This article is part of the Mountain Life Isolation Reading List
words :: Ned Morgan.
Under my kayak, a silvery shape moved quickly, then disappeared. I was paddling across a short stretch of open water just outside Lake Superior’s Slate Islands on a bright early-August day. I couldn’t be sure what I saw in the void-dark depths and it was gone in an instant. If it was a fish, it was a big one—half as wide as my kayak. Or it was nothing more than sunlight reflecting on a submerged log or shoal. I didn’t mention it to anyone. As I paddled gratefully into a sheltered channel and began to catch up with the rest of my group, I recalled a denizen I had encountered many years before.
Mishipeshu is its name, from the Algonquian word for a water lynx or water panther. It is a mythical beast and demigod that figures prominently in the legends and cosmogony of the Ojibway, or Anishinaabe, peoples. The aquatic feline lived in lakes or under rapids and threw canoe-upending tantrums. Depending on the offerings left by the paddlers, it might protect the party, or doom it by thrashing its long, spiked tail to create waves and storms. Mishipeshu is the star feature of the famed pictographs on Agawa Rock, in Lake Superior Provincial Park near Wawa, Ontario.
When I was 11, my father and I were camping in the park and canoed from Agawa Bay Campground to the shoreline pictograph site on a calm summer day. I recall looking down at a clear expanse of boulder-strewn bedrock unfolding like a massive aquarium beneath the canoe, seemingly as deep as the cliff was high. Then I looked up at the granite canvas crowded with animals, canoes, and abstract symbols, as well as mythical serpents and the brilliant rendering of Mishipeshu. The water lynx was in profile with its horned head turned toward the viewer as if to confront timid onlookers face-on.
The artist (or artists) used a still unduplicated and amazingly resilient formulation of iron-oxides and possibly animal grease. The paintings have endured centuries of extreme weathering, not to mention defacement: in the 1930s, a vandal splashed initials and a date in black paint overtop Mishipeshu, which has thankfully since faded away completely while the water lynx appears undamaged.
By paddling through uncertainty, I catch glimpses of the continent before Europeans began to cut down the wilderness and bottle up the water.
The rock paintings clearly depict a canoe journey, but no ordinary one. The overarching presence of the water lynx, large enough to dwarf all other figures, its horns denoting magical powers, is probably the work of a shaman.
Agawa Rock is better understood than many of the pictograph sites scattered throughout the Canadian Shield thanks to Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, a U.S. explorer and early ethnologist who lived in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan in the 1830s. Schoolcraft interviewed a local shaman who drew a rough version of the paintings on a birchbark scroll and claimed the originals were the work of a powerful Ojibway warrior-shaman named Myeengun who, in the late 1700s, was part of a war party of various clans that crossed Superior from south to north. Thanks to Myeengun, the clans obtained the blessing of Mishipeshu; the paintings are an homage to the water lynx and a record of the successful journey at its endpoint.
Even with Schoolcraft’s account, there’s much that remains mysterious about Agawa Rock—particularly the prominent horse-and-rider figure, indicating a European influence, and how that might fit into the canoe-crossing narrative.
The water lynx jumps off the rock face and thrashes through my decades of lake and river voyages. A long-distance paddler will understand the metronomic stream-of-consciousness that takes over when paddle-strokes are your only occupation. Mishipeshu is my internal guide and visitant, symbolizing the beautiful uncertainty of every wilderness venture.
If the weather really blows up on you in open water, rescue is all but impossible. On a wild river, if you lose your canoe or break your arm, timely salvation is unlikely. By paddling through uncertainty, I glimpse the forgotten continent that existed before Europeans began to cut down the wilderness and bottle up the water.