Related Post: Anishinaabe Pictograph Sites In Ontario
The Allure Of Little Missinaibi Lake:
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, ooh-ing 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 traditional 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 to 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 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.
Entering Little Missinaibi Lake From Its Headwaters:
In mid-June of 2017, my brother and I spent a couple of days on Little Missinaibi Lake on our way to Fairy Point on Missinaibi Lake. There are easier ways to get there but we decided to enter the lake by the front door – i.e. the south end of the lake at Lookout Bay, having paddled forty-five kilometers down the Little Missinaibi River from our put-in point at Healey Bay on Lake Windermere.
Some work was required as we dealt with log jams, sweepers, beaver dams, and various other challenges on an undocumented stretch of river that attracts few, if any, paddlers. We were also wowed by two sets of waterfalls on this upper stretch. While they don’t quite rival the river’s Whitefish Falls at the very end of its run into Lake Missinaibi, just paddling up to them and inhaling their energy added a special element to our adventure, especially since we didn’t know exactly what was coming up ahead!
Another series of posts (see here for the first of them) deals with the details of the trip down the river, especially the upper stretch from the headwaters in Mackey Lake. In this post, I have combined the photos we took at the various pictograph sites on the lake with information available 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 and perhaps a little of what it all means.
Click on the View Larger Map prompt in the top left-hand corner for a full-screen view.
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 download an 11.7 Mb jpg copy from my website.)
The Google Earth satellite view available in the Chrome browser will give you a much more recent look at the area.
ChrisMar’s waterproof 1:50000 Missinaibi 1 map (2008) is also a good investment as it covers both Little Missinaibi and Missinaibi Lakes and provides all the usual canoe-trip-specific information. Included is an excellent summary of the various possible ways of getting to the lake (except for the approach we took!).
Using info from an earlier Hap Wilson map, the ChrisMar map indicates the location of four pictograph sites on the lake, as well as campsites. Missing are fishing outpost locations, two of which can be found on Little Missinaibi Lake and one on nearby Cam Lake. (See the map below.)
Sources Of Information About The Pictographs:
The oldest written source I’ve found on the Little Missinaibi Lake pictograph sites is Selwyn Dewdney’s Indian Rock Paintings of the Great Lakes. (Click on the 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 four times with my brother and other canoe trippers. On one of those summer trips we went all the way down to Moosonee; on another trip, we flagged a train at the Moose River crossing. While we vaguely knew about the Fairy Point pictographs, the weather and mostly 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 Bolkow 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 1990s 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, which is reputed to be an outstanding pike and pickerel 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; I’ll add another site that no one has commented on.
We came into the south end of the lake but in this post, I’ll follow Dewdney, Wilson, and Conway and order the sites starting at the north end of the lake not far from the Air Dale island outpost.
Pictograph Site #1: 48°14’11” N 83°35’28” W
(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 a steep vertical rock wall. The photographer has scampered to the top of the rock to get a nice shot looking down on the canoe with the stern paddler sitting along the south side of the “pothole”.
A trip report from 2000 posted at the Canadian Canoe Routes website 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.
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 led me to conclude all of Dewdney’s image sketches come from The Pothole. Our visit would confirm my conclusion.
Unfortunately, lichen had covered the higher-up images – everything from the bird footprint on up. It left us wondering about ways of getting rid of the lichen and whether it would be right for us to scrape it off.
Conway discusses the Pothole 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-1970s. He provides a list of some 72 different pictographs although elsewhere he mentions 64 as the number. The difference in numbers may be because he has counted the remains of images painted underneath later ones.
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 (manitous) and the shaman who has come for guidance or answers.
In the image above we are heading north towards the fishing outpost after our Site #1 visit. If this site is your first one after entering the lake from the north, you would be heading in the opposite direction – i.e. south – and to the other shore for Picto Site #2.
Picto Site #2: 48°13’33” N 83°35’48” W (the main panel)
(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 make use of any of the pictographs at this site in his chapter dedicated to the lake.
Approaching the site from the north, you will first see a number of other rock paintings before you get to the south end and the main and most well-known panel of pictographs. Here are a few of them:
As we paddled to the south end of the site we noted the rock tower, said by Wilson to be a “conjuring rock” connected with specific manitous. If so, it would have parallels with a similar rock pillar in the Temagami area on Chee-skon Lake, also said to have been a place of spiritual power in the traditional Ojibwe world. We would find the main panel of the site on the rock face just behind the tower.
In the photo below the rock tower (except for the top!) is on the left and the main panel is on the vertical rock face bathed in sun that I am looking at. Animals, canoes, thunderbirds, and a few other markings can be found. The one that most people will remember is the circle with a series of lines attached to the bottom and what looks like eyes and a mouth inside the circle.
My first thought on seeking the circle with what looks like eyes and mouth inside and four or more “legs” below was that someone had recently put in the facial features. That did leave me to explain how they could get the colour so close to that of the rest of the image and how their paint could be so durable!
However, on seeing a similar pictograph at Fairy Point a couple of days later, a better explanation came to mind. On the assumption that both images once had the same inner half-circle within the larger one, what has happened at this site is that some of it has eroded to create the “eyes and mouth” that we think we see.
The Fairy Point semi-circle is still intact though in the image here I have exaggerated the colours to make the shape more obvious. For whatever reason, the two circles do not have the same number of “legs” or “rays” or whatever is being represented by the lines underneath the circle. The Fairy Point image has seven; this one has four definite and maybe one or two more.
A Possible Explanation of the “Circle” or the “Face”:
It may be that what the circle actually represents is the Megis shell, the cowrie that held a special place in Ojibwe religion and the ceremonies of the Midewiwin, the secret society of “medicine men”. According to one of the central myths of the Midewiwin, it was the Megis that led the Anishinaabeg from their homeland on the Atlantic coast to the Lake Superior region. William Warren in his History of The Ojibway People, published in 1885, recounts a speech he heard delivered in a Midewiwin lodge which began like this –
While our forefathers were living on the great salt water toward the rising sun, the great Megis (sea-shell) showed itself above the surface of the great water, and the rays of the sun for a long period were reflected from its glossy back. It gave warmth and light to the An-ish-in-aub-ag (red race)…
The whiteshell with the inner line to indicate the opening and the lines on the bottom as rays of light – as an explanation, it sure beats the happy face emoji I first saw! Chapter IV of Warren’s book has the best account of the Anishinaabeg migration that I have found. You can download a copy of Warren’s essential study of the Ojibway here and read the entire account of the Great Migration. (Note: the book is an 8 Mb download and is in pdf format.)
After our visit to Picto Site #2, we headed for an island campsite about 700 meters to the west. Early that evening I looked back with my zoom lens and got this image of the extended stretch of rock face that makes up the pictograph site.
Picto Site #3: 48°12’42” N 83°36’14” W
(Site “E” on Wilson’s annotated map of the lake)
The site is located on the southwest end of the island indicated in the overview map above – or on the close-up map below. The Chrismar map labels it Eagle Island, a name not found elsewhere – e.g. on the 1:50000 Natural Resources Canada Bolkow map (042 B 04) or The Atlas of Canada’s Toporama.
Wilson deals with this site 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. The pictographs, as well as others, are easy to find as you paddle along. Approaching the site from the north, the first pictographs you will see are on the rock face below.
Moving on, other faded images appear, often impossible to “read”.
As we came to the southern end of the site, we finally saw the human figure with raised arms. Along with the two of three moose and the various oblique slash marks – often referred to as tally marks on the guess that something is being counted – this is Site #3.
Site On the Way To Grave Bay: 48°12’30” N 83°35’45” W
As you paddle south to the Grave Bay site, the last of the sites mentioned in the Wilson guidebook, you will pass a minor site with a half-dozen images. I must thank a reader of my pictograph posts for giving me the location of the site.
A couple of canoes, a moose (?), a human figure with outstretched arms, some slash marks, and a few other indecipherable figures –
Here is another shot of the site. The 1/50 sec shutter speed was too slow to compensate for the rocking canoe and the result is a blurry mess. It does, however, show the human figure on the bottom right fairly clearly. Next to it are a couple of slash marks.
I’d take another shot of the human figure but the shutter speed is even slower at 1/20th of a second so you can guess what’s coming!
Another shot – this time at 1/40th of a second. I would eventually clue in to the shutter speed problem! Get in touch if you visit the site and come up with sharper pix. I’d be happy to post them here!
Picto Site #4? – Grave Bay 48°11’18” N 83°36’38” W
(Site “F” on Wilson’s annotated map of the lake). The photo above was taken from 400 meters within Grave Bay, a 1.6 kilometer long and narrow bay at the south end of Little Missinaibi Lake.
We are looking out towards the entrance to the bay and the three rock faces on the left (i.e.west) side and one rock face on the right side. We checked the west side rock faces both coming and going and were not able to find anything. This is not to say that there is nothing here. We may not have even been looking in the right spot. 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”.
We did get excited as we approached a likely panel on the first rock face as we paddled into the bay – but that would have been too easy a find given Wilson’s 20-year-old warning!
We turned around to the entrance of the bay. We had paddled about 400 meters into the bay and checked out anything likely to attract an Anishinaabe shaman or vision quester-
- a crack in the rock, an entrance to the rock face for the ones who lived in it
- an overhang that shielded a vertical section of rock
- a ledge to leave an offering to the maymaygweshiwuk for favours or medicines received
On the way, we paid another visit to the bit of rock colour that had caught our attention.
Given all the actual pictographs on Little Missinaibi Lake, we recognized that the desire to turn the above into a pictograph was just a case of “picto fever” waiting to take hold. We resisted and paddled away!
Little Missinaibi Lake reminded us of other Anishinaabe pictograph lakes we have paddled into. Like Cliff Lake on the Pikitigushi and Artery Lake on the Bloodvein, there is an admission fee – i.e. the work required to get there. But once there, all the portages and obstacles are forgotten as you paddle from site to site in the company of Ojibwe shamans and vision questers of old. And while other sites – like the two I just mentioned – have more skillfully executed – and expressive – images on display, the sites on Little Missinaibi Lake still add to the overall picture. We’re glad to have made the journey.
Still To Come – Fairy Point On Missinaibi Lake!
Fourteen kilometers of paddle, run, and line, and portage down the Little Missinaibi River from the lake and you are on Missinaibi Lake itself. Coming up – perhaps the single most famous rock painting site in north-eastern/north-central Ontario – Fairy Point.