Running rapids, inhaling the energy of the waterfalls we portage around, observing moose and bear and the eagles watching over us, stopping to embrace majestic white pines, oohing over crimson sunset skies, listening to the sound of a loon breaking the evening stillness – a canoe trip on the lakes and rivers of the Canadian Shield has much to offer. Often the most memorable highlight of all is the time spent gazing into the heart of Anishinaabe culture that we find painted on the rock face as we paddle by.
Missinaibi Lake and nearby Little Missinaibi Lake are two of the more significant pictograph locations In northern Ontario. Both contain sites visited by generations of Anishinaabe shamans who created images (pictographs) painted with a mix of hematite powder and fish oil that they applied with their fingers on the vertical rock face, usually while seated or standing in their birchbark canoes. These images were an expression of their culture and its values; they offer an entry point to the traditional belief system of one of North America’s most widespread pre-European indigenous cultures.
N.B. The drawing above is by Selwyn Dewdney and comes from his Stone Age Paintings, a brief study of Manitoba’s pictograph sites he did for the Parks Branch of the province’s Department of Mines and Resources. It was published in 1965.
Click on the View Larger Map prompt in the top left hand corner for a full-screen view.
In the summer of 2017 my brother and I plan to spend a day or two on Little Missinaibi Lake on our way to Fairy Point on Missinaibi Lake. We will be entering the top of the lake (i.e. the south end) at Lookout Bay, having paddled down the Little Missinaibi River from our put-in point at Healey Bay on Lake Windermere.
Until we generate some gps co-ordinates and snap some photos to share, I have put together the information I’ve found on the pictograph sites of Little Missinaibi Lake from various print and internet sources. If the lake is at all on your radar as part of a potential canoe trip, this post will give you a good idea of where to look and what you will see.
If you’ve already been and have any images or information you’d like to
- share by inclusion in this post or
- provide the url link to your own web page
contact me via the comments section below or at email@example.com Images would be especially welcome!
The 1:50000 topo map (based on 1976 aerial photos!) ) put out by the Federal Government’s Department of Energy, Mines and Resources includes the Little Missinaibi Lake area . It is the 042 B 04 Bolkow map. (Click on the link to access a downloadable copy from the government website.)
If you’ve got the Google Earth app installed, its satellite view would give you a much more recent look at the area. ChrisMar’s waterproof 1:50000 Missinaibi 1 map is also a good investment as it covers both lakes and provides all the usual canoe-trip-specific information.
Sources Of Information About The Pictographs of Little Missinaibi Lake:
The oldest written source I’ve found on the Little Missinaibi Lake pictograph sites is in Selwyn Dewdney’s Indian Rock Paintings of the Great Lakes. (Click on title to access the book.) The work represents the first systematic recording and analysis of the Anishinaabe rock paintings in the Canadian Shield area. In the first edition, published in 1962, Dewdney very briefly covers the three Little Missinaibi Lake sites he visited at the end of the 1959 season. The sites are #74, #75, and #76 in the list of pictograph sites in the appendices.
Here is p. 90 of the text –
In the early 80’s I paddled the Lake Missinaibi to Mattice stretch three times with my brother and other canoe trippers. On one of those summer trips we went all the way down to Moosonee; on another we flagged a train at the Moose River crossing. While we vaguely knew about the Fairy Point pictographs, the weather (usually the wind!) and our own ignorance about their significance meant that we spent little time at the point. Our manual-focus Nikon SLRs (if we brought them along at all) were not usually out during the day and few pix were taken. Just being in the bush and the thrills and spills of the rapids were the biggest draws to guys in their late twenties!
In 1994 Hap Wilson’s Missinaibi: Journey To The Northern Sky was published. It provided paddlers with essential information on rapids and portages that would ensure a safer journey down the entire length of the Missinaibi, still one of North America’s great remaining wilderness rivers.
Included in the book was a section on alternative routes to Lake Missinaibi, the river’s headwaters. As well as entry points at Michipicoten, Missanabie, and Barclay Bay, he detailed a route that begins at Boklow Lake near the Shumka siding, a VIA stop on the CPR-owned rail line from Sudbury to White River. (See here for the timetable and stops. ) This route takes you into Little Missinaibi Lake and the pictographs.
Wilson provides much more detail about the pictograph locations than Dewdney’s one-paragraph treatment. Also, Wilson notes four – and not three – sites on the lake. On his Little Missinaibi Lake map he locates various selected features from north to south. The four pictograph sites correspond to the letters A, C, E, and F.
The most recent print source of information on the pictographs can be found in Thor Conway’s Discovering Rock Art: A Personal Journey With Tribal Elders. Published in the fall of 2016, it is a major revision of a first edition from the 1990’s titled Discovering Rock Art In Ontario’s Provincial Parks: Sacred Landscape of the Ojibwa and Algonkians. Included in the coverage of twelve Ontario pictograph sites is a chapter on Lake Missinaibi’s Fairy Point and one on the Little Missinaibi Lake sites.
As the sub-title suggests, Conway highlights the stories and explanations provided by Ojibwa and Algonquin elders familiar with the pictographs and with the traditional worldview and myths of their people. It makes for an engaging entry into their beliefs and values and provides the necessary cultural context for the rock images.
Conway begins the chapter on Little Lake Missinaibi with a retelling of an encounter he had with a group of American fishermen on the lake. Conway and his wife were doing archeological work at a site on the lake. The fishermen were staying nearby in one of the two fly-in outposts located on islands at the north end of the lake near the outflow (see the map below for the locations). They were clearly surprised to see anyone else on the lake; Conway was just as surprised by how little they knew about where they were! He could be talking about me in my youth! He writes –
These fishermen did not have maps or any background information about the area. What a loss it would be to visit the historic Missinaibi countryside so ill-informed. We talked about our rock research, the provincial park, and the nearby Chapleau Crown Game Preserve.
The Little Missinaibi Lake Pictograph Sites:
Dewdney on his visit checked out the three sites he had been told about. Wilson, thirty years later, notes the existence of four sites. Another thirty years later and there are reports of further smudges and images. This post will focus on the four sites highlighted in Wilson’s canoe tripper’s guide.
We’ll start at the north end of the lake not far from the Air Dale island outpost. A trip report from 2000 posted at the Canadian Canoe Routes web site by Scott Warner describes the scene this way –
We pass the fly-in camp and begin to hug the right shore to look for the Pothole pictographs. You couldn’t miss them if you tried. The canoe easily fits into the pothole and we get lots of pictures…. Crossing the lake here we proceed to the next pictograph site which we find without a problem.
The Pothole pictograph site Warner is referring to is Pictograph Site #1 and #2 is the one they crossed the lake to visit.
Pictograph Site #1 (Site “A” on Wilson’s annotated map of the lake): Also referred to as the Pothole by Wilson and Conway. Wilson describes the site like this –
The most impressive rock site as all paintings are contained within a polished “pothole” depression, clearly depicted in the photograph. (Wilson, p.51)
The photograph he refers to is on p. 52; it shows a small semi-circular cove with steep vertical rock wall. The photographer has scampered to the top of the rock to get nice shot looking down on the canoe with stern paddler sitting along the south side of the “pothole”.
With respect to the name of the site, Conway quotes an earlier visitor, the canoe historian Edwin Adney, who visited the lake in 1930 in the company of Cree and Ojibwa guides.
It was on the vertical rock sides of a natural perfectly semi-circular recess which the Indians proceeded to name in Ojibway and Cree, Rock Kettle and Little Kettle – Akikwabik (Ojib.) and Eshikwabish (Cree). (quoted in Conway 231)
Dewdney’s brief treatment of the lake’s three pictograph sites included sketches of various images. While he does not identify which of his three sites they are from – or if they are a composite made up of examples from all three sites – an examination of the images in Conway’s book leads me to conclude all of Dewdney’s image sketches come from The Pothole.
Conway discusses this site extensively in his chapter on Little Missinaibi Lake. In fact, it is the only site that is dealt with.
He draws on his conversations with various Anishinaabe elders across northern Ontario over the past forty years, as well as the time he and his wife Julie spent there doing archeological work in the mid-1970’s. He provides a list of some 72 different pictographs although elsewhere he does mention 64 as the number. The difference in numbers may be because of the remains of images painted underneath later ones which he also notes.
Three figures receive special attention in Conway’s coverage of Site #1:
- the hunchback figure holding a stick, said to be connected with the Ojibwe mythical figure Bokwawigan
- the so-called Dancer and what is either an unrelated slash of ochre or one impressive penis!
- The Great Turtle, Mikinak, who is associated with the “Shaking Tent” ritual. The image on the bottom right of Dewdney’s page of sketches does indeed look like a turtle. It leads Conway to suggest an interpretation of the Pothole itself as a sort of Shaking Tent, given Mikinak’s customary presence as a messenger and go-between connecting the manidoos and the shaman who has come for guidance or answers.
Picto Site #2 (Site “C” on Wilson’s map of the lake) is a bit less than two kilometers south of the lake’s major site. It gets this write-up from Wilson –
The second pictograph site, unusual and interesting as the paintings have been accomplished while standing on the rocks instead of the customary canoe perch. There is also a prominent “conjuring rock” or pillar that often signifies particular deities. One morph drawing is similar to the “sun-face” found at Fairy Point. (Wilson, 51)
Wilson provides a sketch of the overall rock face and of eight individual pictographs, including a canoe with three paddlers, a moose, three or four thunderbird images, and the”sun face” referred to above.
Conway does not get into any of the pictographs at this site. From a chat with someone who recently visited this site, I learned that the photo above captures only some of the images that can be seen.
Picto Site #3 (Site “E” on Wilson’s annotated map of the lake)
The site is located on the south-west end of the island indicated in the overview map above. Wilson deals with it in a few words –
…typical west exposure and barren rock face. (Wilson, 51)
He also provides a sketch of the rock face and of individual images. There are three of them – a human figure with outstretched arms, a moose, and four oblique lines. The lines are often described as tally marks. A more recent visitor’s description included two moose figures and the lines but did not make mention of the human figure. We’ll see for ourselves when we pass by in July.
Picto Site #4 (Site “F” on Wilson’s annotated map of the lake).
Grave Bay is a 1.6 kilometer long and narrow bay at the south end of Little Missinaibi Lake. This coming summer it will be the first pictograph site we see as we paddle the first five kilometers of the lake from the mouth of the Little Missinaibi River. Wilson has this to say of the site:
The fourth pictograph site, barely visible under layers of lichen, is located at the entrance to Grave Bay. (Wilson, 51)
And that’s it for Wilson’s treatment of Site “F”! There are no accompanying sketches to add to the words above.
A fellow paddler spent an hour last summer looking for this site on both sides of the small point on the west side. He came up empty. Given Wilson’s cursory treatment of the site it is not clear what there is under those “layers of lichen”. If you’ve found something at this location and can clear up the mystery, let me know!
And that – for now – is what I have on the pictographs of Little Missinaibi Lake. In the coming months if more information comes my way I’ll update or add to this post. And sometime in July as my brother and I enter the lake from Lookout Bay we will make sure to set aside a couple of days to savour being in a space – much like Cliff Lake or Mazinaw Lake – that drew generations of shamans and vision questers to a place held sacred in traditional Anishinaabe culture.