About the Hegman Pictographs

Etched in stone

But what these Indian drawings depict isn’t

by John Husar “On the Outdoors” Duluth News Tribune
Date written:  unknown, but approx 1996

Hegman Pictographs and Ely Winter Festival pin design

The 2012 Ely Winter Festival pin design is based on the Hegman Pictographs

Ely, Minn. – For many of the thousands of wilderness canoeists who venture here, the height of a summer voyage into the U.S. – Canadian boundary waters includes a rare peek at old Indian pictographs.

Some have become regular stops on defined water trails.  Others are well off the popular loops, known mostly to a close-knit fraternity of amateur historians who protect these fragile markings on stone cliffs with a loose veil of silence.

The curious will paddle a full day to share the same space as Indian travelers, decoding these painted messages as imaginatively as mind and culture permit.

There are about 300 known pictograph sites in the interface of forested lakes and rivers between Hudson Bay and Duluth.  So far, 30 have been found in the Quetico-Superior wilderness that borders Ely.

Theories abound as to why Indians mixed iron dust into a red ochre paste to draw figures upon these rocky faces.  Were they signaling other tribal members who might pass the area?  Were they marking particularly favored camp sites?  Were they recording great hunts, paying homage to the gods or simply wiling away time?

Pictographs normally are brief stops on a busy canoe trip, hardly more than photo ops.  There are portages to cross, camps to build, suppers to cook

Winter day trips are different.  You have all the time you need for idle reflection – as long as you can get there with skis or snowshoes.  No snowmobiles are allowed in this motorless wilderness.

Thus trekked dozens of hardy souls to Hegman Lake’s famous pictographs during Ely’s Voyageur Winter Festival this month.  Thanks to a local Outward Bound school, snowshoes of all sizes jutted from snowbanks at the Hegman Lake parking lot 9 miles north of town.  Groups left at regular intervals, escorted by wiry kids who might have sprinted the 2 ¼ mile route had they not volunteered to mother hen gaggles of unsteady tourists.

Snowshoeing, of course, can be a piece of cake – as long as the web frames are strapped tightly to comfy boots.  Then it’s merely a matter of aerobically picking ‘em up and putting ‘em down.  And keeping one shoe off the other, so you won’t topple.

It can be a tremendous cardiovascular exercise if the snow is deep.  Practicing the day before on smaller, teardrop shoes, I sunk 2 feet with each step while bushwhacking through 3 1/2 feet of snow.  Each upward step thus produced a 2 feet scoop of snow.  For anyone who’s out of shape, plan no more than 50 yards of that kind of travel before the ambulance is summoned.

Using larger shoes to spread weight over a greater area, and keeping to a well-packed trail, I managed to hold my own along the sinuous shores of Hegman Lake.  We reached the pictographs within an hour – crossing wolf and otter tracks on a sunny 15-degree day – and were able to tramp around to study the drawings at our leisure.

But woe to those who strayed from packed snow.  One of the Outward bound guides, trying to stimulate a numb toe, took off her showshoes to circulate the blood and sunk both legs knee-deep, like candles in a birthday cake.  I made a careful note to stay on the trail.

But these pictographs were well worth the effort.  Painted 10 feet above the water line from a rock shelf large enough to accommodate several sitters, an overhang protects them from extremes of weather, including abrasive ice.  They seemed very old.

The central subject is an hour-glass figure with seven red dots above his left shoulder.  Below him, a wolf or panther trails a moose.  Three canoes drift above.

Keepers of local legends have embraced the theory of an Indian studies professor that the hour-glass figure represents the constellation Orion, which Algonquin Indians revered as “Wintermaker,” the spirit who heralds the best hunting season.

When Orion rises in the east, lakes already have frozen and there is renewed freedom of movement.  The biting flies and nasty mosquitoes have disappeared.  Big game can be patterned, and the meat easily frozen for storage.

The wolf or cougar also involves a constellation visible at this time, probably the Hare.

“It depends on how you connect the dots in the sky,” noted a spokesman for Chicago’s Adler Planetarium.

Needless to say, this Wintermaker icon faces east, right where Orion would be at the winter solstice.  Those three canoes supposedly represent the Milky Way – to Indians, the “river of souls.”  The seven red dots could be the constellation Pleiades, regarded by Indians as “lost children” in the sky.

While I am no astronomer, I do understand why Indians might have gathered at this Hegman Lake rock shelf to kick of their hunting season.

There cannot be many more picturesque spots on earth, so rich with wildlife.

Frankly, I would be pleased to return there in late fall just to see what they saw in the sky, to mull these theories.

I would show up at sunset and sit on that rock shelf as night falls and hope for a clear, starlit sky.  I would spend that night with Wintermaker and his mystical companions.  All night, perhaps, on a wondrous, silent rocky shelf.

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