Canoeing The Steel River – Day One – The Diablo Portage

Day One: 

distance: about 8.3 km. (plus at least 2.5 km. on the portage trail and another 400m paddling around the island)

time: start – 10:10 a.m.; finish – 3:45 p.m. (5h 35m)

portages: one (SP01)
– 1100 meters (2h 45m) the Diablo Portage!

weather: overcast morning; rain in the afternoon; sunny early evening and then more rain overnight

campsite: north east end of the west (larger) island on Diablo Lake about 400 meters from the put-in

Steel River Day1 Track

Steel River Day One Track

weather forecast - July 6-July 13After the 1200-km. drive up from Toronto on the Sunday, we spent the night at Marathon’s Airport Inn on Highway 17.  The next morning we listened to the forecast on the Weather Network while we consumed a continental breakfast which was, in retrospect, way too meagre for the work we’d be doing later on.  The forecast for the next week looked great – all  except for this very day; 30 to 50 millimetres of rain predicted as well as a thunderstorm.

What to do? The thought of a second night in a motel on Highway 17 didn’t appeal so we figured we would get on the water and at least paddle up to the north end of Santoy and camp off the beach there for the day before heading back to Diablo the next morning.

As the pix below show the water was glass-like and it wasn’t raining when we arrived at about 9:30.  By ten we were on the water and paddling up the west side of the lake.

Santoy Lake - the put-in

the south end of Santoy Lake – the put-in

Santoy Lake put-in and parking area

Santoy Lake put-in and parking area – our car is the only one in the parking area

We were looking for potential campsites as we paddled up the lake but with the possible exception of the abandoned camp property three kilometers from the put-in, we would see no suitable places to camp. [A week later we would camp at the north end of Santoy Lake at one of the many campsites in the bush off the long strip of beach.]

Santoy Lake shoreline - not for camping

Santoy Lake west side shoreline – not for camping

Thanks to a gentle SW wind in an hour and a bit  we approached the portage take-out.  The white stop sign and the black and white portage marker were quite visible.  The weather was holding up and it looked like it would be okay for while.  Rather than camp at the north end of the lake for the day, we decided to go for it – to “git ‘er dun” so to speak. (By the time we paddled by a week later the little portage opening you see on the left side of the image had become “The Devil’s Hole”, but we didn’t know that yet!)

The Diablo Portage - .the take-out spot

The Diablo Portage – .the take-out spot

Rob Haslam’s advice, delivered I am sure with a wink and as the result of having done the Diablo Portage “trail” a dozen times, is this –

“Don’t even bother trying to look at Diablo on a map. Nothing will prepare you for the pain and suffering. Best to go in with very little information or expectations.”

(I lifted his words from a reply he made to Canadian Canoe Routes forum post I started.)  Having done the portage, I can now better appreciate his point, even if it isn’t the one I would recommend.

My approach is the same one I used as a high school teacher for thirty-five years.  It goes something like this – Make sure you walk into that classroom knowing everything you can  about your subject and with a clear idea of what you expect your students to get out of the time they will be spending with you. So even before we left home we had examined all the topos and satellite maps, trying to get a handle on “the pain and suffering” we were taking on.  The sat image below with the 15 meter contour lines superimposed on top was the most illustrative image I found.

according to my Garmin Topo Canada map, Santoy is at 248 m asl  and  Diablo is at 351 m – a bit over 100 meter gain in altitude over a distance of 1100 meters of “trail”

One thing we agreed on very early is that we would not attempt to do our usual carry-and-a-half system.   It has Max take a pack and a duffel to the far end while I carry the other pack and duffel half way and then, dropping them off, return for the canoe.  While I start to carry the canoe to the far end,  Max has returned for the stuff I left half way. We know we’ve made a good estimate if we meet at the half-way point.

Well, not for the Diablo!  We decided to break it into sections with the first one being the carry from the water up to the top of the steepest part of the trail where things levelled out somewhat.  Complicating matters was that we often had to find the trail first. It has not been groomed in years and the ferns and alders have filled in the blank spaces very nicely.  Carrying half-loads, it took 45 minutes to deal with the steep first 200 meters.

the intial steep section of the Diablo Portage

the initial steep section of the Diablo Portage

We did make use of our handsaws and marking tape to make the trail easier to deal with on second and third carries.  It didn’t hurt that Max is a veritable trail hound with a real knack for finding the rumour of a trail in a mess of green.

Another thing that definitely did not hurt was the weight of our Swift Dumoine kevlar/carbon canoe. It weighs 42 lbs., much less than the weights on the leg press machines and loaded barbells we had spent the winter and spring pushing up and down at the gym.

There are Steel trip reports out there with 80+ lb. canoes being carried up to Diablo Lake.  My hat goes off to the survivors!  Really, though, the swifts and the CI rapids of the Steel do not need anything more than a lightweight canoe. I’d say your canoe is a great place to cut thirty pounds of unnecessary haulage.

Max sniffing out an easier stretch of  the Diablo Portage trail

Max sniffing out an easier stretch of the Diablo Portage trail

The first section done, it was time to deal with the second section. It did not involve much altitude gain but did require careful footing over and beside a moss-covered creek bed which led up to the gorge. It had also started raining just as we finished the first section and that made things more interesting. All we had was a liter of Gatorade, a couple of Clifbars, and some gorp  to replenish the fuel we were rapidly expending.

a bit of the middle strech of the Diablo Portage

a bit of the middle stretch of the Diablo Portage

our marking tape provides a clue in the middle stretch of the Diablo Portage

our marking tape provides a clue in the middle stretch of the Diablo Portage

another shot of the middle stretch of the Diablo

another shot of the middle stretch of the Diablo

typical section of the middle stretch of the Diablo

typical section of the middle stretch of the Diablo

The middle section of the Diablo Portage led to the last hurdle – the boulder-lined gorge. I had wondered what folks were getting at when they wrote things like – “Just when you don’t think it can get any worse, it does.”  Take a look at the image below.  That is indeed the trail – a more gentle stretch of the final section.  All that is missing is Max or I carrying pack or canoe as we negotiate our footing in the rain.

Actually, our gear is not in the rest of the pics of the trail because the pics were taken the next morning – sunny and clear – when we returned to have another look at what we had survived!

the upper stretch of the Diablo Portage

the upper stretch of the Diablo Portage

Mind the Gap!

Included in the middle and gorge section of the trail are a number of dark holes – I noticed a half-dozen.  We didn’t step into any of them but the result of doing so are pretty obvious. Callan notes that he and his wife gave the portage the pet name of “Face Plant” thanks to the damage that his wife suffered and Callan  having one leg go into a hole while he was hauling gear.

one of the many dark holes we noticed on the side of the the Diablo Portage trail

one of the many dark holes we noticed on the side of the Diablo Portage trail

The last particular obstacle I remember is the deadfall crossing the trail in the two pix below.  I was carrying the canoe and first attempted was to carry it sideways between the two boulders and under the log. When that didn’t work I made a full retreat and pushed the canoe bit by bit over the top of the log and then went to the front end to pull it over.  It took the last bit of energy I had to deal with the canoe yoke getting caught on the branch stubs and not moving forward. Meanwhile, Max had single-hauled the packs and duffles over this stretch – in all, seven trips back and forth, each an  opportunity to add more face to the ‘Plant’. Luckily, we were spared ankle twists and disappearing legs! The only problem we had to deal with was fatigue.

a bit of the upper section of the Diablo Portage Trail

a bit of the upper section of the Diablo Portage Trail

the log over the Diablo Portage

the log over the Diablo Portage”Trail”

Believe it or not, the trail – I always want to put quotation marks around the word when I use it in this post! – becomes civilized at this point and for the last one hundred meters or so leads you gently to the shores of Diablo Lake.  The image below show a part of this section – it looks a lot like a portage trail!

the gentle end to the Diablo Portage

the gentle end to the Diablo Portage

We had started from the other end at about 11:20.  At about 2:30 we had all of our stuff – an estimated 200 lbs. including canoe and paddles – at the put-in point on Diablo Lake.  It was pouring at this time so we put up the tarp and made some lunch.

We pulled out our newish Helinox camp chairs and leaned back with our mugs of filtered coffee and celebrated the fact that, rain and all, we had survived our exquisite piece of torture. This was definitely the most taxing, the most demanding portage we had ever done.

We looked towards the island shown on the map below. When the rain stopped we did the 400-meter paddle over to the campsite on the north end, first doing a spin around the island to see if there was another – i.e. better – site.  Not seeing one, we set up camp at the perfectly acceptable spot indicated on Haslam’s map.  Without a doubt we were done for the day!



campsite on Diablo Lake island

Rainbow over the Diablo Portage

Rainbow over the Diablo Portage

In the early evening the rain stopped for a while and the sun came out – and over the Diablo Portage appeared a rainbow.  Noah had been given his rainbow as a sign that the world would never again be flooded. We considered the possible meanings for us as we stood on our island on Diablo Lake and looked back to the portage. As for the predicted thunderstorm, it  never did pass through and over the next six days we would get a string of warm and sunny days as we paddled down the Steel River system.

looking west to the next day's portages to Cairngorm Lake

looking west to the next day’s portages to Cairngorm Lake

soon to be uploaded Next Post: Canoeing The Steel River – Day Two – Into Cairngorm Lake

Canoeing Ontario’s Steel River System: Introduction, Maps, & Approaches

We were looking for a shorter Ontario river system this year, do-able in a week or so and with uncomplicated logistics while still with having the feel of wilderness. In the Steel River system in the Lake Superior High Country to the north of Terrace Bay we found it.

Rainbow Falls - one of the highlights of a trip down the Steel

Max at the top of Rainbow Falls, which was  one of the highlights of our trip down the Steel

All images enlarge with a click; all blue text leads to more info.

Actually, what we found first was Rob Haslam’s post “Steel River Maps” in the Ontario Trip Reports section of the Canadian Canoe Routes forum. In the post Rob provides the most up-to-date and detailed information on the river – everything from portages to campsite locations to rapids and swifts and logjams. That was easy! The bulk of our research was done!

Eventually flowing into the north shore of Lake Superior, the Steel River system is smack dab in the middle of the very scenic High Country between Marathon and Terrace Bay.  We have driven past it a few times on Highway 17 on our way up to and back from Wabakimi or Woodland Caribou.  It makes up the core of Ontario’s Steel River Provincial Park,  which is categorized as “non-operating” since it is not staffed by anyone and does not have maintained campsites or portage trails.

For Ontario residents that means no overnight camping fees, though out-of-province visitors are expected to pay the $10.50 a night fee. (I am not sure who would be checking for camping permits since there are no officials in the park.)

Toronto - Terrace Bay route

a 1200-kilometer “grande portage” from Toronto to the put-in at Santoy Lake

A quick visit to the Parks Ontario website turned up the following brief description –

This wishbone-shaped park consists of long, narrow lakes, rugged cliffs, ravines, swamps, ponds, oxbow lakes, and a 20-metre waterfall. Great blue herons nest on the islands of Cairngorm Lake.

Park Facilities and Activities: There are no visitor facilities. Backcountry camping and canoeing are recommended activities.

Location: Twenty-four kilometres east of Terrace Bay, off Highway 17, above Lake Superior’s north shore.

Even better, we could paddle away from our vehicle on Day One, paddle down the 170 kilometres of the river over six or seven days, and end up right back where we started. Wow – the canoe trippers’ version of a Penrose Staircase !

Penrose-Impossible Staircase More research revealed that the Steel river loop was a tripping favourite of Cliff Jacobson, who has done the loop at least eight times since his first in 1976. I had a couple his books in the canoeing section of my bookshelves and was impressed by the scope of his paddling adventures so his recommendation meant something.

Santoy Lake Put-in On Day One

my bro Max at the Santoy Lake Put-in On Day One – calm waters at the start!!

lost canoe routes of ontarioLeafing through a copy of Kevin Callan’s A Paddler’s Guide to Ontario’s Lost Canoe Routes I found an account of a trip – complete with maps and other useful information – down the Steel with his wife Alana sometime in the 1990’s. Callan has also included the chapter on the Steel River in a more recent compilation titled Top 50 Canoe Routes of Ontario[A mapless version can be found at the website here.] Paddle Quest

Sitting next to Callan’s book on the public library bookshelf was PaddleQuest, a compilation of various writers each describing one of  thirty-seven of Canada’s best canoe routes.  Edited by Alister Thomas, the book, published in 2000, provided yet more fuel to stoke our interest.

It has a chapter by the late Toni Harting, noted photographer as well as past editor of the Wilderness Canoe Association’s journal Nastawgan.  Titled “The Steel River: A Remarkable Loop”,  it describes the Steel as “a superb wilderness tripping river: remote, clear, lots of flat water and manageable whitewater, between 15 and 20 portages…[but] not a trip for novices.”

Yet another positive recommendation to clinch the deal! It was time to look more closely at the maps to get a handle on the trip!

The Steel River System Overview Map 1:50,000 Topo Maps: 

As mentioned, Rob Haslam’s maps are the obvious starting point. They are derived from the Garmin Topo Canada v4.0 mapset and have all portages, most campsite possibilities, and the locations of the four major  logjams on the lower Steel indicated. Haslam lives in nearby Geraldton were he teaches at Geraldton Composite High School and runs an Outdoors club that he has taken down the Steel.  His last trip waist 2011. We would find the information totally reliable and very helpful.

The topographical maps maintained by the Canadian Federal Government’s map department still provide the most accurate map information for canoe trippers.  They are available online for free download if you want to print them – or the parts of them that are relevent to your trip.  For the Steel River Loop there are three 1:50,000 topos that would cover all your map needs:

Coldwell       042D15

Killala Lake  042E02

Spider Lake  042E07

The government’s own no-frills folder-based canmatrix collection of maps is one source of the maps, both the 1:50000 and the 1:250,000 and in either tif or pdf format.    For the Steel River you can find the above maps in the 042 folder using the appropriate letters and numbers to get the specific maps.  Get started here.

These days there is a much more user-friendly and visual approach to access the maps that Jeff McMurtrie has come up with.  As with the maps above, they are available for free download. If you want, McMurtrie has the equipment to print the maps for you on plastic sheets.  See his Jeffstopos website to get started –

Jeff's Topos Home Page As well as paper copies of the  federal govt. topos, we each have a Garmin gps unit – the Oregon and the Etrex 20 – with the latest Garmin Topo Canada v 4 maps on it.  While not quite as accurate as the maps above, they serve as back up and provide a ready answer in those situations where you just can’t figure out exactly where you are!  We also like the waypoint and tracking features and the way it archives each day’s progress.

If I didn’t already have a gps unit, I’d be tempted to get the Delorme Inreach Explorer, which serves as  a two-way communication device and also has many of the features of a gps unit.  We have been using the Spot Connect over the past five years to provide gps tracking and nightly brief email message to the folks back home.

With Haslam’s maps, a gps unit,  and relevant bits of the the 1:50000 topos in your map case, you would have all you need to take on the Steel River loop.

A Slight Complication!

Needless to say, that nifty 2-D Penrose Staircase shown above cannot exist in reality!  In their trip reports, all of the above paddlers are quick to point out the one thing I haven’t mentioned yet – the price to be paid to get to that starting square for the ride down.  Known as the Diablo Portage, it is a 1100-meter carry from Santoy Lake (249 m asl )  to Diablo Lake (348 m asl) and involves a 100-meter gain in altitude. Another 10 meters of altitude gain from Diablo Lake to Cairngorm Lake via three more portages and you are in the true headwaters of the Steel River system.  Some work will be required!

typical stretch of the upper part of the Diablo Portage

typical stretch of the upper part of the Diablo Portage “trail”

The August 2014 issue of Backpacker magazine included an article entitled “Go Big: Ten Tough Trails We Guarantee You’ll Love”. It turned to Jacobson’s experiences to describe the Diablo Portage –

After canoeing waterways all over the world, guidebook author Cliff Jacobson says the portage between Santoy and Diablo Lakes is tougher than any other he’s found, even in the remote reaches of Nunavut—yet this pristine paddling escape sits right off the Trans-Canada Highway. “At just under a mile—1,673 meters, to be exact—it would be doable in 20 minutes if it were relatively flat,” he says, but hauling a canoe and gear through piles of Mini Cooper-size boulders takes all day. The elevation gain is about 300 feet (with 100 feet stacked into the first 100 yards), so “progress is measured in meters, not miles, per hour.”

We repeated our canoe tripping mantra – ” we’ll git ‘er dun” – a few times as we looked in amazement at the contour lines bunching up close to each other between Santoy Lake and Diablo Lake.  We knew it would be the price of admission but embraced it as only those who don’t really know can!

Access Points: There are two main approaches to the Steel River system – a northern one via the Catlonite Road off  Highway 11 to the east of Long Lac and a southern one a few kilometres off the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 17) east of the town of Terrace Bay (or west of Marathon for those coming from the east).

1. Eaglecrest Lake:

northern approach to Steel River

northern approach to Steel River

Rob Haslam describes this approach in the post referred to above.  Beginning at one of the lakes from Graham to Eaglecrest  (Haslam gives directions on how to get to Eaglecrest), you paddle down the Little Steel River system to the point where it meets the Steel River itself.  Then it is all the way down to Santoy Lake and the Diablo Portage.

After your little tussle with the devil, it is mostly lake paddle all the way back north to your vehicle.  Among the plusses of this approach would be the chance to get into trip-shape before you hit the Diablo Portage – and the lighter food load you’ll have to haul up to Diablo Lake.

2. Santoy Lake:   Santoy Lake Put-In This was the option we chose for our Steel River loop.  While the driving distance from Toronto to Longlac is about the same as that to Santoy Lake, we liked the idea of getting the worst of the trip done first. Also, the ride in to the Santoy put-in point from the highway is much shorter than the 50 kilometres of the Catlonite Road from Highway 11 .

Given that there is no sign indicating  the side road that goes to Santoy, we drove right by  the turn-off and had to come back at it from Jackfish Lake.  The gravel road leads to a fair-sized parking area, a dilapidated dock and boat launch ramp in a bay on the south shore of Santoy.

You are not yet in the park at this point; it only begins near the far end of the Diablo Portage about 100 meters from  Diablo Lake.  Our vehicle was the only one in the parking lot the day we arrived; on our return a week  later there were a few more. On the lake itself there are a  a couple of cottages at the north end, as well as a trailer camp on the east side.

Now to get this canoe trip on the water…  We started an hour’s paddle and then our “uplifting” experience on the Diablo Portage – and we got to do it in the rain!

Next Post: Canoeing The Steel River –  Day One – The Diablo Portage

The Peterborough Petroglyphs: Building Over An Ancient Algonquian Ritual Site

Previous Post: Peterborough’s The Canadian Canoe Museum  – Journey Into An Epic Past

N.B. The term Algonquian (also spelled Algonkian) refers to one of  North America’s largest aboriginal language families. Individual tribes or First Nations like the Innu, the Algonquin, the Ojibwe, and the Cree all speak a version of Algonquian.(See here for a primer.)

A one-hour drive from Peterborough and the Canadian Canoe Museum and we were approaching the entrance to Petroglyphs Provincial Park.  It is  a day-use-only  park with hiking trails but its real reason for existing is the 90′ x 120′ outcrop of gently sloping white marble (limestone) in the center of the park.

From Peterborough to Petroglyphs Provincial Park

From Peterborough to Petroglyphs Provincial Park

Peterborugh Petroglyphs with man examining In 1954 a prospector, Everett Davis, sat on this rock face as he surveyed the area east of Eels Creek and north of Upper Stony Lake. He had been here before but had never noticed anything special; this time the sun’s light hit the rock just right  and the images came out of the rock – some recognizable as humans or animals and others more abstract or fantastical.  As he pushed away the leaves and moss covering some of the rock face, more and more petroglyphs were revealed.  He did not know it at the time but he was standing on one of the largest petroglyph sites in Canada.

entrance to Petroglyphs Provincial Park

entrance to Petroglyphs Provincial Park from Highway 56 (Northey Bay Road)

Since 1954 – and especially since the late 1960’s –  the site has seen increasing numbers of curious visitors. Wild theories popped up to explain the nine hundred or so marks  and images – many of them difficult to see – hammered out of the rock face. Who put them there? Phoenicians, Vikings, Celts – these were just some of the suggested answers.  As entertaining as they may have been, the explanations of people from far away do not stand up to any serious examination of what we know about those cultures and their iconography.

Milwaukee Journal headline from October 27, 1962

Milwaukee Journal headline from October 27, 1962

The answer lies much closer to nearby Stony Lake.  The territory lies on the southern edge of the Canadian Shield and before the arrival of the Europeans it was in the cultural transition zone between Algonquian-speaking cultures to the north who lived in small mobile hunter-gathering bands and the Iroquoian-speaking cultures with their more advanced agricultural villages to the south.

Fred Bruemmer photo of some of the Peterborough Petroglyph rock face - Milwaulkee Journal Oct. 27, 1962.

Fred Bruemmer photo of some of the Peterborough Petroglyph rock face – Milwaukee Journal Oct. 27, 1962.

The answer to who hammered out the images on the relatively soft limestone rock face can be traced back to one of these two cultures, and since there is no evidence – for example, common iconography at other sites –  connecting the Iroquois with the petroglyphs,  we are left with one of the Algonquian-speaking peoples.  A number of the images on the rock have parallels with pictographs at other sites on the Canadian Shield which are known to be Algonquin or Ojibwe or Cree. Thus, placing the petroglyphs in an Algonquian context fits the evidence best and is in keeping with the principle of Occam’s Razor.

Since carbon dating a petroglyph is not possible, the discovery of other datable material at the site  helped set a rough parameter for when it was used.  Found in the crevasses of the rock where bits of pottery – the remains of small offering bowls? –  which were dated back about 1000 years,placing it in  the Woodlands Period of pre-Columbian archaeology.  At the very least, this puts their creation before the arrival of the French in the 1600’s. Petroglyphs Provincial Park In 1976  the Ontario government of the day created a new park – Petroglyphs Provincial Park.  Since 1990 Ontario Parks has managed the site along with members of a nearby Ojibwa First Nation whose ancestors first moved into the area in the late 1700’s.  Their present community is found on Buckhorn Lake southwest of and above Burleigh Falls.

Burleigh Falls below the bridge

Burleigh Falls below the bridge – water tumbling into Stoney Lake

It is about a forty-kilometre hike and paddle from the petroglyph site to their community though they may have lived closer before the lumbermen, farmers, and miners started arriving in the 1850’s.  While the Ojibwe community has no direct link to the petroglyphs, the 2015 Park Information Guide informs us that –

Today the local First Nation of Curve Lake acts as a steward of the petroglyph site  providing Ontario Parks with guidance in this culturally significant and ceremonial place.

This guidance is presumably because the current “spiritual caretakers” of the site share some cultural traits with the creators of the petroglyphs, in particular a mythological worldview that they can use to explain the meaning of the images. The ongoing mystery about the exact meaning of the petroglyphs shows how tenuous that cultural connection really is.

The covered structure over the petroglyph site

The mid-1980’s structure – 35′ high with lots of windows –  built to protect  the petroglyph site

For almost thirty years after the discovery of the site it received only the minimum of attention from authorities. At first it was completely open and one could walk over the rock face. Eventually concerns about the deterioration of the site – and a few examples of graffiti left by unthinking visitors – motivated officials to erect a series of fences, increasingly serious, to keep people away from the sloping rock face while still permitting it to be viewed. Sacred Art Of The Algonkians In the mid-1960’s Joan Vastokas (then of U of T) and Romas Vastokas of Trent U in nearby Peterborough began their study of the site with their students. Among other things, they used a charcoal-coloured crayon to enhance some of the petroglyphs so that they could be better seen. Their findings  were eventually written up in Sacred Art of the Algonkians  which was published in 1973. Forty years later it remains the definitive study of the site.  It is also a difficult book to get a hold of – sellers at  Amazon have used copies available for $175. U.S.! The Toronto Public Library system does not have a single copy and I have yet to read it.

do and don't sign at the entrance of Petroglyphs Provincial Park

do and don’t sign at the entrance of Petroglyphs Provincial Park

Peterborough Petroglyphs plaque

The Canadian Heritage Site Plaque beside the  site

Petroglyphs Park after the parking lot

Petroglyphs Park after the parking lot

Other than the various hiking trail options, there are three other activities available to visitors. It begins at the Learning Centre and its various poster displays,  continues with a brief 18-minute film overview of Ojibwa culture, and concludes with a visit to the site itself. I’ll take a look at each of them in turn.

1. The Learning Centre 

The Visitors’ Centre, also called The Learning Centre, opened to the public in 2002 and is where the visit to the site begins.  While the building has a small gift shop with various souvenirs and a movie theatre with seats for perhaps 80 visitors, the main attraction is a colourful multi-panelled poster display.  We spent some time reading our way through the various snippets of text. I had expected an introduction to the petroglyphs and their meaning to be the main focus but it soon became clear that there was something else being presented here.

welcome center display

welcome centre (The Learning Place) display

The wall in the photo above, nicely decorated with Norval Morrisseau-esque spirit lines emanating from the sun symbol, sums it up.  “A culture is a living thing”.  What the folks responsible for the exhibit have done is use this space to present an updated version of  aboriginal spirituality, an adaptation felt to be more relevant to the late 1900’s than the paleolithic original.  Pretty much absent is any reference to the animistic beliefs that ruled the lives of the actual people who created the petroglyphs.

In its place we have the principles of Deep ecology and the environmentalist ethos of Grey Owl mixed with New Age concepts. I didn’t realize it at the time but this spiritual version of environmentalism as a defining feature of being aboriginal is a widely held view.  At the Assembly of First Nations website, for example, I found this statement –

Indigenous peoples are caretakers of Mother Earth and realize and respect her gifts of water, air and fire. First Nations peoples’ have a special relationship with the earth and all living things in it. This relationship is based on a profound spiritual connection to Mother Earth that guided indigenous peoples to practice reverence, humility and reciprocity.                           (see here for source)

It left me wondering where a non-indigenous person fits in.  Presumably not as a “caretaker” since (s)he lacks  “a special relationship” and “profound spiritual connection to Mother Earth”.  It has parallels with the stance taken in many of the world’s religions –  built on the notion  that this one people has a special relationship with the Great Spirit – the Bible, for example,  calls it  a covenant – and that they are His Chosen People. Having established this special relationship, the next step is to claim possession of some sacred text with the very words of that God in it.  Or, if not a book then for pre-literate societies, at least some sort of special knowledge – in this case, let’s call it traditional knowledge – not accessible to outsiders.

The Teaching Rocks

The Teaching Rocks – building a new worldview on ancient rocks

It is the place we come to reflect...

It is a place where we come to reflect…

While the original purpose of the site can be guessed at – vision quests? initiation rituals for males and/or females? initiations for shamans? the shamans’ source of medicines or guidance? –  the Learning Center repurposes the petroglyph site for interested Anishinaabe as they live their lives in 2015.  Culture is indeed a living thing and it changes to suit new realities. overview of panels at the learning center

The environmental ethos

a statement of the  environmental ethos of contemporary Anishinaabe culture but with traditional assigned roles still intact

The above poster alludes to the possibility that the Anishinaabe (i.e. Ojibwa) once lived on the shores of the Atlantic at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River.  From details of the various accounts told by members of the Medewiwin (the shamans’ exclusive medicine society),  some scholars date the migration westward towards Lake Superior somewhere around 1350. They connect it to the arrival of the Black Plague along with European fishermen on the eastern shores of North America at that time.

From careful mystery to clear message - the teaching rocks speak to us Changing one’s worldview in response to changing times is not uncommon. It is also not uncommon to reinterpret and repurpose older cultural expressions –  like the petroglyphs – which you did not have a hand in creating and which you can make no special claim to understanding. While the sentiment expressed in the poster above is laudable and may well be true to those who now visit the site, there is no basis to the claim that this is what the rock was all about.

If our legends fall silent...

If our legends fall silent…there will be new legends and new heroes

The Turtle ...

The Turtle …

Cryptic figures on the rock face have much to teach us

Shrouded in mystery  but having much to reveal – really?

What The Bear Teaches ...

What The Bear Teaches … Mother Earth

Miigwech…to Mother Earth (Aki)

The Learning Centre reveals surprisingly little about the meaning of the petroglyphs we are about to see. The primary focus is on Mother Earth and how we should treat it – perhaps given the difficulty of saying much about the petroglyphs, the hope is that this environmentalist focus will give visitors an acceptable alternative lens through which to see the images on the rock face.

2. The Teaching Rocks

We moved on from the poster displays to the movie theatre.  My brother and I were the only two there that afternoon but the Park ranger – I did not get his name – graciously set up the film for us to watch. Entitled The Teaching Rocks, the nineteen-minute documentary-style film dates back to 1987.  The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources commissioned the cinematographer Lloyd Walton to direct the project; Fred Wheatley, an Ojibway language teacher at Peterborough’s Trent U as well as an Ojibwe elder, did the narration.

Vimeo - The Teaching Rocks The following week I would google my way to a copy of my own.  The film is available for on-line viewing or for download at the vimeo website (click here to access). The brief synopsis of the film which vimeo has reads like this  –

A visually arresting film, concentrates on the native art of the Ojibwa tribe. Much Ojibwa history and philosophy has been related through the rock carvings and paintings which are featured throughout this work. The voices of the Elders are heard in the film, describing the tales of creation and existence that mark the group’s iconography. A sense of mystery informs this evocative film as the realization strikes that no individual can expect to penetrate the mythos of the Ojibwa.

The film begins with a scrolling text which tells us that “the precise meaning of the petroglyphs are carefully shrouded in mystery” thus putting a positive spin on the difficulty of entering into the minds of those who put these images and markings here some time ago. Given that the documentary is meant to teach us about Ojibwe culture it makes remarkably little use of traditional Ojibwe myth and legend.

Missing is any discussion of Thunderbird and Mishipeshu, of Nanabush  and the Giant Beaver…what we are offered instead are musings and platitudes on Mother Earth. Walton does combine some nicely-filmed scenes of the rocks and water of the Canadian Shield, as well as shots of pictograph sites at Agawa Rock on Lake Superior and Lake Missinaibi, and I think a couple of seconds of  Mazinaw Rock.

a stretch of mazinaw Rock

a stretch of Mazinaw Rock

On top of close-up clips of the animals of the Shield country – the moose, beaver, bear, and heron – the narrator provides a commentary which emphasizes the same environmentalist ethos presented by the displays in the Learning Centre.  The narrator – he speaks as an elder – tells us that –

We were put on this earth to look after our mother , the earth … Every blade of grass has a right to grow and whenever you set your tipi up, or your shelter, don’t leave it there for long because you will kill the grass if you leave it there. That’s why the Great Spirit has given you a strong body to be able to do these things…

Given that the narrator was an Ojibwe  language teacher at Trent University in Peterborough with a classroom in a large concrete block on the banks of the Otonobee River, I was left wondering just what he was seriously advocating other people to do.

Elsewhere he says this –

It is up to us to go back to our traditional ways  and to try to warn the white man before he has poisoned the whole earth. Don’t contribute to the mess that’s being made…

You have to wonder about the usefulness of this elder’s “wisdom” for today’s young Ojibwe as they try to find a meaningful role for themselves in the world being poisoned by “the ignorant – or worse – white man”.   Romanticizing the past – advocating a return to an imagined  aboriginal past that never actually existed – surely this is not the answer.  And just what does “traditional ways” include? Electricity?  Cell phones? Snowmobiles? Boats with kickers?  Modern medicine? Hip hop music? Smokes? One house that you live in all year ’round?

To emphasize the harmonious nature of life before the coming of the white man, Wheatley tells us of the annual month-of-May  Ojibwe “meetings with the Sioux on the south shore of Lake superior to exchange medicines”.  The Sioux (aka the Dakotas) were a neighbouring tribe who lived at the west end Lake Superior.  When the Ojibwe moved into this area from further east around 1650 to 1700 they battled with the Sioux for control of this land. For generations there were back and forth raids and wars between the two tribes for control; the Ojibwe won out and the Sioux moved further west.  For generations the Ojibwe were also at war with the Iroquois tribes. This is in the historical record; what Wheatley is creating is a mythic pre-European-contact paradise which may suit his purpose but gives those watching the film a false idea of the way things actually were.

(Access a pdf copy of George Copway’s 1851 book The Traditional History and Characteristic Sketches of the Ojibway Nation here and check out chapter 5 for an account of those wars. Conway was an Ojibwe from the Trenton area to the east of the petroglyph site. He was born in 1818.)

The petroglyph site is presented as “The Teaching Rocks”, a place where select young people were taken as a step in the initiation into becoming shamans. Using the images on the rock as teaching tools,  the young person would learn some of the truths that he would need to become a medicine man in his own right.  It may be that the creators and original users of this rock face also used it in this way – or not. More likely we have here a modern repurposing of the rock face to fit in with the reality of a contemporary Ojibwe culture being swamped by external forces and an attempt to create a focal point for cultural revival two hundred years after the deluge began.

3. The Petroglyph Site

As we approached the petroglyph site, another sign reminds us – yet again! – that given the sacredness of the site, no photography is allowed. Given the cellphones with cameras that almost everyone has these days, this must be a tough one to enforce.  I think back at pix I’ve taken on Temple Mount in Jerusalem,  the Sistine Chapel in Rome, or more recently at the most sacred Buddhist site in Myanmar – the Shwe-dagon Pagoda – with its gold-plated dome and relics said to be of the Buddha himself.  The Myanmar site even has free internet access provided on the temple grounds for visitors!  The reason for the “no photo” rule here escapes me. More than anything else, it feels like politics.  Having let the folks on duty know my view on the matter, I did abide by it.

Notice at the entry to the fenced site

Notice at the entry to the fenced site

We walked through a gate in the fence which I assume rings the entire site and separates it from the rest of the park. The photo below sets the scene as you approach the site.  The structure covering the petroglyph site was built in 1984. The glass walls reach a height of about 40′ (12 meters) and let in a fair amount of subdued light.

approaching the petroglyph site

approaching the petroglyph site

Not far from the site archaeologists – perhaps the Vastokas team –  found gneiss rock hammers which the creators of the petroglyphs used to peck and grind out the images. Somewhere nearby  there are two smaller petroglyph sites. The 1977 Master Plan for Petroglyphs Park provides this information –

One of the smaller sites is directly north of the major concentration, while the other site is 250 m to the northwest.The second small site consists of 23 distinct glyphs. In addition to these sites, there are a few glyphs scattered through the peripheral areas of the site.

The covered structure over the petroglyph site

The covered structure over the petroglyph site

Not everyone is happy about the building covering the site.  Joan Vastokas, mentioned above as one of the authors of the still- definitive study of the site, has said that the structure itself is the biggest act of vandalism which has been done to the site.

At the end of the post is link to a paper written by Dagmara Zawadzka of Université du Québec à Montréal  which gives a negative assessment of Ontario Parks solution to protect the site. I did photograph the information board – see below – in which the Park officials present the reasons for doing what they did.  My overall impression – the building may not be perfect but is the best solution to the realities of the soft limestone rock and the need to protect it from the impact of visitors.

Peterborough Petroglyphs Site Info Panel- Part 1

Peterborough Petroglyphs Site Info Panel – Part 1

Peterborough Petroglyphs Site Info Panel- Part 2

Peterborough Petroglyphs Site Info panel –  Part 2

Once we entered the building itself, I obviously did not take any more photos.  For study purposes, it would have been nice to have a set of images which I could examine in more detail at my leisure.  We did have the benefit of having the park official – the same young man who had set up the movie for us – as a guide.  We had him to ourselves for about forty-five minutes and he gave us a fantastic tour of the rock face, taking us from one end to the other and pointing out key petroglyphs and some of the meanings given to them and their supposed relationship to others nearby.  Only two other people – a young couple – came in while we were there and their at-most five minute visit left us wondering why they had bothered coming all this way.

As you enter the building, there is a rack  with pamphlets available; they  explain the overall significance of the site, as well as a few of the dominant images. The tone of the pamphlet is  more like what I had expected at the Learning Centre.   Also on the wall was a 24″x36″ or so drawing of the  rock face and its many petroglyphs. I’d imagine it is from the Vastokas book mentioned above. At the end of the tour, the park official was good enough to take it off its wall hook and bring it outside the building where I took a couple of photos of at least  parts of it.

drawing of some of the petroglyph rock face

photo of drawing of some of the petroglyph rock face

While this Wikipedia entry tells you that there are 1200 petroglyphs at the site it – an unlikely high number – it  does not go on to say that maybe 200 to 250 of them are still recognizable.

photo of same drawing - the far corner of the rock face

photo of same drawing – the far corner of the rock face

In the above drawings there are a few images which jump out, probably because our minds can find some sort of meaning in them. Human forms and animal forms are definitely there, as are objects like canoes. Some are fantastical and others are more abstract geometric forms.

The photo below was shot in 1970 and is one of a dozen that can be found at Jim Werner’s website. Serpents, turtles, a “rabbit-eared” human figure, the 56″ long crane, the attention-grabbing triangles…obviously while the charcoal crayon which Vastokas’ students used to colour in the petroglyphs helps us see them better, we are seeing the site in a manner not thought of by the various people who hammered their images out of the rock.

Robin Lyke Peterboro Petroglyph - used with permission of the owner

Robin Lyke  – Peterboro Petroglyph  (1970) – used with permission of the owner

This is where you ask the question – what does it all mean? The first thing to recognize is that the images were not all put here at the same time. It is more accurate to picture the site as one to which the image makers – the shamans? – came over a period of generations to leave their mark for whatever purpose.

Having said that, it is important to resist the very human impulse to take two adjacent images and create some sort of “story” that explains their connection.  Chances are they actually have nothing to do with each other. So – what is the key to unlocking their meaning?

There is no Rosetta Stone; there is no “grand theory of everything” which we can apply here. However, the images are the product of a particular culture with its set of myths and stories developed over time to explain all that they needed to explain. And what culture? As already indicated – the culture of an Algonquain-speaking people like the Algonquin or Ojibwe seems like a safe bet.

An interesting feature of the site is the number of crevasses and cracks in the rock face. One in particular goes diagonally across the entire rock face. Even more significant, there is a stream that passes underneath and at least in the past one could apparently hear the echo of the moving water. The sounds were given a spiritual twist and taken as voices of the manitous who dwelt in or under the rock. A parallel Ojibwe belief would be in the maymaygweshiwuk who lived in underwater caves associated with rock faces where shamans would leave their ochre images as a part of the ritual of obtaining favour or medicine from these spirits. A number of my posts on pictograph sites on the Canadian shield have images of such rock faces.

woman with vagina hole-2

Another interesting feature – and one that some people feel uncomfortable dealing with –  are the holes at different places on the rock face. The Parks site pamphlet mentioned  above discreetly omits this petroglyph from the discussion even though it may have been one of the first to be put there.  Apparently a seam of reddish  iron oxide runs right through the figure and is thought to symbolize menstrual  blood. The drawing can be seen directly above and an internet- sourced image on the left makes it all clear – the creator of the image has incorporated the hole as vagina. On the upper body one can make out a breast. On the day we were there a small amount of tobacco sat on top of the outstretched right arm of the female figure, presumably left by someone as a part of a petition or of thanksgiving ritual.

Mishipeshu and the snakes

Mishipeshu and the snakes – Agawa Rock

In the drawing above, a figure below the female figure has been interpreted as a camel! Notice the humps.  Aha – so the Phoenicians really were here! A less fantastic and more likely explanation – one that comes from traditional Ojibwe iconography is that it is a representation of  Mishipeshu. He is the underwater lynx who is seen as a counter-force to the Thunderbird (Animikii)) who is second only to Gitchi Manitou (the spirit above all other spirits)  in power.  The famous  pictograph of Mishipeshu at Agawa Rock bears similarities to the animal depicted here.

Also very common on this rock face are depictions of snakes. Unlike the Christian spin put on the snake – Satan the deceiver in the Garden of Eden – for the Algonquins and Ojibwe the snake, often depicted with two horns (Mishikinebik) is a positive force associated with the medicine and wisdom that a shaman would have come for. The Park pamphlet puts it this way – “Because snakes live and move between the spirit worlds, they are often viewed as messengers from the underworld and protectors of the springs.” Look at the first photo of the drawings – not having any photos to double check I am assuming that whoever drew the images did so accurately!  –  and you’ll see three different snake figures with the double horns indicated. There are apparently thirty or so snake images at the site, with some of them incorporating the crevasses and cracks of the rock face.

Petroglyph Park turtle image

Petroglyph Park turtle image

Another animal figure which figures prominently on the site is the turtle Mikinak. It is seen at pictograph sites across the Ojibwe world and represents the  messenger who brings the manitous’ communication to the shamans. At this site there are a dozen turtle images – one of them is depicted in the image to the left.  One interpretation  has the dots as eggs which symbolize new life. There was even an explanation for the number of eggs – 13? – which I have forgotten. It is probably best to take many of the explanations with a touch of skepticism.

gitchi manitou? One unusual image that provokes puzzlement is the one to the left. It seems to show the lower part of a human body and then a sun symbol on a vertical line which could be the upper body.  The park pamphlet writes:  “This large central figure near the centre of the site is thought by some First Nations to be a carving of ‘Gitchi Manitou’…it may also represent a shaman who has been given powers by the creator.” Given the transcendent nature of the Great Spirit it seems highly unlikely that an image of Him would be made. It would be as if the Hindus were to depict Brahman, the God beyond all gods. I have yet to read of or see another example on the Canadian Shield of such a depiction. (Let me know if you can think of one.)

Looking at the photo another answer comes to mind – perhaps we are looking at two different pictographs, one on top of the other and not actually related or even done at the same time by the same person. The fact that we link the two says more about how the mind works than it does about what the rock carvers engraved in the rock face.

shaman Another image commented on in the pamphlet is one of what may be a shaman or “medicine person”. The object in the figure’s right hand “may possibly be a turtle rattle used in ceremonial practices.  The cone shaped hat over the person’s head may indicate his/her connection to the spirit world and the power of healing.” The shaman figures I have seen further west share some common elements with this one.  Like this one they are always standing figures who hold something  in an outstretched arm.  That “something” is interpreted to be an otter skin  medicine bag. This image from the Bloodvein River is typical –

Artery Lake Pictograph Site- Face IV Shaman figure

Artery Lake Pictograph Site- Face IV Shaman with Medicine Bag figure

While the Artery lake figure does not have the conical hat, he does have what could be interpreted as a spirit line coming out of his head.  Perhaps there is a parallel there? Here is a drawing from the Smithsonian Institute’s anthropological archives. It depicts a medicine man with a ritual object in his left hand which he seems to be spinning or shaking  –

Ojibwe shaman with rattle

Ojibwe shaman with rattle – Smithsonian Institute’s anthropological archives – see here for source

the crane and the Nanabush figures

the crane and the Nanabush figures

A physically large petroglyph is that of the crane or heron that you see in the image to the right. It measures some 56″ from top to bottom. According to the Park pamphlet the crane “is a common totem bird among the different Algonkian  peoples. Playing a relevant role in the world of shamanism, signified as helping spirits that aid in revealing prophecies, and they are receptacles of the souls of the dead, as birds can read the future.  Members of this clan traditionally are the speakers at meetings.”  (Someone at Parks Ontario  needs to rewrite this passage!)

Mazinaw Rock's Rabbit man panel

Mazinaw Rock’s Rabbit man panel

Also in the above image you will find two images associated with Nanaboozoo or Nanabush, the rabbit-eared “trickster” of Ojibwe myth. The next day we would see a similar ochre pictograph at Mazinaw Rock – a human figure with two large “ears” protruding from his head.  In all of southern Ontario –  everything from Sudbury to the Ottawa River on down to Lake Ontario, there are really only two aboriginal rock image sites – Mazinaw Rock at Bon Echo and this petroglyph site. Interestingly, both are the biggest sites of their kind in Ontario – and maybe in Canada.  See here for our visit to Mazinaw.

The walkway takes you right around the site; every few meters there is a information board with an explanation of particular images.  Normally I would have taken photos of them and reread them after the visit.  The pamphlet deals with  most of the ones I’ve covered above;  it also has a bit to say about the canoe images, the thunderbird, what looks like large arrowheads but which could be Christmas trees (a suggestion made in that Milwaukee Journal at the start of the post) or a shaman’s spirit (the pamphlet’s suggestion).  I haven’t seen anything like it in all the pictograph sites I have been to – or seen images from.  More time and access to photos of different parts of the site would add more substance to my analysis. So would reading the Vastokas’ book!

Lyke Peterboro Petroglyph 2-2

Robin Lyke 1970 photo-  used with permission from J. Werner – in this photo the animal below her feet looks like a long legged moose

If you want to see more images of the petroglyphs, the best collection I have found on-line belongs to Jim Werner; the photos were actually taken by his uncle Robin L. Lyke.  His website has an excellent discussion of the site and twelve images; you can access it here.

The drive to Petroglyphs Provincial Park took us about an hour from Peterborough. We had spent the morning at the Canadian Canoe Museum so we got there about 2:30. I am glad we took the time to finally check it out.  As is often the case, we left with more questions than we had arrived with – but isn’t that why we travel and check out things we don’t know about?  We came expecting to see the physical structure over the petroglyph site; we left wondering about the ideological construction undertaken by the some members of the Curve Lake Ojibwe community.

This post was my attempt to grapple with some of those questions.  I have a feeling that in the coming months I will be returning to this post – rethinking, revising, researching…and replying to comments of those who may or may not agree with my view of things.

Useful Links For More Insight:            

The 1977 Ontario Government “Master Plan” for Petroglyph Provincial Park  is worth skimming through.  You can access it here. I also took pp. 32-36, the section on the history of the site,  and put it into a 1.2 mb pdf file which you can download here.

Among the statistics in the report were the annual visits for 1974 (14,227) and 1975 (13,613).  The most recent statistics I could find were for 2010 (13,254). If the stats are all measuring exactly the same thing, it would seem that less people are visiting now than forty years ago!  If so, I wonder why?

Dagmara Zawadzka of Université du Québec à Montréal has a 2008 paper accessible online as a pdf file.
 It is entitled  The Peterborough Petroglyphs/ Kinoomaagewaabkong: Confining the Spirit of Place. Concerned with the structure built over and around the petroglyph site in the early 1980’s her stated aim is this –

Due to the site’s uniqueness and popularity, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) implemented measures to protect and conserve it, as well as to transform it into a tourist attraction. One such measure was the construction of a building directly on top of the site. In the following paper, I demonstrate that this building thwarts the understanding of the meaning inherent in this sacred Indigenous site, and that less intrusive and culturally sensitive conservation measures might be more suited for transmitting the spirit of the place.

 It is definitely worth a read before your visit even if Zawadzka only sees (or acknowledges) the physical building over the site and not the ideological repurposing.


Robert Burcher has developed the  argument the petroglyphs should be attributed to the Celts.  His book The Leather Boat fleshes out his theory as to how people from Ireland came to carve images into the limestone in the central Ontario wilds some 2000 years ago.  Like me he is a WordPress blogger; unlike me he has a book for sale. See here for details!    Alas, no copies in the Toronto Public Library system!

Carol Diaz-Granados and James R. Duncan have edited a collection of papers in The Rock-Art of Eastern North America: Capturing Images and Insight  (2004). Chapter 16 – The Peterborough Petroglyphs: Native or Norse? – is a contribution by Joan Vastokas.  The teaser blurb begins –

This chapter discusses the ongoing debate over the Peterborough Petro-glyphs and whether they were created by Native Americans or Norse-men. First, a history of the debate is covered positing the various theories. Then, forms of writing that have been compared to the Peterborough Petroglyphs are addressed and their similarities and differences explained. Throughout the chapter, I present evidence that concludes a Native Ameri-…

And they leave it at that! Given the author we can guess what the conclusion is. Most of the chapter (except for three pages)  can be read here at Google Books.

Charles Lock is currently a Professor of English at the University of Copenhagen but for twelve years (1983-1995) he taught at the University of Toronto. He  has a 15-page paper in a 1994 issue of Semiotica (special edition on Prehistoric Signs)  entitled “Petroglyphs In And Out Of Perspective”.  It is available here.  While written for an academic audience and occasionally an obtuse read (just like this post), it is worth the effort. He uses the Peterborough Petroglyphs to illustrate some of the points he makes about how and why modern scholars study “primitive” art.

Next Post – The Pictographs of Mazinaw Rock: Listening For Algonquian Echoes

Peterborough’s The Canadian Canoe Museum – Journey Into An Epic Past

Previous Post: The Pictographs of Mazinaw Rock: Listening For Algonquian Echoes

The Canadian Canoe Museum provides a unique entry point to understanding the indigenous peoples who made this their “home and native land” in the days before the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Trans-Canada Highway became the new rivers of a growing country.  The Maliseet, the Algonquin, the Ojibwe, the Cree, the Dene, and the Nootka all developed watercraft that allowed them to move across the countless lakes and rivers of the Canadian Shield and tundra or along the ocean’s edge.

I know a man whose school could never teach him patriotism, but who acquired that virtue when he felt in his bones the vastness of his land, and the greatness of those who founded it.  (Pierre Trudeau)

voyageurs and native guides at rest

The development of the canoe would be furthered by the fur traders and  their equivalent of the 18-wheeler laden with trade goods, the canot du Maitre.  The Canadien voyageurs paddled them from Montreal to the Grand Portage at Lake Superior’s western end. Also a part of the story are the late 19th century innovators in the Peterborough area of Ontario who would revolutionize the art of canoe construction through techniques like the use of molds.

Canadian Canoe Museum's second floor

Canadian Canoe Museum’s second floor

The Museum currently has about six hundred canoes and other watercraft – most from northern North America; the 150 or so not in the nearby warehouse are the ones currently on display in the Museum building itself.

entrance of The Canadian Canoe Museum

entrance of The Canadian Canoe Museum

Located in Peterborough, Ontario’s version of renowned canoe-building centers like Old Town, Maine or Fredericton, N.B.,  the museum has been open since 1997. How the impressive collection came to be is a story in itself.  It can be traced back to the passion of one man – Kirk Wipper.  In 1959 he started with one which became two and then a half-dozen vintage canoes.  They were put on display in the dining hall of Camp Kandalore, the boys’ camp he owned and ran in the Halliburton area from 1957 to the mid-1970’s. It grew into what may well be the finest collection of canoes, kayaks, and dugout canoes in the world.

Camp Kandalore and Peterborough

Peterborough, Camp Kandalore, Minden, Port Hope –

By 1976 the first museum had opened at Camp Kandalore.  Named the Kanawa International Museum of Canoes, Kayaks and Rowing Craft, it soon outgrew the space available and the search was on to find a more suitable site.  While the towns of  nearby Minden and Port Hope on the shore of Lake Ontario were considered, in the end Peterborough won out. Given its canoe building heritage and the presence of Trent University with its Native Studies program, it was a good choice.  With the $1. offer of a building left vacant by a departing U.S. outboard motor manufacturer in the mid -1980’s there was now a place big enough to do the collection justice.

Canadian Canoe Museum entrance view from second floor

Canadian Canoe Museum entrance view from second floor

My brother and I visited the collection this May as a part of what we called a First Nations’ trifecta.  After overnighting in Peterborough, we also visited Petroglyphs Provincial Park and then spent a couple of days checking out the pictographs at Mazinaw Rock.

As you walk into the museum, the space to the left of the ticket counter seems to be dedicated to a current and topical display.  The one up right now is in keeping with the theme of the 2015 Pan-American Games in Toronto. Sleek modern boats belonging to some recent Olympic champion paddlers are hanging there with all the latest design features and materials.

racing shells at the museum entrance in May 2015

racing shells at the museum entrance in May 2015

more racing boats on the ground floor display

more racing boats on the ground floor display

racing shells on ground floor - other perspective

a different perspective  of the racing shells on ground floor

There is more on the first floor of the museum – a series of displays outlining the life of Kirk Wipper, a display on the Geological Survey of Canada and its craft, many examples of Lakefield and Peterborough canoes, as well as displays featuring two iconic Canadian paddlers – Bill Mason and Pierre Trudeau.  We would see all this after our visit to the second floor, where the story properly begins.

The steps to the second floor take you to the heart of the collection, the First Nations dug-outs and canoes and kayaks made of birch bark, elm bark, and sealskin. There may have been about fifty or sixty on display; some go back to the 1850’s and some are the work of modern builders like William and Mary Commanda of Maniwaki. Also on the second floor as well as the canoe displays is  a recreation of a voyageur campsite and a Hudson Bay post counter and a birch bark tipi.

birch bark canoe F on display

birch bark canoe on display

ojibway-style birch bark canoe

a long-nosed Ojibway-style birch bark canoe circa 1850

In the mid-1970’s Wipper had seized the rare opportunity to  purchase forty-four canoes and kayaks from New York City’s Museum of the American Indian. As Bevelery Haun tells the story –

The boats represented most indigenous design variations across North America, the majority of them being from peoples inhabiting the northern half of the continent. The Heye Foundation was interested in finding the craft a new home. In fact, they were in financial distress and needed to disperse parts of the collection. Kirk stepped in. He had received an Ontario government grant to pay for the additional Kanawa museum building, but when the Heye collection became available he used the funds in 1976 to purchase the Aboriginal watercraft.  (Haun, 121)

The above canoe from Leech Lake, Minnesota is just one of the canoes of the Heye Collection on display when we were there.

overview of display of various canoe types

overview of display of various canoe types – the Gwichin canoe is at the bottom

The canoe at the bottom – an 18′ 5″ Gwi’chin birch bark canoe from around 1850 – complete with Chinese trade beads at the stem and Chinese rattan instead of root around the gunwales – also came to Wipper as a part of the Heye Collection.  While diverting the money from its intended purpose would complicate matters for Wipper later on, it is clear that in spite of the bumps in the road it led to a much stronger collection in the end.

Ojibwe canoe

Ojibwe canoe

Dene birch bark canoes

Dene birch bark canoes

birch bark canoe detail decoration

Algonquin birch bark canoe detail decoration

Among the canoes is a recent one built in the 1970’s in Maniwaki Quebec by William Commanda and his wife Mary. (Commanda was inducted into the Museum’s Hall of Honour in 1995.)  The photo above shows some of the decorations on the bow of their canoe.

three birch bark canoes

three Algonquin-style birch bark canoes – the Commanda one is up top

One canoe on display – a canoe from the Gatineau area of Quebec – was built from one piece of birch bark!

high end of Algonquin-style canoe

high end of Algonquin-style canoe

Lac Seul circa 1900 with Cree-Ojibwe design features

Lac Seul circa 1900 with Cree-Ojibwe design features

West Coast style dug out canoe

West Coast style dug out canoe

west coast dug out canoe with sail

west coast dug out canoe with sail

Inuit watercraft

Inuit kayak

birch bark central- canoes and teepee

birch bark central- canoes and tipi

1880's Maliseet - Penobscot birch bark canoes

1880’s Maliseet – Penobscot birch bark canoes

As well as the Algonquin and Ojibwa canoes the exhibit includes  a few built by the Maliseet.  The St. John River in modern-day New Brunswick was their heartland.   Along with the Mi’kmaq, they are considered the builders of the finest birch bark canoes on the continent (so writes John Jennings in The Canoe: A Living Tradition).  It left me wondering if any of their design concepts found their way into the canoes of N.B.’s Chestnut Canoe Company.

map with major fur  trade routes

map with height of land, river flow and major fur trade routes

Along with the First Nations dugouts, canoes, and kayaks,  the second floor devotes some space to the fur trade.  Replicas of the canot du maitre and the canot du nord are on display, as is a recreation of a Hudson Bay Company trading post counter.

decorative detail from HBC birch bark canoe

decorative detail from HBC birch bark canoe

canot -du-nord ...birch-bark-canoe

canot -du-nord …birch-bark-canoe

Canot du Nord decorative detail

Canot du Nord decorative detail

HBC Trading Post recreation

HBC Trading Post recreation

snowshoes and beaver pelts

snowshoes and beaver pelts

An hour and a half later we found ourselves back at the steps leading to the first floor. It had been quite the inspiring history lesson which had us marvelling at both the ingenuity and toughness of those who came before us.

Canoe Museum ground floor entrance view

Canoe Museum ground floor entrance view

Past the current display of racing craft we checked out the display recapping the life and dreams of Kirk Wipper. A favourite hat, a recreation of a Camp Kandalore dining room table…nicely done. If not for his obsession, this museum would not exist.

Kirk Wipper gallery

Kirk Wipper gallery

Around the corner…a bit of local history, the glory days of Peterborough – and nearby Lakefield – canoe building centers whose watercraft would find their way to lakes and rivers across North America. Before my visit to the Museum I will admit to having no real clue about any of this.

Peterborough Canoe Co. canoes

Peterborough Canoe Co. canoes

Peterborough canoes in all directions

Cedar Strip Freight Canoe by Lakefield Co.

Cedar Strip Freight Canoe by Lakefield Co.

My brother Max spent extra time looking at the above canoe. He recognized the workmanship and the technique used since he had once been given a 1922 – vintage Lakefield canoe that he worked on for a bit before deciding to pass it on to another owner. Like this one, once stripped of its outer canvas and gently sanded it too showed the copper nails used to secure the cedar strips to the half round ribs. Brass ‘Lakefield’ oval badges (for lack of a better word) were located on the out side where the thwarts were fastened with brass screws. Half round brass was also used as a skid or guard both stern and bow and as with many canoes of this era had the bow plate hole to allow rigging of a sail. How did he know the vintage? An original owner had burned a date and name to the underside of the bow deck plate. From the stories told by the person from who he received the canoe he may have been the third or fourth owner.

Lakefield Canoe Co. LogoLakefield Circle logo

Bill Mason's red cedar strip

Bill Mason’s red cedar strip

The Museum visit ended with us checking the last two displays. Bill Mason’s red cedar strip canoe was there, as was his cotton canvas campfire tent. Mason’s late 1970’s films – Path of the Paddle and Song of the Paddle – helped ignite my interest in wilderness paddling back then. His books would become go-to sources of instruction and advice – and his adoption of the Tilley hat just made it seem like the obvious head-gear for any real paddler! I have gone through more than a few in the past thirty years, thanks to the occasional capsize.

Pierre Trudeau's buckskin jacket

Pierre Trudeau’s buckskin jacket

And finally, Pierre Trudeau.  Say what you want, the guy had a certain something – style, charisma, cojones – and of all the images of our late Prime Minister the one that speaks to me the most is the one of him serenely paddling his canoe.

“I Know A Man whose school could never teach him patriotism….”

Our two-hour-plus visit to The Canadian Canoe Museum was absolutely worth it. There is no way I could remember all the bits of information that I read as we went from one exhibit to the next. Beyond the many facts, however, which I know I can always google to find,  there is still the overriding impression that I can’t google.  It is simply this – a sense of  respect for those who built not only these incredible canoes but also the very country I know as Canada. It is this incredible story which the Museum tells through its collection.

back to the entrance of the museum

back to the entrance of the museum

There are plans to move the Museum from 910 Monaghan Road to a new and better site. The Museum website (see here for the source) describes what it hopes will happen in the next few years –

Parks Canada and The Canadian Canoe Museum are exploring an innovative idea of relocating the Museum to the Peterborough Lift Lock National Historic Site on the Trent-Severn Waterway as a way to boost the tourism and revenue potential for both organizations.

The construction of a new museum at this location would consolidate two significant tourism and recreation destinations in the region and offer enhanced opportunities for Canadian families, including the opportunity to better explore the canoe’s history in Canada and enjoy the diverse water-related programming and associated activities that can be offered by the Museum at this historic location.

The Canadian Canoe Museum warehouse - 2:3rds of the holdings are here!

The Canadian Canoe Museum warehouse – just across the parking lot from the Display building

Useful Resources and Links:


Becoming Kirk Wipper: The Story Of The Museum’s Founder.

Beverley Haun. 2013. 152 pages. especially chapters 4 and 5  which cover the period from his taking over Camp Kandalore in 1957 to the opening of the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough in 1997. It details the growth of the collection of canoes and related watercraft and the increasingly urgent need for a home that could accommodate them all.

I found a copy of the book in the Toronto Library system.  If you are a cardholder, see here to reserve one of the two copies available.

The Canoe

The Canoe: A Living Tradition (2002) is the essential companion book to the Canadian Canoe Museum. Edited and introduced  by John Jennings,  it has contributions from leading experts of various aspects of the canoe story. Forget Google – this book is the source!

The Canadian Canoe Museum website has all the information you would expect. Click on the title to find what you need to know about getting there, hours of operation, and the like.

Boudhanath Stupa – The Heart Of Nepal’s Tibetan Community

Previous Post: Swayambhunath – Buddha Eyes Over the Kathmandu Valley

Update: The Boudhanath Stupa did not suffer any serious damage from the earthquakes of early 2015.  See the end of the post for more information and links to videos.

A short tuk-tuk ride from Thamel – the “tourist ghetto” of Kathmandu – and we were at the  ticket booth and the short street leading north to the Great Stupa at Boudhanath (also spelled Bodhnath).

The Tuk-Tuk Ride from Thamel to Boudhanath

The Tuk-Tuk Ride from Thamel to Boudhanath

There is  one main physical focus – The Great Chorten or Stupa – in this once small village called Boudha to the east of Kathmandu . Hundreds of years ago it  gained importance as a stopping point on the great yak caravan route from this valley to Lhasa, a shrine to leave offerings or petitions at journey’s start or end.

These days, however, it is the heart of the growing Tibetan Buddhist community in the Kathmandu valley and has attracted all around it both refugees who fled their homeland when the Chinese invaded  in 1959 and the Sherpas who have branched out from their traditional heartland in the Khumbu. We  spent a couple of memorable mornings at Boudhanath, walking around and taking in the stupa from various vantage points.

satellite shot of Boudhanath Stupa and Surroundings

All around the Stupa are multi-storey homes, guesthouses, gompas, meditation centers, thangka shops, cafés and restaurants…it is teeming with life.  In fact, on my next visit to Kathmandu, I will make Boudhanath my base camp during the time I spend in the valley.  Being there early in the morning or later at night after the tourist/pilgrim ratio changes  would make the experience even more special.

Bodhnath - entrance to the complex

Boudhanath – entrance to the complex

From the main road you walk through the archway and down the narrow street pictured above, first stopping at the ticket booth where you pay a nominal entrance fee. You walk into a sea of Tibetan prayer flags, all imprinted with mantras whose positive energy the wind is said to blow into the world. All around the stupa, prayer wheels spin, turned by pilgrims who walk by in a clockwise direction.

Bodhnath prayer flags

Boudhanath prayer flags at north end of square

Symbols of Tibetan Buddhism are everywhere; so too are signs of a living faith exhibited by the total gamut of pilgrims – from well-heeled city dwellers to rough-clad peasants to young and old monks in their maroon, yellow, and red robes.

Boudhanath double dorje

Boudhanath double dorje (thunderbolt) on top of Ajima’s shrine

Boudhanath stone sculpture

Boudhanath sculpture of seated multi-armed goddess

We made our way to buildings on the front (i.e. north)  side of the Stupa. A fantastic view can be had from the fourth-floor terrace of the Stupa View Cafe and Restaurant. In the pic below you can see the top of the shrine dedicated to Ajima (aka Hariti), the demoness of smallpox. It seems that an encounter with the Buddha convinced her that infecting children with the disease was not a Buddhist thing to do (the Buddha had converted her) so she agreed to stop – with one proviso.  She would stay within the confines of the shrine as long as she received offerings and prayers there.  And so they come, kneeling between the two lion figures on the outside and  looking into the shrine at the Ajima statue with their petitions and prayers.

Bodhnath - looking up the north steps

Bodhnath – looking up the north steps

Behind the shrine are the steps leading up to the three levels of platform to the very base of the stupa.  The steps take you past the two riders on elephants.

Bodhnath - north entrance to stupa

Bodhnath – the bottom of the north steps  to the stupa base

Bodhnath north end elephant close up

Bodhnath north end looking up at the elephant and rider

Bodhnath rider on north steps

Bodhnath rider on north steps

Bodhnath with 108 buddha niches around base

Boudhanath stupa with 108 buddha niches around base

The Stupa is about 40 meters high and 100 meters in diameter.  While it may be Nepal’s largest, the current Lonely Planet guide is wrong to call it Asia’s “largest stupa”. Sri Lanka’s Anuradhapura, for example,  has two stupas which are much higher – the Jetavanaramaya  at 122 meters and the Ruwanwelisaya at 92 – and with larger diameters. Beyond all the measurements, however, the scene  around the stupa at Boudhanath was definitely much more atmospheric and vibrant than what I found with the Sri Lankan stupas (dagobas in Sinhala) since they are in an archaeological zone away from the modern city.

Bodhnath - to the Stupa View Restaurant

looking from the base of the Boudhanath Stupa to the Stupa View Restaurant

Each of the five flag colours signifies a different essential element, with yellow representing earth, green water, red fire, white air, and blue space.

A walk around the two levels of the stupa platform provides a different perspective. In the photo above I am looking back at the Stupa View Restaurant, whose sign you can see if you zoom in on the image!

Bodhnath stupa peak

Bodhnath stupa peak

Like the Swayambhu Stupa, this one has all the classic elements – the dome, the square box (the harmika)  on top, the 13 receding steps of the spire leading up to the elaborate umbrella.  The different elements also correspond to the symbolism of the prayer flags with the base being earth, the dome water, the square box fire, the spire air, and the umbrella space. Having grown up as a Roman Catholic I can appreciate how Tibetan Buddhists revel in their highly visual approach to faith!

On the four sides of the square, looking out into the four cardinal directions, are the Buddha eyes. Eyebrow above and what some take to be a nose – it is actually the Newari symbol for the number 1 – and you have the iconic Buddha face.

Bodhnath - close up of eyes

Bodhnath – close up of eyes

Visualizing the stupa as a three-dimensional mandala  – not a big stretch – would also reveal deeper levels of meaning in the structure.  Consider the following –

See here for internet- source of image

See here for internet source of the image

mandala with the five colours of the prayer flag

mandala with the 5 colours of the prayer flag

Google 3-D model of Boudhanath Stupa

Google Earth 3-D model of Boudhanath Stupa

The stupa as a religious structure began as a relic mound supposedly containing some bone remains of the Buddha salvaged after his cremation. Some stupas, especially those in Myanmar, claim to have strands of hair which the Buddha gave to Burmese travellers while he was alive.  The Boudhanath stupa, some believe, holds the  Buddha’s collar bone but the most fantastic story is this one retold by Keith Dowman in his The Power Places Of the Kathmandu Valley.

When the stupa  was consecrated 100 million Buddhas dissolved into it, and it has the glory of being filled with their sacred relics.  Whatever prayer is offered to it is fulfilled, and if you meditate upon your personal deity here, at the time of your death you will be reborn in Sukhavati.

Boudhanath - the view from the Stupa View Terrace

Boudhanath – the view from the Stupa View Terrace

Around the base of the stupa itself are 108 niches, each with a seated Buddha figure in the dhyani (meditation), “touching the earth” or other mudras. The dome itself gets its stain thanks to a saffron-coloured water which they toss on the dome, supposedly to create the look of lotus leaves. Here is a Youtube video showing how it is done –

The Walk From Boudhanath Stupa to Pashupatinath

The Walk From Boudhanath Stupa to Pashupatinath

After our visit to the Great Stupa, we walked towards the Bagmati River and then headed towards the Hindu temple complex there. If Boudhanath is the heart of Tibetan Buddhism in the Kathmandu Valley, then Pashupatinath plays the same role for Hindus.

Next Post –  Pahupatinath – soon to be uploaded

Boudhanath After The Earthquakes of April-May 2015:

Click here for a report on the state of the UNESCO sites in the Kathmandu Valley as of May 11th and 12th. You can find the blogger’s profile here.

As the above blog mentions, the stupa itself escaped any serious damage. He reported some bricks having been dislodged from the spire.  At the base, one of the mini-stupas has crumbled apart.

The site – along with Pashupatinath – was been declared safe to visit on May 26, according to a Nepali Times news article. Click here.

This brief Youtube video of the stupa area filmed on May 9th is worth watching –

The Mazinaw Pictographs: Listening For Algonquian Echoes

Previous Post – The Peterborough Petroglyphs: Building Over An Ancient Algonquian Ritual Site

checking out Mazinaw Rock from the landing near our campsite

checking out Mazinaw Rock from the landing/boat launch area near our campsite

Massanog, Massinaw, Mazinaw  …no matter how you spell it in English, the roots of the word lie in the Algonquian language of those who came to this lake over a time span measured in millennia. Meaning something like “painted image”, the lake gets its name from the close to three hundred ochre rock paintings put there by Ojibwe or other Algonquian-speaking people three or four hundred years ago or perhaps even longer. Their canvas? Three kilometers of awe-inducing vertical pink granite cliff face with heights of up to one hundred meters.  Mazinaw Rock has the largest single collection of pictographs in the entire Canadian Shield area.

My brother and I have visited a few of these rock painting sites over the past three years, often taken in by the majestic settings in which the shamans and vision quest-ers of old chose to make their ochre marks.  Agawa Rock on Lake Superior, the Pikitigushi River’s Cliff Lake, the Bloodvein’s Artery Lake … one hushed “wow” after another as we came up to them. Now we were looking at the Mazinaw Rock about five hundred meters across the lake, ready for the biggest wow of all.

Bon Echo Campsites

Bon Echo Campsites =- a small town when everybody’s there!

We visited Mazinaw Rock in May just before Victoria Day weekend. The Lake and the Rock are a part of Bon Echo Provincial Park and as the map above illustrates, when its four hundred campsites are full – common during prime time summer – it becomes a small town!  While we were there we saw two other tents and a camper van. The emptiness definitely added to our appreciation of the lake and the Rock!

sign to our campsite on Mazinaw's west shore

sign to our campsite on Mazinaw’s west shore

I had booked our campsite online in March;  Billed as a “premium” walk-in site, it requires a two hundred meter carry from the parking lot. On the park map above you will find it at the extreme top left – site #168.

I still recall when the total cost for two nights at the site popped up on my computer screen – $99.71. I almost scrapped the idea of visiting right then and there – $100. for 2 nights at a park tent site?  Well, thankfully I got over it.  While nothing beats our usual camping on Crown land for free, in this case sitting right across from Mazinaw Rock had an added value that made the fee seem more reasonable.

Bon Echo Campsite #168

Bon Echo Campsite #168

We arrived there early Wednesday evening and left a couple of mornings later.  While the two nights were a bit cool-ish, we had clear sunny weather during the day and saw Mazinaw Rock – it faces westward – change colour from the dark grey of early morning to a lighter grey in late morning to an almost reddish glow in late afternoon. It was magical.

our Swift Dumoine across from Mazinaw Rock

our Swift Dumoine across from Mazinaw Rock

During our time there we paddled the entire length of the rock face twice – once in the morning and again in the late afternoon.  Before we left the next morning we went over a third time and redid a good stretch of it. What a great way to spend time!  None of our pix captured the feeling of sitting there in our canoe and looking up eighty meters of vertical rock face. Now that I think of it, using the camera’s video option would perhaps have been the way to show some of the sheer grandeur of Mazinaw.

dusk view of Mazinaw Rock

a dusk shot of Mazinaw Rock from our Bon Echo Campsite

We set off the next morning before breakfast for a ninety-minute paddle down the two kilometer length of Mazinaw Rock from the south tip of German Bay to the Narrows. As we had done on other pictograph site visits, we enlisted Selwyn Dewdney as our guide. He is the one who initiated the systematic recording and analysis of Canadian Shield pictographs in the late 1950’s and provided us with explanations of sometimes puzzling ochre marks and images.

Dewdney, of course, was not the first to note the existence of the pictographs.  In The Mazinaw Experience: Bon Echo and Beyond (see the end of the post for a link to the book), John Campbell lists references to the rock paintings that go back to 1848, when J.S. Hargen (or Harper according to another source) saw them while surveying the Mississippi River system of which Lake Mazinaw is the headwaters. Also mentioned are an A.J.B. Halfpenny article in the 1879 edition of The Canadian Antiquarian and Numismatic Journal and reports from the 1880’s by both the Smithsonian Institute and Canada’s Federal Department of Indian Affairs.

In the early 1890’s the site was also visited and systematically recorded  by David Boyle, Canada’s pre-eminent archaeologist of the day and the director of the Ontario Provincial Museum (which would later become the Royal Ontario Museum).  Given that many had already noted the existence of the rock paintings,  his following comments are puzzling –

David Boyle - The Rock Paintings of Massanog

Needless to say, Boyle found what his informants (Messrs. Caldwell of Lanark and Drummond of Perth identified in the footnote indicated in the quote) had told him about. Boyle would write a brief report on his visit which represents the first attempt by an archaeologist to deal with the site and its meaning. (See the end of the post for access to the report.)

Mazinaw Lake - upper section

Mazinaw Lake - lower section

I have arranged our photos of the pictographs in the same north to south order that Dewdney used. We would soon see that while there may well be 295 pictographs at Mazinaw Rock,  many are on the verge of disappearing and most are no more than lines and what some  refer to as “tally marks”. Like 80% of the pictographs found in the Temagami area, for example, the Mazinaw ones tend to be abstract. Dewdney makes the following general comment about the site –

Handprints are entirely absent, canoes are rare, and the tendencies to geometric types of abstractions so marked that we are tempted to ask whether the paintings are not the product of a culture quite distinct from those further west.They seem older, too, in so far as a large number have been weathered to near-disappearance. (p.97)

Take a look here at my photos of the pictographs from the Bloodvein River’s Artery Lake site and you will see what Dewdney is getting at when he compares the Mazinaw’s pictograph style to the naturalistic portrayal of humans and animals more common further west.

the northernmost pictograph we found

the northernmost pictograph we found – it may be an animal or perhaps a T shape

one of the  pictos north of Face II's Mishipeshu

one of the pictographs north of Face II’s Mishupeshu – four uneven parallel lines

We were soon rewarded with one of the two most striking pictograph faces of the entire site – Dewdney labels it Face II.  He begins by commenting on a figure that others have connected to Mishupeshu, the mythic underwater lynx –

The weird central figure is surely no native animal, although the shoulder-neck area is too badly weathered for the viewer to be able to make out the original outline.The strong suggestion of cloven hoofs is unique.  Note the same animal below this one’s belly – not identifiable either, but far more typical of the other animals on the site. Even the canoe, if we so interpret the lower part of the painting, is strikingly different from others elsewhere.

Mazinaw Rock - the Mishzupeshu  face (Dewdney's Face II)

Mazinaw Rock – the Mishupeshu face (Dewdney’s Face II)

Dewdney's sketch of Mazinaw's Face II

Dewdney’s sketch of Mazinaw’s Face II

As a comparison, here is how David Boyle saw the same panel in his 1892 visit. His ordering system goes from south to north so by the time he got to this face he was up to #37.

Boyle's drawing of what Dewdney labelled  Face II

Boyle’s drawing of what Dewdney labelled Face II

Mazinaw Face II close-up

Mazinaw Face II - afternoon shot

Mazinaw Face II – afternoon shot

Just underneath and to the south of Face II is what could be interpreted in the Ojibwa worldview as a water level cave entrance for the maymaygweshi, the very creatures that the shaman would come to meet.  (See the above face overview photo for the exact location.) Next to the rock indent are the pictographs seen in the image below, more cryptic and indecipherable lines, including three sets of vertical parallel ones.

pictographs just south of Dewdney's Face II

pictographs just south of Dewdney’s Face II

We paddled on, seeing single ochre marks in a couple of places.  We also saw the first evidence of graffiti – someone’s initials scratched onto the rock face. Admittedly, given that for over a hundred years or more that the lake has hosted increasing numbers of vacationers, things could be a lot worse.  First with the Bon Echo Inn and its satellite cabins and now with Bon Echo Park and its four hundred campsites, 99.5% of  visitors have been able to look at, appreciate and just paddle on.

initials scratched onto Mazinaw Rock

initials scratched onto Mazinaw Rock

When I quickly reviewed our photos after the trip I was initially puzzled by the one below. And then I noticed the two rock screws permanently embedded in Mazinaw and I remembered that the Alpine Club of Canada (the Toronto chapter to which I used to belong), has a hut around the corner in German Bay and its members often do climbs on Mazinaw Rock. The first recorded climb was in 1956. Now I am curious about where the various routes are located and what impact they have had on the pictographs!

rock screws on mazinaw between Faces II and VII

rock screws on Mazinaw between Faces II and VII

Mazinaw Rock S of Face II

some pictographs on Mazinaw Rock south of Face II

I took a photo of the rock face below because of what seemed to us like intentional scouring of the ochre. You can see the two lighter-coloured areas. Given that it makes no sense at all, there must be a better explanation!

a scoured patch of Mazinaw rock face

a scoured patch of Mazinaw rock face

six pictographs to the north of Rabbit Man

six pictographs to the north of Rabbit Man – afternoon shot

a stretch of mazinaw Rock

a stretch of Mazinaw Rock – morning shot

Mazinaw moose pictogaph and vertical lines

Mazinaw moose pictograph and vertical lines – Y-like figures

Dewdney drawing of Muslcow moose

Dewdney drawing of Musclow moose

Mazinaw - Dewdney Face VII

Mazinaw – Dewdney Face VII

It is a human trait to find meaning everywhere – even where it usually isn’t!  We’re able to turn random events into parts of a connecting narrative. Looking at the rock face above had me thinking about another one 1500 miles away on the Musclow River in Northwestern Ontario.  Dewdney did a sketch of a moose there that bears some similarity to the one on this Mazinaw rock face.

As we headed south to the next major face, the one with “Rabbit man”, we passed this rock face which Dewdney had stopped to sketch and which he labelled Face VII. Three human-like figures and some vertical slashes above them is what the sketch and the image below show.

Mazinaw - Dewdney's Face VII

Mazinaw – Dewdney’s Face VII – click on the image to enlarge it

Next up was the other – along with Face II – striking rock face. It features a figure that Dewdney labels “Rabbit-Man”.  Everything is up in the air he tries to make sense of what he is looking at. Of the pictograph on the south side of the face, he asks –

Are these a hare’s ears on this strange small figure? Or large feathers? If it is Ojibwa in origin we could make out a case for its representing Nanabozho, legendary hero and “demigod’, traditionally a hare. (99-100)

And of the left side of the face, he asks about what some have called “the picket fence” –

Are other rabbit ears emerging from the “tectiform” to the left? This strangely structured form, unique to the Mazinaw site, appears again on two other faces.

Stumped by the word “tectiform”?  I was.  The online dictionary defines it as “a design found in Paleolithic cave art and believed to represent a structure or dwelling”.  It certainly suits better than what I first saw – a chorus line of thirteen penguins!  

Mazinaw Rock's Rabbit Man Face

Mazinaw Rock’s Rabbit Man Face

possible nanabush picto and picket fence signs

possible Nanabush picto and picket fence signs

Again as a point of comparison, here are the sketches as they appear in Boyle’s report from the 1890’s –  I am again struck by how straight Boyle made everything.  He certainly seemed to be lacking the artist’s sensibility that Dewdney had in spades.  It is also be a reflection of the era each lived in – the rather starchy Victorian Era versus the freewheelin’ 1960’s.

Mazinaw Rabbit Man pictograph

the %22picket fence%22 pictograph

I am a bit confused here by Boyle’s numbering system. #26 and #34 are right next to each other and yet not numbered that way.  Also, since the the pictographs sketched below are closer to #37 – the “Mishupeshu” pictograph panel – you’d think that their number would higher than the “Nanabush” pictograph on the right.

Mazinaw Rock's Rabbit man panel

Mazinaw Rock’s Rabbit man panel – morning shot

Rabbit Man face close up

Of all the Mazinaw rock faces, this  is the only one which even gets a mention in Grace Rajnovich’s Reading Rock Art: Interpreting The Indian Rock Paintings Of The Canadian Shield.  She writes:

The Mazinaw Lake pictographs in eastern Ontario are puzzling to this author.  The repeated “honeycomb” or “picket fence” signs (Figure 143)  do not occur elsewhere in Shield rock art, so the site appears to be unique, perhaps someone’s deeply personal dream. (161)

She does go on to note that a birchbark scroll found in northwestern Ontario at Burntside Lake has similar designs.  However, her comment about the site as the possible expression of “someone’s deeply personal dream” is perplexing. She would have to be referring to this particular rock face and not the entire site.  She would know from her extensive work at other sites that Mazinaw is not one person’s work. Many “painters” came to this special place over an extended period to create the sheer quantity of pictographs which are still evident today.  Also, as personal as these ochre paintings may be, the fact remains that those who came here were members of the same culture and shared a common mythological image bank and purpose. To emphasize the “deeply personal” misses the point.

another difficult to say what mazinaw pictograph face

another difficult to say what Mazinaw pictograph face

Dewdney sketch of the above rock face Dewdney noted this about the pictographs in his above sketch and also shown in the photo just above-

At the top left of the opposite page we have an abstraction which we are also tempted to relate to the “rabbit-man” already viewed. The face illustrated below it was most frustrating to record, much of it being too faint to trace directly.  The rendering here suggests dorsal spines and a horned head, but these should be regarded with some suspicion; I may well here have succumbed to my own wishful thinking. (pp.100-101 of IRPOTGL, 1967)

closer up of the above Mazinaw panel

closer up of the above Mazinaw panel

A few meters further on we saw this pictograph which reminded us of similar ones on the Bloodvein – there we saw a couple of versions of a standing human figure holding something in his outstretched arm. We looked at this one and wondered if this too could be interpreted as a shaman holding out his otter skin medicine bag?

Anishinaabe shaman with medicine bag on Mazinaw Rock?

canoe and double-ended Y

canoe and double-ended Y

As you paddle south you will pass by dozens more pictographs, some in better shape than others. Eventually you approach the Narrows. But first, a feature that looks like a cave  comes up.  Max hopped out of the canoe to see if there were any pictographs on the inner walls of the “cave” – the answer was “No”. We didn’t know it yet but Max had just walked inside the belly of the Turtle!

approaching Turtle Cave from the north

from Inside Turtle Rock Cave

As we paddled around the corner, there was the Turtle!   In the pic below you can see the Turtle’s head stick out over the water. From another angle you can almost imagine the front legs. You can see how this spot is just asking for some meaning to be assigned to it!

Turtle Rock as seen from the north

view of Turtle Rock from the south

view of Turtle Rock from the south

Beyond the Turtle’s nose we paddled by another indecipherable rock face sketched by Dewdney.

more Mazinaw  pictos which left Dewdney puzzled

more Mazinaw pictos which left Dewdney puzzled

Of this face and its pictographs Dewdney wrote –

The more familiar forms below call for little comment, but those in the bottom margin [of p. 101] are strange indeed. The one might have been influenced by a pottery design; the other might be described as “geometricized tree branches” for lack of a better guess.

Dewdney sketch of rock panel just North of  Old Walt and the narrows

closer up of the above rock face

closer up of the above rock face

Next up was this strange collection of small rectangles – different shades of white and ochre coloured strips. Perhaps an experiment to see how long different paints and ochre formulations last?

strips of white and ochre - an experiment in progress?

strips of white and ochre – an experiment in progress?

For a thirty-year period from 1900 to 1930 not far from the Narrows was the Bon Echo Inn and its cabins,  It included a few members of the famed Group of Seven painters as its clientele; the owner was a Flora MacDonald Denison, a woman with progressive and somewhat unconventional views. A women’s rights campaigner as well as a spiritualist of the Madame Blavatsky sort, she was also smitten by Walt Whitman, the U.S. poet. In 1920 she had a memorial to Whitman – entitled “Old Walt” – engraved onto Mazinaw Rock just a bit north of the Narrows.

Old Walt engraving on Mazinaw Rock

Old Walt engraving on Mazinaw Rock

Old Walt closer up- afternoon shot We were surprised to find more pictographs south of the Old Walt engraving and wondered what ochre images had been destroyed in creating the homage to Whitman.

Dewdney’s Face XXIV:

Dewdney's Face XXIV at Mazinaw Rock

Dewdney’s Face XXIV at Mazinaw Rock

Mazinaw - Dewdney's Face XXIV

Mazinaw – Dewdney’s Face XXIV – afternoon shot

Dewdney sketch of mazinaw Face XXIV

Dewdney sketch of Mazinaw Face XXIV

a closer up of the above face XXIV

a closer up shot of Dewdney’s Mazinaw Face XXIV

There is one more site north of the Narrows – Face XXVIII.  It is divided into a couple of parts, the first of which Dewdney labelled XXVIIIa.

last pictograph face north of  the Narrows

Dewdney’s Face XXVIIIa – pictograph face north of the Narrows

Mazinaw - Dewdney's Face XXVIII

Mazinaw Rock - Dewdney's Face XXVIII and more to the south

Mazinaw Rock – Dewdney’s Face XXVIIIa and yet more to the south

Maziinaw - the pictos just S of Dewdney's Face XXVIII

Mazinaw – the pictos just S of Dewdney’s Face XXVIIIa

on the west side of Mazinaw at the Narrows

on the west side of Mazinaw Lake at the Narrows

a paddler passing Old Walt N of Mazinaw Narrows

a paddler passing Old Walt N of Mazinaw Narrows

Our early morning paddle done we headed back to our camp site and breakfast.  Given that we had entered the park the previous evening after closing time, we also had to go up to the gate and register our vehicle and get our two-day pass. Driving through the park we were surprised to see that there was nobody there.

Mazinaw dock to south of the narrows

Mazinaw dock to south of the narrows

In the afternoon we went back over to the east side of the lake and paddled by all the pictos again.  The light and shadows gave the rock face a different and warmer look. When we got to the dock just beyond the Narrows we parked the canoe and spent an hour walking up to the top of the cliff and enjoying the view from the various viewing platforms developed by Friends of Bon Echo Park.  A commendable project  and very nicely done!

Mazinaw Cliff Top Trail info board

Mazinaw Cliff Top Trail info board

The Friends of Bon Echo Gravel Project

The Friends of Bon Echo Gravel Project

a stretch of the Cliff Top Trail

a stretch of the Cliff Top Trail

a few flights of steps to deal with on the way to cliff top

a few flights of steps to deal with on the way to cliff top

a view of the Lagoon and lower Mazinaw Lake view from the top of Mazinaw Rock

a view of the Lagoon and lower Mazinaw Lake view from the top of Mazinaw Rock

Cliff top view of Mazinaw Lake with the Narrows below

Cliff top view of Mazinaw Lake with the Narrows below

the west side of Mazinaw Lake across from the 1 mile of cliff face

looking north up  Mazinaw Lake  from the a Cliff Top viewing spot

Lower Mazinaw Lake Pictographs:

Leaving the dock after our Cliff Top visit, we paddled south to see the three rock faces mentioned by Dewdney on the lower part of the lake.  (They make up Site #38 in his list.) While I have ordered them here in the order we would have seen them (north to south), I decided not to take any pix as we paddled down.  “I’ll just get them when we come back in a few  minutes” was how I put it.  So – we ended up seeing four different rock faces with pictographs as we paddled down  but when we came back we could only find three!  I am also not sure why none of the three sites we photographed have a face that looks like the  Face III sketch on p.102 of Dewdney’s book – unless it is the one we missed on the way back!

Lower Mazinaw Lake pictographs

Lower Mazinaw Lake pictographs

Lower Mazinaw  pictographs - two vertical lines

Lower Mazinaw pictographs – two vertical lines

Lower Mazinaw - two vertical lines closer up

Lower Mazinaw – two vertical lines closer up

Lower Mazinaw lake - southernmost pictographs

Lower Mazinaw lake – southernmost pictographs

We paddled back to our campsite and spent some time rambling around the area behind our tent.  As sunset came we got to see Mazinaw Rock glow one more time. While it had taken us a while to get there, we recognized our good fortune in being able to glide past the ochre signs still visible  just above water level. In the process of listening to the pictographs  we came away with more pieces of a puzzle that seems to get bigger instead of smaller!

shadow on rock

shadow on rock – ephemeral pictograph!

Mazinaw Rock glows in the late afternoon

chillin' at Bon Echo campsite #168 on a cool May evening

chillin’ at Bon Echo campsite #168 on a cool May evening

Useful Links:

John Campbell’s The Mazinaw Experience: Bon Echo And Beyond provides a great overview of the history of the area.  The first two chapters deal with the First Nations period and further chapters cover lumbering , farming settlements, mining, and tourism in the region. Click on the title above to see its Amazon page (available as a mobi file) or read the introduction and the first two chapters (pp.1-23) at Google Books by clicking here

The first edition (1962) of Selwyn Dewdney’s Indian Rock Paintings of the Great Lakes is accessible for online reading or downloadable in various formats thanks to the Royal Ontario Museum. It  made the contribution to the Internet Archive in 2014. Just click on the book title to go to the website. Mazinaw is dealt with from pp. 96 to 101.

David Boyle’s report Rock Paintings At Lake Massanog can be found online at the Google Books site. The article begins on the bottom of p. 46 and is preceded by three pages of general comments entitled “Rock Paintings or Petrography”.  I’ve taken both articles and put them into a 1.4 mb pdf file which you can download here.

Swayambhunath – Buddha Eyes Over The Kathmandu Valley

Previous Post: The Kathmandu Valley & Its UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites

Update: Many of Swayambhunath’s structures suffered considerable damage in the earthquake of April 2015. The Anantapura shikhara to the left of the steps toppled and there was serious damage to buildings on the west side of the stupa. See the end of the post for more images and links to video footage.

image from CBC news report on Nepal after the quake

image from CBC news report on Nepal after the quake – see at end of post for link

A three kilometer walk from Thamel across the Vishnumati River and you soon come to the foot of a tree-covered hill known as “Swayambhu” (the self-arisen), a site which figures in the very creation story of the Kathmandu Valley.  If nearby Boudhanath is the #1 site for Tibetans, then this one was traditionally central to Newari Buddhists. Since the early 1960’s the Tibetan refugee population has embraced it too, as the gompas nearby show.

satellite shot of Swayambhunath and sourrounding area of Kathmandu Their origin myth tells of a lake which once filled the entire valley until Manjushi, the bodhisattva of wisdom,  paid a visit to worship the lotus he had seen in a dream.  Finding the lotus, and wanting to make it easier for pilgrims to reach, he cut a gorge at one end of the lake and thus drained it.  And so the Kathmandu valley came to be – and the spot where the lotus was became the top of the hill we see today.  In time a stupa was built where the lotus used to be – and eventually other shrines and temples around it on the hilltop we know as Swayambhunath.

Swayambhunath While there is a road the goes up to the top from the west side of the hill, it is really much better to take your time walking up the stone steps  – over 300 – on the east side, in the company of Buddhist pilgrims who believe that the merit gained here is worth immeasurably more than that gained elsewhere. (The Swayambhu Purana states that it is  thirteen billion times more – a pretty convincing argument for choosing Swayamblhu!)

Swayambhunath - worshipper at bottom of steps on the eastern side

Swayambhunath – worshipper at bottom of steps on the eastern side

The steps to the top pass by many shrines and statues erected over the centuries by Buddhists keen to earn merit at this holiest of Kathmandu’s sites. Tibetan prayer flags flutter on the way up – the healing mantras imprinted on them blown into an imperfect world.  In the pix above and below you see them behind the seated Buddhas, who are in the “touching the earth” mudra associated with the moment under the Bodhi Tree when  Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha, the Awakened One.

Swayambhunath-  bottom of steps up to the stupa

Swayambhunath- bottom of steps up to the stupa

Swayambhunath - bottom of the steps shrines

Swayambhunath - shrine on the way up

Swayambhunath – shrine on the way up

swayambhu bottom pathway to top

Swayambhu  – the bottom of pathway to the top platform

Swayambhunath standing Buddhas on the path up

Swayambhunath standing Buddhas on the path up

Swayambhunath - two seated Buddhas - unusual mudra

Swayambhunath – two seated Buddhas – unusual mudra

The pix above and below illustrate the seated Buddha in a mudra named varada. Unlike the Bhumisparsha (touching the earth) mudra,  here the palm of the right hand is turned outward and symbolizes the granting of wishes. All of the Buddha figures hold a bowl – it contains the medicine or dharma for what ails us –  in their left hands.

Swayambhu - two buddha seated figures

Swayambhunath - the steps up to the top platform

Swayambhunath –  looking back down the steps

Sometimes as you approach the top you are met by rhesus macaques, who have been known to intimidate a pilgrim or two.  They are more likely to be found on the northwest side of the hill; their very presence here has led some to call Swayambhunath “the Monkey Temple”.  You are more likely to encounter them at the end of the day as things cool down and they venture out.

swayambhu steps up to the top

swayambhu at the top

approaching the top of Swayambhu

The first thing see as you approach the top is #9 (map below) the Great Thunderbolt, symbolic of a great spiritual force (the Dharma) which is able to cut though all things. Behind it is #2 – the enclosed shine of Akshobhya, one of the Five Buddhas.

See here for source of map - Karmapa's Swayambhu monastery renovation project

See here for source of map –  Karmapa’s Swayambhu monastery renovation project

As you walk around the stupa in a clockwise direction, you pass by another three at the various cardinal points. (#s 4,5,6)  The fifth Buddha’s shrine (#3), which should symbolically be placed in the centre of the stupa, can be seen in the pic below just to the left of the Akshobhya shrine at the eastern entrance.

Swayambhu Buddha shrines and prayer wheels

Swayambhu Buddha shrines and prayer wheels

Swayambhunath - Dorje with Stupa in background

Swayambhunath – Dorje (thunderbolt)  with Stupa and two Buddha shrines  in the background

Swayambhunath -detail of stupa temple door

detail of one of the Five Buddha shrines around the base of the stupa

Swayambhunath - birds of stupa

Swayambhunath – birds on the  stupa

The stupa itself is made up of four main parts: the whitewashed dome, a cube which sits on the top, and a cone with thirteen progressively smaller rings up to the top, and an umbrella. The dome is often splashed with saffron-coloured water; on each of the four vertical sides of the cube or harmika are painted the Buddha’s eyes, as well as ek, the Nepali number 1 (which some take to be the nose!). Between the eyes – and just above them – is the urna curl, the tuft of hair which is one of the key marks of a Buddha. It is sometimes interpreted as the Buddha’s third and all-seeing eye.

Swayambhunath stupa view

pilgrim leaving offering at one of the small shikharas

All around the stupa at shoulder height are prayer wheels inscribed with the words “Om Mani padme Hum” (Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus), a petition to Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. He is known as Chenrezig in Tibetan Buddhism and has the Tara as his female equivalent. Elsewhere this bodhisattva takes on a  female form and is known as Guanyin in China and Kannon in Japan.  Spin the wheel and release the prayer into the world so that all sentient beings may benefit!

Swayambhunath - prayer wheels

Swayambhunath – prayer wheels

Swayambhunath - statues and shrines around the stupa

seated Buddhas in different mudras

Swayambhu- around the top platform

standing Buddhas and mini chaityas to the side of the stupa

The standing Buddha in the pic below is shown in the Abhaya (Have no fear) mudra, with the right hand palms outward; the left hand is in the varada mudra, also seen in a few of the pix above.  The stray dog may well be a dead dog; on our first visit to Kathmandu in 1996 we were struck by the hundreds of stray dogs roaming Thamel, especially early in the morning before streets really came alive.

swayambhunath standing buddha and dead dog

Swayambhunath standing buddha looking over a stray dog in bad shape

swayambhu stupa and surroundings

tourists and vendor – the postcards seem so 1996 – which is when the photo was taken

Later that day from the roof top of our hotel in the Thamel area, I pointed my telephoto lens west towards Swayambhu and got this shot of the lit-up stupa and the two slender Malla-era shikharas. As the images and film footage below show, the earthquake toppled the one on the left.

Pashupatinath - nightime view from Kathmandu

Since the April 2015 Earthquake:

Swayambhunath After the Earthquake

Swayambhu after the earthquake – a snapshot of images in a Google search window

A May 20th video from the New York Times looks at Swayambhu and the fate of the salvaged statues and other objects from the ruins. See here.

A Canadian Broadcasting Corp News item from May 7 (“Saving Nepal’s Heritage Sites”)  has perceptive commentary by Adrienne Arsenault and some video on sites like Swayambhu and Patan and Kathmandu’s Durbar Square.

Swayamblhu earthquake damage April 2015

Swayambhunath suffered some damage from the earthquake and the aftershocks of April 2015. Check out this link for a drone-filmed view of the damage on the hilltop – An Aerial View of Earthquake Damage in Kathmandu

Swayambhu gompa damage April 2015

Swayambhunath - damage to shrines and monastery around the stupa

Swayambhu - damage on the top to the Tibetan monastery

soldiers going through the ruins at Swayambhunath

soldiers going through the ruins at Swayambhunath – see here for photo source and article

Swayambhunath after the quake

Next Post:  Boudhanath Stupa: The Heart of Nepal’s Tibetan Community

The Kathmandu Valley & Its UNESCO Cultural Heritage Sites

Nepal and Kathmandu are in the news this week for the worst of reasons, a catastrophe at once unimaginable and yet recurring. The Years 1255 and  1934 saw similar earthquakes severely rattle the country’s foundations and then too its mountainsides and some of its rich architectural legacy collapsed on top of a stoic people who did not have much to begin with.

Update: June 16th saw the reopening of six of the seven UNESCO World Heritage sites as Nepal tries to revive its tourism industry. It annually hosts some 800,000 visitors, 85% of whom are coming for the country’s cultural attractions and not the trekking possibilities. See here for a related news article.

Kathmandu- rickshaw drivers at rest by the Trailokya Mohan Narayan Temple

before the 2015 earthquake …Kathmandu- rickshaw drivers at rest by the Trailokya Mohan Narayan Temple

It has almost been a decade since my last visit to Nepal and the Kathmandu Valley but it is never far from my mind.  Laila and I spent three memorable weeks there in October of 1996, mostly in the Kathmandu Valley and the Pokhara area.  In 2006 I would return for  six weeks of trekking – three weeks in the Annapurnas and three in the Mount Everest region.  And before, after, and in between the two treks I got to explore once more the cultural treasures of  Kathmandu and the towns nearby.

But now this. The temple in the above photo is now a pile of rubble, just one of the thousands of buildings destroyed in a few minutes on April 25. Aftershocks have added to the damage and severely rattled the people’s confidence in sleeping inside –

A.P . photo of Kathmandu's Trailokya Mohan Narayan Temple  after the quake

Associated Press  photo of Kathmandu’s Trailokya Mohan Narayan Temple after the quake

The video footage from a tourist on a second floor restaurant patio captured the moment when the earthquake hit the Durbar Square area of Kathmandu –

And here is a web-sourced image which I labelled to indicate the extent of damage in Kathmandu’s Durbar Square –

Kathmandu post-earthquake 2015 Durbar Square Kathmandu post-earthquake 2015

Kathmandu post-earthquake 2015 Durbar Square with three collapsed temples

October of 2016 was to be my return to the valley to reacquaint myself with an enchanting city and a welcoming people that may be at the top of all the places I have ever visited.  While that plan is now on hold,  Nepal will remain in my thoughts as its people rebuild their homes and roads and the temples which are an essential part of a culture in which religion is still a living force.

Swayambhunath-  bottom of steps up to the stupa

Swayambhunath- bottom of the steps leading up to the stupa

This everyday faith of theirs and their own efforts,  coupled with the generous aid of friends from outside the country, will hopefully mean that in a decade from now Nepal will be back on its feet and welcoming trekking adventurers and those who would like to see for themselves one of the world’s most amazing expressions of human culture, the Hindu-Buddhist world of the Kathmandu Valley and points beyond.

steps to the Bagmati from Pashupatinath Temple, one of the Hindu world's five major Shiva shrines

before the quake –  pilgrims on the steps to the Bagmati River from Pashupatinath Temple, one of the Hindu world’s major shrines

Buried all these years on a series of computer hard drives have been a few hundred jpgs image files of the Kathmandu Valley.  News of the earthquake led me to dig them up and look at them again. What I hope to do in the next few posts, other than contrast the Kathmandu that was with the one that is now, is show what it is that makes the Kathmandu Valley so special.

Pashupatinath Temple steps and cremations on other bank of the Bagmati

April 2015 – web-sourced pic of Pashupatinath Temple steps and cremations on other bank of the Bagmati River

Geography and history have made the Kathmandu Valley a cultural treasure acknowledged by people the world over. The United Nations and its program of World Heritage Sites has designated seven different sites, all within a few kilometers of each other, for special mention.  Beginning with Kathmandu itself, they are:

1. Kathmandu’s Durbar Square

2. the stupa at Bodhnath (sometimes spelled Boudhanath)

3. the Shiva Temple Complex at  Pashupatinath

4. the stupa at Swayambhunath

5. Durbar Square in Patan

6. Durbar Square in Bhaktapur

7. the Changu Narayan Temple on the road to Nagarkot

Kathmandu Valley - UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Kathmandu Valley – UNESCO World Heritage Sites


An excellent book to get ahold of is Power Places of Kathmandu (1995) , a 130-page coffeetable-sized book with incredible photos by Kevin Bubriski and insightful – and readable-  text by Keith Dowman.

See here for a link to the UNESCO web page on the Kathmandu Valley.

Post-April 25, 2015 the question I had been asking is this – What is the best way I can help Nepal?

Of all the answers to the question that I have seen,  this one in an article by Doug Saunders in the Globe & Mail was the most clearly reasoned. It was also based on his experience with the Sri Lanka tsunami relief operation.   Click on the link below to see what he says –

Want to help Nepal? Follow these five rules of disaster charity

A few years ago I recall donating to the Shelterbox organization for the Haiti disaster.  Not to knock Shelterbox, but this time I have taken Saunders’ advice and gone with one of the agencies he mentions.

Next post  –  Swayambhunath – Buddha Eyes Over Kathmandu.

Swayambhunath - birds of stupa

Swayambhunath – birds on the  stupa’s dome

Early Autumn Canoeing In The Heart Of Temagami

We got to the public dock and parking area at the end of Temagami’s Central Access Road (the old Mine Road)  on an overcast Wednesday afternoon; it was October 1. Ahead of us was up to a week of paddling and camping in a part of Ontario we have grown to love over the past few years. The plan was to paddle up to the pictograph site on the north arm of Diamond Lake  and then loop back through Wakimika Lake and River to Obabika Lake. The total distance: 100 kilometers. The biggest concern: the weather!


We were hoping that the two weeks of “Indian summer” in late September would continue for another week.  Appreciated was the fact that a six-hour drive from southern Ontario put us on the edge of something approaching wilderness. Since it was autumn, it would mean that we wouldn’t see (m)any other paddlers on Temagami waters that can be quite busy during the prime summer months. And while Temagami fall colours are not as dramatic as those in Algonquin Park, we knew we were in for some nice splashes of red and yellow to go along with the evergreen.

maples leaves on the portage

We left  Toronto at 7:00 a.m. for the 470-kilometer drive up Highway 11 to the Lake Temagami Access Road just south of the town of Temagami itself. (See here for a Google view of the ride.)  When we got there at 1:00, there were a few other vehicles in the public parking lot.  We had chosen this starting point instead of Sandy Inlet  at the end of Red Squirrel Road because we were a bit concerned about a possible break-in of the car while we were out paddling.

put-in end of the Lake Temagami Access Road

put-in at the end of the  Lake Temagami Access Road – Temagami Island sits at the top of the pic

In retrospect, we should have gone with the Red Squirrel Road/Sandy Inlet entry. Fellow paddlers have since assured me that the chances of our vehicle being broken into are quite low. Also, the 60 kilometers of mostly big lake paddle from our car to the north end of Obabika Lake and back would be eliminated. Given the wind and waves we faced on both Obabika and Temagami,  a Sandy Inlet put-in certainly has its attractions.

Day One: 

distance: 15 km                  weather: overcast, windy, drizzling       portages: none

02. Camp near Turtle Rock

Two and half hours of paddling took us from the put-in up the northwest arm of Lake Temagami to an established campsite at Turtle Rock;  nearby are a couple of pictograph sites but we had no luck finding them.  As the map below indicates, there are also a couple of pictograph sites on Bear Island. Paddling along the north shore of Bear Island,   we decided to keep them for the return in a few days. We hoped that the conditions would be more conducive for a search for faint ochre marks on rock.

Temagami - Day One route

Day One – From the put-in up the northwest arm of Lake Temagami

A bit of rambling around our Turtle Rock campsite did turn up a thunder box, nicely tucked away in the bush and covered with leaves.

03. thunderbox at Obabika Inlet camp

We spent a wet, drizzly evening under the kitchen tarp testing our new camp chairs. After twenty years of the venerable MEC Senate Seat, we have gone seriously upscale (and “upweight”  at two pounds [900 gms]  each).  We splurged on the Helinox Chair One for the decadence of off-the-ground seating. The post-trip decision – we’re definitely making room for them on all our future portages!

Day Two: 

Temagami - Day Two Route

Day Two – from Turtle Rock To Chee-skon Lake

distance: 20 km

weather: overcast/drizzle and rain, windy.

portages: 900 m into Obabika from Obabika Inlet; 760 m into Chee-skon from Obabika

campsite:  point at the north end of Chee-skon Lake

Going up Obabika Inlet gave us some sheltered paddling and the portage itself, a wide and well-trodden trail, even if 900 meters, was no big deal.  Just before the somewhat muddy take-out we did spot the shell of an old 1940’s truck that did duty on the trail back in the days of logging in the area.

04. abandoned 1940's truck shell at east end of Obabika Inlet portage

Up the east shore of Obabika we went, getting out to stretch our legs at a sand spit named Ranger (or Fog) Point. The campsite here has room for several tents and even has a nice beach. We continued past the two Grandparent (Kokomis and Shomis) Rocks, which figure in the traditional mythology of the local Anishinaabe.

a rock formation on the east bank of Obabika Lake which figures in local native myth

the rock formation on the east bank of Obabika Lake which figures in local native myth – pic taken on a summertime trip in 2009

When we reached the top of the lake we looked around for the beginning of the portage that would take us into the day’s goal, Chee-skon Lake. It was another landmark of significance in the traditional Anishinaabe world, thanks to a striking rock face and a rock tower on the east side of the lake.


The portage marker told us we were at the right spot. As the photo shows, there is definitely room here for a tent or two if it is too late in the day to contemplate the 760-meter carry into Chee-skon.

05. portage market at start of Chee-Skon carry

We both set off with a Duluth pack (well, the modern nylon version by the now sadly defunct company Hooligan Gear) on our backs and a duffel on top and the paddles. Given that it was hunting season, before we set off  we also made sure we had our orange vests draped around the packs and replaced our usual Tilley’s with orange caps.

When we got to what felt like half way, I put down my load and went back for the canoe while Max carried on to the end. I know we have done a good job estimating when I meet him again at the half way point and he is just picking up the pack and duffel.  It wouldn’t be happening this time, however.

yellow Chee-Skon portage marker

yellow Chee-skon portage marker

A “space cadet” moment would have me taking the canoe for a hike far away from the comforting yellow portage markers.  Along with the portage trail the Chee-skon area has a number of hiking trails that take walkers through one of North America’s finest old growth pine forests.  You will note the orange hiking trail marker on the pics below –

Chee-skon Hiking Trail marker

Chee-skon Hiking Trail marker in the distance

I should have picked up on the difference as I walked along with the canoe on my head. If that wasn’t enough of a clue, then I should definitely have clued in that something was wrong when I crossed the creek in the photo below –

creek flowing from Chee-skon to Obabika

creek flowing from Chee-skon to Obabika

I now get the difference between the orange and yellow markers but that afternoon I just kept on truckin’ further than I should have as the trail got rougher and rougher.  Finally, that “Duh” moment when  it  struck me that I had left the portage trail behind for an adventure I didn’t want. It sure was scenic though!

Chee-skon creek close-up

Putting down the canoe, I started making my way back until I bumped in my bro, who was wondering what was taking me so long. I thanked him for his offer to retrieve the canoe and carry it the rest of the way but, given that it was my screw up, I went back for it and finished the carry.

hiking the Chee-skon Old Growth Trails

hiking the Chee-skon Old Growth Trails

We got to the end of the portage and I finally got to see Chee-skon. At the put-in was an overturned canoe, probably left by locals to allow them to paddle to the Conjuring Rock at the other end of the lake without having to carry a canoe the 760 meters from Obabika. Across from the put-in was a small stretch of vertical rock with a nice reflection –

rock face across from Chee-skon put-in_

But it was the view down through the narrows to the north end of the lake that really caught our attention.

looking down to the east end of Chee-Skon

You can see the rock face and the pile of talus and scree in the distance.  We would paddle down the lake through the narrows and set up camp on the small point across from the rock. We then paddled across to look at Conjuring Rock up close.  In the photo below you can see our campsite on the far side of the lake – the green dot is our 10’x14′ MEC tarp.

view of east end of Chee-skon from the rock face

Max went for a scramble over the broken rock to the vertical cliff face itself; it rises about fifty meters and has a powerful presence. It’s easy to see how it would be considered a special place in the context of the rest of the terrain in the neighbourhood.

Here is a shot of  Conjuring Rock – the tower –  and the lake from above and to the north of the tower. Looking down the lake you can see Obabika itself in the distance.

Conjuring Rock and Chee-skon Lake

Conjuring Rock and Chee-skon Lake…thanks to Anon for the pic!

For another angle of the tower – a side shot taken from the north –  click here for a Thor Conway photo of the Rock that looks to be about thirty years old. He also provides a clear explanation as to why this rock would be associated with conjuring. And down below is the entire cliff face with the rock tower – Conjuring Rock – in the middle.

Max contemplating Chee-Skon

An issue of terminology to explore here – shades of leaving the portage trail for another impromptu hike!

In Hap Wilson’s 2004 Canoeing, Kayaking and Hiking Temagami (and the 2011 edition retitled Temagami: A Wilderness Paradise) the rock tower is called “Conjuring Rock”.  Wilson bases this name on a late nineteenth century map of the area sketched by the Anishinaabe elder Windaban for the Geological Survey of Canada’s Robert Bell.  In a chapter about Chee-skon in his book Trails and Tribulations Wilson writes about the map:

One place of prominent importance was Chee-skon-abikong sakahegan, or, for those not fluent in Ojibwa, “conjuring rock place lake”….Anishnabe linguistic expert and historian Craig MacDonald says of Chee-skon, “The name is derived from the root word for ‘shaking tent’- the seven-poled open-topped used by medicine healers (shamans).”

So there you have the reason why it is called Conjuring Rock.

On the other hand, The Friends of Temagami map has gone with the name  “Spirit Rock”  as does Jeff’s Temagami Map.

Both names convey the significance of the rock  as a sacred place to the Anishinaabe – but while the first name makes clear the exact nature of the activity,  the second name – Spirit Rock – has a more vague and general feel to it. One explanation offered as to why to  avoid the term “conjuring”  is that it was used by the Christian missionaries, who also affixed negative terms like “devil” and “wizard” to other nearby locations.

the face of Chee-skon

a part of the cliff face immediately north of Conjuring Rock

Chee-skon Lake - east side cliff and Conjuring Rock from campsite

Chee-skon Lake – east side cliff and Conjuring Rock from campsite across the lake

We would spend the late afternoon paddling around the lake and taking in the views of a spot we were really glad to have finally gotten to.  Here is a look south from the base of the cliff to where we had put our canoe back in the water after the portage –

Sheepskin Lake from the Conjuring  Rock

Chee-skon Lake from the talus below the cliff face

the south end of Chee-skon - the portage from Obabika  ends here

the south end of Chee-skon – the portage from Obabika ends at the water line at photo center

north end of Chee-skon Lake and the face of Conjuring Rock

north end of Chee-skon Lake and the dramatic stretch of 50 meter high rock wall

We got back to our camp just as it started drizzling;  our dining room tarp was already set up so we just deked in under it and stretched out on our plush new camp chairs.  After supper – an Indian curry in a boil-a-pouch each as well as some pasta – we leaned back with our coffee mugs and liqueur and contemplated the rock face in front of us. For just a moment we let our thoughts wander to the pair of panties we had found next to the fire circle and wondered what that was all about.

Chee-skon campsite on the north end point

Chee-skon campsite on the north end point

taking in the view at Chee-skon

taking in the view at Chee-skon

looking at the rock face from our campsite

looking at the rock face from our campsite

Day Three:

canoe at take-out on Chee-Skon waiting to be carried across the portage to MudLake

canoe at take-out on Chee-skon waiting to be carried across the portage to Mud Lake

kilometers: 10 km.

weather: overcast in the morning with one 15-minute slash of sunshine; wind and rain the rest of the day.

portages: 840 m from Chee-skon to Mud; 265 m from Mud to Bob; 1175 m from Bob to Diamond.

Temagami Day Three

The day of the portages!  We hoped to get to the Diamond Lake pictograph site on the north arm of Diamond Lake by early afternoon and then head back down to find a campsite on the west end of Diamond – but the combination of wind and rain starting around 1 meant we set up camp earlier than planned. The morning part – the portages – actually went smoothly, though Mud Lake did live up to its name at both ends of the portage!

portage trail from Chee-skon to Mud Lake

portage trail from Chee-skon to Mud Lake

end of portage into Mud Lake  from Chee-skon

end of portage into Mud Lake from Chee-skon Lake

the put-in on Mud Lake from Chee-skon

the put-in on Mud Lake from Chee-skon

east shore of Mud Lake

some nice rock face on the east shore of Mud Lake

off the portage trail from Mud to Bob

off the portage trail from Mud to Bob

Bob Lake - Diamond Lake Portage and island Camp

The portage trail to Diamond Lake from Bob Lake is in good shape and pretty flat most of the way. Near the end it crosses an old gravel  logging road, as the map below illustrates.  We sat at the end of the portage and had lunch and enjoyed our first real sunshine of the trip.  It was not to last.

As we paddled out of the shelter of the bay into the open lake itself we met a fierce east wind and the waves it was pushing our way.  Once we committed ourselves to crossing,  we were relieved to get to a small island.  It was quite exposed but we did find a spot which was sheltered from the wind and quickly put up our tent and supplemented it with a tarp for extra protection. Propping up the canoe between the wind and the tent also made a difference.  It would rain most of the afternoon and evening;  we focussed on staying dry and warm.

The visit to the pictograph site up the north arm of the lake – about 2.5 kilometers from where we were tented – would have to wait until the next day.

Day Four: 

distance: 26 km.

weather: overcast but calm in the morning; wind and occasional drizzle in the afternoon; rain throughout the night.

portages: from Diamond to Lain 450 m; from Lain to Wakimika 435 m;  a couple of 20 m or less carries and liftovers on the lower Wakimika River. 

Campsite: an established site on the north point across from Misabi and the start of the Obabika River

We got up to an overcast day but at least it had stopped raining and there was no wind.  Here is what the north arm of Diamond looked like as I gazed up the lake towards the pictograph site.

looking up the north arm of Diamond LakeBreakfast done and the canoe loaded with the gear, we paddled the three kilometers north to revisit a rock face that we had passed by in 2006 and 2009. This time we planned to do a better job getting a visual record.  Here is a shot taken a half-hour later when we got to the north end of the site; we’d spend a half hour there checking things out.

the Diamond Lake Pictograph Site

If you want to see more close-up pics of the pictographs, I’ve set up another post that looks at the site in detail.

A Return Visit To Temagami’s Diamond Lake Pictograph Site

The site represented the turn-around point of the trip; we’d spend the rest of the morning paddling  back down to the main body of Diamond and then to the west end of the Lake. Luckily the wind had yet to become an issue so the kilometres slipped by nice and easy.

approaching the west end of Diamond Lake

The pic above is a shot of the west end of Diamond Lake; we rounded the point on the left and headed down to a couple of portages that would take us into Wakimika Lake. Here is a shot of the very scenic bay you paddle into to get to the take-out for the 450-meter portage trail over to Lain Lake –

panorama of Diamond Lake to Lain take out

A part of the route we always enjoy is the stretch on the Wakimiika River. After crossing the lake with a noticeable wind to deal with, it was nice to slip into the narrow confines of the river/creek as it meanders its way to the marshes at the north end of Obabika Lake. Moving around or slipping under fallen trees is part of the fun –

Wakimika River view

By 3:30 we were at the top of Obabika and facing a strong wind.  We decided to make it to the point on the north side of where the Obabika River starts; we had camped there back in 2006 on another wet and soggy Temagami fall trip!  I did, however,  take a closer look at the camp site just north of it to see how it compared. We moved on.

canoe in park while I check out an Obabika campsite

Max with the canoe on the rock while I check out an Obabika campsite

That evening brought more rain and cooler temperatures but the two silnylon tarps – one as insurance over our tent and the other over our cook area – made things easier to deal with.

Day Five:

distance: 32 kilometers

weather: intermittent rain and strong winds

portages: from Obabika into Lake Temagami – 900 m.

Temagami Day Five

The plan had been to be out for six or seven days but here we were at the start of Day Five having decided to paddle out this very day if possible.  It would mean we would not be paddling over to  Alex Mathias’ place to say “hello”;  the visit to the three pictograph sites on the south end end of the lake would also be scrapped for another time. So too would spending some time hiking the Old Growth Trails around Chee-skon.

We were on the water by 7:00 and by 9:00 we were having breakfast at the start of the 900-meter portage into Lake Temagami.  By 1 p.m.  we were back at the campsite that we had stayed at on Day One. By now the wind was blowing and the water was rolling from the south. We stopped there for some lunch and then knocked off the rest of the distance by 4.  Along the way we would meet our first person since the start of the trip, a cottager who was shutting down things for the winter. He shouted over to us – “You guys are pretty brave to be out here today”.   We thanked him for his choice of words and said we could think of some other less positive ones.  As the map above shows, we  made use of the series of islands in the middle of the lake to break the wind as we made our way back to the north side of Bear and Temagami Islands to our car.

While the weather had not been the best and it sometimes felt like we were in a episode of Survivor: Temagami, the pics hopefully illustrate that we got to paddle for a few days through a beautiful small stretch of the woodlands of the Canadian Shield.  The next morning, sitting at the kitchen table in Toronto, we considered the thought – “Maybe we were a bit hasty with our decision to pull out a day early?”  If nothing else, we have lots of reasons for getting back up there some day soon.

Some Useful Links:

If you are planning to visit the general area that this post describes, there are a few resources that will help you get a handle of routes, campsites, and the like.


Temagami: A Wilderness Paradise (2011) by Hap Wilson is the obvious starting point for any Temagami canoe trip. Drawing on his decade-plus experience as a park ranger in the Temagami area, Wilson provides detailed maps and descriptions of twenty-seven routes, complete with portages, campsites and other points of interest.  We made use of “Route #6: Diamond, Wakimika and Obabika Lake Loop” for our trip planning.  See here for more info on the book. If you have a Toronto Library System card, you can access one of the 13 copies it has – click here.

Wilson - Trails and Tribulations

You can read the entire chapter about Chee-skon from Wilson’s book Trails and Tribulations online.  It is available at Google Books. Click here and scroll back to the beginning of the chapter. Oddly enough, the chapter is titled “Place of the Huge Rock Lake”. No hint of conjuring there!


If you are looking for 1:50,000 topo maps of the area there are a couple that you need.

The ones we used  were – Lake Temagami 41-I 16 and Obabika Lake 41-P 1

You can, if you want, access the map files at a Federal Government website here.  You will be faced with a number of folders; go for the 50k pdf or tif. Then you face a list of yet more folders; choose the 041 folder and ….well, you get the idea. See above for the letter and the number of the 041 maps we used for our trip.

Luckily, there is an easier way to access the topo maps.  Check out Jeff McMurtrie’s Jeff’s Topos website for his easy-to-use version of the topographic map library.  He has gotten rid of all the folders!  The digital maps are downloadable and you can either print  what you need for your route yourself or McMurtie has the equipment to run off copies for you in paper or some sort of waterproof material.

McMurtie also had a series of maps specifically on the Temagami area.  Unlike the topos, they are heavily annotated with useful information on campsites, portages, points of interest, and distances between various points.  See here for a look at Jeff’s Temagami maps. We made use of the Central Map, printing the relevant bits ourselves on 8.4″ x 14″ paper and putting them into our map case.

More Information:

The Canadian Canoe Routes web site is another internet resource you should check out. This General Information page of Temagami-related links organized by Allan Jacobs is a great place to start. The Ontario Trip Reports folder has dozens of Temagami-related contributions by forum members; if you are just getting into wilderness tripping, the site is a great one to visit regularly and pick up useful stuff on everything from gear to food to canoe routes and a whole lot more.

Friends of Temagami is a volunteer organization dedicated, as their web site says, to “preserving and promoting the Temagami experience since 1995″. You can support their efforts in a variety of ways – buying an annual membership; purchasing their Temagami Planning Map (which for some reason  does not show up on the new web site); or becoming an active member. It’s all good!

If you have just discovered Temagami as a paddling destination, the Ottertooth website has enough material to keep you busy for days – a forum area with threads on a wide range of topics, annotated maps, and mini-essays on a variety of useful topics. We took along a printed copy of “Wakimika Triangle” and some related material.

The Uninspiring Buddhas of Bagan

The balloon ride over the plains of Bagan would be an hour-long “wow” as I took in the brick remains of what must have been an impressive capital city some eight or nine hundred years ago. Not agreed upon is just how many people lived here –  estimates range from a likely 20,000 to an unbelievable 2,000,000!  In any case, while all the everyday wooden buildings have disappeared over time, the much more durable religious structures still dot the plains, a testament to the power of belief to motivate people.

a morning view of Old Bagan from above

a morning view of Old Bagan from above

Both before and after the balloon ride I had almost three days to get a closer, even if incomplete,  look at some of the major stupas and temples and monastic complexes.  While the architecture itself is often impressive, the overriding impression I got of the statuary was this – poorly realized Buddha statues which left me cold with their lifeless quality.

Thatbyinnyu overview

Thatbyinnyu overview

The first temple (paya) I visited was the Thatbyinnyu, pictured above. At 61 meters (201 feet) It is the tallest temple in Bagan. I would not get to see the central Buddha statue here since it is located on the second floor – an unusual arrangement for a Bagan temple – and the stairway is closed to visitors.  I did walk around the ground floor corridors and contemplated the Buddha statues which filled the various alcoves. Clearly, a temple without Buddha statues would be an empty space. Here is one I walked by –

Thatbyinnyu Buddha

Thatbyinnyu seated Buddha in “touching the earth” mudra

Freshly painted and showing all the signs that tell me he is the Buddha we know as Siddhartha Gautama – the head bump (ushnisha), the elongated ears, the very position he is sitting in… it does the job.  In all likelihood it is no more than 25 years old and is the result of the restoration and refurbishing campaign that brought howls of protest from art experts the world over.  Wrote one specialist in Asian religious art –

The hundreds of brick images within temples were nearly all renovated during the 1990’s and are now covered in loud colours clashing with the surrounding ancient stucco and murals.

                                           (Stadtner. Ancient Pagan. 88)

another Thatbyinnyu seated Buddha

another Thatbyinnyu seated Buddha

Stadtner writes that five centuries of looters searching for relic boxes contained within the brick and stucco Buddha statues means that most had been smashed open before the British even arrived. Prime areas to search were the head, the centre of the chest, and beneath the figure. Murals and paintings survived simply because they did not contain what the looters were looking for.  Instead, they would be covered over by the whitewashers!

seated Buddha with painted Bodhi Tree behind him

seated Buddha with painted Bodhi Tree

Thatbyinnyu seated Buddha in alcove

Thatbyinnyu seated Buddha in alcove

Most (99%!)  seated Buddha statues in Myanmar show the historical Siddhartha Gautama at the moment that he became the Awakened One, the Buddha.  Sitting under the Bo Tree, he has survived all of Mara’s attempts to deflect him from his course. Finally, in response to Mara’s army of demons who claim to bear witness to Mara as the one who should be sitting in Siddhartha’s spot, Siddhartha touches the earth and it roars in his defence – “I am your witness.”  Mara disappears and the World Saviour has arrived.  The hand gesture or mudra is known the “touching the earth”. (Bhumi-sparsha mudra) 

Old Bagan's Mahabodhi Temple

Old Bagan’s Mahabodhi Temple

A short walk from Thatbyinnyu is the above temple, a recreation of the original Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya at the very spot where Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha. In niches around the external perimeter were these rather crude Buddha figures with one in a standing position. I am not sure what they are made of – wood or stucco covered with gold-coloured paint.

seated Buddhas in external niches of the Mahabodhi Temple

seated Buddhas in external niches of the Mahabodhi Temple

Inside was the main Buddha statue; in Bagan of eight hundred years ago that meant a seated Buddha figure. This statue definitely fills the space and you wonder if the proportions of the original did not leave a bit more headroom.

Mahabodhi Temple's main Buddha image

Mahabodhi Temple’s main Buddha statue

You could wander for days in Bagan and peek into hundreds of minor stupas and temples.  I passed by these two lounging locals on my way to yet another temple entrance.

cattle in the fields of Old Bagan

cattle in the fields of Old Bagan – watching the world go by

recently repainted inner shrine statue in Bagan

recently repainted inner shrine statue

central statue of a minor Bagan temple

central statue of a minor temple

Somehow I found myself down by the Ayeyarwaddy River and on the platform of the Bupaya, I was looking at a reconstruction of the original since the massive July 1975 earthquake (8 on the Richter Scale) that hit the Bagan area had destroyed the one that was there before. (See here for a before picture.)

Bagan's Bupaya

Bagan’s Bupaya and the Ayeyarwaddy River in the background

Later I would find my way to the Shwe-zigon just as dusk was approaching.  If the Buddha sculptures I had seen during the day were uninspiring, then the Shwe-zigon bowled me over with its beauty. It is a stupa – while there are steps leading up its sides, there is no “inside”. Instead, four temples, one at each cardinal point, serve the purpose of shrine rooms.

Bagan's Shwe-zigon at dusk

Bagan’s Shwe-zigon at dusk

As I went around the stupa, the one shrine room I did look into is in the photo below. I am not sure what the spikes coming out of the Buddha’s head represent. It may well be a halo and not spikes at all. At least it was spared the flashing neon halo that some buddhas have had installed around their heads.  The statue is in the “have no fear” mudra – the open and raised right hand with the left hand also opened. While not as common as the seated “touch the earth” mudra that you usually see, it is the most common standing mudra.

one of the four standing metal Buddhas at Shwe-zigon

one of the four standing metal Buddhas at Shwe-zigon

And then it was time to head back to the hotel and a good night’s sleep. The next morning we would be getting up extra early – 5:00 a.m – for a balloon ride!

lacquered umbrellas in Nyaung-U

lacquered umbrellas in Nyaung-U on the way home

Click on the following link to see what floating over the plains of Bagan at 7:00 a.m. would look like!

Ballooning Over the Plains of Bagan 

After the balloon ride it was back to the hotel for breakfast – i.e. something more than the bubbly white wine and croissants served in the balloon landing field not far from New Bagan!

Bagan - bronze seated Buddha

Bagan – small bronze seated Buddha statue  in  a shrine room

After the balloon ride, it was off to see our last stupas and temples- with visits to Gubyauk Gyi and Dhammayan-Gyi and finishing off with the grandest of them all, the Ananda Pahto. The small bronze above may have been the the finest single Buddha figure I saw; since bronzes were not at all common in the Bagan of eight hundred years ago, the piece is probably of fairly recent times.

another clumsy Buddha statue

another clumsy Buddha statue – Kubyauk-Gyi (Myinkaba)

The above figure, with arms almost as wide as its waist, has an almost cartoonish look about it; it looks like it has been recently installed or repainted. The statue below sits in an alcove which has not been completely restored. Sections of the wall reveal the bare brick underneath the stucco covering.

Kubyauk-Gyi (Myinkaba) Buddha

Kubyauk-Gyi (Myinkaba) Buddha

Dhammayan-Gyi seated Buddha statue

Dhammayan-Gyi seated Buddha statue

double Buddha Statues at Dhammayan-Gyi

unusual double Buddha Statues at Dhammayan-Gyi

Of all the large scale  Buddhas I saw at Bagan, I was most moved by the ones I saw at the Ananda Pahto Temple.  While they are not the ones that originally filled the space, they do so majestically.  The four wooden Buddhas stand about 9.5 meters high (30 feet)  and  are the only major temple Buddhas in Bagan which are not in the seated position; this leads Stadtner to conclude that they are not original  and likely date back to the Konbaung period (1752 – 1885 C.E.).

The Four Ananda Standing Buddhas, gilded with fine gold leaf, are located in the niches of the central cube of the temple.  See below for a drawing of the pahto.


Drawing of The Ananda Pahto from  Buddhist Architecture by Le Huu Phuoc.

It was the George Luce who assigned the name of a particular Buddha to each of the four statues. He related them to the Buddhas of the present age or mythological unit of time known as a kalpa, In the Buddhist myth there have already been four Buddhas with the fifth – Maitreya- yet to come; Luce places one in each of the four niches.  So Kassapa is supposedly in the south niche with Kakusandha in the north. This leaves  Konagamana in the east and in the west we have the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. More recently scholars have questioned Luce’s entire explanation since there is no evidence associating various Buddhas with the cardinal points. The various mudras they exhibit also do not provide any reason for associating them with one Buddha and not another. However, the guidebooks seem to like the explanation and it has taken on the status of  fact thanks to constant repitition!

one of Ananda Temple's four standing Buddha statues

Luce’s Siddhartha Gautama facing west

third of four Bagan Ananda Buddhas

the south facing  Ananda Buddha

standing Buddha at Ananda Temple

north facing Buddha at Ananda Temple

another of the four wooden Buddha statues at Bagan's Ananda Temple

the east-facing Buddha statue at Bagan’s Ananda Temple

Baan is really all about the stupas and temples. If you are going to be spending a few days in Bagan, you will definitely get much more out of your visit with a good guide. Most will be able to take you to the highlights; some will be able to deliver more than the usual patter and provide more considered insight.

A great book to read beforehand is the 2013 second edition of  Ancient Pagan: Buddhist Plain of Merit by Donald M. Stadtner. Stadtner. PaganThe insightful text draws on the author’s forty years of study of Burmese art and architecture and is beautifully illustrated by the photos of Michael Freeman, a top-notch photographer. The book focusses on thirty-three key structures; you’ll have had an incredible visit if you can see most of them during your stay!  In spite of my occasionally negative comment in this post, Bagan is absolutely worth the visit.