Previous Post: Up Wabakimi’s Raymond River To Cliff Lake
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.
- Natural Resources Canada 1:50,000 topo of Cliff Lake – 052 I 10 Linklater Lake
- Google Earth satellite view – see here
The rock face made us think of the previous summer’s paddle in the small lake on the Kopka River’s dramatic gorge section. There too we had marveled at the energy the rock face seemed to exude. But at Cliff Lake, it was dialed up to a whole new remarkable level.
We had paddled into Cliff Lake on Day 15 of our canoe trip around the edges of Wabakimi Provincial Park. If you click here, you can see the Google map version of our entire 350-kilometer route. As for Cliff Lake itself, 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 sitting on top – not a bad seat in the house!
As dramatic as the rock faces themselves are, there is another thing 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 starting 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.
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.
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 – these seem to be the best starting point for an understanding of the pictographs.
The science-based and 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.
To help me understand the purpose and the meaning the pictographs, I turned to three sources:
1. the already-mentioned Selwyn Dewdney and his book 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. It is in the second edition that he includes the results of his two visits to Cliff Lake in 1965 and 1966.
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 and perhaps even further afield.
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, to make access even easier I ended up creating a pdf file of the additional material from the 1967 second edition. Download it here and scroll to pages 135 -141 for the Cliff Lake material.
2. 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.
Oddly enough, Cliff Lake is never mentioned in her book. Nor does she use a single Cliff Lake pictograph to illustrate a point she is making. 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!
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-1980’s 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.
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 who shared with them their knowledge of the traditional elements of their culture. 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.
I am going to use 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 take a look at what Dewdney saw on his two visits to Cliff Lake and follow up with some additional pictographs not mentioned by him.
We begin with the pictographs which are in the best shape – they are the ones at the south end of the lake at the site labelled #262 by Dewdney. You’ll find them on the SE-facing rock face just across from the first of the portages to Bad Medicine Lake. Dewdney describes the rock as “one of the few outcrops of granite on the lake”.
When I first saw the Thunderbird I thought that 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: these pictographs are all at site #262; you will not find them at Site #264 at the north 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” –
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 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:
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-
There are other pictographs on the rock face that do not draw comments from Dewdney. Here are a few we noticed –
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 –
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.
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 –
Heading to what Dewdney has labeled as Site #219, we’ve got the sketch below as our goal –
And there it is – on the east side of the lake a couple of kilometers north. The initial impression is of one big blurry smudge –
We paddle in close and are able to discern images in the blurred ochre.
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.
What does stand out the most is the animal image on the right – the very same pictograph that someone by the name of McInnes had made a drawing of some years before. Dewdney had seen the drawing but had been unable to locate the pictograph even though McInnes noted that it was from Cliff Lake.
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!
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 –
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 –