November 2014

Sleeping Island

P.G. Downes: Sleeping Island (N. Ferrisburg, VT: Heron Dance Press, 2004)

Downes - Sleeping Island
I had been wanting to read this book since I had read others by P.G. Downes, but copies of this particular out-of-print book were a bit difficult to locate. I finally found a used copy at a reasonable price and quickly read it. It is, as are other books by Downes, a wonderful adventure about the Great Barren Lands of North Canada.

The time just before and just after the Second World War were years of opening of the great Canadian Barrens. Previously largely inaccessible, the advent of airplanes and outboard motors made travel over longer distances possible and gave new access to extremely remote places. P.G. Downes seemed to have the ability to not only undertake the still-great adventures, but also to forge connections with the people.

In this book Downes is not so much making the report of a trip, which he does, but more importantly making a plea for a way of life that was rapidly disappearing, with a great deal of human suffering accompanying the disappearance. It is more than a book about exciting wilderness canoe travel. It is a book about the people Downes met along the way. Respect for the people and love of the land are qualities that ring through Downes words.

The book is, in many ways, a classic. I’m glad I found a copy to read and to own.

The Lonely Land

Sigurd F Olson: The Lonely Land (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997)

Olson - the Lonely Land
I think it would be fair to characterize Sigurd Olson as being a full generation ahead of me. Much of the unspoiled wilderness through which he traveled probably still remains, but travel there today is much easier and connections with the outside world through satellite phone and other means has transformed the wilderness experience in ways that mean that the experiences he reports in this book are probably no longer accessible to contemporary adventurers. Fortunately, Olson has a real gift for writing description and reading the book makes one feel like a first-hand witness to the ups and downs of canoe travel in the remote areas of Northern Canada.

I often think of Olson as a writer of the boundary waters region, but this book takes us on an adventure much farther north to places much more remote. A thousand miles northwest of Lake Superior, this is still fairly wild country. A 500-mile trip through this area would be a major expedition in today’s world. Olson and his companions not only had one wonderful adventure, he reported it in this book in a manner that is fresh and wonderful.

I love to read, but I tend to get behind in my reports. I guess some things haven't changed since elementary school. I tend to get a stack of books that I have read and then write several reports all at once. At any rate, part of getting to know me is to know a little about what I am reading. So here are some of the books that I have been reading.

The Honourable Company

Douglas MacKay: The Honourable Company: A History of The Hudson’s Bay Company (London: Cassell and Company, Ltd., 1937)

MacKay - The Honourable Company
You might think that growing up in Montana, I might have a general working knowledge of the history of Canada, but I find that my education is woefully inadequate. For centuries much of Canada was controlled not by a government but by a private company and the company was incredibly secretive with its records and historical documents. In 2006, Susan and I were privileged to be able to spend some time in the archives of The Hudson’s Bay Company in Winnipeg and had a look at some of the long history of the company, but I had not read a complete history.

Chartered in 1670, it wasn’t until the 1930’s - nearly 300 years after the company was founded that an authorized history of the company was allowed. Douglas MacKay’s volume tells a story that had not been previously told. Now that there are newer, and perhaps more complete histories of the company, it still is valuable to take a look at MacKay’s report. I will be reading a couple of other histories of the company, but this comprehensive and detailed report gives insights into the people who pioneered the company.

The volume reflects some antiquated ideas and thoughts about Indigenous People and it lacks some of the respect that we expect in contemporary times, but even this illustrates the company and how it came to have control over the livelihoods and very lives of people.

It is a fascinating read and a book I’ll keep on my shelves as a general reference as I continue to read and learn more of the history of our northern neighbors.