In Progress: The 2014 Bloodvein River Canoe Trip

Another summer, another paddling adventure for my brother and I!

It seems that northwest Ontario has become our summer camp over the past few years. This year, however, instead of heading to Wabakimi we are going even further west.  We will have a bit under three weeks to paddle 350 kilometres of  the Bloodvein River system from its headwaters in Woodland Caribou Provincial Park down through  adjacent Atikaki Provincial Park in Manitoba.

Atikaki & Woodland Caribou Provincial Parks

Atikaki & Woodland Caribou Provincial Parks – Google map here for more detail

We’ll know we’re done when our paddles dip into Lake Winnipeg!  The following map will give you an overview of the trip once we get to Red Lake, a 2200-kilometer car ride from our homes in southern Ontario.

Trout Bay at west end of Red Lake to Lake Winipeg

Trout Bay at west end of Red Lake to Lake Winnipeg – click here for an interactive Google view that you can zoom in on for more detail

 Pimachiowin Aki Map

Pimachiowin Aki Map

In the mid-1980’s the Bloodvein was designated a Canadian Heritage River in recognition of its unspoilt nature and  its significance to both the local Anishinaabe (that is, Ojibwe) who have lived there for the past 500 years and the fur traders who  passed through in the late 1700’s.

Last year a decision on the bid to have Manitoba’s Atikaki Park recognized as a United Nations World Heritage site was postponed. However, bid organizers are optimistic that Pimachiowin Aki (as the overall site is known) will soon receive its UN designation.  A recent Winnipeg Free Press article brings the issue up to date.

Our SPOT Connect will be creating a track of our travels – from the highway route up to Red Lake to the canoe route down the Bloodvein.  Click on the following link if you want to see how we’re doing – it will be active until the end of July.

 2014 Bloodvein River Trip – Current SPOT Connect Location

Thanks to our incredible Cliff Lake pictograph experience last summer, we are really looking forward to  seeing the Anishinaabe rock paintings at a dozen different sites along the Bloodvein River route, especially the site at the east end of Artery Lake and the site just just east of Larus Lake.  We’ll share our experiences and some pix in a series of posts after we get back.

Right now we are relaxing  in Marathon after our twelve-hour ride up from Toronto. We did make it down to the Pizza Hut in downtown Marathon and got to see a famous piece of art recreated by local high school students as a wall mural.

Marathon, ON - Lawren Harris Painting redone on the Pizza Hut wall

Marathon, ON – Lawren Harris painting  – Pic Island – redone on the Pizza Hut wall

Just another 900 kilometres to Red Lake and the put-in point!

This may be the last of the internet access for a while as we’ll be off the grid – and offline too!  Instead, we get to be on the river and focus on the immediate world around us  – the sight of the eagles flying overhead, the sound of an upcoming set of rapids, the flash of lightning as we sit dry underneath our tarp, the magic of the ochre thunderbirds painted on granite rock faces, the feel of the sun and the wind in our faces as we paddle toward the afternoon sun…it is Sunday night and we start paddling on Tuesday morning!

Check back in September for all the details!

Up the Steps Of Sri Lanka’s Mihintale (Mahinda’s Hill)

Aradhana Gala view from Maha Stupa

Aradhana Gala (Invitation Rock) – Mahinda is said to have preached his first sermon from the top

Images enlarge with a click; blue text leads to more information with a click.

About 13 kilometres east of Anuradhapura we find another significant stop in Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese “Cultural Triangle” area. Rising up above the surrounding plains and the small village of Mihintale, is a hill which is definitely worth walking up both for the panoramic views from the top and for the chance to step into the mythic space where Buddhism first came to Sri Lanka. Mihintale was the dynamic site of a collection of Buddhist monasteries about two thousand years ago. Its mix of ruins and living shrines continue to attract pilgrims and tourists alike.


My  lifelong interest in and study of the Buddhist worldview did not prepare me for the surprise of learning that the historical Buddha – i.e. Siddhartha Gautama of the Sakya clan – had visited Sri Lanka on three separate occasions after his enlightenment under the Bo Tree at Bodh Gaya in northern India. In each case he made the two thousand kilometer journey not by water or by land but on the back of the mythic eagle Garuda, who is usually associated with the Hindu god Vishnu. I had read the account in the first chapter of the Mahavamsa, the Great Chronicle of Sri Lanka, compiled around 400 C.E. This Sinhalese epic gets less and less historical as it goes back a thousand years in time to that first chapter. [See here for Wilhelm Geiger's  early twentieth-century  translation of the Pali text. The notes help.]

Mahavamsa - modern translation and notes

A more recent (1999)  translation of the Mahavamsa is that of Douglas Bullis; the cover of his book  is to the left.  An excellent introduction and the first nine chapters complete with explanatory notes are available from the Google Books feature.  It was an informative and totally worthwhile read.

Click here if you want to while away a few hours reading the Bullis translation of the Mahavamsa.  I couldn’t help but think of  the great Roman epic, Virgil’s Aeneid as I read the first few chapters.  Amazon has a used copy available for $70.!

My most uncomfortable moment in Sri Lanka came when I asked my tour guide – a trilingual and well-educated Sinhalese forty-year old  – whether many Sinhalese actually thought the story of the Buddha’s visits to be fact. Given his education, I had assumed he was “modern” when it came to the ancient stories.   He was clearly shocked to hear me even question the historicity of the visits.  It was one of those moments when I shut down my need to analyze and discuss  and tried as gracefully as possible to talk my way backwards out of an argument I realized there was really no point in pursuing.  The same thing would happen if I asked of one of the 50% (or whatever the percentage is) of Americans if they thought there is an actual figure named Satan active in the world.

Mihintale,  known in ancient times as Sela Cetiya, is one of the sixteen sites in Sri Lanka recorded to have been visited by the Buddha during one of his three visits. (See here for the complete list.)

Another story in the early chapters of the Mahavamsa (Chapters XIII and XIV) develops another  important thread in the foundation myth of at least the Sinhalese part of Sri Lanka’s people.  It makes clear that almost from the beginning Sri Lanka was chosen to be a place where Buddhism was meant to be. Not only did the Buddha (his usual dates are 560 B.C.E – 480 B.C.E.) visit the island, but some two hundred years later a follower of the Buddha’s path arrived. It was the Buddhist monk Mahinda (Sanskrit – “Mahendra”).  But he was not just any ordinary monk – he was the son of Ashoka, who was the ruler of a great empire based in the north of India and a convert to Buddhism. Mahinda and a few other monks came to Sri Lanka – again, neither by land nor by water – and at this site – Mahinda’s Hill – they met the Sinhalese ruler of the day who happened to be out hunting on this very hill.

Mahinda greeted by Devanampiya Tissa - mural below the Maha Stupa

Mahinda greeted by Devanampiya Tissa – mural below the Maha Stupa

I arrived in Anuradhapura around noon on the 5:30 a.m. train from Colombo. I had set aside the next two days for my visit to the ruins of old Anuradhapura, one of the great cities of the ancient world with thousands of resident Buddhist monks in three major monasteries and – next to the great pyramids of Giza – the largest man-made structure in the world.

with a Cambodian monk  on the platform of the Maha Sena or Great Stupa

with a Cambodian monk on the platform of the Maha Sena (Chaitya)  or Great Stupa

I used the late afternoon of my arrival to visit Mihintale, having had the enterprising tuk tuk driver who drove me from the train station to my room at The French Garden Tourist Rest suggest that his auto rickshaw was available for a decent price. We left the hostel at 3:30 and by 4 were at the parking lot at Mihintale – but not at the very bottom of the 1800 + steps that you can choose to do if you do not want to miss a thing.  My driver – his name was Mahinda! –  took the old road which goes up to the middle terrace – right by the ruins of the Refectory (Almshouse) – so I’ll admit I did not get the full Mihintale experience even though I ended up walking about 1840 steps anyway!

Below is a satellite view of the Mihintale site.  Click here for an interactive Google map on which you can zoom in or out.

Click on the image to enlarge!

Figuring that the next day or two would have lots of walking and ruins,  I traded the chance to walk up the bottom half of the impressive set of stairs for more time up on the top, including a half hour chatting on the platform of the great dagoba with a group of Buddhists from Cambodia  and then watching the sun go down in the company of local musicians as the pilgrims went off to see the statue of the seated Buddha below us.  It was a good trade!

looking west from the Maha Stupa

looking west from the Maha Stupa (aka Maha Seya) near the end of the day

Late afternoon is the sweet spot as far as visiting sites in Sri Lanka is concerned. The school groups and tour buses have come and gone and so has the heat of mid-day; I spent about two and half leisurely hours at Mihintale. What follows is some of what caught my eye as I rambled around Mahinda’s Hill.

Mihintale Refectory (Almshouse) Ruins

Mihintale Refectory (Almshouse) Ruins

explanatory Alms hall plaque

explanatory Alms Hall plaque – the  absent Tamil text is to the left of the Sinhala

Mihintale is mentioned in the detailed records of Chinese  traveller Fa Hsien (Faxian), who lived from about 340 to 420 C.E. (A.D. in the old system).   He was a Buddhist monk who visited India and Sri Lanka in his search for Buddhist texts to take back home to China. We read this in a nineteenth Century translation of Fa Hsien’s writings-

Faxian translation by Herbert Giles.

Faxian text as translated by Herbert Giles. See here for source information.

Two thousand monks! That would explain the size of the food troughs in the two images below – one filled with porridge and the other with rice on a daily basis  by local people for the monks.  Down the Great Stairway from this Alms Hall are the ruins of a hospital complete with a medicinal bath area carved out of stone. Given my entry at the middle terrace close to the Alms Hall,  I did not see these lower parts of the site.

one of the Alms Hall food troughs

one of the Alms Hall food troughs – this long one is about 7 meters (23 feet) in length

the smaller of the two Alms hall  food troughs

the smaller of the two Alms hall food troughs in the Alms Hall or Refectory

The Hall itself was essentially a serving area;  it was not large enough to provide for an eating area to match the size of the troughs and the eating area would have been elsewhere.

relic house ruins and tablets with community rules

Mihintale main shrine – the relic house ruins and tablets with community rules

Next to the Alms Hall and on the way to the staircase to the upper terrace you find the remains of the relic house as seen above.  Walking up to the door, there are two stone tablets framing the doorway. The relic may have been something associated with Mahinda -perhaps  a body part or a begging bowl or something he made use of in his life. The text on the tablets deals with the rules and regulations which the monks who lived there were expected to follow.

Mihintale Relic House with stone tablets

Mihintale Relic House with stone tablets

In the image below the top of the Ambasthala Dagoba is visible.

ruins to the left of the Great Stairway.

ruins to the left of the Great Stairway – what is left of the Chapter House

And then it was time to deal with the steps to the main attractions at Mihintale – the Giant Seated Buddha, the Ambasthala Dagoba, the Aradhana Gala (“Invitation Rock”) and the Great Stupa (Mahaseya Stupa). I should also mention the cave where it is said Mahinda lived for many years, but I didn’t find out about it until after my visit.  Such are the perils of not making use of a tour guide!

The Stairway to the top terrace

The steep Stairway to the upper terrace – I would get to know them well!

While I avoided walking the first thousand steps up to the Alms Hall, the final set of steps (about 800) to the upper terrace were unavoidable!  Up through the frangipani trees the staircase goes to the most interesting part of the site for visitors. First up is a ticket check and a request to take one’s shoes off.  I asked why the guy with the gun (i.e.the uniformed soldier) was wearing his boots but the ticket boy could only shrug. For westerners not used to it, the hot sand on bare feet can be a painful experience! Some wear their socks.

stray dogs by the Ambasthala Dagoba

stray dogs by the Ambasthala (“Mango Tree”)  Dagoba

I approached the dagoba pictured above – the Ambasthala, so named because it is here that the monk Mahinda and the king had a conversation about mangoes that apparently went like this -

The Cryptic Conversation about Mangoes!

The Cryptic Conversation about Mangoes!

The small figure on the middle left of the above picture is a statue of the king; the dagoba sits on top of the place where Mahinda is said to have stood when they had this cryptic conversation.

As for the pillars surrounding the dagoba, the next image – a model of a similar structure in Anuradhapura – should make clear what their original purpose was -

A model of the Vatadage of Anuradhapura's  Thuparama

A model of the Vatadage of Anuradhapura’s Thuparama – see here for image source

As with dagobas at Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, all that visitors now see is a mini-forest of pillars in various degrees of uprightness when they walk around Mihintale’s Ambasthala Dagoba.

the Ambasthala Dagoba and  pillars

the Ambasthala Dagoba and pillars – the top of Aradhana Gala is visible on the upper right

the Ambasthala Dagoba and  pillars - different angle

the Ambasthala Dagoba and pillars – different angle

inside the railing is a stone version of the Buddha’s footprint, another key element of Buddhist worship in Sri Lanka. These 1.5 meter footprints can be found at Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) and elsewhere. Pilgrims will often toss coins into the enclosure when they visit.

Ambasthala Dagoba altar

Ambasthala Dagoba altar with flowers

the Ambasthala Dagoba main altar and seated Buddha statue

the Ambasthala Dagoba main altar and seated Buddha statue











Not far the dagoba and the pillars is the beginning of the climb to the top of Aradhana Gala (literally Invitation Rock), where Mahinda apparently delivered his first teaching of Buddhist doctrine and invited the king to embrace the true path.

view from the top of Aradhana Gala

view from the top of Aradhana Gala – lower section of the summit and seated Buddha

the seated Buddha statue from Aradhana Gala

The giant seated Buddha figure in the Abhaya Mudra hand pose The open palm signifies safety and reassurance that all is well. “Have no fear,” it says to the pilgrim. See here for more info.

a view of the Maha Stupa from Aradhana Gala

a view of the Maha Stupa from Aradhana Gala

cave murals and dispaly at foot of Maha Stupa

cave murals and dispaly at foot of Maha Stupa

Cambodian pilgrims on Maha Dagoba terrace

Cambodian pilgrims on Maha Dagoba terrace

Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags wrapped around Maha Dagoba pole

Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags wrapped around pole







monks in charge of pilgrims

monks in charge of pilgrim

On the platform surrounding the Mahaseya Stupa I met a group of pilgrims from Cambodia led by the monks above. We catted while we circumambulated the stupa; unfortunately, I was a little late getting up there so could only watch as the closed the door of the temple built onto  the south side of the stupa.

climbing up to Aradhana Gala

climbing up to Aradhana Gala

When they went off to the Aradhana Gala, I stayed up on the Stupa platform and waited for the sun to set. I was soon joined by a three local musicians who’s drum and flute work reminded me of the music I had heard at a Kandy dance performance a few days earlier. While their music added to the atmosphere of being there, I am sure they were somewhat disappointed not to find a larger tour group of visitors up there.

visitors at the top of Aradhana Gala

visitors at the top of Aradhana Gala – the view from the Maha Dagoba

As I looked across from the Stupa to the Aradhana Gala I could see a few tourists up on the rock.  From the other side of the stupa I looked down to an area near where my tuk tuk driver was waiting.  What is left of the Kantaka Dagoba, the oldest of the dagobas  at Mihintale, is now about twelve meters high, about half of the original height.

Kantaka Dagoba from the Maha Dagoba

Kantaka Dagoba from the Maha Dagoba

Had I gone up to the dagoba some of the fine detail, as well as the stone altars and sculptures, would have caught my eye.  As it is,  when I got back down to the parking lot, after walking down the staircase – and then walking all the way back up because I had forgotten my shoes! – it was getting late and we made our way back to Anuradhapura. The driver had offered to goup the stairs to get the shoes but I declined his offer.  Somehow,  it was fitting that I ended  up walking the 1840 steps thanks to my forgetfulness.  On my way back up I passed this dog – a knowing bodhisattva in disguise -

stray dog on Mihintale staircase

stray dog with a knowing look on the Mihintale staircase

The two and half hours I spent visiting Mihintale were well worth it.  The late afternoon shade  and the relative absence of other visitors made the visit that much more enjoyable.  More time – and a map of the site or a guide – and I would have seen a bit more of Mihintales has to offer. In particular, I would have made my way to Mahinda’s cave and up close to the Kantaka Dagoba. A half hour auto-rickshaw ride and I was back in Anuradhapura. My next day would fill me up with the ruins and dagobas in the old part of this city, one of the great cities of the ancient world.  An upcoming post will take a look at what there is to see.  It made for a fantastic combination with my afternoon at Mihintale.

Anuradhapura Dagoba

Anuradhapura’s  Jetavanaramaya Dagoba – and upcoming post will highlight the main sites

Selwyn Dewdney, Norval Morrisseau & the Ojibwe Pictograph Tradition

pollock-morrisseau-dewdney in the early 1960's

Jack Pollock, Norval Morrisseau, and Selwyn Dewdney in the late 1960’s

Images enlarge with a click; blue text leads to additional info with a click.

It started off with Anishinaabe (that is, Ojibwe or Chippewa)  pictographs and ended up with coffee-table-sized art books dedicated to the work of Norval Morrisseau.  Last year in preparation for a canoe trip that took us down Wabakimi’s Cliff Lake, I found Selwyn Dewdney’s Indian Rock Paintings of the Great Lakes.  Not only was I introduced to a wealth of Ojibwe pictograph sites in the Canadian Shield, but I found an unknown, at least to me, new trail to ramble down.

Morrisseau quote - NW Ontario covered in pictographs

Norval Morrisseau quote

I  learned of Dewdney’s meeting with a young Norval Morrisseau in Red Lake in 1960, a meeting which led to a decade-plus friendship based on their common passion for preserving Anishinaabe culture.  For Dewdney, an artist by training,  it was the fading rock paintings or pictographs of the Canadian Shield. Dr. K.E. Kidd, a professor of anthropology at U of T at the time, had personally seen some of the pictographs in Quetico in the mid-1950’s and was keen on further study. He writes:

Kidd on Dewdney selection

For Morrisseau it was the very survival of the Anishinaabe world view that was at stake – the legends and myths that fewer and fewer of his people remembered. He was about 28 when he met Dewdney. He had just started painting seriously a couple of years before and had sold his first few paintings to people in the Red Lake area in northwestern Ontario. He would live there with his wife Harriet and their growing family from 1958 to 1963, first on Mckenzie Island and then in Cochenour.

Red Lake:Mckenzie Island and Cochenour

the Red Lake area in northwestern Ontario – Mckenzie Island and Cochenour – Google map here

I am Norval Morrisseau...

This was Morrisseau’s impetus for first putting paint brush to birchbark and animal hide and cardboard and kraft paper – whatever medium he could find.

Norval had been born on the Sand Point Reserve near Beardmore in 1932, but had spent the formative years of his youth with his maternal grandparents, Veronique and  Moses Potan Nanakonagos, in the Gull Bay  area on the west side of Lake Nipigon. (Check out the Google map view here.) It was Potan who taught him about the world view of the great Anishinaabe, of their myths and legends, of the  Medewiwin and the birchbark scrolls. Norval would face some opposition as he first brought these stories alive in paint. Some elders felt he was breaking ancient taboos; it may have been that the missionaries had done such a good job making them feel ashamed of their culture that they felt it would be better left hidden and unknown.

Norval Morrisseau - it is my destiny

anishinaabe father and son greet jesuit

The Gift (1975) …Anishinaabe father and son greet Jesuit – note the smallpox!

1970 Thunderbird and Snake - two key players in Anishinaabe cosmology

Thunderbird and Snake – two key figures in Anishinaabe cosmology











Norval received encouragement and advice from  Dr. Joseph Weinstein, the doctor in Cochenour who had received art training in Paris and knew Picasso, and from his wife Esther, who was one of Norval’s first customers).  As well,  the mine managers at the mill where Morrisseau worked were fairly supportive of Norval’s painting  and he was able to spend more time on his passion – painting the truth and knowledge he had been given by his grandfather. Bob Shepard, an OPP constable stationed on Mckenzie Island, was also impressed with Morrisseau’s talent.  He would get his friend Selwyn Dewdney to meet with Norval in 1960 when he heard that Dewdney would be in the area on his pictograph site quest.

Morrisseau’s circle of friends would get bigger in 1962  when a CPR train conductor – and a solid Conservative Party supporter – from the Kenora area mentioned to Senator Allister Grosart while on the campaign trail that a talented and deserving native artist  could use some help. Grosart suggested that he tell Morrisseau to write him a letter.  Letter and some art work soon followed and by late that year Grosart had sent Norval $900. (that is $7000. in 2014 dollars) so that he could devote himself more fully to his art work.

Norval and Harriet with Serpent Legend

Norval & Harriet in 1962

(1962) Serpent Legend

(1962) Serpent Legend

The Dewdney-Morrisseau relationship led to a wider audience for Morrisseau’s art. Another chance encounter – this time with the young Toronto art gallery owner Jack Pollock – would also provide a major push. He had been hired by the Ontario Government to conduct a series of art seminars in northern Ontario in the summer of 1962.  The last stop of his six-week tour was the mining community of  Beardmore.  He describes the moment he first met Morrisseau -

Pollock quote

He would experience instant stardom and  the exhilarating  “up” of a sold-out exhibit of his paintings at Pollock’s gallery in Toronto in 1962 –  and the “down” of all but being ignored the next year when the same gallery hosted an even better collection of paintings.

It also led to a written work –  Legends of My People The great Ojibway (published in 1965).  Written and illustrated by Morrisseau and edited by Dewdney from a two manuscripts which Norval had sent him – the first in late 1960, some three months after they had first met,  and a supplemental manuscript two years later- it was published by The Ryerson Press.

book cover

Harriet, Norval, Victoria and Pierre Morrisseau_Toronto_March 1964_photo by Globe and Mail, Toronto

Norval’s wife Harriet and children Victoria and Pierre










The ups and downs of the early 1960’s would only become more dramatic as Morrisseau grappled with personal demons related to his childhood – a father who abandoned the family,  six years spent in residential school in Fort William, the inner tension between his traditional beliefs and the Christianity which was also an essential part of his upbringing.

1964. Self-Portrait entitled Devoured by Demons

These demons resulted in a growing problem with the alcohol he turned to as a solution. The details of Morrisseau’s personal life make for some depressing reading.

So too does the ongoing controversy about his artistic legacy, specifically  about real versus fake Morrisseaus. Pollock had already alluded to this issue in his autobiography published in the late 1980’s.  The Canadian Encyclopedia has a good summary here and a recent (2014) CBC story  here brings it up to date.

This post will mostly focus on the early Norval Morrisseau from the late 1950’s to about 1970. What I wanted to highlight was his depiction of various figures from traditional Ojibwe myth and legend that can also been seen in pictograph form by paddlers in the boreal forests of the Canadian Shield.

the front cover of a classic

the front cover of a classic

While Morrisseau may have derived inspiration from those pictographs, there are a couple of things which should be remembered: 1. he didn’t see that that many actual pictographs; and 2. most of the still-discernable ones he did see were quite basic and rudimentary.  Until 1962 he had never been outside of the Lake Nipigon area and Fort William/Port Arthur (now known as Thunder Bay) was the biggest town he had been to.  He had not been to Agawa Rock; it seems unlikely that he had been to Quetico. His grandfather may have taken him to pictograph sites in the Beardmore or Gull Bay areas of Lake Nipigon.  During his Red Lake years it seems unlikely that he visited the Larus or Artery Lake pictograph sites on the Bloodvein River system. More important that the question of how many actual pictographs he saw or which ones is this point – the simple fact of seeing them was both an act of confirmation and inspiration for him in his desire to turn Anishinaabe words and legends into images.

Along with the rock paintings he would have seen on the vertical rock faces in the boreal forest, he would also have seen the sketches and photographs  that Selwyn Dewdney was collecting for what would come out in book form in 1962 as Indian Rock Paintings of the Great Lakes.  It would contain descriptions of 103 sites that he had visited from 1957 to 1961.  Like Morrisseau he was an artist first and foremost; like Morrisseau he had a passionate interest in Ojibwe culture.  He most likely shared the sketches and photos with Morrisseau during the time they spent together in Red Lake and later in London where the Morrisseau family lived for a while with the Dewdneys.  In 1967 the U of Toronto Press would release a second edition of Dewdney’s  book which contained details and images of another 60 or so pictograph sites. While he never misses a chance to thank the  person who informed him about or took him to a particular site, Morrisseau’s name never comes up. One thing they clearly did not do together was sit in a canoe on some lake in northwestern Ontario and examine pictographs.

For Morrisseau another source of Anishinaabe inspiration would have been the birchbark scrolls that his both grandfather and Dewdney had access to.  Add to this Morrisseau’s passionate  interest in the legends of his people and his ability to take in and make his own ideas from other sources – he spent hours in the Weinsteins’ library at Cochenour looking through their art books and their collection of cultural artifacts – and you have to appreciate his genius in coming up with a strikingly personal artistic vision.

One of the most painted images is that of Mishipeshu (just one of a dozen possible spellings!) Here is one Morrisseau painting from the late 1950’s which he was living in Red Lake but before he had met Dewdney -

Mishipeshu painting from the late 1950's

and here is a drawing from the early 1960’s  which he created for the Legends of My People The Great Ojibway book -


Mishipizheu – a Norval Morrisseau drawing from the early 1960’s

At the other end of Lake Superior from where Morrisseau grew up is perhaps the most famous pictograph panel in the Canadian Shield – that of Mishipeshu and the serpent at Agawa Rock.

Mishipizheu pictograph  at Agawa Rock

Mishipizheu pictograph at Agawa Rock

Norval Morrisseau. early 1960's Drawing of Mishipizheu and fish

Norval Morrisseau. early 1960’s Drawing of Mishipizheu and fish

Another common image is that of a snake, seen underneath the mishipeshu figure above,  Sometimes the snake is depicted with two horns.

Agawa Rock horned serpent and fish

Agawa Rock fish and medicine snake with horns

Morrisseau Sacred Medicine Snake (1961)

Morrisseau Sacred Medicine Snake (1961)

A drawing for the book Legends of My People shares some of the look of the the 1961 painting on kraft paper.

Norval Morrisseau. early 1960's drawing of Sun snake and fire worshippers

Norval Morrisseau. early 1960’s drawing of Sun snake and fire worshippers

Morrisseau 1962 serpent legend

Morrisseau 1962 serpent legend – shamen receiving power from the medicine snake

If Mishipeshu rules the underworld (the world of water) then Thunderbird rules the sky. Morrisseau would return to it repeatedly over his forty-year painting career.  It had a particular resonance for him, and from 1960 onwards he would sign his works with the Ojibwe syllabic letters for  Copper Thunderbird.  Here is a painting from 1965 which combines the thunderbird with the serpent -

Morrisseau. 1965. Thunderbird with Serpent

Morrisseau. 1965. Thunderbird with Serpent

Apparently Morrisseau painted about ten thousand works in his lifetime; it is a good bet that a thousand of them are thunderbirds!  On a recent visit to The Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto to see some Native Canadian art work, I found out that the gallery doesn’t really exhibit work produced by Canadian First Nations People!  About the only thing I found was a series of six Morrisseau panels entitled  Man Changing into Thunderbird from 1977.

Morrisseau - the six panels of Man Changing into Thunderbird at the AGO

Morrisseau – the six panels of Man Changing into Thunderbird at the AGO

And here is the sixth and last panel from an artist at the height of his creative power:

man changing into thunderbird panel 6 AGO

1977. man changing into thunderbird panel 6 – Art Gallery of Ontario Toronto

While his use of colour became much more pronounced as he developed, certain elements can be found in his paintings across the decades. The lines of power and communication and inter-relatedness, the x-ray view of animals and people, the sun and life circle…they’re there in the sixties too.  Note the claws of the thunderbird from 1977 and compare them to the claws on the thunderbird from the early 1960’s.

Morrisseau. early 1960's drawing of thunderbirds

Morrisseau. early 1960’s drawing of thunderbirds from Legends of My People

Here is an even earlier work from the late 1950’s which Morrisseau did on birchbark while he was in the Red lake area:

Morrisseau. circa 1959. Man Changing Into Thunderbird

Morrisseau. circa 1959. Man Changing Into Thunderbird

And below is a pictograph of undetermined age (maybe 100 years old, maybe 200)  from the south end of Cliff Lake on the Pikitigushi River system with a very basic but still effective take on the Thunderbird done in ochre.

Cliff Lake Thunderbird pictograph

Here is one last Thunderbird image – it is entitled Shaman Rider and dates from 1972. Like a lot of Morrisseau’s early work it was done on kraft paper.

Morrisseau. 1972. Shaman Rider.

Morrisseau. 1972. Shaman Rider.

Some other drawings found in Legends of My People The Great Ojibway can be seen below -

Mikinak (Turtle) and Shaking Tent

early 1960’s Norval Morrisseau Mikinak (Turtle) and Shaking Tent drawing

In Anishinaabe mythology The Turtle is the interpreter of the manitous (the spirits of all beings and things); the shaman would enter the specially-constructed tent and commune with the spirits.  Mikinak and the tent would also be recurring themes in Morrisseau’s work over the years.  Here is an example from the end of the 1960’s -

1969 Mikinuk and the tent

early 1960's Morrisseau drawing of Beaver as clan totem

early 1960’s Morrisseau drawing of Beaver as clan totem

The word “totem” is of Ojibwe origin (“dodaem”) and refers to the animal associated with each of the various clans that make up the community.  Above we see the beaver, one such totem,  and the wigwams representing those who belong to the Beaver clan.

norval morrisseau (early 1960's) drawing  of maymaygweshi

Norval Morrisseau (early 1960’s) drawing of maymaygweshi

(1960) Birchbark painting of maymaygweshi

(1960)Birchbark painting – maymaygwayshi

Dewdney sketch of maymaygwayshuwuk

Dewdney sketch of maymaygwayshuwuk

The Art of Norval Morrisseau_1979 front cover

The Art of Norval Morrisseau_1979 front cover

Of the books which examine and show examples of Morrisseau’s work, I found the 1979 The Art of Norval Morrisseau to be the best introduction to his life and work.  it has an introduction by Lister Sinclair, a long “personal note” by Jack Pollock, an informative personal essay by Morrisseau himself, and some excellent background on Morrisseau’s “image bank” and style that help to draw more meaning out of the many works included.

morrisseau ebookLooking for information on Morrisseau’s life and times led me to a couple of very readable and informative books, one an ebook available at the Amazon web site and the other a Toronto Public Library holding.  The ebook, whose front cover is to the right, is an adaptation of a print book which was written by Christine Penner Polle and published in 2008, draws on many sources – print material and personal reminiscences – to flesh out the story of Morrisseau from birth to the 1070’s.  It is a $10. instant Kindle download and is available here. It is worth it.

A Picasso in the North CountryThe other book (front cover to the left) is a darker examination of Norval’s life and work, also focusses especially on the period up to the mid-1970’s. The writer James Stevens, who had actually contracted with Morrisseau to write his biography, uncovers it all – the drunkedness, the family abandonment, the sexual escapades – I’ve already used the word “depressing” to describe how it reads.  It should be said that in the mid-1970’s Morrisseau embraced the teachings of the new (created in 1965) movement of Eckankar and subsequently seems to have reinterpreted his life and Anishinaabe/Christian background using this new religion.

In early July of 2014 I surfed my way to a perceptive and well-written piece which makes extensive use of the Morrisseau-Dewdney letter correspondence from the early 1960’s to flesh out the relationship between the two.  It may be the insightful thing on Morrisseau I’ve read. Entitled Norval Morrisseau: Artist As Shaman it is by Barry Ace, who is Chief Curator in the Indian Arts Center at the Department of Indian and Northern Development. He also met Morrisseau on a number of occasions, the first being in 1995 in Ottawa.

norval_morrisseau. 1970s

Morrisseau died in Toronto in December of 2007 after a decade’s struggle with Parkinson’s Disease.This summary of his life from the Ottawa Citizen seems to be a fair look at the man. This CBC news item from 2006 on the occasion of the opening of a major retrospective of his work at the national Gallery in Ottawa shows some of his later work from his prime.  He is buried next to his wife at the Sandy Lake First Nations Reserve to the north of Red Lake, Ontario. (See here.)

Selwyn Dewdney died in 1979 in London, Ontario after having spent more time recording and documenting  pictograph sites across Canada.  In the 1970’s he also did major work on the birchbark scrolls associated with the Medewiwin, the  Anishinaabe society of shamen. His book The Sacred Scrolls of the Southern Ojibway was published in 1975. Daylight In the Swamp After his death his son Keewatin edited what was essentially Dewdney’s memoirs and the result was the very readable  Daylight in the Swamp (1997).  Since Dewdney’s own father had been the Anglican Bishop of Keewatin District from the 1920’s, Selwyn had accompanied his father throughout the north as a young man.  He did, however,  embrace a teaching career focussed on the visual arts  as opposed to following his father Alfred’s religious calling. It was this background that helped make him the ideal person not only to not only work on the “rock paintings” but also bring Norval Morrisseau to our attention.  He certainly did that for me – and provided me with the motivation to spend more time delving into the incredible artistic legacy of Copper Thunderbird.  

dewdney plaque at Agawa Rock

plaque near the Agawa Rock pictographs

An upcoming post will focus on the question on where in Ontario one can go to see Norval Morrisseau’s  work.  Already mentioned was my disappointing visit to The Art Gallery of Ontario.  I left there thinking – “They’ve got room in the basement for a collection of model ships, but they can’t find any space for Norval Morrisseau and Carl Ray and other more contemporary First Nations artists? I know – they’ve got some Inuit stuff and that is as it should be but …there’s way more to show!”   Read this if you want more background on the AGO.

Where In The World Is Norval Morrisseau?  Maybe you can find him here in Kent Monkman’s  massive and stunning 2007 work titled The Academy which I’ll admit I found in a room at the AGO -

The Academy by Kent Monkman (2007)

The Academy by Kent Monkman (of Cree/Irish background) – click on image to enlarge!

 Before and After the HorizonUpdate – July 28. Well, who would have guessed!  Just opened at the Art Gallery of Ontario a few days ago is the Before and After the Horizon: Anishinaabe Artists of the Great Lakes exhibit. Its previous stop was the National Museum of the American Indian  in NYC where it had a ten-month run from August of 2013 to June of this year.  It will be at the AGO until November 25 and there is a free showing on July 30 from 6:30 to 8:30.

Before Machu Picchu Was – There Was Sigiriya

Aerial view of Sigiriya from the east

Aerial view of Sigiriya from the south – see here for the image source

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

The emperor had a capital at Cusco but, having this desire for some place he could truly call his own, he ordered the building of a new home one hundred kilometres away.  Less than a decade later it was ready – and it was a wondrous sight to behold.  Occupied for some time, on his death the site was abandoned. It seems his son, the next ruler, was not too  keen on spending any time there.  This, in a nutshell,  is the story of  the greatest of the Incan Emperors, Pachacuti (he ruled 1438–1471A.D.)  and the weekend retreat he had built at Machu Picchu.

the view of Machu Picchu at the end of our descent from Intipunto, the Gateway of the Sun, which sits high above the site

the view of Machu Picchu at the end of my descent from Intipunto, the Gateway of the Sun, which sits high above the site – I laughed as my guide brought me to the “money shot”!

It is also the story of a Sinhalese ruler Kasyapa in the 480’s C.E. (the new way of indicating A.D.) and the palace/fortress he had built on the summit of a rock outcrop which towers above the plains of central Sri Lanka.  Anuradhapura, some seventy kilometers to the north (see Google map here), had been the capital for the past 700 or so years; for seven years labourers worked to create the new one in Sigiriya. However, like Machu Picchu a thousand years later, it too would be abandoned by the next ruler and fall into disuse. In each case it would take a foreigner (a college professor from Yale and a British military man) to “discover” what locals already knew to exist, and bring these world wonders to the world’s attention.  In each case the site would become its country’s premier tourist attraction.

The Site of Ancient Sigiriya Today

Ancient Sigiriya Today  – click here for the Google Map view and zoom in for more detail

This February I visited Sigiriya in Sri Lanka and what I found there certainly rivals and, in my mind, surpasses Machu Picchu in scale and in ambition. To be fair it should be noted that while Pachucuti’s  marvel was meant as a “weekend retreat”,   Kasyapa ( who ruled 477-495 CE) created an entirely new city and principal residence, a combination of palace and fortress which makes use of the two-hundred meter rock monolith (apparently what is left of a volcano) and the surrounding plains of central Sri Lanka.

However, without the years of publicity and fame that Pachacuti’s weekend retreat at Machu Picchu has received, few outside of Sri Lanka have even heard of Kasyapa and the achievement of his builders.  Perhaps now, with the recent end of Sri Lanka’s twenty-five year-long civil war, its people can focus on less deadly matters, including the revival and promotion of their very own “eighth wonder of the world”.

How to pronounce the word?

I must thank a Sinhalese diner in the Colombo eatery across from the mosque just south of  Desoyza Circle for correcting my pronunciation of  “Sigiriya”.  I was saying “Si gee ree ya” with the stress on the ree. He pronounced it – “Si geer yer”. I hope I got it right!

Why is Sigiriya important?

Along with the Temple of the (Buddha’s) Tooth in Kandy, when it comes to cultural sites Sigiriya is the top tourist draw in Sri Lanka.  It lies “The Cultural Triangle”,  an area in the centre of the island rich in the pre-modern history of Sri Lanka, and of particular meaning to the Sinhalese (and not so much to the other ethnic groups which make up Sri Lankan society).

Sri Lanka's "Cultural Triangle"

Sri Lanka’s “Cultural Triangle” – see here for an interactive Google map version

The remains of former capital cities, impressive Buddhist architecture (in the form of dagobas or stupas) and rock sculpture – while interesting in themselves, also serve a contemporary political purpose for the Sinhalese.  “We have been here a long time,” the ruins say to Sri Lankans and tourists alike, “and we have done amazing things.” The reclamation of the ruins of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa – and of Sigiriya – serve as a statement of Sinhalese revival.

Who had Sigiriya built?

While the origins of Sri Lanka’s #1 tourist attraction are still occasionally explained solely in terms of a Buddhist monastery, the lack of overtly Buddhist icons anywhere on the site point in a different direction. (For the tourist “Buddha-ed out” or “stupa-fied” by visits to Dambulla and Anuradhapura, Sigiriya makes a great “time-out”!)

From he Culavamsa (the second half of the epic Sinhala chronicle, the Mahavamsa, a blend of history and legend), we learn of Dhatusena and two sons, one – Kasyapa –  born from a common woman he knew during his years as a resistance fighter, trying to reclaim the Sinahal kingdom from invading Tamils.  The other son – Moggallana – was considered royal and a true heir to the throne, given the proper bloodlines of his mother. Dhatusena was successful in winning back Anaduradhapura and the kingdom from the Tamils over the span of a decade of resistance.  Dhatusena would rule from 459 C.E. (A.D.) until 477 A.D. He would eventually die on the orders of his son Kasyapa who wanted the throne he felt would be given to Moggallana. His brother, meanwhile, fled to southern India, from where he would eventually return with a Tamil army to take on his half-brother.

Motivated by a mix of guilt and fear and shame, Kasyapa decided that he was not really welcome in his capital at Anuradhapura .  Seventy kilometres to the south his engineers found a rock monolith on top of which they could built the king’s palace, while below on the plains quarters for other royals and for inhabitants of the city would live.

It took fourteen years for the project to be completed; it seems that his builders had recreated at Sigiriya the Sinhala version of the City of the Gods. He would not live there long.  His brother would return from India and, with the help of his Tamil allies, defeat Kasyapa and take over control of  the kingdom.  Within a few years Sigiriya was forgotten and abandoned. Over time legends and taboos discouraged locals from ascending the rock, though it is said that Buddhist monks lived at the base of the rock in various rock overhangs that you can see to this day.  It was the British – no respecters of the taboos of other cultures! – who would scale Sigiriya and bring its story to the modern world . Now, of course, the steady stream of tourist buses  and tuk-tuks  underline the fact that it is one of Sri Lanka’s top tourist attractions.  It is absolutely worth a visit – but, given the $37. US entry charge  it really does help to know the story beforehand so that you know what you’re looking at as you make your way through the site.  This post will give you a head start

Map of Sigiriya

Map of Sigiriya at the entrance of the site

What is there to see in Sigiriya?

There are five main things to focus on during a visit to Sigiriya.

1. the grounds of the city which used to lie at the foot of the monolithic rock

2. the Sigiriya Frescoes

3. the Lion’s Paws Terrace

4. the Summit Complex – Kasyapa’s Palace

5. The Archaeological Museum

1. The Grounds Surrounding The Rock 

While some archaeological work has been done, most of the foundations of the town which lay at the foot of the rock have yet to be uncovered.  As you walk along the pathway from the Western Gateway, you will see some evidence of what was there 1500 years ago. However, without some previous knowledge of what was here and the imagination to rebuild it, there is little to see.  As you get closer to the rock itself, there are gigantic boulders that the path weaves through and around.

looking down on the western precinct of the inner city of Sigiriya

looking down on the western precinct of the inner city of Sigiriya -

uncovered or reconstructed brick foundations along Sigiriya entrance path

uncovered or reconstructed brick foundations along Sigiriya entrance path

Sigiriya ponds near entrance

Sigiriya ponds near entrance – only foundations remain, the mostly wood structures having rotted or burned away long ago.

pond near the western entrance - south side

pond near the western entrance – south side

looking back towards the western gate entrance

looking back towards the western gate entrance


approaching the boulder garden and t stairs to the summit

approaching the boulder garden and the stairs to the summit

Boulder Gardens

Sigiriya brick wall, boulders, and pathway

Sigiriya brick wall, boulders, and pathway

pathway through the boulders

pathway through the boulders

round raised platform near boulder gardens

round raised platform near boulder gardens

steps leading to round platform

steps leading to round platform

Sigiriya stairway through the boulder gardens

Sigiriya stairway through the boulder gardens

Sigiriya tourists and pilgrims make their way up

Sigiriya tourists and pilgrims make their way up

2. The Sigiriya Frescoes.

As you ascend the path and the metal staircase to get to the terrace which sits at the bottom of the last bit of climb to the palace complex on the summit, you will pass a number of paintings of from-the-waist-up, bare-breasted women, either with bunches of flowers in their hands or being offered flowers by a servant girl.  While some see the women depicted simply as the women of the court of Kasyapa,  others have read deep religious significance into these figures, interpreting them as  apsaras, celestial nymphs.

One hundred meters above the plains, this indented area of the rock face was prepared with a number of layers of lime plaster before the artists went to work on the white surface.   Using four basic colours – red, green, yellow, and black – some five hundred images were once thought to have adorned the rock face.  Today as visitors made their way up to the Lion’s Paws Terrace, they will see only the few which survive.  Below are some of the images which you’ll see – some are in better shape than others.

sigiriya lady and attendant

Sigiriya lady and attendant

Sigiriya lady and flower girl

Sigiriya lady and flower girl

sigiriya lady and flower girl 2

sigiriya lady and flower girl 2

Sigiriya lady being offered a flower

Sigiriya lady being offered a flower

Sigiriya fresco of lady holding flowers

Sigiriya fresco of lady holding flowers

Sigiriya fresco - some damage

Sigiriya fresco partially damaged

The paintings – and their easy treatment of nudity –  have not been appreciated by everyone.  Here is a depressing reminiscence about the intentional destruction of at least some of the paintings by villagers in 1967.

one of the  Sigiriya fresco - vandalized by an offended villager?

one of the Sigiriya fresco – vandalized by an offended villager?

terrace below the Lion's Paws plateau

terrace below the Lion’s Paws plateau

The Lion’s Paw Terrace (aka The Plateau of Red Arsenic)

After you pass by the Frescoes you come to a terrace – the images below sets the scene. In the centre of the rock is a staircase which takes you up to the summit of the rock and the palace of Kasyapa.  Those days all one sees are two gigantic lion’s paws at the base; the original entrance would have ascended into the body of a crouching lion.  It is what gave the rock its name – Sihagiri or Lion Rock. Only the paws remain! Echoes of Shelley’s Ozymandias! “My name is Kasyapa, King of Kings. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”

looking down from the summit at the Lion's Paw Terrace

looking down from the summit at the Lion’s Paws Terrace

Lion's Paws and Staircase going up to the summit palace area

Lion’s Paws and Staircase going up to the summit palace area

The Lion's Paws entrance

The Lion’s Paws at the entrance of the stairway to the top

Sigiriya the final stretch of staircase to the top

Sigiriya – the final stretch of staircase to the top

The Summit Complex – Kasyapa’s Palace

The summit of Sigiriya Rock requires some knowledge of what was there before – and a bit of imagination to build it all back up.  Unlike Machu Picchu, where many of the buildings only need roofs to complete them, at Sigiriya you will find only the stone foundations of many of the buildings, as well as retaining walls, staircases, terraces, and a large tank/water pool. The image below is a model representation of the Rock and the summit area. The highest point is the rectangle at the top right where  a dagoba (stupa) was apparently located.

3-D model of the Sigiriya Rock with the summit complex

3-D model of the Sigiriya Rock with the summit complex

The notion that Sigiriya was built as an invincible fortress is a bit far-fetched.  While scaling the summit would indeed represent an impossible task for the opposing army, the fact is that the “fortress” would easily fall after a siege of one month or six months or whatever it took. The wood structures could easily be set afire and suffocating smoke fires could be created to make things very uncomfortable for the relatively few people left up top.

The notion of Sigiriya Rock as a palace complex meant to replicate a mythical Buddhist paradise is closer to the truth. Kasyapa’s reign ended with the approach of an army led by his half-brother Moggallana and his Tamil allies. Instead of waiting at Sigiriya for his enemies, Kasyapa went to them and so lost whatever imagined advantage his “fortress” gave him.  The battle ended with his army in retreat and Kasyapa sparing Moggallana the need to kill him by committing suicide.  His story has all the ingredients of a Shakespearean tragedy and, in a sense, is the essence of Sigiriya.

Sigiriya ruins - brick foundations  and staircases

Sigiriya ruins – brick foundations and staircases

Sigiriya summit ruins- more foundations and staircases

Sigiriya summit ruins- more foundations and staircases

the tank on Sigiriya summit

the tank on Sigiriya summit

looking up to the top of the Sigiriya summit complex from the tank

looking up to the top of the Sigiriya summit complex from the tank

Sigiriya bikkhu begging for food donation

Sigiriya bikkhu begging for food donation – how did he get up there?

I still wonder how this dog ended  up on the summit.  As we sat there taking in the view to the south, he let it be known that he was interested in my energy bar.  Unfortunately, all he got was a scratch behind the ears.  Unilike many of the dogs I saw in Sri Lanka this one did not seem to be  afflicted with mange.  Being a stray dog in Sri Lanka cannot be an easy thing. When I saw one young man mistreating a dog who was clearly hurting, I asked him if he spoke English. His response told me he clearly did.  I asked him if he was a Buddhist.  Of course, he said. I suggested to him that maybe the dog was a bodhisattva who was there specifically to provide us with yet another opportunity for an act of kindness. His reaction told me he wasn’t getting the point.

looking south from Sigiriya summit

looking south from Sigiriya summit

the view from the south end of the summit area - Sigiriya Vava down below

the view from the south end of the summit area – Sigiriya Vava down below

On the way down from the Lion’s Paws Terrace, we passed by the remains of some of the agricultural terraces.

Sigiriya - descending from the summit past some terraces

Sigiriya – descending from the summit past some terraces

On returning to the entrance, it is definitely worth your while to spend forty-five minutes or so at the Archaeological Museum just a two hundred meter walk away.  It provides a great overview of the site and has some of the small sculptures and objects found in the archaeological work that has been done so far.  Clearly, uncovering the site will keep Sri Lankans busy for a few generations. It will continue to draw both locals and tourists intent on experiencing an aspect of Sri Lanka other than the beach.


There is a video on Sigiriya at the UNESCO World Heritage site which is surprisingly informative given its three-minute length. (See here.)

If you are going to visit Sigiriya the best investment ($9.01) you can make – other than hire a competent guide! –  is the Kindle version of the book The Story of Sigiriya by Senani Ponnamperuma. Check it out here. The writer also has a website (access here) where you will find a great introduction to Sigiriya. Unfortunately, I went to Sigiriya without a real solid understanding of what I was looking at – and I have this aversion to hiring site guides.  The result is that I missed pointing my camera at more of the places that would have told the story so much better than what you see here.  I bought the book after I got back home!

Up Wabakimi’s Raymond River to Cliff Lake

This post describes a canoe route that takes paddlers from Whiteclay Lake on the Ogoki River system up the Raymond River and then the Annette Lakes to the Height of Land.  From there it is down Butland Lake and across a 1370-meter portage to a little-known jewel of the Wabakimi area, Cliff Lake.  This lake’s  long stretches of  fifty-foot vertical rock face and the fact that it is one of the great Anishinaabe (i.e. Ojibwe or Chippewa) pictograph sites in the Canadian Shield should bump it to the top of most canoe trip wish lists.  The entire route lies within the boundaries of Wabakimi Provincial Park. (Click here for a Google Map overview.)

Saturday, August 10:

distance: 35 km. over nine hours: 15km (2.5 hours) to the mouth of the Raymond            11 km (3 hours) to Pickett Lake ; 9 km (3 hours) to North Annette Lake tent site

weather:  beautiful sunny day with a bit of a wind from the W

portages: 3 – 300 m; 1000 m; 300 m.  See maps below

It was 6 a.m.  and we lay there listening to the bush plane overhead. We were on the Ogoki River system at the east end of Whiteclay Lake, not too far away from a couple of Mattice Lake Outfitters’ outposts. We figured new clients – mostly likely from south of the border –  were being flown in for a week’s worth of reputed world-class fishing  at one of them.  We had paddled by five outposts over the past two weeks and  had only seen signs of life at two of them. Being in the outfitters’ business these days must be quite the challenge.

After we broke camp and headed south towards the mouth of the Raymond River we would hear a fishing boat as it churned the waters heading north.  Chances are it was coming from the Mattice Lake Outfitters’ outpost at the east end of Whiteclay Lake. This was the only fishing boat we saw during our seventeen days of paddling in the Wabakimi area.

Ogoki River (Whiteclay Lake )with mouth of the Raymond River

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

After leaving our tent site at the top of Whiteclay lake, we only felt the wind when we turned west out of the relative shelter of the shoreline of the north-east arm.  When we got to the mouth of the Raymond we were struck by the almost flood-like conditions.  Alders were half-submerged and the shoreline had a weedy, reedy look.  We would only see one campsite until we got to the lawn at the outpost on Pickett Lake!  It would be at the top end of our first portage of the day.

Up The Raymond River to Pickett LakeThe  portage is on river right (our left as we were going up) and is about 300 meters long. It starts off  dry and then it gets a bit swampy for about thirty meters before a nice run to the end.  We gave the alders a bit of a trim as we went through and had a one-hour lunch break at the end of the portage trail.  Just above the put-in spot was a decent campsite complete with fire pit.  We looked for a path through the bush to get closer to the rapids or “falls” but it looked like it would need more effort than we wanted to spend.   We turned back to lunch and another cup of coffee.

first (if you're going up!) Raymond River portage

first (if you’re going up!) Raymond River portage

Paddling up to Pickett Lake – quite reedy as you come into it from the north –  and the outpost is  on the SW shore; we got it done in an hour and spent some time checking out the Ogoki Frontier outpost.  The original plan had been to camp on some of the outpost’s ample  flat space but while it didn’t look like anyone had been there yet that summer, we decided to push on.  Had it later in the day or if the weather had been worse, we may have stayed, given the lack of decent alternative camp sites.  Our new target was North Annette Lake.

Raymond River from Pickett Lake to North Annette Lake

In our map case was some information taken from CIIcanoe’s account of the canoe trip we were duplicating – he and his partner had camped at North Annette Lake.  (See here for CIIcanoe’s entry for their day up to North Annette Lake from the portage campsite I mentioned above.  You’ll find lots of great pix!)

From the Picket Lake outpost it was an easy 5-km. paddle  up to the take-out point for the first of a couple of portages, which are connected by a pond that we paddled across.  The total distance was 1300 meters and it took us into a lake that we knew as North Annette Lake thanks to CIIcanoe’s post.  The close-up map below shows the two portages -

Raymond River Portages #2 and #3

Portages #2 to the pond where you leave the Raymond River and #3 into North Annette Lake

There was a mucky ten-meter start to the little-used and badly overgrown trail, which is visible but really needs a trim.  According to my Spot Connect tracking data, we spent about an hour and half dealing with this two-part portage into North Annette Lake.

It is about twenty kilometres from the mouth of the Raymond River to the pond that you get to at the end of the 1000 meter portage. It is here where the river veers west to Scallop Lake  and where we made sure to paddle to the south end of the pond.  My thoughts turned to the warning that one Canadian Canoe Routes Forum  poster had made about getting disoriented here and heading up the Raymond River instead of south towards the first of the Annette Lakes.

While I have been using the name “North Annette Lake” to describe the lake you come to after the carry south from the small nameless lake/pond, the fact is that on topo maps it is yet another of those countless Canadian Shield lakes left without a name!  My Garmin Topo Canada v.4 does not have a name for it or the lake below it. Neither does the Atlas of Canada’s Toporama web site.  I also checked the 1:50000 topo for the area - 052 I 10 (Linklater Lake) and it does not give either of the two Annette Lakes a name. So what is going on here?  I figured if anyone would know it would be Phil Cotton of the Wabakimi Project so off went an email to him.  I would get back this detailed response -

Lake names are categorized either as ‘gazetteered’ or colloquial. The former are government-approved names that have been published in the weekly Ontario Gazette. The latter are assigned by locals. The Wabakimi Project publishes known colloquial lake names on its canoe route maps to help paddlers report their location in case of an emergency.

On my first trip up the Raymond River and into the headwaters of the Pikitigushi River, we spent the better part of a week cutting and clearing the ‘mountain’ portage at the head of the Raymond River. We made it to the second lake for our weekly rendezvous with Don Elliot’s float plane service to exchange crews and be re-supplied.

On the sat phone, I had a heck of time trying to explain to Don where we were so he could find us. After a detailed description of the waterways, he exclaimed, “Oh, you’re on South Annette Lake!”. Later, I asked him how the lake got its name. He laughed and explained, “It’s where I spent my honeymoon!”. FYI, His wife’s name is Annette.

Annette Elliot at the MLO front desk

Annette Elliot at the MLO front desk

So I had my answer about the  Annette Lakes – and a good chuckle!

Strangely enough, just after I sent off the email to Phil, I happened to send another one to Mattice Lake Outfitters. We had made use of their services at both ends of the trip I am describing and had received a couple of complementary MLO caps.  Well, this February in a Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka mine popped out of the rear pocket of my jeans.  I never did find it – and now I was writing Annette Elliot – the soon-to-be-identified Lady of the Lake –  to see if I could buy a replacement.  One of those quirky little coincidences that may hide some deeper meaning!

Later when I scanned through the trip pix, the one above jumped out.  It has everything – Annette Elliot is there and she’s holding the cap, and the two geezers are grinning madly at the end of yet another excellent adventure.

Now back to the trip report!

Early morning sun on North Annette Lake

Early morning sun on North Annette Lake

Morning Rush Hour on North Annette Lake

Morning Rush Hour on North Annette Lake

On the west side of North Annette Lake we had a couple of tent site possibilities to choose from. Both are south of the little rock island you see in the above image.  The first one – on a point – was nice but way too exposed for our liking.  We paddled down

North Annette Lake campsiteabout 500 meters to a second site; it too was exposed and not worth the effort of hauling our gear up the moss-covered rock face from the awkward take-out point.  In the end, we found our spot in between the two. While it wasn’t perfectly flat,  it was a lot easier to reach and nicely sheltered in case the weather turned bad.Twenty minutes of site rehabilitation and we had added a third tent site to the neighbourhood.

It had been a long day.  We sat on the shore of the lake that evening and recognized our good fortune in having the time, energy, skills, health and money to be able to experience the boreal wilderness in a way few can or want to. The lake was memorable in its stillness.

Sunday, August 11.

North Annette Lake camp site

North Annette Lake camp site – our four canoe bags scattered around the site

We had a very modest goal for the day – to get to the bottom of Butland Lake.  It would mean we could leave a bit later than usual and still be finished before two!

Max taking in the stillness with his cup of coffee

the view from our tent spot – Max taking in the stillness with his cup of coffee

distance: 12 km.

weather: a beautiful sunny day in Wabakimi Country!

portages: 4  (70m;  85m; 570m; 680m)

North  Annette Lake to Butland Lake Across The Height Of Land

North Annette Lake to Butland Lake Across The Height Of Land

Paddling south to the top of North Annette Lake, we faced our first two mini-portages of the day. The day’s first problem-solving exercise involved getting through a very narrow section of the river with two channels separated by a rocky middle.  It was marked as a beaver dam on our map but the logs crossing the west (i.e. river left) channel were probably pushed there by the water at ice-out time. We tracked up the RL channel taking a few scrapes on the bottom of the canoe as we hauled it over some of the rocks and logs.  Ouch!  We didn’t see the portage trail, which is apparently 75 meters long on RL.

Two hundred meters further up we came to the second (85 m) portage on river left and followed it to a deep gash with water and put the canoe in there.  Unfortunately this was not the put in spot!  We then  tracked up a very rocky thirty meters of stream.  This was one of those cases where our attempt to find the easier way led to more work.  Below is a pic of Max after our half-hour of strenuous exercise! He is looking at South Annette Lake and the portage trail that will take us over the height of land and into Butland Lake. I am hoping he has that portage trail location figured out!

at the start of South Annette Lake

at the start of South Annette Lake

South Annette Lake from the north end

South Annette Lake from the north end

Height of Land Portage From South Annette to ButlandSo there we were at the top of South Annette Lake looking for the take out spot. We paddled right to the east side looking for the take-out spot and found the camp site indicated on the map.  I scouted around looking for the start of the trail.  Nothing!  I bushwhacked a bit more thinking for sure I’d hit the trail. Two minutes – five minutes – thirty minutes!  Where the hell is the portage? Why don’t they mark these suckers with some orange tape!!! And then – the trip’s #1 Duh! moment.  We had been misreading the map by taking  the put-in point on Butland for the take out on South Annette. We’re just glad no one saw us at work! Click on the map on the right for an enlarged view.  You can also relive our goof.

The Height of Land portage trail to the pond was fairly clear with just a bit of deadfall. And yes – I did find a faded strip of orange tape tied to a tree by the take-out point!  Some stretches were a bit mucky – the last stretch coming up to the pond especially – but it sure beat the floundering we had been doing a few minutes before.  And the blueberries – wow! After dumping the my pack load half way, it took me longer than usual to get back to the canoe waiting at the take-out point.

A bit later at rest on the pond we made a Gatorade toast to the fact that from this point on we would be going downriver. Still to come was Butland Lake and the entry on Butland’s west side of the Pikitigushi River.  We’d follow the ‘Gushi from the bottom of Butland to the end of the trip.

The second half of the portage – the section from the pond to Butland Lake – started with fifty meters of squishy bog and then was manageable to the shore of Butland. We had lunch at the put in spot and then set off on our paddle down the lake. A half hour later we passed the Wilderness North outpost on our left.

Butland Lake

We would find a great campsite not far from the start of the next day’s portage into Cliff Lake. The tent site was mostly flat and sheltered by birches as well as pine and spruce, the landing area made for easy entries and exits, and the patio area allowed for lots of rambling around. Once the tent and tarp were up, we hauled out the goose down bags and put them in the sun and the wind to get a freshening up.  Then we pulled out the soap and did a bit of washing up – first us and then our clothes. It had been a few days since we’d had the weather to do so and it felt downright rejuvenating.

Butland Lake campsite

Butland Lake campsite – lots of space to move around and great views of the lake

south end of Butland Lake from our camp site

south end of Butland Lake from our camp site

sunset on Butland Lake

sunset on Butland Lake

Monday, August 12.

Fresh from a bit of relaxation and cleaning up, we were ready to deal with the day’s one and only portage – a 1370-meter carry which would take us from Butland Lake into Cliff Lake.  We were thankful that we were doing all these 1000 meter + portages at the end of the trip and not at the beginning. At four lbs. a day of food, it meant that our packs  were fifteen days and 60 lbs. lighter than on Day 1 at Rockcliff Lake on the Misehkow. It made doing the Mr. Canoehead Jig through the boreal just a tad easier!

Distance: 4 km. including the portage!

Weather; cloudy in the morning/mostly sunny and a bit windy in the aft with intermittent showers

Portages: 1 plus 1 lift-over

Wabakimi's Butland L-Cliff L

Wabakimi’s Butland L-Cliff L

The portage into Cliff Lake did not present any problems and we were able to get the job done in an hour using our carry and a half system.  We were appreciative of the logs that  had been placed in boggier sections of the trail by some portage maintenance crew; they should be good for a few years.

There was only one more thing to deal with – 100 meters down from the put-in where the river makes a bend was a ledge with a1.5 foot (half a meter) drop to deal with. We paddled over to the right side to take a look and, with a quick lift-over,  were through in a minute.  Checking it out from the bottom it looked like we could have just powered through on the left.

a short stretch of Cliff Lake rock face

a short stretch of Cliff Lake rock face

Paddling down the east side of the lake past some imposing vertical basalt  rock face, we would soon find out that we had paddled into a lake which was not only one of the most scenic we have seen in northern Ontario – but one which was also rich in Anishinaabe (that is, Ojibwe or Chippewa) pictographs.

We paddled to a small point on the lake’s east side and found there our best campsite since the start of the trip on Rockcliff Lake on the Misehkow River.  If you want to see what we found at Cliff Lake – and why we think it may be at the top of the list of special lakes we have ever had the good fortune to spend time on,  you can check out these two posts -

The Pictographs of Wabakimi’s Cliff Lake – Selwyn Dewdney Takes Us On a Tour

The Pictographs of Wabakimi’s Cliff Lake – Part Two

Coming soon is a description of the route from Cliff Lake to the take-out point at the Boucher Bear Camp on the Pikitigushi River.

looking for ochre on Wabakimi'sCliff Lake

looking for ochre on Wabakimi’sCliff Lake

Useful Links:

The work of The Wabakimi Project  (maps as well as actual portage clearing and establishment of campsites)  has helped to shine a light on an area of Wabakimi that older trip reports sometimes make sound  like the boreal version of a journey up to the Heart of Darkness.  This map illustrates their work from 2004 to the end of 2013. Yet to be fully explored and mapped is  an ambitious Volume 5 – Lake Nipigon Tributaries  which will include the Little Jackfish, the Pikitigushi, and the Kopka Rivers, as well as a few more .  It should be noted that the people involved in the Project are volunteers and are not paid by the Wabakimi Provincial Park managers for their work in promoting the park and the surrounding area. The Project is always happy to take on new crew members.

On the Canadian Canoe Routes web site, you will find a great three-week trip made in 2006 outlined by Ben Gervais. it started at Allanwater Bridge and went down to Wabakimi Lake and into Whitewater and then east on the Ogoki River and Whiteclay Lake. Here they headed for the mouth of the Raymond River and followed the route we did to the take out on the Pikitigushi River.  Check out his trip report here.

There is another CCR forum thread from 2006 entitled “Wabikimi – Cliff Lake”  which has a number of members chipping in impressions and information of the route – it can be accessed here. Clearly a lot has happened in the past eight years in terms of portages and mapping thanks to the work of the Wabikimi Project.

CIIcanoe’s trip report was the inspiration for our canoe trip.  His blog-style report has tons of excellent pix and info on portages. The section dealing with the Raymond River onward starts here. His UTM reference #s just need some actual co-ordinates to be useful to any paddlers planning to redo the journey that Chuck Ryan and his bow partner Dave Phillips  took through a memorable slice of Le Petit Nord.

The Federal Government topos 052 I 15 (Whiteclay Lake),  052 I 10 (Linklater Lake),  and 052 I 07 (Pikitigushi Lake) cover the area from Whiteclay Lake all the way to Lake Nipigon. The topos can be accessed for free download here.

If you’d have a use for my Garmin file – the one which generated these maps – you can download it from my Dropbox folder here.   N.B., You will need the Garmin Basecamp application as well as Topo Canada v.4 for it to work. Also, you need to edit the file name once you download it.  Find the file and just take off the .txt at the end and it should work fine.

To be clear, here is the file name after you locate the file you have downloaded -

Auger Lake to Cliff Lake.GPX.txt

Now take the .txt off so that the file ends in .GPX  and it should open up in your Basecamp app.

A Two-Day Paddle Up Wabakimi’s Witchwood River System

Northwest Ontario’s Wabakimi area is a paddler’s dream with countless lake and river tripping combinations limited only by time and ambition.  This post looks at the   forty-five kilometer Witchwood River system, which  is one of a number of north/south routes that paddlers can use to get from the Ogoki River to the Attwood or Albany River systems. It is located to the north-east of the actual boundaries of Wabakimi Provincial Park and its entire length is included in the Attwood River Conservation Reserve. (See here for a map.)

From just north of the NE arm of the Ogoki’s Whiteclay Lake, it flows down to Hurst Lake and the Attwood River system.  The two-or-three day paddle could easily be included in a memorable Wabakimi canoe trip, especially when combined with a bush plane entry or exit.  

SONY DSCThe first half of our August 2013  canoe trip around the top of NW Ontario’s Wabakimi Provincial Park had the benefit of going with the flow of the current. We looked forward to swifts – and rapids often meant a three-minute adrenaline-pumping ride instead of the grunt work of carrying canoe and gear across yet another derelict portage.  Given that we started off with  eighty pounds of food in our two Hooligan canoe packs this was a real plus.

2013 Wabakimi Canoe Trip Overview

2013 Wabakimi Canoe Trip Overview -click on image to enlarge

All images enlarge with a click; all blue text leads to a related page with a click.

By the time we got to  the bottom of Petawa Creek on Petawanga Lake on Day 9, half of the food had been turned into paddle strokes and we reorganized the packs to take the shrinking food supply into account.  Then we set out on a series of up-the-creek and up-the river adventures that provided quite the contrast to coming down the Misehkow and Albany Rivers.

First we spent a difficult day dealing with the 10.5-kilometer stretch of Petawa Creek; then, after sitting tight on Auger Lake for a day while some bad weather passed through, we moved on to the next challenge – paddling up the Witchwood River system. It took us a day to get from Auger Lake to Felsia Lake and the mouth of  the Witchwood River. (A earlier post – Paddling From Auger Lake to Felsia Lake – will give you an idea of the portages  and rapids along this 24-km. route.)  This post picks up the trip at Felsia Lake and takes us into the Ogoki River system on Whiteclay Lake.

Day One ( of Two on the Witchwood River System)

distance: 20 kilometers from Felsia Lake almost to Grinch Lake

weather: sunny morning/surprise wind/rain storm mid afternoon/ heavy rain after 8 p.m.

portages: 6 and a few sets of swifts and minor rapids walked up  (see maps below)

Felsia Lake morning

Felsia Lake morning – shot taken about an hour after the golden glow moved on

Unlike the overcast sky that greeted us on Auger Lake the morning before, our Felsia Lake campsite was bathed in early morning golden light; by 8:30 a.m. clouds and blue sky had changed the scene to the one you see above.

Felsia Lake Tent Site

Felsia Lake Tent Site -

We would spend about seven hours this day paddling twenty kilometres up the Witchwood River system to just before Grinch Lake.  The weather would be a mixed bag with a sunny morning, a turbulent mid-afternoon wind and rain storm that seemed to come from nowhere, a couple of no-rain hours where we put up our tent and did our cooking and then – starting at 8 – rain that would pour down for most of the night.

Up the Witchwood from Felsia Lake -Map 1

Up the Witchwood from Felsia Lake -Map 1

We were expecting some swifts as we left the lake and paddled up the narrower stretch of the river – but all was calm.  Our first portage was a 290-meter carry on river right (our left as we were ascending the river). The take-out point is clear enough and is right at the bottom of the last bit of ripples from the rapids. The trail was in pretty good shape with just a bit of deadfall requiring our attention.  Just above the put-in point we came upon a set of swifts; the bowman did have to get out of the canoe just before the top and pull the canoe for a short distance. Around a couple of corners another set of swifts required a bit of tracking to get back into calmer water.

A wider stretch of the river led to our second portage of the way – this time on river left (our right as we were going up the river).  The 200-meter trail begins in the little bay away from the main channel and was in good shape.

The third portage – illustrated on the map above – was a 365-meter cross-peninsula trail that we started at 11:15. A blaze marks the take-out point with other blazes along the trail, which goes up a steep incline before  levelling out for a bit.

looking down the Witchwood - 11-10 a.m.

looking down the Witchwood – a narrower stretch. Narrow is good if there is water to paddle in!

Up The Witchwood - Map 2

Up The Witchwood – Map 2

After the 365-meter portage we got to paddle a wider stretch of the river for a couple of kilometers before we came to set of swiifts/Class 0 rapids. We did see a portage trail on river right (our left) but we ended walking the canoe up the river for about 80 meters. This led us to the big bend a kilometer upriver.  There are a couple of things to deal with here – the first is a  set of swifts which we mostly walked up. This leads you to a set of rapids with a portage take out on river left and a 125 meter messy trail to the end.

low water on the Witchwood - impassible up or down!

low water on the Witchwood – impassable either up or down!

Witchwood beaver dam 2-00 p.m.

Witchwood beaver dam – our last little challenge  before lunch – we hauled the canoe over

the view from our lunch spot on the Witchwood

the view from our lunch spot on the Witchwood – the beaver dam is at top middle

Up The Witchwood  - Map 3

Up The Witchwood – Map 3

Tent site on the Witchwood

Tent site on the Witchwood River

After a classic Wabakimi out-of-nowhere mid-afternoon wind/rain storm, we were pretty much soaked and keen on finding  a camp spot.  The plan had been to get to Grinch Lake but we would call it a day a few kilometers before and quickly got the tent up and then into our dry set of clothes. Expecting more rain, we rigged the 10’x14′ tarp up over the tent for that added bit of protection.  Around 8 it started to pour heavily and continued for a good part of the night, only stopping around 6 a.m.  The tent was mostly dry when we packed it away a couple of hours later.

ready for the storm - tarp on top of tent

ready for the expected storm – tarp on top of tent

looking up the Witchwood  from our front porch

looking up the Witchwood from our front porch

moss on rock

moss on rock

the banks of the Witchwood near our campsite

the banks of the Witchwood near our campsite

Day Two ( of Two on the Witchwood River System)

distance: 30 km over 9 hours ( from just below Grinch Lake to NE arm of Whiteclay Lake)

weather: wet and overcast in the morning/ sunny and dry in the aft

portages: 1300 m River Right  + 750 m into Whiteclay L. (see maps below)

This day was one of our bigger days in terms of distance covered and portages made.  It included a couple of our longer portages since we had started on Rockcliffe L. two weeks before. But it all felt great – with some fantastic stretches of narrow winding river to paddle in what turned out to be a pretty nice day. By five we had paddled some eight kilometres south on the NE arm of Whiteclay Lake and found a decent campsite.  We were now on the Ogoki River system!

Witchwood River - Map 4

Witchwood River – Map 4

As you can see on the map above, there is nothing to deal with in the seven kilometers from where we camped (top right) all the way through the reedy Grinch Lake section to the 1300-meter portage which crosses a logging road right near the end.  As much as I like the clean look of Garmin’s Topo Canada map set, I am left wondering where the logging road is!  It does not pop up no matter how close you zoom in.  Take a look at this Google Earth view of the portage area to get a better view of the situation -

Witchwood River - logging road portage

Witchwood River – logging road portage

The Grave Site We Didn’t See!

With all our gear at the logging road just to the east of the bridge, we noticed that the trail continued about 30 meters down the road. Within a few minutes we were back down on the river and ready to keep on heading south.  What we cannot really recall seeing is what these images show -

logging road just east of the Witchwood River bridge

logging road just east of the Witchwood River bridge

Witchwood logging road gravesite marker

Witchwood logging road gravesite marker

Thanks to John Holmes for the pix. He was up there in May of 2012 as a part of a Wabakimi Project team with John Sinclair, Bill Pyle, and Phil Cotton.  As for the story behind the memorial, here is how Ed MacPherson tells it – 

We travelled Witchwood Lake and River downstream and arrived at the Ogoki Road crossing on the Witchwood River. Only the beaver dam to portage over or around, near the south end of Witchwood Lake. We subsequently camped on the road and spent 2 days clearing the long 1200m portage. 

Several meters from our tent, at the side of the road, was a tripod with some eagle feathers attached to the top. We did not know at the time that it marked a grave. In the fall of 2009 MNR and the Fort Hope community, (Ebamatoong First Nation) erected a bronze plaque, marking the grave area. I recall seeing the orange snow fencing on the road while flying over it in July, 2010 on my way to Guerin Lake on the Attwood River.

The story I have heard, and I do not know if it is true or accurate, is that a group of Fort Hope Anishnabi people were travelling the road by snowmobile one winter. They had their spiritual leader and healer, an elderly person, with them. He passed away during the night. They could not bring him back to Fort Hope, so they built their campfire on the road, which thawed the ground underneath and then buried him there marking the approximate location with the tripod and feathers. (See here for the source of the quote.)

There you have it.  Definitely a grave site marker there in 2012!  Not wanting to create a memory of one, I’ll just say that neither my brother or I took notice of it as we finished off our portage by going down the bank of the road not that far from where the marker is in the pic! If you go past this spot in the next while and don’t mind sharing the pic you take, send it to me and I will insert it here as an update.   ___________________________________________________________________________

For some reason we had expected the portage to be longer and more painful than it was and an hour later as we stood on the logging road with the canoe and gear, we realized that the put-in was about 100 meters away.

(The above quote makes clear why the portage had gone so smoothly.  It just recently been groomed by Ed and his wife! Thanks. )

As a bonus, shortly after we pushed off from the put-in spot, we saw the biggest bull moose we have ever paddled by – a 1000-pound plus giant crowned with a beautiful set of antlers.  Cameras, of course, were nicely tucked away and safe from harm!

Witchwood River  -map 5

Witchwood River -map 5

As we moved up Witchwood Lake, we got to watch the canoe’s reflection in the water as the shoreline slipped by.  The vegetation along the ten-kilometer lake  had us thinking  “This has got to be the ultimate moose country” so we dug out one of our cameras to be ready.   Needless to say, the moose didn’t play along!

Near the top of the lake is a beaver dam which has created a two-foot difference in water level from lower to upper.  We hauled the canoe over the unexpected blockage and paddled the final 1.5 km to the portage which would take us into the Ogoki River system.  The trail is very well used; it begins with a very steep section and then levels out before coming down to the shore of Whiteclay Lake. The end of the portage trail has definitely seen some campers over the years; there is room for at least two or three tents and is very nicely sheltered.  Here is a close-up map of the actual portage.

Witchwood to Whiteclay Portage

Witchwood to Whiteclay Portage

We had lunch there and then, at about 3:30, we decided to knock off a few more kilometers. We would find a nice campsite about  about seven km later and by 5:30 had the tent and tarp up and the stove boiling up some water. While the day had involved a bit of work, we had actually expected much worse so we were feeling pretty good about how things had unfolded.

Whiteclay Lake - NE Arm

Whiteclay Lake – NE Arm

If you want to keep on travelling with us check out the next post on the Raymond River all the way to Cliff Lake. It can be accessed here.

Useful Links:

We have to thank Phil Cotton and the  Wabakimi Project crews for the work they did on the Witchwood portages and campsites in the year or two before we did this trip.  They also have a recently published map set (Volume 4 in the ultimate collection of Wabakimi canoe tripping maps) which you can see here.  Maps 17 and 18 cover the route from Whiteclay Lake to Hurst Lake. Map 19 takes you through Auger Lake to the Albany River via Petawa Creek.

The Federal Government 1:50000 topos are available for free download here and make a useful addition to the planning phase or to include in your map case.  You would need the following maps for the Witchwood River section:

from Whiteclay Lake to the north end of Witchwood Lake           052P02 (Kilbarry Lake)

from just north of  Witchwood Lake down to Felsia Lake             052P01 (Sim Lake)

from Felsia Lake to Hurst Lake and down to the Albany River     052P08 (Kawitos Lake)

Chuck Ryan (aka CIIcanoe) has a series of posts on a canoe trip route which we ended up copying.  The three entries which deal with their up-the-Witchwood experience begin here. He has included lots of pix of the river and portages to give you an idea of what to expect.  It seems that we did a bit more tracking and they did more portaging thanks to the different water levels we were dealt.

The Canadian Canoe Routes website is always a great place to go for information and advice.  A thread on the Witchwood River can be found here and makes for interesting reading.



Paddling From Auger Lake to Felsia Lake (The Mouth of The Witchwood River System)

This is # 5 of a series of posts on a 350-kilometer canoe trip around the top of Wabakimi Provincial Park in NW Ontario which my brother and I did in August of 2013. Click here for the Google route overview map.)

The Day In Brief:

distance: 24 kilometers from Auger Lake to Felsia Lake

weather: overcast morning/clear afternoon

portages: 1…  with the second one (Vertente into Hurst) avoided by running it  YMMV!

Having spent a memorable day getting up to Auger Lake from the Albany River via Petawa Creek (see here for Post #4’s maps and details), the next day’s goal was the mouth of the Witchwood River system.  But first we spent a rain day at our Auger Lake campsite while a nasty bit of weather blew its way through.

a grey day begins on Auger Lake

a grey day begins on Auger Lake – we’re moving’ on!

When the second morning arrived, we were keen to get on the water again. While it was overcast, at least it wasn’t raining.  We set off at 7:35, intent on paddling a few kilometres before breakfast.  On our way up Auger Lake we stopped in to see if anyone was at the Mattice Lake Outfitters outpost a bit over 4 kilometres from our campsite. Nobody was home on this day at a very well-kept outpost.

the Auger Lake outpost

the Auger Lake outpost

We moved on to the portage that would take us to Quartz Lake and our bowl of oatmeal and first mugs of coffee for the day.  The portage is well-used thanks to the outpost; the last bit of the 825-meter carry follows a muddy creek bed to Quartz lake.

Auger Lake to Vertente Bay

Auger Lake to Vertente Bay

If you’re interested in a pdf file of the maps, click here.  If you have Google Earth installed,  click here for a kml file which it will open up. I also uploaded a workable gpx file that can be opened in Garmin’s Basecamp with the Topo Canada map installed. You can download it here. Take a look at the downloaded file name; in order for it to work you need to delete the .txt and the end so that all that is left is Auger Lake to Cliff Lake.GPX

Breakfast on the rocks - Quartz Lake

Breakfast on the rocks – Quartz Lake – just add some boiling water!

We found a breakfast spot a short distance down from the portage put-in and pulled out our Senate seats and leaned back while we savoured the filtered coffee and took in the rain-free morning on a calm little lake. We were sitting by a large fire pit with a stack of wood next to it but it didn’t look like anyone had camped there for a year or two.

Coming up was a seventy-five meter portage (see map above) around a beaver dam to get us into Vertente Bay, a long arm of Attwood Lake, and another portage (see map below) to get us into Hurst Lake. We really didn’t have much information about what to expect. We ended up hauling the canoe over the dam and found that there was enough water in the creek to paddle the rest of the way to Vertente Bay.

Looking up Quartz Lake to the portage

Looking up Quartz Lake to the portage

Do note that this is not great campsite country –  we saw very few decent campsites in our paddle from the north end of Auger Lake to the Attwood River.  The above image pretty well sums it up – bush and marsh to the shoreline with very few rock outcroppings or other suitable places to pitch a tent. This is not Temagami!

Vertente Bay to Felsia Lake

At the east end of Vertente Bay, the Attwood River tumbles down a 400-meter set of rapids into Hurst Lake.  The portage trail is visible on river right. After a quick look at what looked like an okay trail, we pushed off to see if we could maybe line and run the rapids.  In the end, we just powered down the middle carried by some big waves and had a exhilarating  two-minute ride down instead of a thirty-minute hoof across the portage trail.  There was a campsite at the end of the portage trail which looked pretty good but our goal for the day was Felsia Lake so we  moved on.

In our  seven-kilometer paddle down Hurst Lake, we saw the first person since we had waved our pilot goodbye on Rockcliffe Lake ten days before.  A Beaver had just landed at the outpost but we were too far way to exchange greetings.

The light NW wind didn’t hurt and in a little more than an hour we were sitting at the end of the lake by the swifts flowing down from Felsia Lake. Three minutes of paddling harder than we had all day and  we slipped into the quiet waters of Felsia Lake.  As we paddled up the lake we passed a Leuenberger outpost and saw a bush plane dropping off someone – again, we were too far away to say “hello” but there they were! Two more people – three in an hour after nobody for a week and a half!  They would be the last people we would even see until we got the the Bear Camp on the banks of the Pikitigushi River a week later.

Canoe droppings on rock

Canoe droppings on rock

Around the corner from the outpost we found an okay campsite that had seen a visit or two in the past while – the canoe paint scrapings on the landing spot were witness to that!

We put up the tent and set up a clothesline so the wind and sun could dry some of the clothes and gear. The evening’s entertainment was provided by a curious seagull who was very keen on sharing some of our supper.

Seagull and fire pit on Felsia Lake

Seagull and fire pit on Felsia Lake

Felsia Lake sea gull up close

Felsia Lake sea gull up close

The distance from our Auger Lake campsite to our camp half way up Felsia Lake was about twenty-four kilometres.  It had been a pretty easy day but having spent the previous “rain day” under the tarp and in our admittedly plush four-person tent on Auger Lake, it felt great to knock off a few kilometres. On tap was a two-day paddle up the Witchwood River system.  The next post (see here) will provide maps and some basic information on the rapids, portages, and campsites.  Here is Felsia Lake the next morning as we looked up to the top of the lake -

looking up to the top of Felsia Lake

looking up to the top of Felsia Lake – next stop Grinch Lake and a 25 m elevation gain

This canoe trip had begun a week and a half earlier some 200 kilometres to the west and south.  If you’d like to see the earlier posts, take a look at at Paddling Wabakimi’s Misehkow River  and Paddling The Albany River.


Sri Lanka’s Dambulla Cave Temple – A Buddhist Treasure Trove

Almost at the very centre of the island of Sri Lanka – at the junction of the road between Colombo and Trincomalee and the one between Kandy and Anuradhapura – is the crossroads market town of Dambulla.  (Click here for a google interactive map.) These days locals know it for its sprawling and thriving vegetable market – but rooted in the past is another claim to fame.  To the south of the market is  the 170 meter granite outcrop whose recesses house some of the finest Buddhist statuary and murals to be found in Sri Lanka and, in fact, in all of south-east Asia.


a satellite image of the granite outcrop and the caves

Images enlarge with a click; all blue text leads to a new page with more info.

This makes a stop at Dambulla all but mandatory for anyone exploring Sri Lanka’s so-called “Cultural Triangle”, the term given to those sites which preserve elements of the great Sinhalese kingdoms of the island’s past. Dambulla sits in the middle of the triangle formed by Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, and Kandy and  its development was influenced in turn by each of these three points on the triangle.

Dambulla Golden Temple front shot

Dambulla Golden Temple front shot

A visit to the Dambulla caves takes you first to the Golden Temple which sits at the bottom of the path leading up 150 meters to the western side of the outcrop.The structure dates back to the 1990’s; critics have not been kind and have used words like “ugly” and “kitschy” to describe the over-the-top architecture.

Dambulla's Golden Temple up closer

Dambulla’s Golden Temple up closer

To the right of the temple one finds a row of monks approaching the gigantic seated Buddha, some with offering in their hands.

part of the line of monks approaching the Buddha

part of the line of monks approaching the Buddha

monks filing to present offerings to the Buddha

monks filing to present offerings to the Buddha

There are steps which take you past these monks and up to a terrace where you can sit down in front of the Buddha for the view illustrated by the image below -

The Buddha statue up close

The Buddha statue up close

While there are larger Buddha statues elsewhere in Asia, the plaque nearby lets us know that this one is the largest statue of the Buddha in the Dhyana Chakra mudra or position. Kitsch or not, it does have a certain power.

Buddha Statue plaque

Buddha Statue plaque -

There is a museum in the building on top of which this Buddha sits but I was keen to see the main attraction – the caves – so I gave it a pass.  It really does not get positive reviews in the various guidebooks though I should perhaps have given it a few minutes to see for myself.  Later I would visit the Buddhist Museum a kilometre down the road to see some impressive recreations of the murals of Dambulla and many other Cultural Triangle sites.

side view of the Buddha statue on the way to the caves

side view of the Buddha statue on the way to the caves

The pathway up to the main attraction is on the left side of the temple. It is an uphill walk but ten minutes and a stop or two on the way to appreciate the view and it gets done.  On the way vendors will proffer different items they feel tourists are looking to buy – the stand with its collection of brass statues  below was but one of many.  I really should have taken a pic of the Bob Marley/Rasta items that one dreadlocked entrepreneur had available. Clearly there is room at the Buddha’s table for all!

tourist souvenirs on the path to the caves

tourist souvenirs on the path to the caves

approaching the entranceway to the Dambulla Caves

approaching the entrance way to the Dambulla Caves

Just before you go through the entrance gate in the image above, you take off your shoes and hand them to a shoe guardian. (He will expect a few rupees later on!)  Some westerners do leave on their socks. Depending on the time of day, the rock surface can be quite hot and make stepping uncomfortable.

the crowds gather by Dambulla's Cave 1

the morning crowds gather by Dambulla’s Cave 1

Now you are through the gateway and almost at the “caves”.  Having visited the site twice – once at about 9:30 a.m. and once at 3:30 p.m. – I can tell you that it is much busier in the morning than it is in the afternoon thanks to the many school groups and busloads of tourists.  The shot above was taken in the morning; the one below in the aft!

Dambullah verandah over Cave 1

Dambullah verandah over Cave 1

You will also note that the entrance(s) to the cave are protected by a covered verandah which was built in the 1930’s.  The map below will give you an idea of how the cave area is set up.

Dambulla Site Map

Dambulla’s five separate cave temples – see here for the on-line source of the map

Apparently the site was originally one large cave formed by the rock overhang.  Over time partitions were put in to create the five “caves” illustrated in the map above. The site began its history as a temple when a ruler of Anuradhapura sought refuge here for a number of years, after having lost his kingdom to invading Tamils. When he regained his territory years later, in thanks he had the first temple built here about two thousand years ago.  Over time rulers from Polonnaruwa (in the 1100’s C.E.) and Kandy (in the 1700’s) would allocate artists and money to the site to show their devotion to the Buddha and to make more visible their own power and success.

covered verandah in front of the Dambulla caves

covered verandah in front of the Dambulla caves – late afternoon and no one is here!

Since Caves 2 and 3 are the most stunning of the five and Cave 1 is the least crammed with statues and murals, a good way to go about seeing them is in reverse order. The following picture journey will follow this sequence.

Cave 5: Davana Alut Viharaya (Second New Temple)

Once a store room, the newest and smallest of the five caves contains statues constructed of brick and plaster, as well as murals. The main figure is a ten-meter long reclining Buddha. This position, known as the  parinirvana pose, shows the historical buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, on his deathbed at the moment of his death.  It is a oft-repeated pose in Sri Lankan Buddhist sculpture and painting.

Dambulla Cave 5 buddhas

Dambulla Cave 5 buddhas

Dambulla Cave 5 seated and standing buddhas

Dambulla Cave 5 seated and standing buddhas

Dambulla Cave 5 painted detail

Dambulla Cave 5 painted detail

a black Vishnu flanked by Kataragama and Bandara at the Buddha's feet

a black Vishnu flanked by Kataragama and Bandara at the Buddha’s feet

the head of the reclining Buddha figure

the head of the reclining Buddha figure

Cave 4: Paccima Viharaya (Western Temple)

seated Buddha under makara torana arch

seated Buddha under makara torana arch

Dambulla Cave 4 dagoba with crack

Dambulla Cave 4 dagoba with crack

seated Buddha and disciples surround by repeating Buddha figures

seated Buddha and disciples surround by repeating Buddha figures

Cave 3: Maha Alut Viharaya (Great New Temple)

ceremonial archway entrance to Dambulla Cave 3

ceremonial archway entrance to Dambulla Cave 3

Dambulla Cave 3 entrance

Dambulla Cave 3 entrance

meditating Buddha under arch

meditating Buddha under arch

Dambulla Cave 3 seated and standing Buddhas

Dambulla Cave 3 seated and standing Buddhas

Dambulla Cave 3 mural of idealized garden

Dambulla Cave 3 mural of idealized garden

two seated Buddhas in front of garden mural

two seated Buddhas in front of garden mural

Dambulla Cave 3 Kirti Sri Rajasinha and four attendants painted on wall behind him

Dambulla Cave 3 – cave patron Kirti Sri Rajasinha and 4 attendants painted on wall behind him

Dambulla Cave 3 mural

Dambulla Cave 3 mural

Dambulla Cave 3 mural - Kandyan style panels

Dambulla Cave 3 mural – Kandyan style panels

Dambulla Cave 3 mural detail

Dambulla Cave 3 mural detail

Dambulla Cave 3 mural figures

Dambulla Cave 3 mural figures detail

Cave 2: Maharaja Vihara (Temple of the Great King)

Dambulla Cave 2 reclining buddha, ceiling  mural and drip enclosure

Dambulla Cave 2 reclining buddha, ceiling mural and drip enclosure

Dambulla Cave 2 enclosure with the drip jar

Dambulla Cave 2 enclosure with the drip jar

Dambulla Cave 2 seated Buddha

Dambulla Cave 2 seated Buddha

Dambulla Cave 2 dagoba and buddhas

Dambulla Cave 2 dagoba and buddhas

Dambulla Cave 2 Buddha in meditation mudra with cobra head above

Dambulla Cave 2 Buddha in meditation mudra with cobra head above

Dambulla Cave 2 head of reclining Buddha

Dambulla Cave 2 head of reclining Buddha

Dambulla Cave 2 row of seated buddhas

Dambulla Cave 2 row of seated buddhas

Dambulla Cave 2 seated Buddha in meditation mudra

Dambulla Cave 2 seated Buddha in meditation mudra

Cave 1: Devaraja Viharaya (Temple of the Lord of the Gods)

entrance to Cave 1 with its reclining Buddha figure

entrance to Cave 1 with its reclining Buddha figure

Dambulla Cave 1 cabinet door

Dambulla Cave 1 cabinet door

Dambulla Cave 1 - the head of the reclining Buddha

Dambulla Cave 1 – the head of the reclining Buddha

Dambulla Cave 1 the feet of the reclining Buddha

Dambulla Cave 1 the feet of the reclining Buddha

Dambulla Cave 1 20th C addition Italian-style cherub

Dambulla Cave 1 20th C addition Italian-style cherub

Dambulla Cave 1 flower offering in Buddha hand

Dambulla Cave 1 flower offering in Buddha hand

Outside the caves:

schoolgirls leaving the cave temple

morning visitors – schoolgirls leaving the cave temple

Dambualla Cave Temple - a view of the covered verandah

Dambualla Cave Temple – a view of the covered verandah

Dambulla Cave monkeys on the walls - bhikkus in disguise

Dambulla Cave monkeys on the walls – bhikkus in disguise?

Useful Links:

I found the The Rough Guide To Sri Lanka to provide the most detailed and richest detail about the various cave temples of the Dambulla complex.  The following link (click here) will give you an idea of the discussion. Since the cave temples are on the United Nations list of World Heritage sites, the unesco site has a dedicated page here.

Trip Advisor has the cave temples listed as Things To Do #1 (and #3 under a different name!) with hundreds of comments and evaluations. (Click here.) The overall score is in the 4.5 out of 5 range – definitely a thumbs up!

In January of 2014 Ananda Liyanage posted a forty-five minute documentary on the Dambulla Caves on Youtube.  It is broken up into three segments, with segment 1 here, segment 2 here, the final section here. It is the most detailed and informative treatment I have found on the cave temple.  I, a retired history teacher, enjoyed it! You may find it worth your time too.

Sri Lanka – What Caught My Eye


This gallery contains 75 photos.

Early this year I got to avoid over three weeks of an unusually bitter Toronto winter by visiting Sri Lanka for the first time. For two weeks I joined a small group and did a walking tour of the island’s hill … Continue reading

Goin’ For A Walk in Sri Lanka’s Hill Country & The Cultural Triangle

The duffel bag is packed and I’m ready to escape the colder-than-usual winter here in Toronto. Last night another eight centimetres of snow fell. The streets and sidewalks had just been cleared and dried from the last snowfall! This is what it looked like this morning -

February 18 - my street in Toronto after another snowfall

February 18 – my street in Toronto after another snowfall. It was 33°C in Colombo at the time!

Luckily, tomorrow  I am off to the fabled isle of Serendib (as visiting Arab traders apparently called it). Located just a few degrees north of the equator, It is known these days as Sri Lanka,  a name of Sanskrit origin meaning “the blessed island” .  It figures in the two great Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, written in this ancient Indo-European language.

Sri Lanka

Invaders, traders, and adventurers have had the island in their sights for at least the past three thousand years. With the advent of cheap air travel in the 1970’s tourists in quest of pristine beaches have joined the ranks of visitors. Needless to say, it has a lot more to offer than  sand and sun – if what you are looking for more is than a beach vacation.

Ptolemy, a Hellenistic Greek academic living in the great Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, Egypt  in the second Century C.E., included it in his map of the world created from information gathered from sailors at the docks of his city.

1300's C.E. recreation of Ptolemy's world map

1300’s C.E. recreation of Ptolemy’s world map – Sri Lanka dominates the Indian Ocean

While we know Sri Lanka is not that large an island, its size on Ptolemy’s map is an indication of its importance to the people of the Mediterranean world as a source of exotic spices and gems.  Ptolemy knew the island as Taprobane.

marco poloMarco Polo, the Venetian adventurer, seems to have visited Sri Lanka around the year 1300 C.E. on his way back from China.  Here is what he had to say about the island, which he knew as Seilan, and its people. (Seilan is another way of spelling Ceylon, the name by which most English-speaking people knew the island until 1972, when it was officially changed to Sri Lanka.)

We read the following in The Travels of Marco Polo/Book 3/Chapter 14  

Concerning the Island of Seilan

When you leave the Island of Angamanain and sail about a thousand miles in a direction a little south of west, you come to the Island of SEILAN, [1] which is in good sooth the best Island of its size in the world. You must know that it has a compass of 2400 miles, but in old times it was greater still, for it then had a circuit of about 3600 miles, as you find in the charts of the mariners of those seas. But the north wind there blows with such strength that it has caused the sea to submerge a large part of the Island; and that is the reason why it is not so big now as it used to be. For you must know that, on the side where the north wind strikes, the Island is very low and flat, insomuch that in approaching on board ship from the high seas you do not see the land till you are right upon it.[2] Now I will tell you all about this Island.

They have a king there whom they call SENDEMAIN, and are tributary to nobody.[3] The people are Idolaters, and go quite naked except that they cover the middle. They have no wheat, but have rice, and sesamum of which they make their oil. They live on flesh and milk, and have tree-wine such as I have told you of. And they have brazil-wood, much the best in the world.[4]

Now I will quit these particulars, and tell you of the most precious article that exists in the world. You must know that rubies are found in this Island and in no other country in the world but this. They find there also sapphires and topazes and amethysts, and many other stones of price. And the King of this Island possesses a ruby which is the finest and biggest in the world; I will tell you what it is like. It is about a palm in length, and as thick as a man’s arm; to look at, it is the most resplendent object upon earth; it is quite free from flaw and as red as fire. Its value is so great that a price for it in money could hardly be named at all. You must know that the Great Kaan sent an embassy and begged the King as a favour greatly desired by him to sell him this ruby, offering to give for it the ransom of a city, or in fact what the King would. But the King replied that on no account whatever would he sell it, for it had come to him from his ancestors.[5]

The people of Seilan are no soldiers, but poor cowardly creatures. And when they have need of soldiers they get Saracen troops from foreign parts. 

(Click here for the on-line source of the text as well as the footnote information.)

The above passage  serves a warning not to believe everything one reads or hears – even from people who claim to have been there or talked to someone who was!  This article on Tourism in Sri Lanka happily misquotes Polo’s actual words and has him say that Sri Lanka “is the finest island in the whole world” twice in five sentences while making sure not to quote any of the less flattering statements!

My interest in Sri Lanka goes back to my late teens when I got a hold of a copy of What The Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula. (Click here for a pdf copy of the second edition of the book from 1974.)  This Buddhist monk, one of Sri Lanka’s leading intellectuals of the past century, presented in his book a completely human Buddha free of mythology and mindless adherence to ritual and tradition that I found very attractive. (It was the late 1960’s and there was something in the air!)  For some reason I thought that this interpretation of Buddhism was the one that thrived in Sri Lanka, not realizing that religion as practised by the common people in their daily lives is something quite different from what Rahula presented.  I eventually came to realize that real-world Buddhism is no more free of myth and ritual and tradition and hierarchies than any other religion; I still find Rahula’s Buddha very appealing.

More recently I came across an epic chronicle of ancient Sri Lankan history called The Mahavamsa.  It provides the basis of a different Buddha, one who really comes across like a god from the Hindu pantheon.  The first chapter (an on-line copy is available here) of this  chronicle has a fantastic account of  the Buddha leaving his footprint on a mountain peak (known today as Sri Pada or Adam’s Peak) on one of a series of three visits to Sri Lanka from northern India around 500 B.C.E.  Who knew!

internet-sourced image of Ruwanweliseya Stupa at the ancient capital of Anuradhapura

internet-sourced image of Ruwanweliseya Stupa at the ancient capital of Anuradhapura –  Next to the Giza pyramids,  the largest manmade structures in the ancient world were the three great dagobas  found in Anuradhapura. I will be spending three days here.

What this chronicle makes clear is the close alliance between ruler and monk in Sinhala society.  In return for patronage from the ruler, the monks provided the rulers with legitimacy. (One can see a similar compact between Church and State in Medieval Europe.)  Massive stupas (dagobas is the Sinhala term) were constructed by the kings to house the talismans and relics said to be related to the Buddha.

If you click on the following topo map,  you’ll see where in Sri Lanka I will be spending most of my time  – the Hill country contained within the circle and the Cultural Triangle with Anuradhapura, Kandy, and Polonnaruwa as  key points of interest.  

topography of sri lanka

topography of sri lanka

My late February to mid-March visit will mostly  be spent in these two areas. The following Google map highlights  the main stops in my ramble. I had originally planned a bike trip that included this basic itinerary.  However, the bike will stay home this time as I join a small walking group for what should be a fairly easy-going trip. It is organized by Exodus, an excellent U.K. adventure travel company that I have used a few times in the past.  See here for the description of the tour I signed up for – The Highlands of Sri Lanka. I’ve also set aside a few days at the end for a visit to Anuradhapura, the ancient Sinhalese capital for over a thousand years.

Click on the View Larger prompt below the map if you want to get a screen-size interactive image that you can zoom in on to see the specific points in the itinerary.

You may have noted that my visit to Sri Lanka does not focus at all on the north and the east of the country.  These areas also happen to be where Tamils tend to be in the majority. In the back of my mind is a second trip to the country with my bicycle, during which I would pedal the roads from Jaffna down the east coast as far as I can. It was this area that was devastated by the tsunami of December 2004; the coast to the north of Trincomalee is also where the Tamil Tigers were finally cornered and annihilated.

It has been five years since the decisive ending of the twenty-five year-long civil war in the country.  In the years since the Sri Lankan government has been criticized by some (including the Canadian government) for its treatment of the Tamil minority during the last phase of the war and in the years since. This Al Jazeera web page (click here) has a couple of provocative 25-minute documentaries embedded in an opinion piece by Ameen Izzadeen that I am sure many Sinhalese would see as misleading but which do provide a useful background to the issues.

I’m sure I will learn all sorts of things I never knew about Sri Lanka and its people in my 21 day visit.  Given my ignorance of the complexities of the island and its cultures I will undoubtedly misinterpret or be oblivious to many of the things that I see.  Check back in a month or two to see what I made of the experience.   It goes without saying that I am really looking forward to this escape from our Canadian winter!