Deep Secrets on the Cliffs

The National Post article by Cleo Pascal below was reprinted in the Montreal Gazette Travel section June 29, 2002

Forget the image of endless fields

by Cleo Paskal in Northern Saskatchewan

National Post July 21, 2001
Exotic Canada Travel

It is a land of time. At once very new and oh, so old. Formed by violent tectonic activity between 1.8 and 3.2 billion years ago. Gouged by glaciers that melted about 12,000 years ago. Slowly eroded and smoothed by churning rivers. Clothed in old growth forests made up of stunted trees that have taken hundreds of years to claw enough nutrients out of the rocky landscape to grow a few feet tall. It is dramatic, and beautiful and the heart of Canada. It is Northern Saskatchewan.

Rock Art Cliffs in northern Saskatchewan

Massive Canadian Shield rock outcrop providing natural panels for Aboriginal rock paintings

Forget your images of endless fields. Northern Saskatchewan is one of the most exciting places in North America. Really. And one of the most stunning sites in this already amazing place is hidden away in a spot few people know about. Only one commercial trip a year explores it properly. I am lucky enough to be on it.

We start in Saskatoon. Then we drive north for five hours. In the small town of Missinipe we take a floatplane even further north, past where the roads end. Once we land, we unload our gear onto a dock by a rustic cabin. Then we take a breather and look around. We are in the heart of the Churchill River system. One of the main trading arteries in Canada. For thousands of years, first the Dene, then the Cree and, finally the Europeans passed this spot on their way to hunt, trade and settle. It was the original Trans-Canada, although you have to use your imagination to see it. At first glance it looks wild, rugged and uninhabited.

We are here to see the beautiful remnants of past cultures. That is why we packed an archaeologist. Tim Jones, executive director of the Saskatchewan Archaeological Society, gives a brief talk on the area, but refuses to go into specifics about the place we are heading.

“It’s very important to just experience the site without any pre-conceptions. It is very, very important to paddle around the corner and up the channel. Whatever your own experience is, that is valid. While I may not have a spiritual experience, other people may.”

But it would have to wait until morning.

Listen with your eyes to stories told by pictographs

erial view of massive rock art cliffs in northern Saskatchewan

Aerial view of immense granite outcrop with canoeists providing perspective

The next day, after a tasty breakfast and quick paddling lesson from Cliff Speer, our guide and organizer, our group of about eight split into four canoes and easily paddle the three kilometres toward our goal. To help keep my frantic preconceptions in check, I just try to enjoy the journey: The slow moving waters, the forests, the swooping ospreys. In fact, the peace is so complete, our paddles sound like Niagara Falls each time they hit the water.

Then we arrive. The low chunky hills are suddenly replaced by a towering chasm, with our river running through the base of it. Rock soars up on both sides. There is an odd stillness, like we have entered a place just a little outside of time. Then we see them: more than a hundred small drawings just a metre or so above water level, running along the base of the cliff wall to our right. There are the pictographs.

Mr. Jones who has literally written the book on the topic (The Aboriginal Rock Paintings of the Churchill River), lights up. Using the scientists’ skill for understatement, he proclaims, “This is an exceptional site.” To prove his point, he singles out one particularly complex painting. “I call it the Universal Pictograph. It has geometric forms, a human, and a thunderbird; in total around six elements in one little space. I think it is the most interesting one in the Shield.”

Tim Jones doing color analysis on rock paintings

Tim Jones doing color analysis on the "Universal Pictograph."

I am barely listening. My eyes are riveted to the pictographs. They are small, sharp and clear. Yet, every here and there are splashes of paint adding a human touch. One little composition looks to me exactly like a Viking with a beer in one hand, a fish in the other and a jet flying overhead. I later learn my Viking is probably a shaman and the jet is likely a peace pipe. Clearly, I am missing some context. I know with what they are made — red ochre pigments mixed with fish bladder fixative — result in a range of hues from chocolate brown to purple. A brush is used to apply the mixture to the rock face — preferably south-facing, so the surface will not be covered with moss. Yes, I know with what they are made. I just don’t why, when, by whom or how. And, it seems, no one else does either.

Once we burn through all our rolls of film and make it back to camp, Mr. Jones gives us a bit more information. Sort of. “We really aren’t sure what they are,” he explains, while our buffalo stew and bannock warm on the fire. “It is art standing in space. If you can’t dig around it, how do you know what was going on at the time? Are they maps, territorial markers, visions, sites used by shamans during rituals, even art for art’s sake? This is not crude art. To paint on this rock (granite) is very difficult. We are talking about artists instead of regular folks. We also know that the best trout fishing is often near rock art. Is it a coincidence? Who knows? There are at least six to eight theories.”

Courtney Milne photographing rock paintings

Courtney Milne capturing rock art photos for another book

“You can’t learn everything from one site; you have to piece it together. There are approximately 70 rock art sites in Saskatchewan. There are rumours of more but you never know. Much of the north has never been properly surveyed. It is all hit and miss. And there are 700 other sites elsewhere in the Shield territory [northwest Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec]. Since the Churchill River system was a major trading route, it features the largest concentration of sites.”

“We aren’t even sure when they were painted. One rock painting in Quebec was dated at 2000 years old. But there is another site about 80 kilometres from here that has a rifle depicted in it. Some paintings have been retouched and added to. Maybe they were changed the next day, maybe much later. If [the creators] had more consideration for us they would have painted daily life!”

Aboriginal rock paintings in northern Saskatchewan

Mr. Jones says pictographs are finally starting to get more attention from the archaeological community. “It used to be that, if you couldn’t dig it up, it was of no interest to archaeologists. Many assumed rock art offered too little data. They used it on the covers of archaeological publications and that was about it. But 20 to 30 years from now, with the blossoming of varying approaches [developments in cave art research in Europe, shamanic studies, etc.], we will have new levels of meaning.”

What First Nations people think of the pictographs is not sought after. Only a half dozen people have been working on it in the last 30 years. I have talked to Elders and others about what they understand of the history. A lot of them suggest a connection with shamanic practices and vision quest sites. But there is reluctance on the part of Aboriginal people to talk about the religious significance of the pictographs.

There are still one or two sites in Saskatchewan where, out of respect, people leave offerings to the spirits. “A lot of it is still a mystery. And even if we saw a shaman draw it in front of us and explain it, it is doubtful that we could understand it. It is not simply pictures of animals they kill. It is more metaphysical. I think our understanding of rock art is moving into a new phase, away from simple-minded interpretations. I approach them with respect, curiosity and awe. I enjoy coming here every time. It is my special place.”

Canoeists and Aboriginal rock paintings, northern Saskatchewan

Canoeists admire the ancient Aboriginal rock paintings