Last update: September 6, 2022.
Table of Contents:
- The Algonkian (Anishinaabe) Origins of Mazinaw
- Bon Echo Provincial Park and Mazinaw Rock
- Mazinaw Rock Views From Our Campsite
- Information About Mazinaw – Book Sources: Selwyn Dewdney; John Campbell; David Boyle.
- Map With The Locations of the Mazinaw Pictograph Faces
- The Nature of the Pictographs You’ll See
A Selwyn Dewdney Tour of Mazinaw Rock
- Face I – The Northernmost Pictographs
- Face II – Mishupeshu (The Underwater Lynx) and Canoe
- Graffiti and Scuff Marks On Mazinaw Rock
- From Face II to Face VII
- Face VII
- Face VIII? – The “Tectiform” and the “Rabbit Man”
- South of the Rabbit Man Face
- The Cave, The Turtle – and Lismer’s Sheep’s Nose
- Face Just South Of The Turtle
- Traditional Iron Oxide Powder Vs. Modern Paint Test!
- The Bon Echo Inn and Walt Whitman
- Face XXIV S of the Whitman Tribute
- Face XXVIII – the last of the Upper Mazinaw Faces
The Cliff Top Trail – A Hike To The Top For Scenic Views
The Lower Mazinaw Lake Pictographs – Three Faces
Links To More Information On Mazinaw Rock
Previous Post: The Peterborough Petroglyphs – Building over An Ancient Algonkian Ritual Site
The Algonkian Origins of Mazinaw
Massanog, Massinaw, Mazinaw …no matter how you spell it in English, the roots of the word lie in the Algonkian language of those who came to this lake over a period measured in centuries. Meaning something like “painted image,” the lake gets its name from the close to three hundred ochre rock paintings by Algonkin or other Algonkian-speaking people (aka the Anishinaabeg) three or four hundred years ago or perhaps even longer. Their canvas? Three kilometers of an awe-inducing vertical pink granite cliff face with heights of up to one hundred meters. Mazinaw Rock has the most extensive single collection of pictographs in the entire Canadian Shield area.
In numbers of paintings as well as for sheer bulk Bon Echo has no rival in Ontario. In June of ’58 I recorded a hundred and thirty-five symbols, scattered over twenty-seven faces. Site #38, on Little Mazinaw, roughly a mile and a half south of the main site, has three faces. (Dewdney, 94-95)
My brother and I have visited a few Ontario and Manitoba rock painting sites over the past three years, often taken in by the majestic settings in which the shamans and vision quest-ers of old chose to make their ochre marks.
- Agawa Rock on Lake Superior,
- the Pikitigushi River’s Cliff Lake,
- the Bloodvein’s Artery Lake …
one hushed “wow” after another as we came up to these Anishinaabe pictograph sites. Now we were looking at the Mazinaw Rock about five hundred meters across the lake, ready for the biggest wow of all.
Bon Echo Provincial Park and Mazinaw Rock
We visited Mazinaw Rock in May, just before Victoria Day weekend. The Lake and the Rock are a part of Bon Echo Provincial Park, and as the map above illustrates, when its four hundred campsites are full – common during prime time summer – it becomes a small town! While there, we saw two other tents and a camper van. The emptiness definitely added to our appreciation of the lake and the Rock!
I had booked our campsite online in March; Billed as a “premium” walk-in site, it requires a two hundred meter carry from the parking lot. On the park map above, you will find it at the extreme top left – site #168.
I still recall when the total cost for two nights at the site popped up on my computer screen – $99.71. I almost scrapped the idea of visiting right then and there – $100. for 2 nights at a park tent site? Well, thankfully, I got over it. While nothing beats our usual camping on Crown land for free, in this case, sitting right across from Mazinaw Rock had an added value that made the fee seem more reasonable.
Mazinaw Rock Views From Our Campsite #168
We arrived there early Wednesday evening and left a couple of mornings later. While the two nights were a bit coolish, we had clear sunny weather during the day and saw Mazinaw Rock – it faces westward – change colour from the dark grey of early morning to a lighter grey in the late morning to an almost reddish glow in the late afternoon. It was magical.
During our time there, we paddled the entire length of the rock face twice – once in the morning and again in the late afternoon. Before we left the following day, we went over one more time and redid a good stretch of it. What a great way to spend time!
None of our pix captured the feeling of sitting in our canoe and looking up eighty meters of the vertical rock face. Now that I think of it using the camera’s video option would perhaps have been the way to show some of the sheer grandeur of Mazinaw.
Information About Mazinaw Rock – Book Sources
We set off the next morning before breakfast for a ninety-minute paddle down the two-kilometer length of Mazinaw Rock from the south tip of German Bay to the Narrows. As we had done on other pictograph site visits, we enlisted Selwyn Dewdney as our guide. He is the one who initiated the systematic recording and analysis of Canadian Shield pictographs in the late 1950s and provided us with explanations of sometimes puzzling ochre marks and images.
Dewdney, of course, was not the first to note the existence of the pictographs. In The Mazinaw Experience: Bon Echo and Beyond (see the end of the post for a link to the book), John Campbell lists references to the rock paintings that go back to 1848. This is when J.S. Hargen (or Harper, according to another source) saw them while surveying the Mississippi River system of which Lake Mazinaw is the headwaters. It is also mentioned in an A.J.B. Halfpenny article in the 1879 edition of The Canadian Antiquarian and Numismatic Journal and in reports from the 1880s by both the Smithsonian Institute and Canada’s Federal Department of Indian Affairs.
In the early 1890s, the site was also visited and systematically recorded by David Boyle, Canada’s pre-eminent archaeologist of the day and the director of the Ontario Provincial Museum (which would later become the Royal Ontario Museum). Given that many had already noted the existence of the rock paintings, his initial skepticism was unwarranted.
Needless to say, Boyle found what his informants (Messrs. Caldwell of Lanark and Drummond of Perth identified in the footnote indicated in the quote) had told him about. Boyle would write a brief report on his visit, representing an archaeologist’s first attempt to deal with the site and its meaning. (See the end of the post for access to the report.)
Map With Locations of The Mazinaw Pictographs
The Nature of the Pictographs That You’ll See
I arranged our photos of the pictographs in the same north-to-south order Dewdney used. We would soon see that while there may well be 295 pictographs at Mazinaw Rock, many are on the verge of disappearing, and most are no more than lines and what some refer to as “tally marks.” Like 80% of the pictographs found in the Temagami area, for example, the Mazinaw ones tend to be abstract. Dewdney makes the following general comment on the site –
Handprints are entirely absent, canoes are rare, and the tendencies to geometric types of abstractions so marked that we are tempted to ask whether the paintings are not the product of a culture quite distinct from those further west.They seem older, too, in so far as a large number have been weathered to near-disappearance. (p.97)
Take a look here at my photos of the pictographs from the Bloodvein River’s Artery Lake site, and you will see what Dewdney is getting at when he contrasts the Mazinaw’s pictograph style to the naturalistic portrayal of humans and animals more common further west.
A Selwyn Dewdney Tour of Mazinaw Rock
Face I – The Northernmost Pictographs
Face II – Mishupeshu and Canoe
We were soon rewarded with one of the two most striking pictograph faces of the entire site – Dewdney labels it Face II. He begins by commenting on a figure that others have connected to Mishupeshu, the mythic underwater lynx –
The weird central figure is surely no native animal, although the shoulder-neck area is too badly weathered for the viewer to be able to make out the original outline.The strong suggestion of cloven hoofs is unique. Note the same animal below this one’s belly – not identifiable either, but far more typical of the other animals on the site. Even the canoe, if we so interpret the lower part of the painting, is strikingly different from others elsewhere.
As a comparison, here is how David Boyle saw the same panel in his 1892 visit. His ordering system goes from south to north, so by the time he got to this Face, he was up to #37.
Just underneath and to the south of Face II is what could be interpreted in the Ojibwa worldview as a water-level cave entrance for the maymaygweshi, the very creatures the shaman would come to meet. (See the above face overview photo for the exact location.) Next to the rock indent are the pictographs seen in the image below, more cryptic and indecipherable lines, including three sets of vertical parallel ones.
Graffiti and Scuff Marks On Mazinaw Rock
We paddled on, seeing single ochre marks in a couple of places. We also saw the first evidence of graffiti – someone’s initials scratched onto the rock face. Admittedly, given that the lake has hosted increasing numbers of vacationers for over a hundred years, things could be a lot worse. First, with the Bon Echo Inn and its satellite cabins and now with Bon Echo Park and its four hundred campsites, 99.9% of visitors have been able to look at, appreciate and just paddle on.
When I quickly reviewed our photos after the trip, I was initially puzzled by the one below. And then, I noticed the two rock screws permanently embedded in Mazinaw. I remembered that the Alpine Club of Canada (the Toronto chapter to which I used to belong!) has a hut around the corner in German Bay. Its members often do climbs on Mazinaw Rock. The first recorded climb was in 1956. Now I am curious about where the various routes are located and their impact on the pictographs!
I took a photo of the rock face below because of what initially seemed to us like intentional scouring of the ochre. You can see the two lighter-coloured areas. Given that it makes no sense at all, there must be a better explanation! Perhaps it is the result of shoes slipping on the Rock as climbers try to get traction at the start of their climb?
Paddling South Between Face II and Face VII
It is a human trait to find meaning everywhere – even where it usually isn’t! We’re able to turn random events into parts of an engaging narrative! Looking at the rock face above had me thinking about another one 1500 miles away on the Musclow River in Northwestern Ontario. Dewdney sketched a moose pictograph there that bears some similarity to the one on this Mazinaw rock face.
As we headed south to the following prominent Face, the one with “Rabbit man,” we passed this rock face that Dewdney had stopped to sketch and which he labelled Face VII. The sketch and the image below show three human-like figures and some vertical slashes above them.
Face VIII? – The Tectiform and The Rabbit Man
Next up was the other striking rock face, along with Face II. It features a figure that Dewdney labels “Rabbit-Man.” Everything is up in the air as he tries to make sense of what he is looking at. Of the pictograph on the south side of the Face, he asks –
Are these a hare’s ears on this strange small figure? Or large feathers? If it is Ojibwa in origin we could make out a case for its representing Nanabozho, legendary hero and “demigod’, traditionally a hare. (99-100)
And of the left side of the Face, he asks about what some have called “the picket fence” –
Are other rabbit ears emerging from the “tectiform” to the left? This strangely structured form, unique to the Mazinaw site, appears again on two other faces.
Stumped by the word “tectiform”? I was. The online dictionary defined it as “a design found in Paleolithic cave art and believed to represent a structure or dwelling.” It certainly sounds better than what I first imagined – a chorus line of thirteen penguins!
Again as a point of comparison, here are the sketches as they appear in Boyle’s report from the 1890s – I am again struck by how straight Boyle made everything. He certainly seemed to be lacking the artist’s sensibility that Dewdney had in spades. It is also a reflection of the era each lived in – the rather starchy Victorian Era versus the free-wheelin’ 1960s.
I am a bit confused here by Boyle’s numbering system. #26 and #34 are right next to each other but not numbered that way. Also, since the pictographs sketched below are closer to #37 – the “Mishupeshu” pictograph panel – you’d think their number would be higher than the “Nanabush” pictograph on the right.
Of all the Mazinaw rock faces, this is the only one that even gets a mention in Grace Rajnovich’s Reading Rock Art: Interpreting The Indian Rock Paintings Of The Canadian Shield. She writes:
The Mazinaw Lake pictographs in eastern Ontario are puzzling to this author. The repeated “honeycomb” or “picket fence” signs (Figure 143) do not occur elsewhere in Shield rock art, so the site appears to be unique, perhaps someone’s deeply personal dream. (161)
She notes that a birch bark scroll found in northwestern Ontario at Burntside Lake has similar designs. However, her comment about the site as the possible expression of “someone’s deeply personal dream” is perplexing. She must be referring to this particular rock face, not the entire site.
She would know from her extensive work at other sites that Mazinaw is not one person’s work. Many “painters” came to this special place over an extended period to create the sheer quantity of pictographs which are still evident today. Also, as personal as these ochre paintings may be, the fact remains that those who came here were members of the same culture and shared a common mythological image bank and purpose. To emphasize the “deeply personal” misses the point.
South of The Rabbit Man Face
Dewdney noted this about the pictographs in his above sketch and also shown in the photo just above –
At the top left of the opposite page we have an abstraction which we are also tempted to relate to the “rabbit-man” already viewed. The face illustrated below it was most frustrating to record, much of it being too faint to trace directly. The rendering here suggests dorsal spines and a horned head, but these should be regarded with some suspicion; I may well here have succumbed to my own wishful thinking. (pp.100-101 of IRPOTGL, 1967)
A few meters later, we saw this pictograph which reminded us of similar ones on the Bloodvein, where we saw a couple of versions of a standing human figure holding something in his outstretched arm. We looked at this one and wondered if this could also be interpreted as a shaman holding out his otter skin medicine bag.
The Cave, The Turtle, and Lismer’s “Sheep’s Nose”
As you paddle south, you will pass by dozens more pictographs, some in better shape than others. Eventually, you approach the Narrows. But first, a feature that looks like a cave comes up. Max hopped out of the canoe to see if there were any pictographs on the inner walls of the “cave” – the answer was “No.” We didn’t know it yet, but Max had just walked inside the belly of the Turtle!
As we paddled around the corner, there was the Turtle! In the pic below, you can see the Turtle’s head stick out over the water. From another angle, you can almost imagine the front legs. You can see how this spot is ready for some meaning to be assigned to it!
Arthur Lismer was one of the legendary Group of Seven painters who spent time at the Bon Echo Inn in the early 1920s. He made Turtle Rock the subject of a painting entitled “Sheep’s Nose. Bon Echo. 1922”. It was purchased in 2010 for $ 1.2 million by the Vancouver Art Gallery and now hangs with the other Lismers in its collection. Had I been aware of this painting before we visited Mazinaw Rock, I would have made more effort to duplicate Lismer’s framing of the scene! I found it while leafing through my copy of Sue and Jim Waddington’s In The Footsteps of The Group of Seven.
Face Just South of The Turtle
Beyond the Turtle’s nose – though, oddly, Lismer calls it Sheep’s Nose! – we paddled by another indecipherable rock face sketched by Dewdney.
Of this Face and its pictographs, Dewdney wrote –
The more familiar forms below call for little comment, but those in the bottom margin [of p. 101] are strange indeed. The one might have been influenced by a pottery design; the other might be described as “geometricized tree branches” for lack of a better guess.
Traditional Iron Oxide Powder Vs. Modern Paint Test!
Next was this strange collection of small rectangles – different shades of white and ochre-coloured strips. Perhaps an experiment to see how long various paints and ochre formulations last?
Update (July 2020): A fellow paddler, Christian Joos, found the answer to the question I posed above. He emailed:
I happened across your blog while I was searching for information about the Mazinaw Rock paintings. My wife and I were canoeing Bon Echo last weekend when we came across the strange ‘barcode’ inscription. Pic attached. The series of patches in both red and white. I posed the question to the ‘Friends of Bon Echo’, and Lisa from the ministry of the environment replied back to me, this is what she wrote:
“Your recent email to The Friends of Bon Echo was forwarded to me. The white and red bar-code like images you saw are not pictographs. They are test patches painted in 1980 by scientists from the Canadian Conservation Institute. This was done to test the durability of various white and red paint formulations on the exposed rock.
The 6 white test patches were made with different formulations of titanium oxide in different media and applied in a series of small rectangles. This was done to determine a suitable pigment to repaint the “Old Walt” inscription if park staff decided to do this. The inscription was painted white in the 1950s (before it was a park) when Mazinaw Rock was rededicated to Walt Whitman.
The 7 red test patches were also made by the scientists in 1980 and are variations of the paint used by the Indigenous people to paint the pictographs. They are all iron oxide-based pigments in different media and a red crayon was used in one patch. The iron oxide or ochre pigments were selected since these were the pigments used in pictographs while the media (binder) can vary e.g. fish oil or bear grease. The scientists wanted to see which combination of ochre & a medium or binder lasted the longest. In 1983, the scientists revisited the test patches and noticed the patch of ochre in sturgeon oil had completely disappeared as had the patch made with a red crayon. The patch of ochre with water was less weathered than the rest.”
Hope this helps with the mystery…
It certainly does, Christian! Thanks for taking the time to find the story behind those two rows of paint samples. I will admit I am surprised at how faded most of the ochre formulations are compared to the titanium oxide formulations; only three are still visible. Maybe give the test another 150 years?!
The Bon Echo Inn and Walt Whitman
From 1900 to 1930the Bon Echo Inn and its cabins were located not far from the Narrows. It attracted a few members of the famed Group of Seven painters as its clientele; the owner was Flora MacDonald Denison, a woman with progressive and somewhat unconventional views. As well as being a women’s rights campaigner and a spiritualist of the Madame Blavatsky sort, she was also smitten by Walt Whitman, the U.S. poet. In 1920 she had a memorial to Whitman – entitled “Old Walt” – engraved onto Mazinaw Rock just a bit north of the Narrows.
We were surprised to find more pictographs south of the Old Walt engraving and wondered what ochre images had been destroyed in creating the homage to Whitman.
Dewdney’s Face XXIV:
Dewdney’s Face XXVIII:
There is one more site north of the Narrows – Face XXVIII. It is divided into two parts, the first of which Dewdney labelled XXVIIIa.
With our early morning paddle done, we headed back to our campsite and had breakfast. Given that we had entered the park the previous evening after closing time, we also had to go up to the gate, register our vehicle, and get our two-day pass. Driving through the park, we were surprised to see that there was nobody there.
The Cliff Top Trail:
We returned to the east side in the afternoon and paddled by all the pictos again. The light and shadows gave the rock face a different and warmer look. When we got to the dock just beyond the Narrows, we parked the canoe and spent an hour walking up to the top of the cliff and enjoying the view from the various viewing platforms developed by Friends of Bon Echo Park. A commendable project and very nicely done!
Lower Mazinaw Lake Pictographs:
Leaving the dock after our Cliff Top visit, we paddled south to see the three rock faces mentioned by Dewdney on the lower part of the lake. (They make up Site #38 on his list.) While I have ordered them here in the order we would have seen them (north to south), I decided not to take any pix as we paddled down. “I’ll just get them when we come back in a few minutes,” was how I put it.
So – we ended up seeing four different rock faces with pictographs as we paddled down, but when we came back, we could only find three! I am also not sure why none of the three sites we photographed have a face that looks like the Face III sketch on p.102 of Dewdney’s book – unless it is the one we missed on the way back!
We paddled back to our campsite and spent some time rambling around the area behind our tent. As sunset came, we got to see Mazinaw Rock glow one more time. While it had taken us a while to get there, we recognized our good fortune in being able to glide past the ochre signs still visible just above water level. In the process of listening to the pictographs, we came away with more pieces of a puzzle that seems to get bigger instead of smaller!
Useful Links For More Information:
John Campbell’s The Mazinaw Experience: Bon Echo And Beyond provides a great overview of the history of the area. The first two chapters deal with the First Nations period, and further chapters cover lumbering, farming settlements, mining, and tourism in the region. Click on the title above to see its Amazon page (available as a Mobi file) or read the introduction and the first two chapters (pp.1-23) at Google Books.
The first edition (1962) of Selwyn Dewdney’s Indian Rock Paintings of the Great Lakes is accessible for online reading or downloadable in various formats thanks to the Royal Ontario Museum. It contributed the book to the Internet Archive in 2014. Just click on the book title to go to the website. Mazinaw is dealt with from pp. 96 to 101.
David Boyle’s report Rock Paintings At Lake Massanog can be found online at the Google Books site. The article begins at the bottom of p. 46 and is preceded by three pages of general comments entitled “Rock Paintings or Petrography.” I’ve taken both articles and put them into a 1.4 Mb pdf file which you can download here.
A 2:40-minute video uploaded to Youtube in September 2015 titled “First-Ever Drone Aerial of Bon Echo Park’s Mazinaw Rock“ is definitely worth a look.
Related Post – The Peterborough Petroglyphs: Building Over An Ancient Algonquian Ritual Site
Fascinating. I was at Bon Echo a couple of years ago in late November and we had the whole snowy place to ourselves. It was beautiful but your photos warm it up and bring it to life. Interesting too to read about the Scottish connection N.
Late November! No wonder you had the place to yourselves! I’d like to see it in mid to late September with the fall colours. I’m happy to have finally visited the lake and the Rock – a special place, especially when there is no one else there!
Hi, I work for a company in Montreal that makes educational TV for kids for TVOntario, and I would like to know if we could use some of your photos of the pictographs on Mazinaw rock in an episode of our show “The Mystery Files”. Can I contact you by email about this?
Thank you, have a nice day!
Laura, feel free to make use of any of our images that will help you tell your story. Email me at email@example.com to discuss anything further!
Excellent write up… I’m interested in doing my undergrad dissertation on rock art in southern Ontario.
Kevin, I am always heartened to hear that the interest in the indigenous rock art found in our province is still alive!
Your research will provide you with an entry into the Anishinaabe culture of the Algonquin people whose homeland the Ottawa River basin is. Oiseau Rock on the Ottawa River, the petroglyphs at Petroglyph Park, the fading pictographs at Mazinaw Rock – they will be your main areas of study.
Unfortunately, there are not many other sites that can be mentioned for southern Ontario – i.e. Ontario south of the French River and Lake Nipissing. It is not as rich a source of rock art sites as, for example, northwestern Ontario. But I guess it all depends on what you plan on doing with it in your dissertation.
Good luck with your research. Even better if it gets you into a canoe and off the grid for a while!
P.S. Get in touch if you need any help or information! I may be able to point you in the right direction.
As per your above reply, is it possible to touch base with you (perhaps by email) regarding any information you might have on the pictograph site at Mazinaw Lake?
Kevin – my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and of course I would be happy to share anything I have on Mazinaw Lake.
To be honest, I have not looked at the Mazinaw pictograph file since I wrote the post four + years ago; that post will have all I gathered about the site. In the companion post on the Peterborough Petroglyphs, I also provided some links to other sources. One of them – Dagmara Zawadzka – earned an M.A. degree in exactly what you are considering and might be a great person to talk to. She studied under Joan Vastokas at Trent (she and her husband did the most comprehensive study of the Peterborough Petroglyph site). A visit to the Anthro Dept at Trent might also help clarify things for you.
Prior to her Trent M.A., Zawadzha also had as a teacher Daniel Arseneault, at the U of Quebec at Montreal. He was Quebec’s preeminent pictograph researcher until his untimely death in a car crash a few years ago.
Send me an email – email@example.com – if you have any questions!
Pingback: Kayaking Among Legends – July 13.2020 – Randy OHara Photography
Wow, we are going back to Bon Echo in late August, myself after an absence of almost 60 years! Thank you for providing all these wonderful photos and information, it has greatly enhanced my anticipation of the visit!
Thanks for your positive review! Enjoy your slow paddle down the length of that dramatic rock face! Hopefully, the lake will be calm with little to no boat traffic whipping by. If you’re keen, the hike up to the lookout is also terrific. I’m thinking of a return visit – maybe in the fall when it is really quiet.