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Sierra Magazine
Good Going: The Power of Rock

Paddling into Lake Superior's past

by Greg Breining

Ahead of us, the horizon disappeared in the afternoon haze and Lake Superior's Agawa Islands seemed to float in the sky. When we paddled our kayaks closer to shore we encountered Agawa Rock, whose sheer, broad cliff reminded me of a movie screen, but one nearly a hundred feet tall. Natives and the 18th- and 19th-century French-Canadian traders known as voyageurs were also impressed; they left offerings of tobacco to the cliff.

We paddled slowly until we saw the etched figures we had anticipated: the Ojibwa sea monster Mishipizheu (also known as the Great Horned Lynx), two large serpents, a horse and rider, four suns, bears and caribou, many depictions of people in canoes. The images were rust-colored, painted within easy reach of a boater bobbing in the water. Around a break in the rock we found more paintings: a fish, a canoe with two paddlers, and a second representation of Mishipizheu, with its long reptilian tail and spikes along its back.

My paddling partner, Susan, was a bit disappointed. On the larger-than-life cliff, she had expected larger-than-life figures, perhaps a Stone Age equivalent of Mount Rushmore. The largest grouping here would fit comfortably on a living-room wall. But the cliff artists easily made up for a lack of monumentalism with sheer abundance. The Agawa rock paintings are among the best preserved of about 400 groups of pictographs on the Canadian Shield and are attributed to Algonquins such as the Ojibwa. The images, etched in red ocher, turned what started as merely a pleasant Great Lakes paddling trip into an amateur archaeological expedition.

Susan and I had launched our sea kayaks several days earlier at Goulais River, a sleepy village near Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and paddled northward up the East Shore of Lake Superior, fighting headwinds that occasionally sent us scrambling for dry land. For the first two days, much of the coastline, with the exception of a few headlands, had been low and sandy. But as we passed Coppermine and Mamainse Points, the rolling hills of deciduous forest and beaches gave way to cragginess, with bare outcrops, rocky islands, and a boreal forest of spruce. Beyond the protection of Goulais and Batchawana Bays, the water suddenly became colder. My heels, resting on the hull of the kayak, turned blue.

At Coppermine Point, we looked west and northwest over miles of open water. A dozen miles away, some 530 feet deep, lay the broken halves of the iron-ore carrier Edmund Fitzgerald and the remains of 29 crewmen, lost in 1975. The rocky shore was stark, windswept and mostly barren. We noticed a half-dozen small caves, just above water level. They appeared square, perhaps 6 feet high, wide, and deep. We arrived at a small cove and found the entrance to an old copper mine, 15 feet wide and 20 feet high. The point itself was a riot of twisted and tilted rock, Superior's lake bed a carpet of pink and green stone, bathed in turquoise.

Even more rugged was Theano Point, which bulged from the earth, bare and elemental. Inside a cleft at water level, as if on an altar of rock, rested an offering of ice, unmelted even in summer. Along the crest of the point, several hundred feet above the lake, stunted trees slanted from sustained lake winds. Paddling this coast, you're always looking at the rocks: the crevices, the soaring heights, the color and texture, and the shapes-some like pachyderms, others angular and severe. We were startled to hear a brook trickling far back in a tiny crevice a hundred feet up the cliff-the manitous, the spirit voices, the Ojibwa would say.

The Ojibwa believed that spirits concentrated in the massive headlands of the East Shore, not only because of the rocks' stark beauty and skeletal connection to the inner body of the earth, but also because the rocks contained minerals such as copper, which belonged to the mysterious domain of powerful Mishipizheu. The first printed reference to the Agawa pictographs occurred in ethnographer Henry Schoolcraft's 1851 study of American Indians. The pictographs, Schoolcraft learned from the Ojibwa chief Shingwauk, recount the daring crossing of eastern Lake Superior by a fleet of war canoes, led by the warrior and medicine man Myeengun, with the blessing of Mishipizheu.

More recently, in 1981, anthropologist Thor Conway approached two of Shingwauk's descendants to learn more about the pictographs. He was surprised that both old men at first rebuffed him. "They had to prepare me, through a long apprenticeship, for an understanding of this enigmatic, religious art," Conway wrote in his book Painted Dreams. During extensive interviews, the Agawa story emerged. One of the Ojibwa men, Fred Pine, explained the various elements of the pictographs, which include a six-legged animal with a "heart line," showing the path of breath from the creature's mouth to its heart. Pine identified the image as a louse, a common "spirit vehicle," a shape his great-grandfather might have assumed to travel on the feathers of a raven.

Even as Conway understood more of the icons and the narratives they illustrated, he remained puzzled by the location of the images. Around all of Lake Superior, early explorers had noted only a few pictograph sites. Thousands of suitable cliffs were unadorned. Conway learned that images appeared only at sites associated with resident spirits. These "dreaming rocks," where manitous spoke in dreams and visions, were the portals to a complex landscape of spirits and myth that merged with the temporal world. Drawn at this raw spot on the shore, the Agawa pictographs proclaimed the exploits of one world and the mysteries of the other.

Clouds began to mass and the wind rose. Since the sheer cliff offered no shelter, Susan and I paddled quickly around the point and found a refuge behind an island in Sinclair Cove. But the storm never came, so we set up camp and cooked dinner. In the waning light, we drank tea and shared a cigar, performing our own meditation on tobacco, the smoke wafting skyward as fog rolled over the lake.

For two days we followed the craggy shore toward Cape Gargantua, a beak of rock exposed to wind from three directions. Superior is notorious for its cold water, sudden storms, and steep waves. As we neared Gargantua, we looked anxiously for islands and coves that might protect us from rising winds. The name Gargantua, as well as that of nearby Pantagruel Bay, were bestowed by the French for the bawdy giant king Gargantua and his drunken son, created by 16th-century French satirist François Rabelais. In Ojibwa lore, Cape Gargantua was the stomping grounds of the Ojibwa demigod Nanaboozhoo, and it's easy to imagine that the French recognized kinship between their beloved giant king, with his insatiable appetites, and the mythic Ojibwa figure.

As we paddled up Tugboat Channel a line of skerries to our left gave the illusion of safety. But at the very tip of Cape Gargantua, the channel ended and our protection vanished. We were alone, surrounded by the thin horizon, sharp as a razor. Directly ahead of us loomed the Devil's Chair, a throne of rock with snow and ice hanging in its crags. Portals that had eroded through the back of the chair looked out over the lake's vastness.

I told Susan that I felt a chill. She responded with a Japanese word: "Sabishii." It means "lonely." It's just a feeling, a word you don't have to say with a subject or an object. I understood why travelers from two cultures left offerings of tobacco on Superior's rocks. I considered, but then held fast to my last cigars. While I didn't share a belief in the manitous, I could still be awestruck by the power around me. What is a sacred place, I wondered, except one that makes you feel humble and insignificant in the face of nature? And what is a manitou but the power of a place to move you to those thoughts? Such an equivocating philosophy might not pass muster with the Ojibwa. But it was good enough for me. Meanwhile, I wanted to move closer to a protected shore, to seek shelter before the lake awakened.

Greg Breining is author of Wild Shore: Exploring Lake Superior by Kayak (University of Minnesota Press, 2000).

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