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All about a bush-whacking, canoe-dragging, fifth-time's-a-charm back waterway journey

This week Bill finally finds the spirits contained within the elusive red rock

It is one of the most unusual rocks in Northern Ontario, a beacon of sorts seen almost 1,000 metres away - it is a waterway navigation marker. Its significance is found within the indigenous interpretation and the spirits within the red rock.

There is always an anticipatory feeling about special places like this very different pictograph. It took four attempts to arrive at the red rock location, based on: “Should I drive through the washout?” And, "This is not the day to break my leg.”

One’s self-worth is tested by time travel, the amount of immeasurable bushwhacking and canoe dragging, tempered by being thwarted, through the uttering of too many expletives. You try again.

Pictographs are symbols or drawings that represent a physical object and are used to communicate ideas and stories. They originated around 9000 BC in cultures everywhere.

The Source

It was in the last century when Dennis told me of his find, the “red rock,” - he had been tipped off by a trapper. Dennis Smyk has passed on and he was a good citizen. He is a recipient of the province’s Queen’s Jubilee Medal for fifty years of community service and editor of the Ignace ‘Driftwood’ newspaper Driftwood did not miss a weekly edition in more than forty years. His honour is for many contributions including the massive preservation project saving the White Otter Castle, a love story that epitomizes his community commitment.

For several decades, Dennis discovered and documented more than 150 pictograph sites. As a licensed avocational archaeologist, he found and investigated numerous native encampments and habitation sites from long ago and shared his findings through presentations and contributions to government archives.

His “hobby” generated the largest individual contribution to our understanding of these sites in Northwestern Ontario. He is one of the few to find a “three colour pictograph,” and that’s another back roads’ secret.

His affection for natural and cultural heritage created an effect that brought me to know Dennis as a kindred spirit. It was always tradition to stop by Ignace for an adventure.

The cancer finally got Dennis. We had planned to go to Mooseland, I said I would. The quest to reach the red rock continued, it is more than just a mindful purpose.

Father – Rock Art

Not many knew of this collection of pictographs and the red rock, including the father of pictograph art in Canada, Selwyn Dewdney and his disciples.

During the 1950s, his ongoing exploration of Northern Ontario introduced him to the ancient native pictographs painted in red ochre on the rocks. By 1978, Dewdney had visited 301 sites in Canada and the U.S. In 1962, the first edition of’ Indian Rock Paintings of the Great Lakes was published, with Kenneth Kidd as co-author.

I wonder what Dewdney would have said of the red rock? It was known to Dewdney but he did not get to Mooseland.

Within the second, edition,1973, he says on page 134, “…further west on a long irregular lake called Mooseland, is another possible site…” Dewdney would have been more than pleased as there a multitude of morphs scattered at least 24 sites along with the solitary red rock. There are few lakes like it but my journeys have lead me to the most dramatic of pictograph sites, Cliff Lake within the Wabakimi wilderness, Fairy Point on Missinaibi Lake, White Otter Lake, Mameigwess and Ken Lakes near Ignace.

With daughter Ali Windy Steer, a seasoned Alaska therapy guide the deep breaths were intended for another, number four, push to the summit. Mooseland Lake is off the beaten path remote enough, it is always the access that creates challenges.

It was good to have familiar company, going solo didn’t work. After finding a tributary creek at the south end it was tough enough slogging, in and out of the canoe. Anticipation grew with each stroke towards Mooseland.

What They Say

The red rock is indeed unique; expert opinions are needed about such navigation rocks.

Within his paper, Pictographs as Aids to Navigation, Scott McWilliam, an archaeologist, has examined pictographs from a field research perceptive. 

“Like road signs, pictographs are often placed on natural trade routes to assist travellers to a new area. They communicate the same kind of information as today’s signs.

"Also to some degree, they contain advertising. They are most often placed in prominent areas such as vertical cliffs along important waterway junctions.

“It is the type of information designed to deliver that is relevant. They contain information, like dangerous water ahead.

"This is expressed in pictographs at Picture Lake, near Oliver Lake in Thunder Bay and at Bon Echo Provincial Park. Representations like a canoe broken in half and four persons may be a memorial to a canoe accident with loss of life, a clear sign of danger.”

He estimates eighty per cent of pictographs are about food. In a way, they are like billboards for restaurants.

Most often are pictured large animals like moose that can feed large groups of people as food sources these are high protein food sources and it is common to see many people –stick figures in the canoe morphs. They often show big game animals, like Caribou at Agawa (Lake Superior Provincial Park pictograph site).

They may suggest come on over and bring your friends and will cook up a couple of caribou and do some trading.

"The thing that trips white people up is how Indigenous people in that time perceived where they lived. We think of home as where we sleep and live. They lived a nomadic lifestyle moving around seasonally accessing food supplies like fish spawning in the spring.

"They considered home to be where they found food. The sign does not say welcome to our City it says welcome to our State or Province.”

He said a third group of pictographs deal with cosmology, religion, mysticism.

“We may never understand the meaning of some, and I rely on Indigenous people and their understanding and interpretation of these symbols as I respect their right to their own cultural interpretation.”

Dr. Jonathan Pitt is a 'knowledge keeper or land-as-teacher' through his indigenous background. Cultural transmission is part of his research and the courses he teaches at Nipissing University.

He says archaeologists such as the reputable Thor Conway suggested there are more places like this site in the dense forests of Ontario.

“There are threats to these sites which include climatic conditions, human activity such as pollution, graffiti and natural resource development are just some examples.

"Some pictographs (as well as petroglyphs) may only truly be understood by those who made or used them. The locations of pictographs are not arbitrary, rather they have profound significance, sometimes the rock composition itself is a factor in site selection as the rock itself is animate in Indigenous worldview.

"Some rocks contain energy and some rocks can be used to store memory as western science is catching up with understanding, in the case of using quartz rock to store data.

"Like all things in Indigenous culture, they are interconnected and not stand-alone elements, we do not put our culture into boxes and label them as subjects, although that is often how historically and contemporary schooling and society has regarded all things Indigenous.”

He said navigation pictographs are often found on the ancient water highways and travel and trade routes of Turtle Island (North America).

“In addition to pictographs as a result of visioning, some pictographs are also thought to tell a story or narrative (i.e. used in teaching) and some Indigenous pictographs are thought to represent ceremony, rituals and offerings such as the morphs in the vicinity of this particular site perhaps.

"A possible interpretation of this site could be as directional, waypoint or navigation, more commonly referred to as boundary markers as Indigenous Peoples did not need a GPS type waypoint and often served as guides for early Europeans. The remote and paddle-up pictograph sites tend to be safer from the vandalism of graffiti.

"Our Ancestors had advanced wisdom (e.g. constellations/the universe) and visions, knowing to place pictographs in protective and remote places for the future."

The Mooseland Lake pictograph site is ringed by a number of Anishinaabek First Nations and their historical movement on the waterways.

Jonathan says, “Amongst and between First Nation to First Nation undoubtedly occurred, which would lend to why such a 'high vis' boundary marker would be important if someone was passing through, to respect hunting grounds and traditional territories and homelands.

"Anishinaabeg Peoples often came together in larger groups during the warmer season and then into smaller family units in colder times of the year so as to not deplete our family, through the honourable use of the animals, plants, and trees of our Mother Earth that sustains us.”


Although there were blue skies to greet us it was a cold windy day in late August, the fetch was troublesome enough for steerage and photos.

Each of the 24 pictograph sites as Dennis had outlined was worthy of the moments of awe and personal interpretation. You can never be tired of seeing another morph.

At the narrowing of the elongated channels, you can see the moose crossings, much like a pedestrian crosswalk. People were once here with a purpose, so were we. The white caps were building.

A perspective - pictographs acknowledge and honour indigenous ways and means and their cultural connection to the land. They show a way for reconciliation.

Reaching the red rock was special. Approaching the red rock from the southwest you see the contrast of the marker with the horizon line. Dennis denotes this site as number eight, the large enough slab was on its side, perhaps sliding from its original promontory. From this junction you can move towards five different waterway directions. There needed to be a sign here alright.

It is covered with multiple layers of ochre, not so faded as the other pictographs.

Dewdney said of the rock paintings, “Even though much of the information they hold may remain forever hidden from us, the search for it is always alluring, and each clue found is worthy of the effort.”

After many years the anticipation became a mental high – exceeding the expectations. This persistence paid off and a notion of intent was fulfilled.

Paddling away with a sigh, there was a wonderment look back at the red rock. There appeared a spirited mirage of hunters and gatherers and one white guy.

See the map here.