(Drive-by impressions of Canada during a cross-continent trip on this, her 150th birthday.) 

The Astrolabe

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.

(Chippewa River)

(Batchawana Bay)

(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.