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Continental Drift, part 4

"Mirror Lake to Agawa Rock"

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Writing that last bit has made me wonder how I handled my cigarette habit, which at the time was a pack a day. I was between towns for days at a time, how would I even buy them? I distinctly remember, mid-trip, buying a pack of Canadian cigarettes, and being shocked at how expensive they were, which tells me I wasn’t walking into town for smokes every night.

I suddenly remember that before I left Minneapolis to begin the trip, I was smoking rolled cigarettes, Top brand, tobacco and papers. They were very cheap, and I had the theory that having to take the time to roll a cigarette whenever I felt the urge would make me more mindful about smoking, and thus allow me to cut back. I don’t know if it worked or not, but it’s a reasonable theory.          


The paradox of hitchhiking in Canada is that the distance between towns ensures that while there wasn’t much traffic, if you got a ride it would take you far. There were hours between rides. I found ways to pass the time. I listened to my Walkman. When I am tired of my own music I play entire albums in my head, not just the parts with words, but entire albums. I’d often sing along. No one was watching.

I’d put pennies out on the center lines of the road. I played games with myself about when I’d leave one and when I’d pick it up. I developed lines of magical thinking about when I’d get a ride, and which cars would pick me up. The first car after I left a penny. The first car after I retrieved a penny. Every third car. Then every tenth car. Then blue cars. Then pickups. Then cars with US plates.

In addition to the magical thinking, I stumbled across a few pieces of concrete advice. The first one is this: make eye contact!  If the driver doesn’t make eye contact with you, he or she doesn’t have to see you as a person and can pass by without guilt. If you make eye contact, the driver is more likely to see you as an actual living person, and thus more likely to take pity on your situation and pull over to offer you a ride.

The other piece of advice I learned early was that cheaper cars were more likely to pick you up than nicer cars. I focused my eye contact and magical thinking on them. Cracked windshields, misfiring engines, dents and hail damage: these were my people!


I spent about a week tracing the northern shore of Lake Superior. Whenever I got tired of hitchhiking for the day, I’d just retreat into the woods. I don’t recall there ever being a problem. If I passed an official campground I stayed there—Pukaskwa National Park, Lake Superior Provincial Park, Pancake Bay Provincial Park.    

Mornings were all similar. It was cold. I’d wake up shivering in my tent, curled inside my sleeping bag. The only thought that successfully roused me out of my warm cocoon was the prospect of a hot cup of tea (I’m a dedicated coffee drinker now). I’d dig out my tiny little camp-stove and my metal cup, unfold the stove, and light it up. Within minutes I had a hot cup of tea to warm my hands, and as the sun rose and the day warmed I’d break down my tent, stuff everything into my pack, tromp back out to Highway 17, and stick out my thumb to continue my journey.   

Lake Superior was at my side the entire time, like a great beast. Wildlife populated the shores and surrounding forest: caribou, deer, and fox (I am reading now that bears are plentiful and am kind of glad I didn’t know that at the time). Mostly what I saw were birds, of a hundred different varieties, none of which I can name, so I will not attempt to now. Their colors, their birdsong, and the beat of their wings were a constant companion.

I’d see ships passing through, slow as dreams, carrying iron ore and coal, wheat and corn, seemingly in no hurry to get to their destinations. I’d watch them for hours; I had hours. Sometimes the lake would dip below the horizon for hours at a time, and then, as you caught a ride and got some mileage behind you, it would suddenly raise up, low on the horizon, like a whale, or a dinosaur. It felt like an otherworldly force.


A schoolteacher, off for the summer, drove me past the giant goose of Wawa, which is sort of an unofficial hitchhiker’s monument, though I did not know that at the time. It’s literally a statue of a giant Canadian goose, 28 feet tall, and with a wingspan of 20 feet. It was built, I am reading now, to draw tourists to the town after the highway bypassed downtown Wawa. The word “Wawa” means “Land of the Big Goose.” I remember it vividly.

Apparently, the giant goose of Wawa is kind of a Bermuda Triangle for hitchhikers. None have disappeared, but legend has it that hitchhikers have spent entire days next to the giant goose, trying in vain to get a ride out. The teacher told me tales of crowds of stranded hitchhikers in lines next to the goose, desperate for escape. 

We did not see the fabled line of hitchhikers next to the goose. Literally, my only memories of this ride were the giant goose and him telling me he was a schoolteacher, which at the time eased my mind in terms of his trustworthiness. I remember being trusting enough to take a nap in his car while he drove.  


I’ve just spent half an hour trying to pin down when and where, exactly, one of the high points of the trip occurred, by searching the Eastern shore of Lake Superior on Google Maps. The only information I can successfully recover, forty years later, is this: after a hike through rock and thick forest, I broke through the trees to see the impossible expanse of Lake Superior before me. The shoreline is beach (a surprising amount of the Lake Superior shoreline is beach). Beyond the beach, to the left, is a great wall of rock, the mighty waves of Lake Superior breaking against the rocks.. The trail leads out to the water, running along the base of the wall. At one point you are required to grab hold of a large metal chain that has been drilled into the rock, in order to continue to the edge of the lookout. I can still feel the cold wet metal of the chain links in my hand.

And while the sight of the chaos of churning waves on the surface of Lake Superior is certainly arresting, it’s not the most memorable aspect of that spot, nor is it the reason to venture out to the edge of the rocks.

The pictographs are the reason for the hike. They’re known as the Agawa Rock Pictographs, and they are in remarkable condition for being hundreds of years old and in the harsh, weathering condition of constant water and wind from the lake. According to a website devoted to the pictographs, the reason for this is red ochre used to paint them.

“The ochre was mixed with fish oil and animal grease, then dabbed on the cliffs. They are remarkably durable and have withstood the vicious elements of Lake Superior. The reason that they have lasted this long is because the rock secretes a clear mineral fluid that acts as a natural varnish. There are reports from Ojibwa natives that a huge slab of some of the best paintings fell into the water several years ago.”

– Mikel B. Classen, On the Road

My takeaway from the experience (and I remember writing this in my journal at the time, the one stolen from my Dad’s pick-up) was this: someone had stood on this exact spot hundreds of years ago, and beheld the power and majesty of Lake Superior before them, frigid water splashing in their face in the cold summer sun, and was so moved by the presence of it they were moved to create art. They painted pictures of horses and riders, canoes, beavers, and cranes. A magical protector of the area and the tribe is shown as well: Michipezhoo.

Amazingly, historians know the artist of many of these pictographs. Here’s more, from Mikel Classan’s excellent writing on his site.

“The author of these drawings has been known right along. Shingwaukonce (Little White Pine) was from the Grand Island tribe, in Munising Bay, also on Lake Superior. He became Grand Shaman of the Lake Superior Ojibwa. According to oral histories, he went to Agawa to gather fresh power on a vision quest. He called forth Michipezhoo, the guardian spirit of the underworld and minerals, especially copper. Shingwaukonce completed his…rituals, which included drawing the rock art, and then led his warriors in a revolt.”

– Mikel B. Classen, On the Road



The site of the Agawa Rock Pictographs is also near the site of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. If you haven’t heard the song (and I find it hard to believe that you haven’t), the Edmund Fitzgerald was a ship carrying iron ore to Duluth when it was caught in a terrible storm and sank. 29 men died.

Gordon Lightfoot, the Canadian troubadour, wrote a song about it, called The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Lots of plaques commemorated various aspects of the history of the event. It played often in the general vicinity of the site of the wreck, seemingly on a loop, while I was there.

I love history and enjoyed learning about the wreck. And I’ve got nothing against Gordon Lightfoot. That said, I really hate that song.    

Written by verbal
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