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The Canadian Shield (aka the Laurentian Shield) makes up more than half of Canada’s land mass. (It also includes Greenland, the Adirondacks of New York State, as well as the northern parts of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota). It can be thought of as the rock (igneous and metamorphic) foundation or the very bedrock of the plate which is the continent of North America. With the retreat of the last ice sheet which covered most of the northern part of the continent until about 10,000 years ago, the scratches and deep gouges left by the shrinking glacier became the countless rivers and lakes which characterize this vast region.
In time a boreal forest established itself on the thin topsoil covering. It was in this unforgiving land that the nomadic Algonquian-speaking peoples fashioned a paleolithic culture based on hunting and gathering. One of their key inventions, the birch bark canoe, allowed them to deal with this difficult terrain. With the coming of the Europeans, attention soon turned from fur pelts to the mineral wealth (gold, copper, silver, nickel, and more recently diamonds) ) and the forests (spruce and pine).
It is this “canoe country” where my brother and I have done almost all our paddling over the past thirty years. A scene like the one below is the reward for negotiating the occasionally fast-moving rapids of the rivers or spending an afternoon paddling into a headwind on an long narrow lake. There are other rewards too – the solitude of a world off the grid, the sights and sounds of nature (a bear scampering off the portage trail or a loon calling out at dusk), and the occasional reminders that we are not the first to travel through this space that others still call their home and “native” land.
The reminders come in many forms – ancient portage trails, a collection of four-meter spruce poles leaning upright in the woods, ready to be used again. And at least until now on that rare occasion, seeing fading ochre-coloured pictographs on granite rock faces a couple of meters above the water line.
Just two months ago (i.e. March 2013) I had no idea that there were so many pictograph sites out there in Canadian Shield canoe country waiting to be paddled by and appreciated! Since there are relatively few pictographs and petroglyphs in northeastern Ontario, my brother and I have managed to do almost all of our canoe trips without seeing more than a couple of examples of what Grace Rajnovich calls “Indian Rock Paintings”. The two sites that stand out from our canoe trips are Fairy Point at the south end of Lake Missinaibi and the rock face on the north arm of Diamond Lake in Temagami.
In planning for an upcoming canoe trip in the Wabakimi region of NW Ontario, (see here for the related post), I soon found out that we would be canoeing through a major pictograph site, Cliff Lake just north of Lake Nipigon. This post by Chuck Ryan (aka CIIcanoe) will give you an idea of what is at Cliff Lake – he’s included at least a dozen photos. Needless to say, I am pretty excited at the chance to paddle down this treasure trove of a lake. The fact that I had not even heard about the Cliff Lake pictographs in spite of having already done three two-week canoe trips in the Wabakimi area, provided the motivation to find out more.
I turned to the Toronto Public Library system for a couple of books to get me up to speed on the basics of the subject:
1. Selwyn Dewdney’s Indian Rock Paintings Of The Great Lakes; and
2. Grace Rajnovich’s Reading Rock Art: Interpreting The Indian Rock Paintings of The Canadian Shield.
Dewdney’s book (read the first twenty pages online here) was first published in 1962 and updated in 1967 and Rajnovich’s came out in 1994. Both writers have their roots in Kenora with Rajnovich quite consciously picking up Dewdney’s task. In the foreword to Reading Rock Art she writes that her study is meant as “a complement to that classic work”, referring to Dewdney’s. These two books are probably the best (and among the few) sources of published information about the native rock paintings of the Canadian Shield; they provide lots of information and interesting answers to all the basic questions – who and how and why and what and where. Dewdney’s book is out-of-print and may be difficult to find. the Toronto Public Library system has copies of both editions. The copy I received was a 1973 reprint of the 1967 second edition version. (See here for an online source for some of Dewdney’s text and illustrations from various sites.) Rajnovich’s book is still available at Amazon in print form – and as a digital download.
Another book I’ve discovered more recently is the second edition of Thor Conway’s Spirits On Stone : Lake Superior Ojibwa History, Legends & the Agawa Pictographs, which was first published in 1990. The second edition was released in 2010 and has about forty pages of additional material (and a longer sub-title!). A quick visit to Amazon told me the book was not currently available there. The Toronto Public Library has two copies of each edition; I am on the waiting list for a copy of the second edition! Conway’s web site (here) does have more info on the book – and ten pages of a sample chapter to whet your appetite. It also turns out that he has a number of other books that fit in perfectly with the theme of pictographs. The only problem is that they do not seem to be available anywhere! One title is “Painted Dreams”, which happens to be the most popular explanation for why the rock paintings were done in the first place.
This post will focus on the “where” of the pictographs…
It turns out that there are over 500 pictograph sites scattered across the Canadian Shield; it just so happens that most of them were not where we have been paddling! In this post I thought I’d create a list of sites I found mentioned in the two works above, as well as in any other sources I’ve stumbled up in my research. Fellow paddlers may find this information useful in planning their next canoe trip; it may even prompt some to visit areas not yet explored specifically to see these pictographs “up close and personal”.
The list is hardly comprehensive and falls way short of the 500 sites which are apparently out there – but it is a start! I was initially just going to focus on my home province of Ontario but having collected the names of sites located elsewhere, it seemed a waste not to put the information out there. Here is the map – in two parts – from Dewdney’s book which pushed me to identify more exactly the sites he had indicated. Do note that his work dates back to the 1960′s – a half-century ago!
All blue text leads to additional info and/or pix with a click.
Oiseau Rock on the Ottawa River across from Chalk River. See also here and a link to info on the 54-min. documentary Great River (2010) by Matt Lemay here
Lac de la Cassette (pictographs)
Lac Simon (Cap Manitou)
St. Maurice River (upper watershed)
All blue text leads to additional info and/or pix with a click.
Agawa Rock – Canadian Encyclopedia article on Agawa Rock
A Youtube poster, John Wanserski, has a very well done nine-minute video of the Agawa Rock pictographs, complete with the visuals of the trail to get there from the highway and great shots of the pictographs and of the lake. He introduces images of the actual pictographs by showing drawings of the same images first. It certainly makes clear the fragile and fading glory of the rock paintings. You can find the video here. It is the best thing I’ve seen on Agawa Rock.
Allanwater River (N of termite Lake) (Wabakimi)
Annie Island - Grace Rajnovich’s brief discussion of the pictograph there
Bluffy Lake – NW ON
Burditt Lake (aka Clearwater)
Cache Bay, Quetico Park pix and map at Jack’s Outdoor Adventure blog
Mill Lake (Phillip Edward Island)
Cuttle Lake pages 6 to 9 have a detailed discussion of the site by Rajnovitch
Cypress Lake (Quetico)
Deer Lake, NW ON
Dog River (mouth of) (Lake Superior)
Dryberry Lake (Lake of the Woods)
East Spanish River (Ninth Lake)
Ferris Lake - mentioned in a post on the Little Hawk Portages
Frances Lake (Dogskin River system)
French River (Upper -east of Elliott island)
French River – Upper (W of Franks Bay)
French River (Kennedy Island)
French River (Kelso Point)
Gold Lake (just E of Matagamasi L)
Hanson Lake (sw arm) WCPP
Harmon Lake (Wabakimi)
Little Mazinaw Lake (Bon Echo) – a dozen pix here give you a good idea of what’s there
Matabichuan River Thor Conway paper with illustrations pages 35-37
Mica Bay (south of Agawa)
Namakan Lake (Narrows)
Northern Twin Lake
Obabika Lake – in-depth report by Thor and Julie Conway here
Painted Rock Island (Lake of the Woods)
Petroglyph Provincial Park – not pictographs, but ON’s largest rock carvings’ site. See
here for a surprising discussion of the efforts made to protect it
Pictured Lake - also see the front cover of Dewdney’s book!
Pineneedle Lake (just east of Sydney Lake and Woodland Cariiboo Park Boundary)
Pukamo Island (Rainy Lake) Rajnovitch paper p. 26-31 with illustrations
Silver Lake (Lake of the Woods)
Teggau Lake (Kenora)
Upper Grassy Lake
Whitefish Bay (Lake of the Woods)
Wizard Lake -
Worthington Bay (Lake Superior) – see here for an image of one of the pictographs
Yorston River (Temagami)
Thor Conway’s web site has a gallery (here) with pictograph images mostly from Ontario sites. Also accessible at the site are sample chapters from his various books. Titles like Discovering Rock Art In Ontario’s Provincial Parks , Spirits on Stone, and Painted Dreams are clues that you’re in the right place!
The above two pages of illustrations come from the Annual Archaeological Report of 1894-95 of the Ontario Archaeological Museum in Toronto which was included as an appendix in The Report To The Minster of Education (1896). The sketches can be found in a Google Books eBook accessible here between pages 48 and 49. They show the range of subject matter typical of the pictographs – abstract and geometric images, canoes, animals, human-like figures, and mythical beings.
Knee Lake (Hayes River)
North Oxford Lake (Hayes River)
Upper Molson River
Churchill River (Cow Narrows)
Churchill River (Stanley Rapids)
Lac La Ronge the Lac La Ronge Provincial Park web page
Robin Karpan has a nice collection (here) of thirty-nine images taken at various locations in Saskatchewan, among them Laroque Lake, Auld Lake, Hickson-Maribelli Lake, and Stanley Rapids on the Churchill River.
Wisconsin River (Gottshall Rockshelter)
Lac Le Croix (bear Beatty Portage)
Check out this essay Visions In Stone: The Rock Art of Minnesota for an excellent overview of the Indian Rock Art sites (once numbered at fifty-five but now much less) in the state.
Some Useful Links For More Information:
Just click on the blue text to access the site.
For an overview and a global perspective, check out the Wikipedia article entitled “Rock Art“. Among other things, it makes clear the difference between pictographs and petroglyphs, as well as providing a useful list of external links to other sources.
“Pictographs and Petroglyphs“, an entry written by Joan Vastokas (then of Trent University in Peterborough and the co-writer of a study of the Peterborough Petroglyphs) in the online version of The Canadian Encyclopedia. She provides an excellent overview and concludes with a brief summary of the research history as well as links to other useful sites.
“Visions On Rock“, a web page about the pictographs of Lac La Ronge Provincial Park in Saskatchewan (part of the Churchill River System). Tim Jones, the author of the 1981 book on the pictographs of the Churchill River system, provides a number of interesting quotes.
The first forty-five pages of Edward J. Lenik’s 2009 work Making PIctures in Stone: American Indian Rock Art of the Northeast is accessible at Google Books here. Of particular interest is chapter 1 – “Algonquian People in the Northeast” (pages 1-8).
Michael Furtman’s Magic On The Rocks: Canoe Country Pictographs (2000) is available at the Amazon site, where you can read the following description of the book’s focus- “Scattered across the Boundary waters and Quetico, left by its native people on canvases of stone, are hundreds of enigmatic paintings. Generations of canoe country travelers have wondered what these mysterious drawings might mean. Now, in this book, award-winning author Michael Furtman presents a comprehensive guide to the canoe country’s known pictographs and provides insight into the artists’ visions and the traditions that spawned them. Complete with maps and directions to dozens of sites, and the most accurate reproductions of pictographs to date, Magic on the Rocks is an indispensable tool for those who would respectfully visit the sacred sites of a wise and ancient culture.”
Pictographs come up occasionally in the members’ forum at myccr.com. I entered the term in the search window and came up with hundreds of references, with some threads dealing in depth with various aspects of the topic. Click here if you want to while away an hour or two!
This particular myccr thread from 2006 entitled Wabakimi Pictograph Locations had specific information about the Cliff Lake pictographs as well as a discussion about what it all means and whether or not we should even be making public the locations of the pictographs. While I too have seen the graffiti left by Greek travellers on the inside walls of the pyramids of Giza, I am obviously not one of those who would argue that we should therefore hush up about the whereabouts of the pictographs. Education and helping others to appreciate them seems to be the way to go for this retired school teacher.
The forum at the BWCA website has a number of posts which deal with pictograph sites and how to get to them. Click here to see the discussion.