Teacher, explorer, cartographer, and cultural anthropologist Prentice Downes



Many fine educators have distinguished themselves in areas outside the field of education. One such individual was high school teacher Prentice G. Downes, known to his friends by the nickname “Spike.” In addition to his career as an educator, Prentice made a name for himself as an explorer, cartographer, cultural anthropologist, and writer.

Prentice was born 1909 in New Haven, Connecticut, the son of an Episcopal clergyman. After his 1928 graduation from Kent School in Kent, Connecticut, Prentice enrolled at Harvard University. Once he was ready to begin his career as a teacher, he accepted a position at Belmont Hill School, a prestigious New England prep school for boys located in Belmont, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston.

Prentice was well-known for hurrying back to class in unkempt condition each fall. Between 1936 and 1947, the native of Concord, Massachusetts, made several summer-long expeditions into the sprawling uncharted wilderness of subarctic Canada. Working on a shoestring budget, Prentice would round up a canoe, gear, food, and a local traveling associate. Then he would set out for the great unknown. He was notorious for cutting trips close to the wire, rushing back to Boston bearded, tanned, and garbed in threadbare bush clothes just in time for the beginning of school.

This intrepid teacher traveled by canoe to explore subarctic areas in the Great Barren Lands and learn about the lifestyles of the Native American tribes. During his travels, Prentice kept extensive journals recording a disappearing people and a landscape unknown to all but the Canadian natives at that time. He recorded not only daily events, but also the stories and traditions of the peoples he encountered, particularly people of the Cree and Dene tribes.

In 1939, Prentice traveled from the Brabant Lake area to the Cochrane River, starting at the town of Brochet on Reindeer Lake. Without the aid of maps, the intrepid teacher relied completely on local legend to find his way to the Thlewiaza River and his final destination, the Hudson Bay outpost on Nueltin Lake. Based on this trip, Prentice wrote the travelogue Sleeping Island: The Story of One Man’s Travels in the Great Barren Lands of the Canadian North. First published in 1943, this classic adventure story received a stellar review from the New York Times for its engaging descriptions of the expedition across a rugged landscape of lakes and rivers in northern Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and present-day Nunavut. Besides the polished and captivating writing style, Sleeping Island stands out because it documented ways of life that no longer exist.

In his later years, Prentice delivered lectures about his travels for Harvard’s Institute of Geographical Exploration. Additionally, he was commissioned by the US government to map portions of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. He also became a member of the prestigious Royal Geographical society.

This chalkboard champion passed away in 1959 at the young age of 50.