Distant Summers: P. G. Downes’ Journals of Travels in Northern Canada, 1936-1947.

Volume I: 1936-38

p. xvii: An ardent outdoorsman – he hunted, fished, and sailed – Downes felt a compass-directed attraction to the North, and by 1935 he had begun building a personal library of histories of the fur trade and books by northern explorers and travelers; he also subscribed to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s magazine, The Beaver.

p. 13: Another story which illustrates the conjunction of Christianity and the old beliefs rests in a tale told by still another Grand Rapids Cree. He said he was walking along one evening when he suddenly came upon a windigo – a terrible-looking creature with tusks, and black face, and staring eyes all blood-shot, and claws like an eagle’s. The witigo came screaming at him, but fortunately he had been to a wake and had a prayer book with him which he waved in the face of the witigo: the latter gave one howl and disappeared into the bush.

p. 25, Aug. 28 Reindeer River: On the island of a trapper’s old camp. One of those incongruities so characteristic of the north, for [here] so far away from anywhere, was a July cover of the Saturday Evening Post. Stump Lake appears as Royal Lake on map.

p. 34-5: The elaborate grub outfits which appear in sporting magazines make me laugh – not only would they break your back on portages, but you never would have enough to eat, for you need a lot of something. If you have rice, you need a lot at one whack.

Volume II: 1939-1947

The second volume is mainly topographical accounts of his summer travels through the Barren Lands. Obviously an intelligent and educated man, Downes says little about any intellectual or social issues but shows constantly his love for that part of the world. In a fairly quick reading I found nothing of his own reading. Appendix A, following his last journal for 1947, [unpaged section immediately after page 334], the editor does refer to Downes’ correspondence with Harry Moore clearly showing Downes’ interest in the history of the region: Over these years Downes spent many hours typing in close detail for Moody account of their travels and explorations by Peter Fidler, the Frobishers, Alexander Henry, Peter Pond, and Samuel Hearne; he also sent tracings of certain of their, and others’, maps.

p. [338, unpaged] gives Downes summary of his life of wanderings in northern Canada, written for a school reunion at Kent School: I liked the life and I liked the people there. I saw a lot of it just as the old north was vanishing; the north of not [sic] 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.