Saturday, September 18, 2010

Agawa Bay Pictographs

If there was one thing we could not miss on our trip to Ontario it was the hike out to the pictographs near Agawa Bay on Lake Superior. Lori loves Native American culture, and myths and fairy tales in general, so the pictographs satisfied two of her passions.

The weather on day two had cleared, but not without some wind. We worried a bit about waves at Agawa Rock, but we had waited to go until late afternoon hoping for good light and a drop in the wind.

Like all places I've been so far in Lake Superior Provincial Park, the scenery was amazing. But beyond that, there was a feeling of protection here, with high cliff walls making natural gathering places. I could understand why this was an important place for the Ojibwa.

This slot, a natural crack in the granite, lead straight down to the water. Unfortunately the sun made this an awkward shot.

Once we made it down to the water's edge, we were faced with sheer cliff walls, 50 feet high or more.

Facing the water, the shore was lined with boulders fallen from the cliffs behind. Agawa Rock is on the north end of the bay, an area with a few small islands, whose face would presumably be visible from a distance.

The walk out onto the rock to see the paintings was intimidating to say the least. At the bottom left of the image below is a short railing. Past that, just above in this image before one reaches the taller cliff section is a chain set into the granite that you hold as you scootch along the sloped rock. After that--nothing. There are holes in the rock, and a few metal posts that were broken off close to the surface, where it looks like once upon a time there was a railing.

Perhaps the winter ice floes made maintenance of a railing too difficult and the idea was abandoned. All that was there were some thick ropes, anchored in the granite with sturdy rings, that one would presumably use to haul ones' self out of the water after falling in. Well, thanks for that! There were also a few poles with hooks and round life preservers stored near the info kiosk. I watched with trepidation as the girls inched their way out onto the slick, sloped rock.

The water looked gorgeous but I really didn't want to go swimming!

I waited for the girls to come back, then inched slowly out on the narrow ledge. They ask that you not touch the pictographs, for obvious reasons, but having to hug the cliff face made that a challenge. But it was worth every careful inch, as I was eventually face to face with Mishipeshu himself.

Mishipeshu is an important figure in Ojibwa mythology. A Manitou, or powerful being, his name translates literally as "Great Lynx". It was believed that he controlled the waters of lakes and rivers in the region, and was responsible for whipping up deadly storms on the big lake. To ensure safe passage, offerings of tobacco and other items were made to the serpent. But while he could whip up storms and deadly rapids, he was also helpful to the People, providing them with copper, medicine and protection. (Keep in mind that "medicine" in the Native American sense had as much to do with herbal remedies as it did with spirituality and ritual).

There were other pictographs too, like this horse and rider. The four discs below look to me to be part of a large boat, not quite visible in this photo.

Here is another serpent on the right, and a sturgeon on the left.

Thanks to the waves washing up over part of the slick, slanted rock, we were unable to see the rest of the paintings. Lori left a tobacco offering, and we headed back to the car, with the loop trail leading through another granite slot, this one with carved stairs to take us up and away from the lake.

Next: Day three and tracks in the mud.


  1. Wauw! what fantastic pictographs. Looks like a tough tour on the cliffs to get there. It's interesting to hear about the legends attached to such pictures.

  2. Marie, these photos are as beautiful as they are dramatic. Through your lens I'm seeing a Michigan I didn't know existed and am richer for your posts. Also loved the Native American info...those pictographs look like they were made yesterday. Beautiful post, Marie. Thank you.

  3. I believe the four circles below the horse and rider is months. 4 months (4 full moons)