Two weeks ago I went to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) with my friend Glenn Langhorst, former director of the University of Minnesota-Duluth planetarium and now a teacher at Fond du Lac College in Cloquet, to study the pictographs on North Hegman Lake. Native people created these ancient rock paintings that are found scattered across the wilderness area. Glenn and I shared a previous adventure in Arequipa, Peru more than 20 years ago when we chased Halley’s Comet during its return in 1986. There we befriended a group of folk musicians, drank numerous large beers and saw the comet and the southern stars from the Atacama Desert.
A lasting memory from that time was when the car broke down in the desert on our return from the Toro Muerto archaeological site, famous for a different variety of ancient art. There one can see some 3000 petroglyphs of llamas, snakes and human forms carved into boulders by the native people over a thousand years ago. While a friend hitchhiked back for help, we hovered near our VW bug on a desolate plain of broken rock and lifeless soil. I’d never seen such an utterly deserted desert before. Suddenly it occurred to us we’d be great targets for kidnapping (or worse) by the then notorious Shining Path, a Maoist guerilla group with a hankering for trouble. Glenn and I looked at each other and decided that the most important thing we could do was to hide all of film we’d taken of the petroglyphs and comet. We looked around and found a little compartment somewhere under the car’s front hood. Once that was done, we were ready for the worst. Nice to know we had our priorities straight.
This photo shows a portion of the main pictograph panel at North Hegman Lake so you can appreciate the masterful work on the moose. One of the three canoes is at right. See below for wider views. Photos: Bob King
The trip to the pictographs (rock paintings) on North Hegman Lake was a considerably more relaxed affair. Great weather, easy portages and the only shining path we encountered was sunlight on water. You paddle up from South Hegman Lake to North Hegman and right near the north end as the lake narrows, a spectacular wall of granite cliffs rises perhaps 100 feet above the water. They’re zebra-striped from mineral staining and partially covered in scratchy lichens but wait, there in the middle, neatly-framed by the chaos of nature, your eyes are drawn to something utterly human. Painted in brick red-orange is a artful depiction of a human figure with upraised arms, a remarkably detailed moose, a cougar (or is it a wolf, fox, dog?), seven horizontal markings (Glenn sees the faint trace of an 8th), and three canoes carrying five occupants.
No one knows how old this set of pictographs are — estimates range from a hundred years to many hundreds — but they are among the best preserved in the Boundary Waters. Another Native artist of long ago may have even gone back to carefully repaint them so they’d stand the test of time. Our interest in the pictographs was in their possible connection with constellations of the night sky.
The winter sky (left) featuring Orion and the neighboring constellations of Eridanus the River, Taurus the Bull, Gemini the Twins and Canis Major the Greater Dog. At right is a view of the entire main pictograph panel and shows not only the three canoes but also a large red "X" that likely represents a star. Do you see similarities between the two? Maps: Stellarium, photo by Bob King
One recent interpretation of the enigmatic figures comes from Carl Gawboy, a member of the Bois Forte Reservation, who for many years taught American Indian studies at the College of St. Scholastica and University of Minnesota-Duluth. He contends the drawings represent Ojibwe Indian constellations — the human figure could be the Winter-maker, our Orion the Hunter, while the three canoes represent paddlers plying the Path of Souls or what we call the Milky Way. Kevin Callahan of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota agrees with Gawboy and suspects the dog and moose are star patterns below Orion, the dog being the equivalent of our Canis Major and the moose composed of stars in Eridanus the River and parts of other constellations. The paddlers in the leftmost canoe would represent the two bright stars in Gemini the Twins, the other pair might be Capella and its neighbor Beta Aurigae, while the third canoe has just one passenger – the star Aldebaran in Taurus the Bull. The horizontal markings may have been used for counting or tracking the passage of time.
I’m standing on the lower ledge to take this picture of the rock face while Glenn paddles along the wall looking for additional pictographs. The main panel is at upper right. Photo: Bob King
Glenn and I climbed up on the first ledge — a tricky maneuver from a canoe — to get in close and take photos. We banged on the huge, dislodged rock below the panel and heard it echo right in front of us as well as across the lake. Matter of fact, if you ever go there, give a shout near the wall. You get a great echo off the lower set of cliffs on the opposite shore. Perhaps that echo gave this place even more significance.
We spent the remainder of the trip puzzling over just what those carefully painted figures meant: was the human a medicine man invoking the supernatural for good fortune in an endeavor? Might the lines represent the seven stars in the Seven Sisters star cluster also known as the Pleiades? Is the scene a hunting party in canoes setting out to hunt moose and cougars? Are the moose and cougar/wolf symbols of cunning and strength? Is it possible the big "X" represents the explosion of the supernova in the year 1054 A.D. which was bright enough to be seen in daylight? It’s large size would imply brightness or an important position in the sky.
Additional pictographs at Hegman are located below and to the left of the main panel. A = six horizontal bars, B= three small x marks, C= a crescent atop a squarish figure and D= four vertical streaks. There may have been two or three other possible pictographs just above the water line, too. Photo: Bob King
Glenn and I figured that if we could have asked the artist in real time, the answer would have been obvious. "Oh yeah, of course they’re for that. We should have guessed!" The spot is fairly well protected from the elements and the rock face steep and smooth; obviously this was a great surface on which to paint. The artist must have squatted on the upper ledge with his mixture of red ochre (mineral pigment derived from clay) mixed with animal fat or sturgeon glue (derived from the fish’s spine) and dabbed it across the granite surface. The day was likely sunny and pleasant which would have allowed the pigment to dry without running. Ravens croaked and white pines sifted the breeze while the artist’s eyes focused intently on his work.
Something like this scene must have played itself out above the deep waters of Hegman Lake in the distant past. The painter is long gone but the vision he left between the black rock and lichens created a lasting portal in time.
For more on the Hegman Lake pictographs, please stop by here and here. You can also check out Michael Furtman’s book Magic on the Rocks, a guide to pictographs of the canoe country.
This map shows the location of supernova that blew up in Taurus in 1054 A.D. Native Americans would have been in the Boundary Waters at the time and witnessed the event. Could it possibly be represented in the pictograph?