The Ojibwe Rock Paintings of Killarney’s Collins Inlet

Last revised on September 5, 2022.

Table of Contents:

Other Supposed Sites Near Collins Inlet

Related Posts

N.B. If you are interested in the logistics of the canoe trip, check out Paddling Around Georgian Bay’s Philip Edward Island – Part One and Part Two


Location of the Pictograph Site


On the last day of the four we spent paddling around Killarney’s Philip Edward Island we paddled the western section of Collins Inlet from Mill Lake back to the Chikanishing parking lot. This “inside passage” from Beaverstone Bay all the way across the north side of Philip Edward Island was a favourite of the voyageurs of old, as it gave them a brief respite from the potentially turbulent waters of Georgian Bay. [Download the Federal Govt. 1:50,000 topo map sheet Collins Inlet 041 H 14 here.]

Collins Inlet Pictograph Site

Just beyond Ambush Narrows, said to be the site of an Ojibwe ambush of invading Iroquois warriors during the Algonquian/Iroquoian War of the mid-1600s, we paddled up to the Collins Inlet pictograph site.


On a twelve-meter (about 40′) stretch of the rock face pictured above and below are faded red ochre rock paintings left by Ojibwe shamans or vision quest-ers sometime in the last three or four hundred years. They are not easy to see, and, in fact, we did not see all of them on our visit. The reason – we only learned about their existence afterward. We would have looked a bit harder had we known!

looking west the Collins Inlet rock face with the pictographs

looking west  at the Collins Inlet rock face with the pictographs


Site Analysis by Selwyn Dewdney and Thor Conway 

Indian Rock Paintings of the Great LakesTo understand the site and its images, I turned to two sources. The first was Selwyn Dewdney and the 1962 first edition of his  Indian Rock Paintings of the Great Lakes (Click on the title to access the text.) Dewdney visited the area in 1959. The book has a sketch of the site and a brief description of some of the pictographs.

discovering-rock-art-cover_300x454The other source was  Discovering Rock Art: A Personal Journey With Tribal Elders,  a study of a dozen Ontario Anishinaabe rock image sites by Thor Conway. It was published in the fall of 2016 – i.e. after our trip. Conway worked at the site on at least a couple of occasions in the 1980s (1983 and 1989). I’ll use Conway’s organizational approach to examine the site more closely. He discusses the site in terms of four “panels,” each panel being a distinct collection of one or more rock paintings. Panel I is the furthest to the east, and Panel IV is about twelve meters to the west.

As for Dewdney, of the more than 260 sites he would eventually visit,  the Collins Inlet site was #39. He was there early in the summer of 1959, having been at Mazinaw Lake (#37, #38) in the days just before. He would go from Collins Inlet up to Temagami to see the Diamond Lake site (#40) afterward.

Here is Dewdney’s description of the site. He approached it from the west so the first panel he describes – one solitary image – is Panel IV in Conway’s analysis.

The Collins Bay site is in the conventional red again, on the rock-lined inner passage that the voyageurs used when Georgian Bay got too rough for comfort. Here is an animal head as bodiless as that on the Quetico Lake site. Here again is our ubiquitous—though somewhat battered thunderbird, and tally marks, I should judge, rather than the alternative canoe.

He includes the following sketch in his book (See pp. 92-93 for the sketch and text.)


And that is it for his treatment of the site. Missing from his sketch is what Conway identified as Panel I; also missing is any discussion of the other images in the vertical collection of Panel II.

On our visit to the site, the image below captures all of what we could see. We saw Panel II with its four levels of pictographs, one on top of the other. About three feet to the left of this vertical panel is what Conway labels as Panel III, a lone Thunderbird image, barely discernible.

Collins Inlet Pictographs

Collins Inlet Pictographs


Panel I:

We did not see Panel I on our visit. It is not in the above image but to the right (i.e. east) and down closer to the waterline. Conway’s sketch of the image is accompanied by a quote from Joe Wabegijig of Manitoulin Island,  who first saw the pictographs in 1901 when he was twelve.   He said the painting had “…a head with horns also marked in red.” Conway notes that it is possibly a  large head or mask but does concede that it may be something else entirely.


Panel II:

the main panel of pictographs at Collins Inlet

Panel II: the main panel of pictographs at Collins Inlet

While this is the largest of the site’s panels, Dewdney only comments on the bottom image, which he sketches with twelve vertical “tally marks.”  He notes that an alternative explanation is of a canoe with riders. A calcite vein interrupts the canoe, but you can see the continuation on the bottom right of the image above with four more riders indicated.

This canoe image is a common one in the Canadian Shield pictograph country and is often interpreted as a war canoe with a number of warriors and as a symbol of strength and power. This could be why it appears so close to Ambush Narrows, given its association with a bloody Anishinaabe encounter with Iroquois raiders from the south. Conway labels it as a canoe in his discussion of the panel.

Cross or Thunderbird – Something else?

Above the canoe is an image that most will assume is that of the Christian cross. If it is indeed a cross, the question arises – is it the Christian cross?

  • Some have argued that it is an ancient symbol used by the Midewiwin, the exclusive society of Ojibwe “medicine men,” to show the fourth degree of attainment.
  • Others argue that the Midewiwin itself was a post-contact nativist response to the incoming Europeans and that it repurposed the cross, an obvious power symbol to the Europeans, and gave it an Ojibwe-related meaning.

See here for further discussion of this contentious issue!

Of the Christian interpretation, Thor Conway concludes –

This is unlikely. When you look for identical images at other Ojibwa rock art sites, you will find almost every example is painted above or below an animal image. This remains an intriguing and, as yet unexplained clue.

To me,  it looked like a stylized and simple representation of a bird, an eagle (a totem symbol)  perhaps or even Animikii, the Thunderbird. Unlike a simple “plus sign,” the image bulges in the vertical middle and the top of the vertical line seems to have a beak point to the right. Dewdney, unfortunately does not comment on this image or the ones above it in this panel.

Update: here is a version of the image I played around with in Adobe Lightroom, hoping to simulate the DStretch effect. I altered the saturation and emphasized the ochre hue. The result? The beak looking to the right that I thought I was seeing is not there!


Above the Animikii or cross image is what appears to be an animal’s rather rectangular and headless body. At the rear is an upright tail. Conway identifies it as a dog. I thought it could be a crude representation of Mishipeshu, the underwater lynx. To the left of the raised tail of the animal is a remnant of what could be a canoe image.

horned snake pictograph at Diamond Lake

horned snake picto at Diamond Lake

The zig-zag lines at the very top of this small panel – well, again, who can say? In Dewdney’s sketch, they appear as indistinct smudges. Conway makes the following of the jumble of lines: a possible “shorebird track” and a canoe with a paddler image. Bird footprints also appear at the Diamond Lake site. They may be statements of clan affiliation. What also appears at the Temagami-area site is the horned snake image. Perhaps the zig-zag lines depict a more horizontal version of the two-horned snake (Mishiginebig in Ojibwe) often depicted along with Mishipeshu. Its head and horns would be on the right side – i.e. the part of the rock painting that Dewdney captured. I thought of the horned snake image at Diamond Lake in Temagami as I tried to make sense of the zig-zag lines here.

N.B. The analysis I provided above is likely off the mark! (Editor: Likely? Try 100%. While Animikii, Mishipeshu, and Mishiginebig are indeed figures from Ojibwe myth and were common subjects to be painted,  the human mind has a knack for finding, even imposing,  meaning and connection even on events and markings that have nothing to do with what the viewer wills them to be!


Panel III:

To the left of the vertical panel is the single image seen in the image below. It is described by Dewdney as “our ubiquitous—though somewhat battered thunderbird.” Looking at Dewdney’s sketch of the image, he could not capture much of it the day he was there. Perhaps the angle of the sun? Animikii’s body is a triangle shape; the beak on top faces to the right.

Collins Inlet - lone Thunderbird pictograph

Collins Inlet – lone Thunderbird pictograph

As a point of comparison, here is an Ojibwa leather medicine bag from 1820 Ontario. It features the Thunderbird in the middle of the panel, facing in the same direction as the one on the Collins rock. It is flanked on the left by a turtle (a possible clan indication), a possible bird claw print,  and on the right, a human figure. The two circles, signs of spiritual power, also sit above Animikii and bring to mind their use by Norval Morrisseau in many of his paintings.


Panel IV:

dewdney-quetico-lake-picto-site-animal-headA pictograph we did not see at all was the one Dewdney described as “an animal head as bodiless as that on the Quetico Lake site“. I looked through his sketches and found this one from the mentioned Quetico Lake site; it was of the head and antlers of a woodland caribou.

Quetico Lake caribou head

Quetico Lake caribou head

But – Woodland caribou in Killarney? Conway includes interviews with a number of Ojibwe elders who have stories going back to the mid-1800s when the caribou was, in fact, a part of the ecosystem of the area. A reader of this post was kind enough to send me a photo of the Panel IV caribou head.

Collins Inlet - Panel IV - caribou head

Collins Inlet – Panel IV – caribou head

He also sent a version of the image that had been processed using a pictograph-enhancing application called DStretch.  Seeing what it does makes me realize that I need to get a copy of the app too! What is really necessary are DStretch-ed versions of all the panels!

The antlers are not as dramatic as those on the Quetico Lake caribou head, but other aspects of the representation correspond. Conway’s book also includes photos of the rice paper drawings he made on site of the caribou head and an almost vertical ocher slash above the caribou head. The bottom of this slash may appear in the image below.


And that is it for the Collins Inlet Pictograph Site. Here is an overview shot I took of the rock face with the various markings indicated. Panel I (somewhere to the bottom right) and Panel IV are missing from it. ( It is just to the left of the image I framed.)   Knowing that they are there will hopefully make it much more likely that you will see them!


As indicated above, there is some minor evidence of graffiti a few feet to the left of (or west of) the Panel III Thunderbird image. You can see the initials J.P. in the middle. Just above them is the year number 1939 and more initials.


Wrap-Up – Conway’s Four Panels: 

After looking at the photos we took at the site and considering information gleaned and received since our visit, I can now identify the four panels Conway uses to discuss the site. I’ve left in some of the tree growth in the rock face on either end to help as initial markers as you hone in on the various panels.


Collins Inlet Pictograph Site – enlarge with a click or two.

These pictographs face south and are quite exposed. Given all the human activity in the Inlet, since they were painted here with the mixture of ground hematite and fish oil some three to four hundred years ago, it is nice to see that their presence has been respected by almost all non-Anishinaabe passerby going all the way back to those French explorers, missionaries, and fur traders in the early 1600s.

Conway does record a brief statement by one elder from Manitoulin Island about a supposed attempt by Jesuit priests living in the Wikwemikong community – when is not stated –  to erase one of the images –

And the priest kind of doubted that this thing could be washed off. They [the priests] tried to scrub it, and done everything else try to get it off. Never took anything off of it. It’s still there. (155)

In the end, we just appreciate the fact that we can sit in our canoe in the same spot that an Ojibwe shaman sat or stood in as he dipped his fingers in the powdered hematite/fish oil mixture and reached out to the rock face intent on drawing specific images taken from his culture’s mythological image bank.



Other Supposed Sites Near Collins Inlet

Dewdney’s “Astonishing Serpent” Image:

In his 1959 season, Dewdney continued the search to the east of the Collins Inlet site. He writes –

Farther east, I had no success in finding “an astonishing serpent” referred to in Harmon’s Journal, presumed to be in the vicinity of Grondines Point. In ’59 I flew over the area, a complex labyrinth of small islands and shoals, all seeming to shelve gently into the water.

In his 1959 season, Dewdney continued the search to the east of the Collins Inlet site. He writes –

Farther east, I had no success in finding “an astonishing serpent” referred to in Harmon’s Journal, presumed to be in the vicinity of Grondines Point. In ’59 I flew over the area, a complex labyrinth of small islands and shoals, all seeming to shelve gently into the water.

Dewdney was looking in the wrong place. Daniel Harmon’s journal entries for May 26 to May 29, 1800, indicate that on May 26, he was on the north shore of Lake Huron near the Serpent River mouth.


Scratched into the lichen on a rock face near the mouth of the Serpent River was that “astonishing serpent” that Dewdney was looking for. See here for a brief article by Thor Conway in the March/April 1985 issue of the newsletter “Arch Notes” of the Ontario Archaeological Society.

In the second edition of his book in 1967, Dewdney notes his error. He writes this –

I have finally traced the report of a huge snake on the Georgian Bay shore west of the French River to a group of pictographs at the mouth of the Serpent River. Informants on the Reserve at Spragge told me that a long time ago a group of huge snakes had ben seen on a rock near the river mouth “with their heads all pointing down,” and that pictures of them had been made on the rock after the event. But those have disappeared, which strongly suggests that they were scraped out from the lichen.  (Indian Rock Paintings, 2nd ed. p.155)


Was J.J. Bigsby Referring To The Collins Inlet Site?

There is, however, another reference to a pictograph site in the Point Grondine area though it does not mention “an astonishing serpent”. In 1850 J.J. Bigsby, an English physician and geologist, published a two-volume account of his travels in Canada in the 1820s titled  Shoe And Canoe. Of his route west from the mouth of the French River, he noted the following –


Source of the quote here

A pictograph site near Point Grondine has yet to be found. However, if  22 kilometers qualifies as “not far hence” then perhaps Bigsby was relaying an account he had heard about the Collins Inlet site. It is clear from the text that their route did not, in fact, take them down the channel on the north side of Philip Edward Island; he mentions the Fox Islands as their next landmark.



As for us, we were headed west! As we paddled down the Inlet away from the pictographs, our thoughts turned to something more mundane – fish and chips at the “World Famous” stand/restaurant in Killarney!   Now we were motivated to finish off our canoe trip and drive into town, a few kilometers from the Chikanishing Road parking lot.

Fish and Chips Place in Killarney

Fish and Chips Place in Killarney


Related Posts:

Paddling Around Georgian Bay’s Philip Edward Island – Part One

Paddling Around Georgian Bay’s Philip Edward Island – Part Two

For More Information on Pictograph Sites, see the following:

Anishinaabe Pictographs

Specific Ontario Sites are covered in the following posts –

This entry was posted in Pictographs of the Canadian Shield, wilderness canoe tripping and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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