Sleeping Island

Sleeping Island: A Journey to the Edge of the Barrens, was written just before bush planes and outboard motors opened up previously inaccessible regions of the Canadian North. The author, Prentice G. Downes, a graduate of Harvard, worked as a schoolteacher just outside Boston. Every summer he would travel, often alone, by canoe in the Canadian north. 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 indigenous people met along the way. His respect for the native peoples and their ways of life, as well as his love of their land, shine through this richly descriptive work. Downes loved freedom, loved roaming, loved learning. He experienced life in a deep way.

By P.G. Downes

324 pages


Visit here to order Sleeping Island. (Link is to Amazon, Heron Dance is sold out).


Secret Pond


Sleeping Island, written by P.G. Downes, is a story of someone following their bliss, their passion. He loves freedom, he loves roaming, he loves learning. He wants to experience northern life in a deep way. Downes canoes and portages through a land of thousands of unmapped and unnamed lakes, fascinated by the people he encounters and their land, the “land of little sticks.” Downes travels with a minimum of supplies and equipment, and his adventures are truly amazing.  As he writes in the book,


The North is vast; distances are great. To travel at all, one must travel fast. To travel fast, one must travel light. To travel alone or with Indians, one must travel like an Indian….


A former colleague of his at Belmont Hill, the boys school at which he taught, remembered Downes this way:


…”he has always had the reputation from those who sat in his classes as the ‘best teacher who ever came to Belmont Hill.’ …He certainly was an interesting man. He would disappear for the summer and usually get back late to school in the fall, with full beard and Eskimo jackets, chewing tobacco, and an odd assortment of paraphernalia…I was in awe of him because I was younger and he knew so much about life, books, and just about any topic you would want to bring up, but he was down-to-earth and never made you feel that he was any smarter than you were. I really respected him for that.”


Here’s a short excerpt from the book:


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 seem to appreciate. This is a quality lacking in most white travelers….


Lake of Dreams


Downes made a series of summer canoe trips to remote northern Canadian locations. The Sleeping Island trips was to Nueltin Lake, the Chipewyan word for Sleeping Island Lake. Downes trip was five years before that lake would be mapped, and it was a destination of great mystery and allure to him. The book that came out of his trip is definitely one of the best, if not the best, book about the old North. Late in his life, Downes described his trips this way:


I liked that life and I liked the people there. I saw a lot of it just as the old North was vanishing; the North of no time, of game, of Indians, Eskimos, of unlimited space and freedom . . . I remember one time after a dreadful trip, camping on the edge of the tree line, again it was one of those indescribable smoky, bright-hazy days one sometimes gets in the high latitudes. I had hit the caribou migration and there was lots of meat; it was a curious spot, for all the horizon seemed to fall away from where I squatted, and I said to myself: ‘Well, I suppose I shall never be so happy again.’


On most of his canoe trips, Downes traveled with Indians as guides or companions. On his trip to Nueltin Lake no Indian was able to make the long trip with him. Instead, he set off with a white trapper of German origins who happened by a trading post where Downes had stopped. Along the way they were eventually joined by two Indians, Lop-i-zun and Zah-bah-deese, or Robertson and John Baptiste.
First, a quote from their descent of the Kashmere River on their way to Nueltin Lake.


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 old 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 the chapter entitled Nueltin Lake:

Nu-thel-tin-tu-eh, or as the maps have it, Nueltin Lake, 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 and 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 is 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.

“We at length found ourselves forced back to within sight of our own camp of this morning and last night!

“We climbed a hill. What a sight! Islands . . . bays…channels…islands everywhere, every direction of the compass points, a vast maze as far as the eye could see. What was main shore, lakes, bays, islands, or points was all one endless confusion. Both of us wondered about either getting anywhere or back. It is not easy to paddle and map and get bearings all at the same time.”

Lake Opeongo

Somehow, somewhere, we had to break through to the north. As it was, it looked as if that way was entirely blocked by either islands or the mainland, we could not tell which. It was not feasible to follow every bay to its end to find out whether we were coasting a point of the mainland or an island.

As we had climbed down from the hill in our vain search for a break through to the north, John gave vent to his first really serious doubts about the trip. He shook his head slowly and his face had a bewildered look as if he had just seen something beyond human comprehension. “I dunno,” he mused. “A man get himself caught up in that mess of islands and bays, he could spend a lifetime trying to get out. I dunno if we should try it; you can go on forever, but how about finding the way back?”

We paddled along without direction for some time. Each of us was silent in the contemplation of the astounding confusion of sand and water we had seen. The enormity of it all seemed to rob us of any decision. Then on a reef we saw a tiny pile of stones, flat stones one upon the other. It looked like a miniature inultshuk, those stone caims the Eskimos erect in the Arctic. Grasping at this mute sign, we turned north and found ourselves involved in a winding narrows and soon completely hemmed in by islands.

Boiling up the tea kettle on a low bare point, we hap pily discovered abundant camping evidence. Hearth stones and refuse from implement-making were scattered about, and I found one very nice quartz knife. This was a fine spot for a caribou crossing. Someone some time must have gotten to this spot, and if they could get to it we must be able to get out from it.

Following through the twisting narrows to the north, we were forced ashore by the rising wind. All day it had been gray and cold and we had been paddling against a bitter headwind, but now the clouds became black and any further forward movement was impossible. Travel in the North is always subject to the will and whim of the winds, but one can usually count on good weather at least in July and into the middle of August. Whether the adverse weather conditions which we had constantly faced were characteristic of this particular region, comparatively close to ice-choked Hudson Bay, or whether it was an unusually bad year, we could not say. John cursed bitterly and vengefully about it. It was by far the worst traveling weather he had ever seen in summer, and one would not expect a very great difference in conditions between the country we had passed over and his own territory, Wollaston Lake.

Impatient at our windbound state, we climbed the high hill back of our camp. We began to make a reconnaissance of the lake to the north and west. The top of the hill afforded an excellent vantage point. To our surprise and joy, we saw a large opening to the northwest. The distant western shore was a high sandy ridge and gave every appearance of being the main shore. To the north, a series of large overlapping islands ran obliquely northwest-southeast. Northeast, another large opening extended indefinitely until at the horizon the water merged with some faint islands. Very far away and smokily blue was the suggestion of much higher hills.

Studying the western shore again with the binoculars, we could see a number of grayish-white objects. At that distance we could not see whether they were big, erratic boulders or not. I insisted that they were tents, but John would have none of it. His eyes were so infinitely superior to my own that I contented myself with a silent insistence that they were tents.

We went back to our camp very much cheered. The long opening to the northwest seemed to swing north, and at least we saw our way clear to advancing a good many miles. Also, it was reassuring to see the west shore. This, from our high point seemed to run down to the south in a long bay which must have nearly connected with the blind bay we had run into in the morning. If that was so, it would explain a mysterious “x” Louis had drawn on his map of Nueltin. It must have indicated a portage at that spot connecting the two bays, and cutting off the maze through which we had been wandering.

We sat about the small fire alternately smoking and drinking tea. The black clouds were beginning to roll over us and the wind whined and whistled. I felt this was some thing of a special occasion, so we boiled up the last of the caribou delicacies Father Egemolf had given us, and far down in the grub box I found a small bag of damp and adhesive raisins which I had long hoarded for a real treat.

We were both thin; John’s naturally deep sunken eyes had retreated further and his cheekbones stuck out in mosquito-scarred bumps. My hair formed a matted pro tective pad over the back of my neck. We both felt fine and strong for the rest of the journey. John grinned at me with his few broken teeth. “The old lake hasn’t got us beat yet!” he said.

Our stock of flour had long been gone, eaten or given away. So too had a small bag of oatmeal which at the start of the trip we used to boil up in the frying pan. We still had sufficient tea; the real worry was that the tobacco supply was getting pretty thin. It never occurred to us that either wished anything more or different than what we had been eating. It never occurred to us to question the diet of the Chipewyans, who never have seen a vegetable in their lives, whose diet is still straight meat and fish, meat and fish. They seemed to survive and suffer no lack of vitamins; so had we. Sometimes, when we camped, I would pick a few of the wild cranberries which grew everywhere. But I never felt any need of them. We were still too early for the blueberries; for a brief two weeks in late August they are very profuse. Despite the shrinkage of our commissary, our hopes were rising, for on this day we had seen a single fresh caribou track and also a wolf print. The deer were moving south!

In high expectation we set out the next day. We rounded our high point, which we both called “Observa tion Hill” and directed our course to the northwest. The wind was still very strong and had backed into the west so our progress was not very rapid. We seemed to have been paddling mechanically for a very long time before the white specks we had seen began to take form. Then we saw that they were tents, eight of them perched high on the sandy ridge of the western shore.

I shouted back to John, “Tents! See!”

But John was adamant. “Tents, yeh, but they’re held down by rocks!”

The day was beautifully clear. The sun sparkled and danced on the waves of the great lake. The tents stood out white and clean against the brilliant yellow sand. We could even see the red silk handkerchiefs around the women’s heads as they bustled about. They had evidently seen us approaching for there was much activity, people running about and coming down to the shore to look and then rushing back up to the tents to call others to the strange spectacle of a lone canoe approaching from the south.

When we came in to the shore, we saw only two other canoes there, heavy freighters at least twenty feet long. A rabble of tattered children, bright-eyed and staring, came timidly down to look at us. Two young men fol lowed. They were very ragged and their hair hung down in long, coarse, unkempt shocks. None of them could speak any English. The children, rather furtively at first, began to peep into our canoe like inquisitive and fidgety mice. This was the proof of Louis’s prophecy; we should find the denee, “the people,” at Putahow River.

We climbed the steep bank and were met by an older, rather handsome man considerably better dressed than the young boys who had come down to meet us first. Though he refused to speak any English, I felt, from the look in his black eyes, he had an inkling of what we were trying to say.

We questioned him about the route and elicited the in formation that, if one knew the way, one could get to Windy Lake and the trading post in three days by leaving Nueltin Lake and going through a series of lakes to the northwest. If one followed the main shore of Nueltin, it would take at least seven to ten days and possibly more depending upon whether one could get through without being windbound en route.

We asked him if one of the young fellows, a strong shaggy-maned youth who looked very powerful, would like to go along with us as we expected to be at the trading post in a week or possibly ten days. A long and rapid ex change of clicks and abdominal rumbles took place be tween the two of them and in the end the older man turned to us and said that the young chap would go.

Our going up to visit the camp caused a great commotion among the assembled people. They seemed, except for the older man and the young fellow, to be entirely women and children. The women were of all ages, from one or two immobile, ancient crones to more spritely young ladies. When I stopped to take a photograph, there was a tremendous cackling and peals of laughter. Streams of clicking Chipewyan were howled at me and shrieked back and forth between the tents. I knew very well that the comments were not such as a like gathering of white women might have flung back and forth under similar circumstances.

There seemed to be plenty of food in the camp. Whitefish and even caribou meat were in evidence, though the latter was either dried or pemmican. There was no sign of any fresh meat; evidently the “deer” had not yet arrived. One necessity of life was lacking—tobacco. We had not the slightest difficulty in trading off all the tobacco we could produce. We were fairly swamped with beseeching hands crammed with pemmican and whitefish in various stages of decomposition. In one group of squatting women sat a single old creature. Her face was lined with a thou sand wrinkles, and dressed in doleful black, she sat disconsolately alone sucking on a tremendous empty briar pipe. While the younger more nimble women were darting into their tents and rescuing meat and fish from dirty burlap bags to tempt us into a trade, she alone had nothing.

I walked up to her. She remained in her squatting position, her legs and toes tucked under her, and without looking at me bowed her gray head, opened her hands flat and upward upon her lap and murmured sadly. “Doft” (Nothing). I reached into my pocket and extracted a stick of black tobacco, “nigger twist,” and put it into her hands. “Zet-swiozi” I said, (My sweetheart!). The surrounding circle broke into shrieks and screams of surprise and laughter. The old lady looked up at me. Her old eyes twinkled from out the myriad wrinkles. She stuffed some of the tobacco into her great, black pipe and grinned up at me with a toothless smile.

It was a fine, brave, colorful spectacle. Apparently these were the families of the men we had met so many, many miles to the south. They had been left behind while their men went out to trade and to “Treaty.” The two men had been delegated to hunt and in general supervise the camp. It brought back vividly to my mind Hearne’s observation. Here was a wonderful illustration of the continuity of the North. Here the worm-eaten, faded pages of Heame’s narrative in my library so far away had come alive. In one hundred and fifty years, despite the white man and the airplane, the cycle of life was essentially just the same. Here was something which in a few short years was destined never to be repeated again: a strange people, a brave people, with a heritage and way of life stretching back through the mist of time to the bleak steppes of Siberia, dying, unable to change, disappearing into the tuneless obscurity from whence they had come.

Behind the sand bank, really a high, even esker, I caught a glimpse of a winding river and a bay. Yes, One-eyed Louis’s prediction had been right, for this was the Putahow River, or as it was known by the Crees, the Nipsa, “Willow” River.

The older man, our “interpreter,” motioned that we should go along in our canoe and meet him at his camp, which was some distance from the others. As we prepared to leave we were besieged by importunate females desiring to trade the last shred of anything resembling food in ex change for zeituey, tobacco. As we were now confident that we would soon reach the trading post we did not hesitate to trade off all our tea and tobacco except for a couple of days’ supply. Actually we had not received a great deal of food; our supply of tobacco and tea had been so small and we were about to be increased by one more—and this an Indian—appetite.

The pemmican is an important staple in this part of the North. It is made from caribou meat dried in thin strips in the sun. The meat, when it is completely sun-dried, is pounded up until it is almost as fine as meal. Caribou fat is then melted and mixed with the lean meat, and the resultant mass is cooled into a cement-like loaf or cake, sometimes twenty pounds or more in weight, and sewed up in a caribou hide from which the hair has been scraped. In this condition the pemmican will keep for an indefinite time, even years. It is the most delicious and sustaining food for the trail that exists. One is very fortunate to come upon some, for the parts of the North where it is still made are very obscure and limited and it is rarely or never made for other than personal use. There have been many types of pemmican. For instance, in the early days of the fur trade, the voyageurs existed almost solely on pemmican made from buffalo meat, but the caribou pemmican is much the finer flavored and the best. I never eat pemmican without remembering a story told to me by an old French-Cree voyageur. He would tell at rambling length about the ways of the fur brigades he knew when he was a very young man. He told me how at night they would take out a great block of buffalo pemmican and hack off pieces for the crew with a hatchet, and then he would sigh and say: “You know, sometimes they did not take much care how they made the pemmican, for once I remember when they cut down through a chunk with the little ax, they chopped right through an old moccasin.”

Lake Waswanapi


Reaching our friend’s camp we found not only the younger man but also the older one all ready to leave. We had not bargained for or wanted two of them, one was quite sufficient to find the way, but as they both evidently wished to go along, we did not object.

The fine-looking older one, whom John and I referred to as “Crooked Finger”—he had something the matter with the little finger of his right hand—paddled stern. John and I paddled amidships, and the other Indian, whom we called “Shaggy Head,” took over the bow. He was an extremely powerful paddler. Both men brought as outfits their blankets and rifles, and Shaggy Head contributed two rather smelly whitefish. With all four of us at the paddles and the Indians seemingly bent on getting ahead with all possible speed, the canoe flew through the water.

True to our surmise, the west shore continued to the north in a long opening. The high sand bank, an enormous esker, persisted as such until we were to leave the lake. Not until we had traveled some miles did the true majesty of Nueltin reveal itself. We kept close to the straight shore and a chain of islands ran parallel to us at our right. Occasionally openings to the northeast would reveal vast stretches to a landless horizon. Becoming increasingly prominent, far to the north rose two distant, blue, very high hills, sharp and peaked in form.

As we tore along through the water a very ludicrous situation began to develop. We were so jammed into the seventeen-foot canoe, the paddles were so long, that an absolutely synchronized stroke had to be maintained. The two Indians set up a furious pace. John, who from years of lone traveling had adjusted himself to a much slower and deep-stroked motion, was unprepared to adapt him self to the mad haste either by habit or inclination. In consequence every once in a while he would be the cause of a shattering collision with the paddles of both Crooked Finger and Shaggy Head, who would say nothing but ply their blades all the more vigorously. When this happened, the canoe would lurch over and John would start raging at the elements, the Indians, and the world in general, and he would be forced, groaning and protesting, to pick up the beat whether he wished or not. I was more fortunate, for, when exhaustion approached, I had the semi-legitimate excuse to stop and take bearings or sketch in the shoreline.

For some time a big canoe had been following us and now it began to draw near. As it came abreast, we saw that it contained a heterogenous assortment of women, babies, girls, and one young boy. All of them, except the babies, were paddling. As it approached it looked like some ridiculous, great water beetle with a hundred scrambling legs. The stern was in the capable hands of a very large powerful woman. How she could paddle! Despite our four-man power they kept alongside. The woman in the stem took great mile-eating, even strokes, keeping her arms rigid and extended and her back absolutely stiff and straight. The whole motion was from the hips, the power of her stroke being in the rhythmic swing of her body. Grinning and laughing, we went along together, sometimes bursting into sprints which would always be returned in kind by the other canoe. One of the women would occasionally take time out to nurse her baby, but then she would pick up the stroke again.

At noon we all drew into the sandy beach and had dinner. It was the same for all of us; a cup of tea and whitefish roasted on a stick, the stick thrust through the fish from tail to mouth and the fish broiled over the coals. After these had been cooled a little they were attacked with the fingers, and the children plucked away the last of the firm sweet flesh until nothing but the backbones remained. I have eaten whitefish, far and away the finest eating fish in the North, from Reindeer Lake, Great Slave, Great Bear, salmon in Labrador, Arctic trout from Boothia Peninsula and Baffin Island, but in all these famous spots no fish I had eaten compared with the firm, delicious whitefish of Nueltin. While we were eating, the boy wandered off to a high hill. He had an ancient complicated rifle, like an old Russian Krag. The quest for the caribou was on.

The wind had now hauled around more favorably to us and John rigged up the sail. The Indians both protested that it was too big, but John would have none of it and went ahead and installed it in the canoe. The construction was very quick and simple; one of the poles was used for a mast and tied into the forward thwart. A smaller pole, notched at one end, was suspended through a loop to the mast and attached to the upper and outer comer of the tarpaulin, and the lower comers were fastened to the doubled tracking line which led back to the steersman who both controlled the sail and steered with his paddle. It billowed out in the wind and fairly dragged the canoe through the water.

The shoreline remained remarkably straight and not at all complicated by bays. It ran almost due north and throughout was bordered by the same uninterrupted, gleaming yellow esker. There were a few minor indentations and here and there I saw odd little sandhills which had the form of alluvial cones such as I had once seen at the foot of the Ellesmere Island icecap. I could not get over the length and magnificence of the esker. Just as the ponderous and enormous dinosaurs of the Mesozoic Age have left their footprints as impressions and casts, so too these great eskers were the casts of the mighty and extinct rivers of the Ice Age.

Our course now began to bend to the east. Large and irregular bays made their appearance. The two high peaks to the north became more distinct; the islands to the east began to show a far sparser vegetation. One very long island lay off some distance to the right. It was completely barren and very low, with a rounded back. It looked like some great animal in repose, a huge, sleeping island. It was from this island, I expected, that the lake had taken its name. As we rushed along in the sunlight. Crooked Finger alert and watchful in the stem, I wondered to my self whether this great lake was the scene of Mother Nonucho’s last camp.

For, in the long ago, when the first Chipewyan came to the North, the first mother of all the Chipewyans, who had mated with a wolf or a wolf-dog, found nothing but ice. Everywhere she and her two small children traveled there was nothing but desolation. So she walked and walked to the south. Sometimes she would camp on some lake for a little while as, overcome with fatigue and despair, it seemed that she could go no farther. But then the wolves would leave her food and talking to them she was always told she must go farther to the south. So once more she would resume her way. Over the treeless Barrens she wandered. As the years went by she became older. Now when she saw the mighty, dark musk oxen she had to cry out with her full voice for she had become very feeble and they could not hear her. Her fingers, stiffened with the count less winter’s cold, could barely make snares for rabbits. Now when she, in the extremity of want and hunger, heated a dried caribou shoulder-blade over the coals, her tired old eyes could barely distinguish the cracks and burned spots which told where the caribou were. The children had both grown up, and many times they begged her to stop, since now they were in a better land. But Mother Nonucho stumbled on for they were not yet in the land of the little trees.

Finally they came to a great lake, and as they traveled down its shore the children saw a line of green. By this time the old woman could no longer see. The children described to her these strange sticks, and the old woman smiled in happiness even though she could not see them. She knew that her quest and her duty was nearly over; she had brought her two children to the trees.

When they had traveled about halfway down this lake, they reached the trees and Mother Nonucho stopped. “Here, my children,” she said, “here is our home, here is the home for all our people to come. Leave me for a little while for I am tired and old and the days are now all nights.”

So the children left her. When they came back, she was gone. They knew that she was dead. She had gone into the ground. For they could hear her voice speaking as if from within the earth. And it said, “Here, my children, will I always be to help you.”

And all through the North the old people knew that when they were sick or starving could they but get back to that lake, could they but camp on its shores, there, lying on the ground, the spirit of Mother Nonucho would come up through the earth and make them strong, make them well again; she would talk to the caribou and the musk oxen and call them near to her children. For Mother Nonucho had been strong. She had been faithful to the “older things.” She had walked and led her children until even her feet were gone and she could walk no more. She had brought them safely to the land of the little trees.

For some time now our feminine escort had left us. Seeing two men on the shore, we veered from our course and ran in to the land. They were Indians who had just returned from Windy Lake. Crooked Finger and Shaggy Head engaged in a long and unintelligible conversation with them, and then we parted and paddled to the beach. Everything was portaged over this pebbly barrier into a small bay. Passing by the two islands, for just an instant great Nu-thel-tin-tu-eh could be seen in all its vastness— blue, tremendous, sparkling, its low islands, yellow and bare, the two hazy peaks to the north—and then it was all hidden as we went up into a still smaller bay and, running ashore, prepared to portage away from Nueltin on the way to Windy.

Our new companions, since they had brought only their guns and blankets, aided us greatly and we were able to take over everything including the canoe in one load. We trailed one after the other through a very boggy, wet, stretch of muskeg. With my head bent down by my load, I could just see the bottom of Crooked Finger’s feet. They were large and moved very rapidly. The portage brought us out on a small lake which soon expanded into a much larger one as we progressed. The tops of the hills were now completely barren of trees though the growth on the lower slopes and at the water’s edge was still fairly thick.

Another portage over an esker was completed. The country about us was the typical sandy, knobby, depression-sprinkled world with which we had become so familiar. With scant ceremony we had the tea pail boiling, and soon each sought his own particular spot of ground to sleep.

The two men were an interesting contrast. Crooked Finger was a tall, well-built man. His features were cleanly sculptured and pleasing. On the “outside” he would be considered a handsome man. His clothing was very clean. He talked with a low voice and was inclined to laugh softly and frequently. His black eyes were very expressive and he impressed me as being an unusually intelligent man. Without ostentation or conscious effort he had almost from the start taken over a silent domination and command of our group.

Shaggy Head, on the other hand, was short, squat, and powerful. His clothing was in the last stages of disrepair and looked like my own. He had a long, heavy face with coarse features, very high oblique cheekbones, and deep-set eyes. He never said anything himself beyond deep, guttural, rasping monosyllables in reply to Crooked Finger. He never laughed. He wore constantly an ancient, heavy dark cap, invariably with the earflaps turned down. From beneath these the shaggy mane of his hair jutted out in jagged tufts. Sometimes he would turn his head and fasten his black, opaque eyes upon me and just look. Not the slightest expression crossed his face. It was as if he was examining some kind of an incomprehensible new animal or bug. Within him seemed to burn a constant feverish flame of impatience, restlessness, and search. Whenever we landed, and particularly when we camped, he was immediately and incessantly on the go. He would leave us with no word or comment and begin to range over the country like a wolf looking for a fresh track. He would disappear almost instantly, and then we would see him silently silhouetted on top of some hill, his head turning this way and that as he loped along. As he paddled in the bow—and it was he who set the fastest pace—1 could see the big cords and muscles swell and subside through his thin shirt. All the while his eyes perpetually searched the shores and islands. It was always he who pointed out the way with a silent motion of his lifted paddle.

Through the day I had found it increasingly easy to talk with Crooked Finger. He did know a handful of English words and could also talk a little Cree. Once or twice I managed to convey some jokes, or at least some remarks calculated to tickle his fancy. He would translate them to Shaggy Head, and once I actually caught that somber one slyly grinning to himself.

In the intimacy of the evening campfire and the restful interim of a smoke. Crooked Finger informed me that his name was Lop-i-zun and Shaggy Head’s was Zah-bah-deese. These were the equivalent, I later discovered, of Robertson and John Baptiste.

The next morning we made our start at a very early hour. We found ourselves moving up a long narrow lake called Thy-tu-eh, “Sandy” Lake. A low esker formed the west shore. Once Zah-bah-deese hissed, “Zsst!” and pointed to the shore. As we turned in closer, I saw that it was a fresh caribou track. All morning long the two high peaks were in view but they gradually took on a more easterly bearing. The country to the east of us be came increasingly higher, bolder, and more rugged. We passed a small stream coming in from the north and west. At the north end of this lake, which must have been some seven or eight miles in length, we entered a bay so shoal that John and Zah-bah-deese got out and followed on a sand ridge while Lop-i-zun and I worked the canoe through the shallows and a stretch of swamp. We then portaged over the esker into a small pond to the west. All along there had been scant evidence of this route ever having been used. It occurred to me that we were most fortunate in having the two Indians along, for without them it would have been nearly impossible to pick out the track.

The shore of the little pond was all a-bloom with arctic cotton, a species of flower very prevalent and common in the Barren Lands and the Arctic. I had not seen any signs of it until now. The flower resembles a high stalked dandelion in seed, but the tufts of silky, white cotton are much denser and longer.

Again we portaged and again we came out into a small lake which rapidly enlarged into a much larger one and began to split up into long bays extending off to the south-west for undetermined distances. To the northeast was a very high green hill, a prominent landmark in a country remarkable for its lack of them. It seemed devoid of trees yet had an unusual and odd greenness.

By noon we had turned off through a narrows to the west and then doubled back to the northeast and come to the last portage before Windy Lake. Here my compass behaved in a strange and erratic fashion, and I made some errors in my sketch map. Whether this was caused by some local mineral attraction or my camera light-meter I did not discover, for the error was not found until we had landed. The trees had now become infrequent and sparse and all exposed high slopes were bare.

The portage across to Windy Lake, though unobstructed by trees, was very stony and bad walking. The ground was littered with small boulders and fragments. Here we boiled up the kettle while I ascended a high hill to take a look at the surrounding country. From this point Windy Lake spread out far to the north. It was so cut up by islands and points that it was impossible to tell whether I was looking at one lake or a hundred. Two very long bays could be seen stretching and wriggling away to the southwest as far as the eye could see. Now the unusual green hill bore almost east. It was very warm and the black flies were very active and attentive.

Looking over the infinite complexity of the lake below me, once more I felt thankful for the companionship and guidance of the two Indians. The route had been so twisting, the point of departure from Nueltin Lake had been so obscure, and the prospect before me was so extraordinarily devious, that I was compelled to put down the happy circumstance of Lop-i-zun and Zah-bah-deese to the far away conjuring of old Adam or propitious and benign puagans.

Embarking once more, we set out for the northeast and emerged into the larger part of the lake from the narrow little bay we had entered. Here, as we passed through another narrows, a tremendous single pyramidal rock rose up out of the channel. Not until we had passed close by it could I appreciate its truly immense size. It rose from the water sheer and majestic, brilliantly white and gleaming, composed of a coarse light granite. It was difficult to visualize a power great enough to transport this gigantic, lone, proud sentinel.

Twisting through a narrow winding channel we came out into the main body of the lake. It stretched away to the far horizon toward the northwest where a few, dim islands could be seen apparently suspended above the water. It was the one hot day of the entire summer, and the more distant islands took on fantastic and wavering shapes in the heat mirage. We disregarded a very large open bay to the southwest and the big green hill began to fall behind us. A gentle breeze began to stir and we hoisted the sail, content to drift over the water in silence at scarcely paddle pace.

The sun became hotter. The glare of the water bound us all in a torpor of heat and silence. John fell asleep be side me. For hours we drifted over the great, shining expanse of water. No one moved; no one spoke. It was very difficult for me to keep my eyes open. I could not see Zah-bah-deese, who was in the bow and hidden by the sail. Lop-i-zun stood like a bronze statue staring straight ahead with his hands gripping the steering paddle. The canoe did not seem to be moving except for a small ripple beside the bow. The shore and the islands drifted slowly by in the heat haze as in a dream. Now trees gathered only at the water’s edge, and all the larger islands were bare. The more distant ones changed their purple, blurred shapes, elongating and shortening, rising above the water, and then disappearing. In this state of strange and distorted mental focus, this chimerical world of half-reality, half-delusion and mirage, we drifted on to the Barren Lands.

Late in the afternoon we approached and passed three islands almost identical in size, shape, and appearance. They were arranged parallel to each other. Identical trip lets, they looked like great loaves of brown bread side by side in the water. Beyond them was an odd conical island of sand, like a giant’s sombrero floating on the lake.

The lake stretched on endlessly to the northwest but we altered our course slightly and entered a little bay cut off from the rest of the lake by a long, wriggling, esker point. Hugging the esker, we turned to the west and the lake became like a river. To the north was a long high range of hills, rolling, barren, and of uniform height. Our southern shore was the esker, which, pierced by occasional openings, revealed that the lake continued on the other side of it. It was as if an engineer had constructed a long, low breakwater for us behind which we traveled in safety.

The dying sunset filled all the world, so silent, so vast, so lone, with a reddish glow. Reflected by the barren range of hills, it gave them an unearthly tinge. Bathed in a haze of blood, the setting was unreal and strange.

Loon Cove


Drifting, drifting silently, we all, except Lop-i-zun, had begun to drowse. The sail hung listlessly. The water gurgled in a small murmur around the bow. The sun dropped beneath the horizon. But still the red glow and the warmth persisted. We were close to the shore. Then, there were three tense whispered words from the stem:

“Zsst! Idthen… attik… deer!”

If ever three somnolent, quiet, drowsing beings sprang into violent action at a whispered word it was then. Four meat-starved men sat bolt upright. Lop-i-zun’s .30-. 30 crashed. From the bow, almost simultaneously, Zah-bah-deese’s gun roared and flamed and kept on roaring. In between came the thunderous explosions of my Mannlicher.

As my gun spoke over the top of Zah-bah-deese’s black cap, he dropped his own, which he had fired straight up in the air, and stuck his fingers in his ears. On the low bank, a single bewildered and reproachful caribou staggered a trifle, looked about slowly, and walked quietly and deliberately over a small hill.

Jumping out of the canoe into the water and running up the bank, I dropped the unfortunate animal. I heard the canoe ground on the shore. Lop-i-zun came up the hill running, with his knife in his hand. Some one was already gathering twigs. In less time than one could tell it, the head was cut off, the under-muzzle slit, the tongue extracted, the side slashed, the entrails dragged out and then the choice liver and kidneys.

We returned to the fire and spitted the tongue on a stick, put the kidneys and liver into the frying pan, wiped some of the blood from our hands and, this gesture to civilization accomplished, each seized a piece of meat and began gnawing on it without a word but all grinning at one another.

When we had gorged ourselves, we went back and cut up the quarters and brisket and returned with them to the canoe. It was a scene of sheer atavism in which all of us, regardless of blood and station, had acted completely as one and as our ancestors in the dim past had always done.

In the thunderous barrage of shots, Lop-i-zun’s first one had crippled the caribou. He hit it in the back leg. None of the other shots had struck it until I went ashore. When Lop-i-zun first went to the dying animal, he searched all over it. Then he looked up at me with a strange, puzzled, and rather frightened expression. There was no other wound on the animal but the one in the leg. When he cut out the tongue, he again looked at me and gave a relieved short laugh. My shot had struck the animal below the horns and passed, oddly enough, out through its mouth.

Before we put the quarters into the canoe, Lop-i-zun examined the lower part of the legs very carefully, feeling with his long thin fingers for mosquito bites. He continued his minute exploration to the bottoms of the hoofs. He explained to me that, as this was the first caribou we had seen, we could get an indication of their movements from the following evidence. If the ankles were badly bitten and swollen, it proved that the caribou were down very recently from the Barrens and were moving toward the trees. Thus, they would be met on the edge of the Barrens moving south. But, if there was little sign of this, it showed that they were already to be found within the tree line; by walking through the shrubs and brush they kept the mosquitoes from them. And if the hoofs showed the outer, hard edges worn down flat, they were recently in the Barrens and had not yet reached the woods, the wearing down being caused by the lack of heavy moss and the prevalence of rock and hard sand.

According to Lop-i-zun, the spot where we had killed the caribou was right across from where the Revillon (Trading) Post had stood long ago. There was no sign of it as we passed, but there was indication that some one had camped there rather recently and put up a tent. On a high hill back of the spot was a large stone cairn, and back of this the range of rolling hills continued, their bare summits and slopes clustered with a profusion of boulders of all sizes and shapes.

The river-lake character of our route persisted for a long time, and the sun had been down for some hours when we came into a small expansion and Lop-i-zun steered the canoe toward the shore. As it was now dark, he suggested that we camp here, a nice sandy spot swept by the breeze. John, however, with his characteristic and well-earned in dependence of spirit, demanded that we go on. It was a delicate matter and I took no hand in it. It had always been my own custom to follow Indians implicitly in matters such as this, but I was quite aware of the strength of John’s determination once it was aroused. The two Indians said nothing more but silently turned the canoe from the shore to the north.

It became dark rapidly. Black, ominous clouds which had gathered to crouch on the horizon at sundown now spread over the sky. Soon the lake began to contract into a true river. We could feel signs of current plucking at the canoe. The shores disappeared in the blackness, but close to the canoe reefs and black rocks stealthily began to show themselves. We still had the sail erect but the Indians would not stop to take it down. Zah-bah-deese began to rumble and mutter directions from the bow. Neither we nor Lop-i-zun could see him for the sail. Furthermore, Lop-i-zun could see nothing ahead of the canoe because of the sail and the darkness. The canoe began to gather a speed of its own. The low snarling and roaring of a rapid explained its quickened motion.

John moved forward to take down the sail. It was too late. Even in the darkness we could see the white water and the riffles hissing and gleaming next to the canoe. The canoe had become so uneasy as it began to enter the waves of the rapid that it was impossible for John to go through with the complicated business of getting the sail down, and he sat back and silently watched the water. Zah-bah-deese now took command of the situation, and with strong, rough gutturals thrown back at Lop-i-zun fended off the boulders and swung the bow about with his powerful paddle. I sat helpless and waited for the first, ripping, tearing sound of the canoe bottom being torn to shreds. A black, white-fringed wave rose up out of the dark at John’s side and the spray swished over us. The canoe bucked and twisted as Zah-bah-deese shoved and pulled it this way and that. The sail, half dragging in the water, slapped and flapped against us half enveloping us both in its clinging damp folds. With a great lunge the canoe shot out into quiet water.

We all sat motionless for a moment. The canoe joggled quietly up and down. John crawled painfully forward and slowly took down the sail. “By Jesus!” he murmured, “I never shot a rapid in the night-time before and I never shot a rapid under full sail and, by Jesus, I’m never going to shoot one with both!”3

Everyone started paddling furiously. The river was sluggish and twisted about in what seemed to be a swamp. Several times in the blackness, rushing on with all our power, we ran abruptly upon sandbars. At this the canoe would come to such a sudden and unexpected halt that we would all be pitched forward. Everyone would burst out laughing. All of us seemed to feel better now that the little lesson of disregarding intelligent people’s advice had been learned.

Once I saw, drifting close to the canoe, what seemed to be evidence of beaver cuttings. Lop-i-zun agreed with me. It seemed to me remarkable to find any beaver evidence so near the last limit of the trees. However, the original name for Windy Lake had been Beaver-Lodge Lake, and not until the coming of a white trader named “Slim” Carlson had it become known by its present name. The Chipewyans had now taken the name Windy Lake and translated it back into their own language, Chaun-li-tu-eh. From its size and position, I had no doubt in my own mind that Windy was the mysterious “Fatt Lake” of Hearne’s narrative. It is the largest lake between Nueltin and Kasba Lakes, and, from his course, Heame must have crossed it. It had not previously been identified as such, but the conclusion seems justified.

On and on we went in the night. The river split and passed no either side of a small island. We came out into a larger stream. Across the river we could barely see, ghostly and silent, the outlines of two small shacks and the dim forms of two tents on the shore—at last—the trading post.

As we crept nearer and drifted into the landing, we heard talking in one of the tents. It was a strange language. We stopped paddling and listened. Lop-i-zun touched my arm lightly with his paddle. I could not see his face as he leaned forward and whispered to me, but in his voice was a little suggestion of the age-old feeling, the fear, the con tempt, and the hatred, of his people for those of the language we heard.

“T’enna!” Eskimos.


This excerpt is from the book SLEEPING ISLAND by P.G. Downes. Copyright  1943 by P.G. Downes. Reprinted by permission of Mrs. E.G. Downes. All rights reserved.

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