Ancient Art Galleries

Exploring Algoma’s sacred pictograph sites.

Agawa Rock radiates a powerful energy that’s matched only by Lake Superior’s restless swell. It is one of the grandest First Nations spiritual sites in Canada: a shaman’s canvas soaring 70 meters out of the water, a place where blood-red rock paintings speak of countless journeys on Lake Superior’s haunted shoreline. The centrepiece is a rendition of Michipeshu, the omnipotent giant cat and Ojibwa god of the underwater world, who according to archaeologist and author Thor Conway, is “the ultimate metaphor for Lake Superior—powerful, mysterious and ultimately very dangerous.”

The power of Michipeshu, the great horned lynx and underwater god of Ojibwa lore, is apparent to anyone who visits the Agawa Rock pictographs. Waves can render the lakeside rocks treacherous, so be sure to only venture out to the viewing rocks when Lake Superior is calm.

Today, Agawa Rock is a premier attraction in Lake Superior Provincial Park, located 135 km north of Sault Ste. Marie. The granite cliff is accessible from Highway 17 via a well-used but rugged, 1-km hiking trail; in the summer months, a park interpreter is often on-site to answer visitors’ questions. The pictographs are especially striking when viewed from a canoe or sea kayak. Agawa, like all pictograph sites, is a sacred place and demands respect. Do not touch the pictographs, and be aware of the location’s extreme exposure to the elements. Do not venture onto the sloping viewing rocks in wet or wavy conditions.

Agawa Rock is a highlight on Lake Superior Provincial Park’s challenging 65-km Coastal Hiking Trail. A short 20-minute trail also provides easy access to the pictographs for day hikers.

The Agawa pictographs were briefly mentioned in early explorers’ journals, but it wasn’t until 1958 that they were discovered by archeologists. Rock art pioneer Selwyn Dewdney marvelled at their diversity, longevity and mysterious origins. Over 100 individual paintings have been documented at Agawa Rock. They were made “for a variety of reasons, all spiritual,” says Conway. In his three decades of studying the site, Conway interviewed Ojibway elders and spiritual leaders—the direct descendents of the artists themselves. He estimates the Agawa pictographs are up to 500 years old, a testament to the longevity of a simple pigment of crushed stone, animal fat and fish oil.

The Fairy Point pictographs are located on an exposed rock headland on Missinaibi Lake, a sprawling body of water in the northern reaches of Algoma Country.

Conway explains that pictographs were made in “powerful places where the earth’s energies were exposed.” Another such location is Fairy Point on Missinaibi Lake, a remote body of water in Algoma. The pictographs at Fairy Point capture whimsical spirit forms and wildlife like moose and caribou; for experienced paddlers, the site is a highlight on the historic Missinaibi River canoe route. The pictographs can also be reached by boat from the Missinaibi Provincial Park campground, 88 km northwest of the town of Chapleau.

Fairy Point is one of the largest collections of rock art in Ontario, with images found along a 500-m stretch of shoreline. The site is only accessible by water.
Essential reading:
Spirits on Stone: Lake Superior Ojibwa History, Legends and the Agawa Pictographs by Thor Conway
About Conor Mihell

Conor Mihell is an award-winning environmental and adventure travel writer based in Sault Ste. Marie. Read his work in the Globe and Mail, Explore, Cottage Life, Canoe & Kayak, ON Nature, and other magazines and newspapers. He's been a sea kayak guide on Lake Superior for close to 20 years, and has paddled from Sault Ste. Marie to Thunder Bay. 

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