“Lands Forlorn is a pioneering, important, and luminous book that deserves a place of honor in the annals of Arctic literature. It not only fills an important gap in the history of Arctic exploration, it provides one of the first literary and photographic maps of one of the least explored places on earth. Its prose is honest, vivid, and refreshingly self-effacing. Highly recommended as both literature and history.”

McKay Jenkins, author of Bloody Falls of the Coppermine: Madness, Murder and the Collision of Cultures in the Arctic, 1913.

“A truly superb tale, the Rosetta Stone of northern canoeing narratives. Coming at the end of the historic era of land-based travel in 1911-1912, George Douglas takes us into the modern past with superb photography and insights. Lands Forlorn remains a shining star of northern adventure - traveling in two ages on one canoe trip.”

Michael Peake, Editor Che-Mun.

A Review of LANDS FORLORN, by George M. Douglas, published by Zancudo Press

During the past hundred or so years, a great many books have been published about exploration and travel in Canada’s far north; only a very few of these have become classics, books as notable for the quality of their writing and perceptions as for the experiences they recount. Certain of these superior narratives, such as Dillon Wallace’s Lure of the Labrador Wild (1905), P. G. Downes’s  Sleeping Island (1943), R. M. Patterson’s The Dangerous River (1954), and Sigurd Olson’s The Lonely Land (1961) became, and remain, well-known, while others of comparable merit – among them, David Hanbury’s Sport and Travel in the Northland of Canada (1904), William Brook Cabot’s In Northern Labrador (1912), and Elliott Merrick’s True North (1933) – are now familiar only to historians and to enthusiasts of wilderness travel. Most such classic works have long been out of print. For almost ninety years the absence of one title in particular has been lamented by all readers drawn to the subject: George M. Douglas’s Lands Forlorn; A Story of an Expedition to Hearne’s Coppermine River (1914), a collector’s item regarded by both far northern and armchair travelers as the most memorable account of its sort ever written.

Now, at long last, Lands Forlorn has been reprinted by Robert Hildebrand’s Zancudo Press, with an authoritative introduction by Hildebrand himself. The 1914 volume was singular in its handsomeness: the typeface, the page-headings, and the numerous photographs were presented with a stylish vigor that complemented Douglas’s narrative. Hildebrand has virtually duplicated the original, striking, format, has reproduced 184 photographs, and, for this edition, has included Douglas’s diary and sketch maps of the first of his two trips to the Coppermine as well as selected letters from the principals and the sponsor of the expedition, as they, he explains, “provide a much better understanding of the planning and preparatory stages of the journey.”

The journey was long in both distance and time, and exceptionally demanding. In May 1911, Douglas, in company with his seafaring brother, Lionel, and August Sandberg, a geologist, set out from Edmonton, bound for the Coppermine Mountains on the Arctic coast, which they reached in late August before wintering over in the cabin they had built at the mouth of the Dease River. In the Spring of 1912 the party retraced its route northward, exploring as far as Coronation Gulf. Late that June they sailed across Great Bear Lake on the first stage of their homeward journey; it was not until October that they “saw the houses of Athabaska Landing come into view again as we had watched them disappear so long before. A few minutes more we were alongside, And our northern adventures had come to an end.”

In the course of their eighteen-month expedition, Douglas’s team traveled by scow, Hudson’s Bay Company steamboats, York boat, canoe, on foot, and with dogs and toboggans. Their fortitude, skills, and equanimity were tested by lake traverses in harsh weather, by both working a canoe upriver and by downriver rapids, by crossing many miles of rugged terrain on foot, and by living together in a 14 ft. by 16 ft. cabin for five winter months. Lands Forlorn, however, is no simple record of physical toughness, for Douglas writes vividly of northern history, and of rivermen, HBC traders, priests, the Coppermine Inuit they encountered, and John Hornby, a man they came to know well, the quixotic Englishman who, in 1927, would starve to death on the Thelon. Matters of scientific interest also figure significantly, for the purpose of the expedition was to search for copper ore, and Douglas was a professional mining engineer. That said, what one finds most compelling in Lands Forlorn are descriptions of the travel itself, with its unpredictable weather and great distances; the often-tested practical abilities of the three companions; and, above all, the impression left by Douglas himself. 

Too many books of northern adventure, from the 1890s to the present day, have been larded with self-congratulatory chest-thumping about their authors’ “exploits” and “triumphs.” Such egoism was anathema to George Douglas, whose self-effacing personality and integrity were remarked by all who knew him and who, in writing his book, presented an absorbing, honest account of his and his companions’ experiences. No one starved on their journey to the back-of-beyond, no disasters happened, no heroics were called for. Douglas had planned the trip meticulously, all three men were fit and willingly shared the workload, and, although he never says so – the emphasis in Lands Forlorn is on “we,” not “I” - it is clear that Douglas’s leadership was as exemplary as his preparatory foresight.  Douglas’s writing also warrants mention, as Lands Forlorn may well be the best-written book of any in its genre. One might expect prose published in 1914 to have become stale and dated, but Douglas’s has not: he is a gifted writer who expresses himself cogently, with precision and clarity, and his knack for measured understatement is as enviable as is the verve with which he conveys the sensations of sailing before a storm across Great Bear Lake; what is more, from beginning to end, his account is a masterpiece of coherent organization, very like the man himself.

Anyone attracted by personal or historical curiosity to the lost world of the old North will read Lands Forlorn with lasting satisfaction and, while turning the pages, will marvel at the evocative quality of George Douglas’s photographs. In re-publishing and editing this classic, Robert Hildebrand has performed a most praiseworthy service to Canadian letters, and to the literature of exploration.

Robert Cockburn, University of New Brunswick, Editor, Sleeping Island.