there were more muskeg portages, more relentless bugs and tedious headwinds, and more hungry nights around the campfire. But following a blustery mid-summer day in the Subarctic that reminded Downes of autumn in Martha’s Vineyard, they finally crossed the present-day Nunavut border and achieved their goal. There, sprawling before them, was Nu-thel-tin-tu-eh -– Sleeping Island Lake.
“All the doubts, the rapids, the portages, the bad omens, the mournful predictions, the fearsome warning,” wrote Downes in Sleeping Island, “all these were behind us now!”
Ironically, though they’d reached their elusive destination, Downes and Albrecht were now more lost than ever. Nueltin’s thousands of bays, inlets and islands were baffling. The pair paddled in circles, “hemmed in everywhere,” as they tried to navigate the length of the lake and reach the Windy River, where they knew there was a tiny trading post. “This lake has been estimated from 120 and 180 miles long,” logged Downes, “and to be hopelessly trapped in the first three hours was not at all a good prospect.” Even cool-hand Albrecht voiced his concern. “I dunno,” he told Downes. “A man get himself caught up in that mess of islands and bays, he could spend a lifetime trying to get out.”
Yet the shoreline abounded with signs of the Idthen-edeli Dene – artifacts, rock cairns and middens of caribou bones. When they met a group of natives camped on the shore, Downes was exhilarated to have entered a hidden world – the last untrammeled haunt of the Dene. The timelessness of the encounter struck him. “Here was something which in a few short years was destined to never be repeated again,” he wrote. “A brave people disappearing into obscurity.”
By now, Downes and Albrecht were down to their final rations – tea, carefully saved caribou jerky and “damp and adhesive raisins.” Both men were sinewy and thin. Albrecht’s eyes had sunken into his mosquito-bitten face and many of his teeth were broken. But when Downes managed to recruit a pair of natives to guide them on the final run to Windy River, they knew that the worst was over.
A few days later, at the lonely trading post, Downes and Albrecht parted ways in the anti-climactic manner that often typifies the end of an epic adventure. Albrecht, “the magnificent traveller of the trip,” unceremoniously commenced a return journey to Brochet, and Downes caught a supply flight to Churchill, Manitoba.
Outside, the world had changed. With the start of World War Two, Albrecht feared internment for his German heritage and vanished into the wilderness, never to be seen again. “It is too incredible and insane,” wrote Downes in Churchill. “Better to be back in the Barrens among civilized people.”