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

Last update: September 25, 2022.

Previous Post: Up Wabakimi’s Raymond River To Cliff Lake

Table of Contents:

Sources To Help Understand The Pictographs

Enlisting Dewdney As Our Guide To The Lake’s Six  Major Sites

The Decade-Long Search for Mclnnes’ Cliff Lake Pictographs

The Dewdney Tour Continues – The Other Four Picto Sites


Cliff Lake’s Dramatic Physical Setting

a small stretch of Cliff Lake's vertical rock face

A short stretch of Cliff Lake’s many stunning vertical rock faces/  that’s my 6’5″ bro pointing his camera at me!

With the 1270-meter portage from Butland Lake done, we knew we were in for something special as soon as we paddled into the lake. Along the east shore was the first of many stretches of the vertical rock face that give this lake its name – Cliff Lake. We would spend a few hours over the next day paddling kilometer after kilometer as close to the rock walls as we could.

rock face at the south end of the lake across from the first of the portages to Bad Medicine Lake

rock face at the south end of the lake across from the first of the portages to Bad Medicine Lake

The rock face reminded us of the previous summer’s paddle in the small lake on the Kopka River’s dramatic gorge section. There too, we had marvelled at the energy the rock face seemed to exude.  But it was dialled up to a remarkable new level at Cliff Lake.

on top of the rock face across from our campsite

on top of the rock face across from our campsite

cliff lake rock face

our canoe heads to yet another stretch of Cliff Lake rock face

west side of Cliff Lake across from our campsite

west side of Cliff Lake across from our campsite


Map of Cliff Lake – and Ways To Get There

We had paddled into Cliff Lake on Day 15 of our canoe trip around the edges of Wabakimi Provincial Park. Click here to see the Google map version of our entire 350-kilometer route.

As for Cliff Lake, the following map lays it out –


The lake runs north/south and is about seven kilometers long. It is a part of the Pikitigushi River system, which has its headwaters just west of Butland Lake.  Referred to as Mud River on older maps, the Pikitigushi flows south to Lake Nipigon. Even though the top part of the lake welcomes you with some eye-catching vertical rock, the real action starts a couple of kilometers further down.

First, we set up camp on a small point on the east side of the lake.  Then we paddled across to the first of the really dramatic cliffs (see the map below for the location). At the south end of this 250-meter section of the cliff face, we found the beginnings of a trail that took us up to the top. Sitting in the canoe or on top – not a bad seat in the house!


A Major Pictograph Lake of the Canadian Shield

As dramatic as the rock faces are, another thing is going on here that elevates the lake to an even higher level. Selwyn Dewdney, the man most responsible for the systematic and academic study of Native Indian Pictographs in the Canadian Shield area, writes that on the rock faces along the shores of  Cliff Lake we find –

…a concentration of petrographs that is exceeded only  by the Hickson-Maribelli sites north of the Churchill River in Saskatchewan  and by the Bon Echo sites on Lake Mazinaw in southeast Ontario.

That puts Cliff Lake in remarkable company.  Even though my brother and I had made three canoe trips in the Wabakima area,  I had never even heard of Cliff Lake or the other sites, for that matter, until I started doing research on this year’s canoe trip route.

First, I read this thread (here) on the Canadian Canoe Routes website forum dealing with portages in the Cliff Lake area. Then I stumbled into another thread (here) on pictograph locations in Wabakimi.  I was getting very interested. To cap it off,  I found Chuck Ryan’s (aka CIIcanoe) trip report detailing a route that we ended up making our own. His post dealing with Cliff Lake (here) had some pix of the pictographs they had paddled by.


Why The Rock Images Were Painted

what Dewdney labelled as Face III, site #219

What Dewdney labelled as Face III, site #219

So there we were – four months later, paddling slowly down the lake, looking from the water line up about two meters or so for any sign of the iron oxide powder/fish oil substance that the Anishinaabe used to create their images on the rock. Given the trouble of finding the raw materials to make the “paint,” to think of the pictographs as simple graffiti is misreading them.

canoe with nine people in it

pictograph of a canoe with nine people in it

Clearly, there was something on a higher level happening here. Explanations having to do with vision quests or the placating of spirits at the onset of some great venture or perhaps as an acknowledgment of a mission survived – seem to be the best starting point for understanding the pictographs.

The science-based, magic-free, but hopefully still full-of-wonder frame of mind that I walk around with is not the same as that of a Paleolithic hunter. While I live in a world without gods, his world is thoroughly infused with animistic elements to the point where supernatural and natural are the same.  However,  I can still recognize a fellow human as I paddle by and try to enter what remains of the painted images he took the time to create.

the fading remains of another canoe image: some of the rock seems to have broken off

The fading remains of another canoe image: some of the rock seems to have broken off


Sources For Understanding The Pictographs

To help me understand the purpose and the meaning of the pictographs, I turned to three sources:

Selwyn Dewdney

I’ve already mentioned Selwyn Dewdney’s Indian Rock Paintings of the Great Lakes, whose first edition was published in 1962. In the second edition (1967), he added another 156 sites to the original 108, the result of another four years of following up leads. Most of Dewdney’s sites are located in Ontario and Manitoba and a few across the border in Minnesota.  In the second edition, he includes the results of his two visits to Cliff Lake in 1965 and 1966.

the front cover of a classic

the front cover of a classic

This book has been out of print for forty years, and hard copies are difficult to find. The Toronto Public Library system has five copies of the first edition and two copies of the expanded second edition.  If you have a Toronto library card, you can order it here.  It may be found in other Ontario public libraries or even further afield. header

In 2014 the Royal Ontario Museum contributed a digital copy of the first edition to the Internet Archives Project. You can access it here.  More recently, the Toronto Library made available online a digital copy of the second edition. See here for the details.

Finally, I created a pdf file of the additional material from the 1967 second edition to make access even easier. Download it here and scroll to pages 135 -141 for the Cliff Lake material.


Grace Rajnovich

Grace Rajnovich, in her 1994 study Reading Rock Art: Interpreting The Indian Rock Paintings Of The Canadian Shield, delves into the meaning of the pictographs using the material from various surviving Ojibwe birchbark scrolls. Dewdney had also done work on the birchbark scrolls in the early 1970s but never did unite the two in a more comprehensive study before he died in 1980. Rajnovich’s book is a must for anyone interested in the subject. reading rock art

Oddly enough, Cliff Lake is never mentioned in her book. Nor does she use a single Cliff Lake pictograph to illustrate her point. Still, she provides a  detailed thematic examination of a wide-ranging selection of pictographs.  It can be ordered from Amazon in both print and ebook form! You can find some of the book’s content here – just enough to convince you that it would be a good investment!


Thor and Julie Conway

3.   Thor and Julie Conway and any of a number of their articles and books but two in particular –

a. a paper in Ontario Archaeology from the mid-1980s on the pictographs on Temagami’s Obabika Lake. The full name is “An Ethno-Archaeological Study of Algonkian Rock Art in Northeastern Ontario, Canada”.  It is available for download here.

Thor Conway Spirits on Stone 2010 front cover

b.  the  2010 second edition of Spirits on Stone,  an expanded update of a book that was first published in 1990. While focussed on the collection of pictographs at Agawa Rock, what he has to say can be applied to the images at other sites scattered across the Canadian Shield. Conway has a website here with contact information, and the book can be purchased directly from him.  The Lake Superior Provincial Park interpretative center not far from Agawa Rock often has copies of the book available. It should also be noted that all three researchers show great sensitivity to and appreciation of the Anishinaabe elders. The latter shared their knowledge of their culture’s traditional elements.  The result is that their work probably reflects as accurately as possible the motivation of those who had painted their dreams on the rock faces a few hundred years ago.


Enlisting Dewdney As Our Guide

I used Dewdney’s words and the sketches from the second edition of Indian Rock Paintings of the Great Lakes  (pages 135 to 141) as the organizing principle.  We’ll look at what Dewdney saw on his two visits to Cliff Lake and follow up with some additional pictographs he did not mention.

Dewdney's Cliff Lake Sites


Dewdney’s Site #262

We begin with the pictographs in the best shape – they are at the south end of the lake at the site labelled #262 by Dewdney.  You’ll find them on the SE-facing rock face across from the first portages to Bad Medicine Lake. Dewdney describes the rock as “one of the few outcrops of granite on the lake.”

thunderbird pictograph on Cliff Lake south end

Thunderbird pictograph on Cliff Lake south end

When I first saw the Thunderbird, I thought it was a recent – i.e. in the past twenty years – addition to the other older ones.  The ochre (that is, iron oxide) colour is stronger than that of most other pictographs we examined. However, look at this sketch by Dewdney from 1965, and you’d have to agree it is at least forty-eight years old!

[Note: Dewdney mislabeled these pictographs. They are all at site #262; you will not find them at Site #264 at the north end of the lake!]

Dewdney sketch of Cliff Lake pictographs136

Dewdney sketch of Cliff Lake pictographs – page 136

the three

the three “horseshoes” and the canoe pictographs from Cliff Lake – mislabelled as site #264 in Dewdney’s notes but actually from site #262 at the south end of the lake

Nearby was another collection of pictographs that I had initially made into one big happy face!  Dewdney had a different take. He writes: “The three ‘horseshoes’ by contrast seemed strong and presumably recent.”  Below the “horseshoes” (an odd choice of word to describe a pre-European contact image),  a piece of the canoe image seems to have flaked off – if it was a canoe image at all.  Nearby is this pictograph of a human figure which Dewdney contrasts with the “horseshoes” –

the three

a human figure with spine pictograph from Dewdney’s site #262 but mislabeled above as #264

Of this pictograph, which you would have to think is much older,  Dewdney writes:

Yet weathering had taken its toll, too, on other paintings nearby, particularly the figure barely recognizable as human with its unusual centre line.

Perhaps it is a different formulation of the ochre/fish oil “paint,” which explains why some seem to age better than others?

the pictograph site at the south end of Cliff Lake

the pictograph site at the south end of Cliff Lake

The site at the south end of the lake is the only one where, for most of the pictographs, we could get out of the canoe and walk a few feet up to the rock face. Here is another panel of pictographs not far from the one shown above:

pictographs from Site #262 Cliff Lake south end

Pictographs from Site #262 Cliff Lake’s south end

Applying his keen artist’s eye to this panel of pictographs, Dewdney draws these conclusions :

Nowhere had I seen such contrasting styles within a small group, their separate origins emphasized by the distinct variations of pigment. The dreamlike ‘legs-that-walk-by-themselves’ and associated symbols in a bright orange ochre emphatically different from the ‘lone Indian’ in a dull ochre so impure that it cold only be described as dirty brown; and whereas the former was painted with course, finger-width lines, the latter showed detail, as in the fingers of one hand, so fine they at first escaped my notice. The ‘double-cross’ painted over the canoe also differed in colour, and the canoe was painted in a fourth hue of the ochre common to them all.

I would almost have missed the human figure (bottom middle) if not for Dewdney’s sketch-

a photo of the Cliff Lake pictos at site 262 by Dewdney

a photo of the Cliff Lake pictographs at site 262 by Dewdney – missing is the “double cross” on the right

Other pictographs on the rock face do not draw comments from Dewdney. Here are a few we noticed –

Cliff Lake canoe pictographs near the human with a spine image

Cliff Lake canoe pictographs near the human with a spine image

a view of the entire rock face -see above for the close-ups

a view of the entire rock face – see above for the close-ups

Look closely at the above rock face (all photos enlarge with a click!), and you will see the canoe in the middle (the same one I used in close-up form at the start of the post) – look to the left of the canoe, and you’ll see what Dewdney was pointing his camera at for the image two above this one.

I’d estimate that there are at least one hundred pictographs at Cliff Lake.  Unfortunately, the passage of time has not been kind to most of them, and their best-before date has long come and gone.  Here is one not far from the strong and vibrant Thunderbird image –

an ochre smudge with evidence of flaking

an ochre smudge with evidence of flaking near the Thunderbird pictograph

Here is a shot of the “horseshoes” and canoe pictographs with the surrounding rock.  You can see evidence of other pictographs, but they are indecipherable.

Cliff Lake rock face with

Cliff Lake rock face with “horseshoes” and canoe and other indecipherable ochre marks

Five horizontal lines - another pictograph from Dewdney's site 264 at Cliff Lake

Five horizontal lines – another pictograph from Dewdney’s site 262 at Cliff Lake


Dewdney’s Site #219

It is not all rock face with pictographs at Cliff Lake – but it is still mostly pretty stunning.  Rounding the corner to paddle up (though Dewdney writes “down”) the lake to what he calls “the main site,” you get to glide past scenes like this –

about as ho-hum as it gets on Cliff Lake

about as ho-hum as it gets on Cliff Lake

Heading to what Dewdney has labelled as Site #219,  we’ve got the sketch below as our goal –

Dewdney's sketch of the moose pictograph on Cliff Lake

Dewdney’s sketch of the moose pictograph on Cliff Lake

And there it is – on the east side of the lake a couple of kilometers north of Site #262. The initial impression is of one big blurry smudge –

Cliff Lake Pictograph Site #219 overview shot

Cliff Lake Pictograph Site #219 overview shot

We paddle in close and can discern images in the blurred ochre.

Cliff Lake site #219 up closer

Cliff Lake site #219 – Face III –  up closer

Of this particular face (Face III), Dewdney writes:

Both III and VIII were smoothed by glaciation, but the former face seemed to have been grooved vertically by glacial action, which I still regard as impossible.  With so little contrast we came back to work on it after the sun came out, only to find…that it threw the glacial grooving into relief and made the paintings almost invisible.

The Decade-Long Search For McInnes’ Pictographs

What stands out the most is the animal image on the right – the same pictograph that the Geological Survey of Canada’s William McInnes sketched in 1902.  Dewdney had seen the drawing but could not locate the pictographs even though McInnes noted that they were from Cliff Lake.

Cliff Lake in Kenora District Ontario

Kenora District’s Cliff Lake – 330 km as the crow flies from the one in Thunder Bay District!

It turns out that there is more than one Cliff Lake in northwestern Ontario!  Dewdney had originally looked for the source of McInnes’ drawing on a Cliff Lake near his childhood home in Kenora District. He noted somewhere that he must have paddled by thirty kilometers of shoreline on the Cliff Lake in Kenora District looking for that moose!

Cliff Lake pictographs - human figure without a head and other indecpherable marks to the left of the moose

Cliff Lake pictographs – human figure without a head and other indecipherable marks to the left of the moose

If you want to continue our tour of Cliff Lake and look at the remaining pictograph sites discussed by Dewdney in the 1967 edition of his Indian Rock Paintings of the Great Lakes, here is the link –

The Pictographs of Cliff Lake – The Second Half Of The Tour

Finally, if you’re curious about other pictograph locations in the Canadian Shield area, check out this post for a general introduction and links to posts on specific areas –

Anishinaabe Pictograph Sites of The Canadian Shield.

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9 Responses to The Pictographs of Wabakimi’s Cliff Lake – Selwyn Dewdney Takes Us On A Tour!

  1. Gary Glonek Montreal, Wisconsin, USA says:

    I really appreciate the picture of the Thunderbird from Cliff Lake. Anyone familiar with the constellation Aquila can quickly see how closely this pictograph matches the stars in the constellation. I also would like to comment on the pictograph of the Mishipeshu found at Agawa. The curved rear of the figure closely matches the curve of the stars in the constellation Perseus, and the constellation Cassiopeia would fit well in the position of the horns. I could send an image of these observations if I had an address to send a jpeg image.

    • true_north says:

      The human mind is incredible in its ability to create meaning and see pattern where there really isn’t any. Often it starts with the viewer’s particular obsession or immediate concern which he then projects onto the world at large. Co-incidence becomes intent.

      I’ve done it paddling – seeing a boat from afar which turned out to be a horizontal piece of birch on top of a darker piece of rock or seeing an portage marker in the distance which turns out to be a smattering of orange leaves. It helped that we were looking for a portage at the time!

      I think you’re doing it here. Nothing I have read of all the discussions that native elders had with people like Selwyn Dewdney and others they trusted about the meaning of the pictographs would lead me to connect them to what you see – i.e. representations of constellations. Perhaps you’ve taken your obvious interest in the stars and imposed it on someone else’s reality.

      Rather than project your own meaning onto the rock images, it is a much safer bet to begin with the people who drew them. To approach the images through their traditional mythology and understanding of the cosmos should provide a true reading of their meaning. That would be Anishinaabe peoples of the Canadian Shield like the Ojibwe (Chippewa).

      While I obviously don’t agree with your interpretation of the two pictographs, do send the jpgs to and I’ll post them for all to see. They should draw some interesting responses.

      Update: Here are the pix that Gary was talking about, along with his explanatory text. Gary writes –

      These are comparisons between the pictographs and the star charts which I believe they represent. The Thunderbird, I think is unmistakable and has the extra attribute that it is a summer time constellation and therefore found at the time of the year when we have thunderstorms. The Mishipeshu is not as an exact fit as the Thunderbird, but very close in my mind and deserves some consideration as the inspiration of the pictograph. I would find it very odd that the constellations, which were very familiar to early people, would not find their way into pictographs at times.

      The pictographs on North Hegman lake in Minnesota, definitely depict stellar constellations for different seasons, and A few years ago I wrote an article about the stars of Hegman Lake and am also including it as an attachment.

      pictograph/constellations parallels

      Thank you for your time and interest.

  2. Peter Burkinshaw says:

    Two of us visited Cliff Lake this year, and fully enjoyed seeing the pictographs for ourselves. Appreciate the information that you share!

    • true_north says:

      Nice to hear you found the posts on Cliff Lake to be useful. In putting my pictograph posts together I end up learning more about the particular sites – and also just appreciating even more the privilege of being there.

      My bro and I were there in 2013. In two weeks we’ll be on the lake again for a second visit. We are going to spend a couple of nights there this time!

  3. Peter Burkinshaw says:

    One could probably spend an entire week on Cliff Lake and still have more to explore, as it really is a special site. We marked 18 different GPS locations of pictographs, and were too tired to do a walk up to the top of the cliffs, but from the water the sheer size of them is really impressive.

    How are you getting there this time? It was in early June (2018) that we did a 13 day route from Little Caribou via McKinley River to Best Island and Wendell Beckwith’s cabins, then down Ogoki River to Whitewater Lake, then finally up Raymond River and down Pikitigushi River spending a full day on Cliff Lake.

    • true_north says:

      Your route makes for an excellent intro to Wabakimi highlights! We also came to Cliff Lake after paddling up the Raymond River and doing the two Annette Lakes. The entire trip – we had started at Rockcliffe Lake on the Misehkow – still remains my bro’s favourite of all time!

      This time we are going plush! We are flying into Cliff Lake!

      Then we’ll paddle down the length of the Pikitgushi right into Windigo Bay/Lake Nipigon. We’ve wanted to check out the river below the rapids at the logging road crossing for some time. Looks like some log jams to deal with! Then we’ll island hop our way from Windigo Bay down to Kelvin Island and paddle over to the mainland. Echo Rock is one spot we’re hoping to paddle by. I’ve heard people compare it to Gibraltar!

      Then there is a fire tower on Jackfish Island we’re hoping to walk up to for a scenic view! Finally north up to Wabinosh Bay and the mouth of the Kopka and either a return visit to the very scenic Lake above the Goat Portage or, if time is short, a paddle from Wabinosh Lake right back to our vehicle at Mattice Lake. We’ll see what the weather throws our way!

  4. Emmy Hendrickx says:

    I paddled with Peter Burkinshaw in Cliff Lake. A most inspiring amazing experience. As a not Canadian, I have appreciated all your blog posts and detailed explanations of your trip.
    Here is a link with pictures and comments to our trip on Cliff Lake.

    Enjoy your trip this summer with your Bro.

    Happy Paddling

    Emmy Hendrickx

    • true_north says:

      Emmy, thanks for whetting my appetite! You uploaded a beautiful collection of images and useful comments and GPS co-ordinate​s for future paddlers. We’ll be flying into the lake in a few days! We had only a vague idea of what we’d see back in 2013 when we paddled into the lake​ from Butland to the north. This time we go with a different perspective!

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