Author sheds light on pictographs

Mike Furtman and his wife, Mary Jo, were canoeing in Canada’s Quetico Provincial Park in 1989 when they made the rarest of discoveries.

While scanning a rock wall on Agnes Lake, their eyes caught the telltale wash of red ochre paint about 25 feet above the water. At that same moment, both cried out, “There’s a pictograph.”

Though steep and stained by lichen, the rocks betrayed a secret that had never been recorded in modern archaeological records — a piece of Indian rock art depicting a faded human figure with outstretched arms and a disc-shaped symbol.

“Agnes is one of Quetico’s busiest lakes, but I can see how those pictographs hadn’t been spotted because they were high above the water,” said Furtman, a writer living in Duluth, Minn.

“Since then, two more panels have been found on Agnes Lake, suggesting there are others that haven’t been discovered.”

For the past 16 years, Furtman has played detective in a canoe, researching and photographing rock paintings known as pictographs in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and adjoining Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario.

Little is known about these enigmatic paintings, except it’s believed they were created by Ojibwe Indians as far back as 400 years ago.

Researchers have documented 49 pictograph sites on 34 lakes or streams in the Boundary Waters and Quetico. Some drawings are small, depicting a lone moose, and others are scattered along lengthy reaches of granite cliffs.

Furtman has visited more than 80 percent of the sites on both sides of the Minnesota-Ontario border. He has compiled his research in new book, “Magic on the Rocks,” the most comprehensive guidebook to Boundary Waters and Quetico pictographs.

Furtman became fascinated with pictographs in 1986 when he and his wife were volunteer U.S. Forest Service rangers living near Lower Basswood Falls in the Boundary Waters. The nearby cliffs had pictographs showing, among other things, a moose smoking a pipe, two horned figures, an elk and a canoe carrying a possible “medicine” flag.

“The more I looked at them, the more I wondered, `What do they mean?’ ” Furtman said. “I started reading as much as I could and, on almost every canoe trip we went on after that, we made a point of stopping and photographing sites that were near our route.”

Furtman took his collection of photographs and put it into a computer. Using special software, he highlighted the symbols’ red hue to extract their exact shapes, then traced them. In the book, the backgrounds were dropped out to accentuate each symbol.

The result, Furtman believes, is the best reproduction of the symbols to date. Researchers previously were limited to tracing the symbols using rice paper and chalk.

And who painted them? It’s generally recognized the symbols are Ojibwe in origin because they resemble secular writings on found on ancient Ojibwe birch-bark scrolls.

Scholars also believe the rock art was left by shamans or medicine men who belong to the Midewewin Society, the religion of Ojibwe culture. The drawings are believed to be 300 to 400 years old because Ojibwehave occupied the region for that period of time.

Furtman devotes the first half of his book to the origins and possible meanings of art. He interviewed scholars and Ojibwe people and reviewed scores of scholarly works.

No one knows for sure what the symbols mean, and Furtman is careful not to say with certainty what their purposes or meanings were. But because Ojibwe believed strongly in the power of their dreams, it’s possible the symbols were related to their dreams or visions, he writes.

Many of the symbols are obvious representations of animals, such as large-antlered moose and caribou, hares, sturgeon and pelicans. Others are obviously human figures. There are also hands and a person shooting a gun.

But some drawings defy explanation, such as a horned animal with a spiked tail and a serpent apparently swimming under a canoe.

Furtman said it’s possible that some artwork had a simple meaning or message. “A simple canoe could have been someone saying, `I was here.’ It could have been a message to someone who was going to come by,” he said.

“But when you look at panels like those on the Basswood River or Lac la Croix, they are so elaborate and have so many mythological creatures, they are more than doodling. And they are much more than art.”

Pictographs were made using paint, unlike petroglyphs, which are etched into rock. Pictograph paint was made using the mineral ochre, also called iron hematite, that was mixed with a glue rendered from sturgeon cartilage or possibly sturgeon or bear oil.

Furtman writes that the artwork has lasted because ochre binds with the rock on a molecular level, long after the fat agents have disappeared.

The second half of his book is a guide to pictograph sites in the Boundary Waters and Quetico, with detailed descriptions on how to find these relatively small symbols and panels in the 2 million acres of forests and waterways that comprise the two wilderness areas.

Furtman said he searched his conscience before self-publishing the book because of concerns that the publicity could lead to vandalism.

“Yes, I struggled with that, but Quetico Provincial Park has provided a book guide to pictographs for years,” he said. “Information on the location of the sites has been out there. My feeling is that anyone who would buy a book to read about the pictographs wouldn’t buy a hammer and try to deface them.”

Some of the most visible and interesting pictographs in the Boundary Waters are the easiest to reach. The North Hegman Lake pictographs are north of Ely off the Echo Trail.

The entry point into the wilderness is South Hegman Lake, about three miles north of the U.S. Forest Service campground at Fenske Lake. A 15-rod portage — an easy jaunt even for novice canoeists — separates the lakes. The pictographs are on a dome of black granite on the west shore of North Hegman Lake along the narrows that joins the lake with Trease Lake.

Among the drawings is a large human figure standing above a long-tailed animal. A large-antlered bull moose stands nearby.

The North Hegman site isn’t Furtman’s favorite. After spending hours on the computer examining the drawings, Furtman found himself drawn to a figure of a person shooting a bow at a site called Montgomery Creek. “Being a hunter, it rings close to home for me,” he said.

Perhaps it’s because pictographs are so enigmatic and mysterious that canoeists like Furtman and his wife plan trips around visiting certain sites.

It’s impossible not to transcend the centuries and imagine the Indian artist standing in front of a blank granite wall in a canoe, carefully detailing a scene for future visitors.

“Nobody knows what the panels mean, except the artist,” Furtman said. “They may have been done simply for individual gratification. They may not have cared what you or I thought, or even the next Ojibwe who came along.”

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