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Before you embark on this canoe trip, know the difference between a petroglyph and a pictograph

Also keep in mind that it's a sacred site, so act accordingly

Sometimes you find and see things in nature that are truly extraordinary. This is one of those times when your lens of appreciation will open. 

Keep these definitions in mind. Pictographs are the rock paintings, using the ochre medium. These are plentiful when compared to petroforms, which are the rock piles, like an Inukshuk. And petroglyphs are the rock carvings, there are very few of these etchings in Northern Ontario.  

Dagmara Zawadzka has a PhD in Art History from Université du Québec à Montréal where she is a sessional instructor. She is coauthor of the book that explores the Kinoomaagewaabkong (Peterborough) petroglyphs (‘Sacred art of the Algonkians’). There are hundreds of rock carvings at this site.

“I got interested in the landscape context of rock art because landscape can tell us so much more about why rock art was created than just looking at images," said Zawadzka.

She co-authored the research paper, ‘The Wakimika Lake Petroglyph Site in Northeastern Ontario.’ 

“This style has been linked with rock art that could date to between 3000 to  5000 BCE (Before the Common Era). On the basis of pictorial content and execution it is argued that these two types of rock art (petroglyphs and pictographs) did not fulfill the same functions and that the difference between them might stem from the different type of knowledge that these places conveyed. The petroglyphs are unique among the pictograph sites in the Temagami area. It is possible they convey different types of knowledge and stories.”

Petroglyphs are very rare in the Canadian Shield, not just in Northern Ontario. There are approximately 30 known sites when compared to hundreds of pictograph sites.  

“That is why the Wakimika petrolgyphs are a big deal. As for the dates, only one pictograph in the Canadian Shield in Quebec was dated with Accelerator Mass Spectrometry dating in the 1990s to roughly 2,000 years ago. Many sites were made in the post-contact, colonial period and we have ethnographic and ethnohistorical information about it (e.g. Agawa pictograph site, Lake Superior Provincial Park), rock art is unfortunately neglected still.” 

To find out more, she references this virtual rock art site.

Dr. Jonathan Pitt is of mixed First Nations ancestry and his family are members of both local Ojibway and Algonquin First Nations within the Robinson-Huron Treaty Area. Dr. Pitt teaches in the Native Studies and Education programs at Nipissing University. According to Dr. Pitt, people have been visiting rock sites of rock structures (natural/carved) and pictographs worldwide in Indigenous cultures since time immemorial and also in the ancient world, like the rock statues of Ancient Egypt.

He has a cultural viewpoint and perspective. 

“The rock carvings are unique, however, dating theories for them are problematic. The idea of using a pan-stylistic reference for dating and interpreting petroglyphs, while academically useful does not account for Indigenous differences between First Nation to First Nation. Regarding the motifs and symbolism, Indigenous pictographs and petroglyphs sometimes reflected spirituality, teachings, history and vision questing, navigation or locations of important things, but their role in Indigenous knowledge and cultural transmission over time is paramount. It must not be overlooked that Turtle Island’s Indigenous cultures, languages and dialects varied and were wide-ranging, therefore symbols cannot be codified to a perfect methodized system as First Nations are diverse even when in close proximity. Petroglyphs are of profound spiritual significance and with the advent of Europeans, Christianity and colonialism, often cultural practices and ceremony became secretive for survival.” 

He said there other petroglyph sites only known to indigenous community members.

From the writer’s perspective, the details of the Bull Moose and calf are extraordinary; see the rack and legs and the calf is depicted trailing on the back legs of the adult as is the case in nature. The dewlap on the neck is right on with detail and placement. There is well-detailed goose and wolf – some of these may be clan signs. There are at least 11 discernible icons and more covered by the lichen. Depending on the orientation, one is a turtle; another seems to be a man.  The different petroglyphs do not have the same direction of the glacial striations running NE to SW. 

Dr. Pitt said, “Some of the symbols at the Wakimika Lake Petroglyph site are thought to represent animals important to the Anishinaabeg survival such as Mooz (Moose), a Thunderbird (the Temagami area being home to larger-than-life thunderstorms), and others including what contemporary researchers have thought to be morphs of part animal and human, some evoking horns or antlers within the Wakimika site.

“My sense is that pictographs and petroglyphs help human beings to understand concepts we might not be able to. Ancient cultures call these shape shifter morphs tricksters. A knowledge keeper in my community told me that shape shifters in Ojibway culture are represented in pictographs/petroglyphs and they are still around today. Some of the Wakimika site’s morphs could represent Medicine Men or Shamans when combined in form with animals. Some Indigenous rituals used animal skins in ceremony and this practice could associate with Wakimika, although there is no written record to definitively identify what academics sometimes misguidedly refer to as rock art.”

Destination Details

Your destination is the Wakimika triangle, north of Lake Obabika, a trip to celebrate the intricate details and time spent by perhaps a shaman or someone, perhaps on a vision quest but an accessible and easy, short enough (three to four days) canoe trip found within the “Nastawgan” system of water trails.

There are two regional maps where the petroglyphs are referenced, ‘Jeff’s Maps’ (Western Temagami) and the ‘Friends of Temagami’ found on their websites.  There are three small islands along the eastern shore of Wakimika Lake and the site is on the NNW corner of the largest, Find the bulbous smooth rock; you will see a small island off to the NNE. You can see Alex Mathias, a member of the Misabi family (members of the Anishnabai whose ancestors have treasured and protected their traditional land for many generations) standing near the petroglyphs on this site.  Great campsites on the lake.  Look for the many pictograph sites on Lake Temagami, Diamond Lake and Lake Obabika. 

These rock carvings are unique and different, a one of a kind experience. What were the ancients trying to tell us? Their voices are silent and it is left to us to interpret their message and mythology. This is canoe trip worth taking and a place worth recognizing with great respect; a “must see and do” in the back waters.   It is a sacred site. Be sensitive, leave an offering, maybe a small and different rock from another place or a tobacco offering. Be open to the sense of place.