(Drive-by impressions of Canada during a cross-continent trip on this, her 150th birthday.)
June 2: I’ve passed it dozens of times. Never gave it the slightest notice.
But today, barely an hour out of Ottawa, barely with the first of many Tim Hortons under the belt, barely 0.1 % into my trip to the west coast, my eye catches the old stone marker at roadside. I stop to take a closer look. A thin coating of moss gives it an olden, neglected look. But it does have an inscription. And the inscription tells of one one of the remarkable discoveries—and historical controversies—in Canadian history. Here. Read it yourself.
In the field right where I’m standing, near Cobden Ontario, a farmer’s son unearthed a metal object that turned out to be an astrolabe that Samuel de Champlain, one of North America’s most renowned early explorers, had inadvertently dropped in 1613 during one of his expeditions. An astrolabe, to refresh your history of technology, is a device for measuring latitude, an absolute must for early navigators if they wanted to a) make decent maps for others to follow, or b) avoid becoming hopelessly lost in the nearest bog.
But wait. Not so fast. There’s a raging debate in academia as to whether this really is Champlain’s astrolabe. There is evidence for and agin. I won’t get into it here, but Douglas Hunter has written a fascinating, even riveting piece on the discovery, and the forensic controversy. You’ll even learn a thing or two about the technology of astrolabes. Go for it: http://www.douglashunter.ca/douglashunter.ca/readings/Entries/2006/12/2_The_mystery_of_Champlains_Astrolabe.html
The wildness of Lake Superior
June 3: I am crossing over the north shore of Lake Superior now, a wild territory of white water rivers, endless forests, countless lakes, and, apart from the thin ribbon of the Trans-Canada highway, few signs of human impact. This is the heart of Canada. Much the way it was before we all came along.
(Largest fresh water lake in the world)
(Pure, clear waters . . .)
(. . . and raging waterfalls at Aguasabon)
(Swainson’s Thrush – I think!)
(Next generation boreal forest)
Remarkably accurate map of Lake Superior produced by the Jesuits and published in 1672. (
National Archives of Canada NMCO06407)
The Agawa Pictographs
June 3: Long before the Europeans arrived, native peoples had built flourishing and sophisticated cultures here. And on the shores of Gicheegoomee, the Ojibwe word for Lake Superior, tantalizing traces of this culture remain.
On this vertical cliff which plunges into the lake at Agawa Bay, unknown artists created a series of paintings depicting both real and mythical animals. Getting down to lakeside to see them is difficult, given the sheer cliffs, but rewarding when you do.
It is regarded as a spiritual site, and some of the paintings show shamanistic influences.
The animal with horns and and a spiked back is said to be Misshepezhieu, the Great Lynx, the spirit of the water.
The pictograph of a horse helps to date the works, since horses were unknown to the region before the 17th century
Little is known about the provenance of the paintings, although ethnographers tend to agree on the 17th or early 18th centuries. (Evidence of human habitation at this site can be traced to 800 BC, and in other nearby areas to at least 3,000 years ago.
With years of wind, rain, ice and snow, the paintings are gradually fading. Here, I have enlisted the help of some photo processing software to bring out the contrast of the images.
More at the Canadian Encyclopedia: http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/agawa-pictograph-site/
June 3: There are but a scattering of towns, waystations, really, between Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay. Wawa, one of the largest, at 2,975 souls, is where the Ontario portion of the Trans Canada Highway was completed in the 1960. It is the Ojibwe word for ‘Goose’. In the 1950s, the authorities tried to change the town name to ‘Jamestown’, but it didn’t stick. Wawa it is and Wawa it will stay!
(Town visitor centre)
The day I drove the north shore, Gicheegoomee, which at times can be as ferocious a body of water imaginable, was, as you can plainly see, as gentle as a lamb.
Off to a very good start John!
So far, a great trip. Keep the blog coming!
Thanks JD. While you live the travel experiences on land, I vicariously live it until I meet you on the West coast! Thanks.
Ditto! I’m glad our adventure has begun!
John, good on ya’, and as always, your meanderings are great “reads”… thanks for any 55 Powellers that don’t get a chance to see it or comment, and we trust that you shall return, probably in time for the 150th in Ottawa???
Thanks Tim. I think I’ll be in British Columbia on July 1.
Fantastic photos as usual, John.
Wonderful to read that you off off on a great celebratory cross-Canada adventure.
Your words triggered two very specific memories for me. Long ago I attended Champlain High School, down near the Ottawa River in Westboro. The yearbook was called The Astrolabe and it was drawn on the cover! Second, Gitcheegoomee reminds me of Lightfoot and The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald (1975) where it was spelled Gichee Gumee when I first encountered the term. And of course I remember a cross-Canada trip though Wawa etc. around 1980 and the thunder storms off the lake at Port Arthur (before the name change).
Bon voyage et bonnes routes!
Thanks May. I was thinking of including a link to Lightfoot’s performance of the song, but figured the post was running too long as it was. But let’s do it here. For the uninitiated, the ballad recounts a tragedy on the lake brought about in part by the ferocious weather that often whips up the lake, unlike the gentle ripples of two days ago. It was witten by Gordon Lightfoot, a well-known Canadian folksinger. This version includes the lyrics. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=9vST6hVRj2A .
In researching this piece, I came across several spellings both for the native name for the lake and for the spirit animal, Misshepezhieu; one of the cliff paintings.
John, loved your photography, read it all and found it fascinating. Thanks cousin X Barb
Most interesting, John. Photos are wonderful, and Gicheegoomee is formidable.
(56 units off the property)
The fascination for your world is beautifully captured in word, photo and insight. Can’t wait to join you in Calgary. Sister Sue
Wonderful photos and since you are heading west, hopefully you are coming all the way to Vancouver! BB and I are here and would love to see you.
Gorgeous & fascinating! Keep em coming!
Bwana, thank you for the memories. I did the same trek west with Dee in 1977 in a Ford Econoline 150 and I found the journey around Superior one of the most spectacular of the whole journey. Wonderful photos as usual. And of course the First Nations name reminds me of one of my favourite poems, The Song of Hiawatha. http://www.hwlongfellow.org/poems_poem.php?pid=296. Keep on truckin’.
Way to go jd!! I’m ready for this virtual trip across our land!
Fab photos as always and inspiring words.
Thank you for the glimpses of your journey John. I sit at my desk in my concrete bunker hankering for the road. Don’t lose your astrolab, and we will see you back in Ottawa for a jam at the end of the summer!
Hi JD! Thank you for sharing your travels! It takes me back to when I journeyed across Canada with a friend and we stopped along Lake Superior and I was amazed at its beauty. Also, as a fun note, the moose signs change with each province and it was fun to note the differences!
You do love a trek! Made the trip back when. Thought Superior would never end. You stop to smell the roses. Happy trails!