The Mystery by the Lake

By Keith Taylor

Lake Superior Provincial Park is about an hour and a half north of Sault Ste Marie, Ontario. It is a wild place, with bears and moose. Great grey owls haunting the forest. Wolves. And it has dramatic cliffs that fall straight down into Lake Superior. For people who know only the Great Lakes south of here, with sand or swamp lining their coastlines, this paradise of granite can be a little disconcerting.

Keith looking at the famous pictograph of Mishipeshu on Agawa Rock at the northeast corner of Lake Superior. Photo credit: Steve Bertman

In fact, there are many things about this place that challenge us. Not only are there terrestrial creatures about which we have created often frightening stories to keep us alert in the wilderness, but when we look west, there is the seemingly endless expanse of fresh water, the largest lake in the world, and the weather that comes for almost three hundred miles across the water, crashing into the cliffs at Lake Superior Provincial Park.

            The cliff that stops much of the wind and the waves is known at Agawa Rock, and it is covered with Native pictographs, paintings done in red ochre, some possibly done a thousand years ago, many certainly done in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Agawa Rock has been called “the Sistine Chapel of woodlands Indian art.” That metaphor is partially right but distorts the very different motivation behind the creation of this art. Now that the scholars of these things have finally learned to take the oral histories of the Ojibwa people seriously, we know that these paintings sometimes tell stories, recount history, are records of the visions that come after difficult spiritual quests, might be warnings to invading tribes, might  be signs of healing powers hidden in the rocks and landscape, and are often, maybe always, very mysterious.

Painted on the granite are images of people in canoes, of horses, of moose, of fish and snakes, but the most dramatic, most memorable painting is of the sea monster that lives in the depths of Lake Superior, Michipeshu. In Thor Conway’s good guide to the rock art, the book you can buy down at the Visitor’s Centre, Spirits on Stone, he tells us this about this Spirit:

Michipeshu, the Great Cat, is the most famous rock art painting in Canada. Michipeshu’s head turned to the side enhances his dramatic profile. Lynx-like tufts of fur stick out from his cheeks while dragon-like spines run the length of the back and tail. … In many ways, Michipeshu is the ultimate metaphor for Lake Superior—powerful, mysterious, and ultimately very dangerous.”

In her novel, Tracks, Ojibway novelist Louise Erdrich gives a more vivid and more frightening picture of the creature below the lakes, particularly when a young woman must confront him by herself:

“… it was clear that Misshepeshu, the water man, the monster, wanted her for himself. He’s a devil, that one, love hungry with desire and maddened for the touch of young girls, the strong and daring especially, the ones like Fleur.

       “Our mothers warn us that we’ll think he’s handsome, for he appears with green eyes, copper skin, a mouth tender as a child’s. But if you fall into his arms, he sprouts horns, fangs, claws, fins. His feet are jointed as one and his skin, brass scales, rings to the touch. You’re fascinated, cannot move. He casts a shell necklace at your feet, weeps gleaming chips that harden into mica on your breasts. He holds you under. Then he takes the body of a lion, a fat brown worm, or a familiar man. He’s made of gold. He’s made of beach moss. He’s a thing of dry foam, a thing of death by drowning, the death a Chippewa cannot survive.”

The last time I went to visit Michipeshu on Agawa Rock, I went with two colleagues. After we walked down through the forest and the boulders and arrived at a space between the rocks where we could walk out on a very small ledge by the pictographs, one colleague jumped out easily and comfortably. A second went a few feet out and then made the mistake of looking down at Superior, maybe seven or eight feet below. She froze, and I had to talk her back to the place where she felt safe.

Then I inched out. Very slowly. Gingerly. My face often only a few inches from the rock wall, too close to distinguish much but the red ochre lines in front of me. When I got to the panel of Michipeshu, the big canoe behind the monster and the sea snakes below him, I could step back without falling and take in the creature in all his glory. I was so close that he appeared gigantic. Although I couldn’t distinguish eyes in his red ochre face, I felt he was watching. Below me the lake lapped against the rock, thankfully very gentle on that summer day.

Amanda Rockellow Photography

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