The Chiniguchi River system is sandwiched between Wanapitei Lake and the Sturgeon River. Before the 1900s, the Anishinaabe, especially those Ojibwe registered with the Wanapitei Reserve (now called Wahnapitae First Nation), would have known the area as the hunting grounds of individual families and accessed various points along its length to travel north to the Montreal River system or east to Lake Temagami.
A highlight of a mid-September 2022 canoe trip up the Chiniguchi River and down the Sturgeon River was the time we spent taking in the rock images painted by Anishinaabe shamans or vision questers on vertical rock surfaces found on Matagamasi Lake and Chiniguchi Lake.
What follows is mostly what is found in our canoe trip report –
NE Ontario’s Chiniguchi/Sturgeon Canoe Route
describing what we saw and, more importantly, the pictograph images we came away with. While the “paint” (a mix of iron oxide powder and perhaps a sturgeon-based glue) is fading and some images are all but gone, they are an entry point to traditional pre-Contact Anishinaabe culture and beliefs.
The Matagamasi Lake Pictograph Site:
An hour or so after leaving the put-in spot at the south end of Matagamasi Lake, we were paddling along the vertical rock face looking for the images “painted” by some Anishinaabe shaman or vision quester some two or three hundred years ago. On display were:
- a human figure with outstretched arms,
- an animal figure (“wolf-like”?), and
- a smudge – perhaps an otter or beaver skin image? – a few inches higher and to the left.
We had as our guide a drawing and comments by Selwyn Dewdney from his visit in 1965.
The first edition of Selwyn Dewdney’s Indian Rock Paintings of the Great Lakes was published in 1962. (Click on the title to access an online copy.) Five years later, a second edition appeared in which Dewdney presented details on another 160 pictograph sites. It included this passage on pictograph sites in the Gogama area in general and Matagamasi in particular –
[Click here to access a pdf file of the additional 2nd. Ed. material.]
We noted a cross-like shape just to the west of the panel with the three images. It is perhaps a simple drawing of Animikii (The Thunderbird) or of the symbol the strange newcomers to the land, especially the men in black robes, seemed to attach much power to.
The image below is from the west end of the Anishinaabe world – a pictograph on the Bloodvein River in Manitoba with similar cross or thunderbird paintings.
We then paddled over to a campsite on a point on the other side of the lake; I was under the impression that this was the total number of images to be seen!
On our way to Wolf Lake the next morning, we luckily passed by the rock face again for another look at the small collection of images and smudges we mistakenly thought made up the site. Well, we found more!
Given the note on the Ottertooth map (The Middle Tracks) describing the site as the second largest in the Temagami area, this certainly made sense!
We came to the site further east and found a few pictographs we hadn’t even looked for the previous afternoon.
The East Panel:
As we approached, drawings of animals – a moose?- and a canoe with paddlers and other difficult-to-say markings popped out of the rock.
A bit further down, we came across what looked like a set of four vertical lines. They are often described as tally marks, and the guess is that something is being counted.
- Could it be the number of days the vision quester has been out?
- Or perhaps it is nothing more than exposed bits of the underlying iron oxide rock stain?
We paddled back to the panel of images/shapes we had seen the afternoon before.
The West Panel:
As we continued west, we spotted the marking pictured below. It is about 15 cm. long and is either a faded “painted” image or a natural rock stain. The absence of more natural rock stains nearby makes the former more likely.
The Pictograph Site On Chiniguchi Lake
Once on Chiniguchi Lake, we followed the shoreline as it bends gradually to the northeast. A moderate wind from the northwest meant we had to put more oomph into our strokes as we approached the next point of interest on our Chinguchi tour.
The rock face pictured below hosts a humble collection of almost-gone pictographs. Among them, we were able to discern a couple of canoes and some geometric forms and perhaps a very simple rendition of a Thunderbird image.
The Ottertooth map (The Middle Tracks) includes this note about the site – (Rediscovered 2008).
You have to wonder how the site could have been forgotten, given its location next to a popular campsite on a frequently-visited lake!
Then again, Selwyn Dewdney was not aware of the site in the mid-1960s, in spite of his many contacts and the interviews he conducted with local people, both Indigenous and non-.
Accentuating the red hue in Adobe Lightroom – an attempt at an app pictograph researchers use called DStretch – resulted in this view:
The Horned Snake (Michi-ginebig) played a significant role in Ojibwe mythology. If it is indeed a Michi-ginebig image, it looks like the painter started off strong with lots of paint and then ran out near the end! Then again, it could be two images – a U-shape and, let’s say, a flat-bottomed canoe with two paddlers! The human impulse is to create meaning, even when there is none.
The cross with a horizontal line on the top pointing to the left could be a crude representation of Animikii, the Thunderbird, next to Gitchi-Manitou, the most powerful spirit. From the beak pointing to the left to the horizontal line in the middle representing the wings…
To the left of the images discussed above are two vertical slash marks joined at the bottom and forming a V-shape.
A little bit further on are more marks that I did not get a good overview photo of – two zig-zag lines and what may be a human figure. If you see the zig zags as serpents, creating a story connecting them in their role as messengers of the manitous as they bring medicine and wisdom to the petitioning shaman, would be easy enough!
A more detailed account of our canoe trip from which these map and pictograph images were taken can be found here –
Good afternoon Peter,
Brings back some great memories of riding the Big Miss swells off Fairy Point north of Chapleau.
Garry, that first image of Matagamasi Lake does bring back memories of Fairy Point!
The SW wind blowing up the bay straight towards the Fairy Point pictograph site can make sitting there in a canoe gazing at pictographs very dangerous! Luckily on our last visit to Missinaibi Lake, there was no wind, and the water was glass-like. In the past 40+ years, we have paddled by the site five times. That last visit was the longest we have ever spent looking at them!
The SE-facing Matagamasi site is not quite so exposed, and on our visit, a mild wind was coming from the NW.