Trip Reports

Mishipeshu on Lake Superior in Agawa Bay Trip Report

Visiting the Mishipeshu pictographs at Lake Superior Provincial Park.

Lake Superior Provincial Park is home to an impressive set of pictographs, including a painting of the Lake Superior monster, Mishipeshu:

The most important underwater being for the OJIBWA is Mishipeshu, which means “the Great Lynx.” This fantastic dragon-like animal resembles a feline with horns, symbols of his power. It has palmed paws that enable him to swim fast, and his back and tail are covered with scales. Mishipeshu lives in the depths of big lakes. Although he has a feline shape and is an amphibian, he is always described as a reptile. He is feared by all Ojibwa because he is the cause of waves, rapids and whirlpools, and he even breaks the ice in winter, thus claiming numerous victims. In the area of CHURCHILL River, there used to be a game called “Mishipeshu” that symbolized this being’s drowning power. A child, randomly selected, held the role of the aquatic monster; he had to catch his friends and throw them into the water.

Mishipeshu is the main feature of stories that I tell when I guide Interpretive Night Hikes. Night Hikes are my third favorite activities that I guide throughout the year just behind teaching cross-country skiing and, of course, behind kayaking. During a Night Hike, I take between 10 and 15 adults and children out into the woods without flashlights and we listen for animals, I talk about Ojibwa legends, we play games that shows how nocturnal animals hunt, how our eyes work, and just before the end of the hike, I tell ghost stories. Or more specifically, I tell the story of the Lake Superior monster.

The Lake Superior monster stories capture everyone’s imagination from adults to kids. I think it does, because at a base level in our common unconsciousness, we know it’s true. It doesn’t hurt that the number one reason that people visit America’s North Coast is because of the Great Lake, and that means that almost all my participants are fascinated by Lake Superior stories.

My story goes like this:

There’s a monster that lives in Lake Superior. Have you seen him? No, well, he’s giant monster with a head of a lynx, a back like an alligator, and he has big horns. There are documented sighting of the Lake Superior monster stretching back through history. The Ojibwa, the Native Americans living in the area, painted pictures of him on rock walls all across the lake. They believed that they had to make an offering to him before they could travel on the lake, so they would offer a pinch of tobacco to help make sure their travel was safe.

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The first whites that saw the Lake Superior monster saw him from ships. In the distance, on the horizon, often someone in the crow’s nest would spot something swirling in the water, there would be bubbles and splashes, so being good sailors they would go off to investigate the strange movements in the water. Once there they saw the Lake Superior monster. This is documented in newspapers and letters. It wasn’t only the sailors that saw the monster though. Often there would be a doctor or lawyer or professor on board that wrote about what they saw.

The monster they saw is known as Mishipeshu. It’s said that Mishipeshu only appears once every thirty years, and guess what? It’s thirty years from the last sighting. So, tonight as you look out over Lake Superior, keep your eyes open, because you might see the Lake Superior monster. And if you do, watch out!

Like in all good ghost stories at the end I shout watch out as I jump towards the crowd. I usually get a few screams, jumps, and then laughs.

Visiting the Mishipeshu pictographs at Lake Superior Provincial Park.
The Mishipeshu pictographs at Lake Superior Provincial Park.

But, I do have a story where I may have seen something in the Lake while guiding a kayaking tour. It was Labor Day weekend a few years ago, and the lake had some light chop on it. Just enough to obscure the bottom, but every once in-a-while I got a view. As I paddled past a place I’d paddled many times, I looked down into the crystal clear Lake Superior water and noticed a long, skinny, gray rock that I’d never noticed before. It was such an unusually long round and skinny rock, that I thought to myself two notes. First, I can’t believe that I’ve never seen such an odd rock, and second, I’ll have to come back on a perfectly calm day to see the rock again. That night, I recommended a nice beach to have a fire on to a couple of women that were on the trip. They went out and had a fire on that beach that night. The beach, named Secret Beach, was just a short distance from where I’d seen the weird rock.

In the morning, they found me and related a scare they had that evening. It was dark and they were enjoying the warmth of the fire when out on the lake, they noticed a long log drift by. They thought it was an odd-looking log about 30 feet long, but it really freaked them out, when it turned around and swam back past them. As the log got closer, they noticed it had ridged back. They quickly put out the fire and ran away from the beach.

Lake Superior Monster or a giant sturgeon? I don’t know. But is Mishipeshu real? I have no doubt.

If you’re a paddler it’s worth paddling out to visit the pictograph of Mishipeshu, and don’t forget to bring an offering.

Route: Put in at Agawa Bay Campground, which is also a perfect place to camp if you can reserve a beach front campsite. Paddle northwest following the shoreline 4.71 miles or cross directly from the Visitor’s Center 4 miles to the pictograph site. A west or southwest wind can produce significant waves in this area. The first time I paddled this section, there was no wind, but a few hundred miles to the west a storm was blowing some nice swell at us.

8 comments

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  • I love your article, definitely deserves a macchiato and I hope you enjoy it on your trip =)

    I’d very much like to share my own experiences at Lake Superior, you may find them interesting.
    I first went to Lake Superior when I was about 5 or 6 years old ( I live in lower Michigan), I swam and enjoyed the lake immensely (This was at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore). The second time I went, when I was 8. I looked at the rocks and the crystal clear water as I floated. My mind was pure bliss. Though being raised a christian and being taught that souls go to heaven or hell, i vowed that my soul would go there and i’d stay there forever. I went again when I was 13, and it was the same as before.

    I recently went again (age 24). Instead of minor’s castle, as i’ve always went to before, I went to Chapel Rock (If you do not know what chapel rock looks like, expect a miracle). All along the hike there, you’d see odd plant formations. I arrived at the beach and I cannot explain my joy. The water was wonderful and I put in a little rock-carved bear that i brought with me as some form of offering. As I floated on the water, a storm was going by in the distance. There was lightening and thunder drifting slowly accross the surface of the waters. I swam to shore and walked, until I found a small, maroon stone with little white squiggly-streaks across it (looked just like lightening hah). I kept the stone and after awhile it was time to go back to the motel.
    That night I had a dream that was intensely odd. I was sitting down as several bright, colorful beings swirled around me and told me “secrets” of the universe and the afterlife. I do not remember exact words or even voices, but I remember what they told me.
    Since then (almost a year later) i’ve dreamt of Lake Superior just about every-other night and had insane, odd coincindences that i’ll share with you if you decide to email me (my comment went on long enough).
    I hope my experience here interested you.

    • I have not been there for over 50 years, but they are always in my dreams. I know what the pictures mean, and I have posted it, but it is not the time to follow the meanings. My people are not ready. It will be up to my daughter or her children to follow it. I understand your love for it. You don’t know it, but lives were lost painting them, and I am afraid they will be lost through the wind and the weather, if something is not done to preserve them. Luckily, the other picture graph is hidden and out of the weather, but only two people alive knows where it is located. Fred Jack Amikoonsgiyamanitoumahwhingon Miles

      • Thanks for the comment. I hope that the two people who are alive pass on their knowledge before they pass away.

  • My wife and I paddled Lake Superior Provincial Park a few weeks ago. We stayed at Agawa Bay and paddled the pictograph. Then we launched from Gargantuan Bay and paddled to Devils Island, where we made the pinch of tobacco sacrifice.

    It worked. We had dead flat water for paddling in LSPP, Georgian Bay and the Pictured Rocks Lakshore during our trip. We ended the trip at the Great Lakes Sea Kayak Seminar in Grand Marais. Gueass what was on the t-shirt for the event………a picture of Michipeschu.

    • Mishipesheu was more commonly known as Gitchikennibec. As far as the picture rocks, I have not been there for over 50 years, but they are always in my dreams. I know what the pictures mean, and I have posted it, but it is not the time to follow the meanings. My people are not ready. It will be up to my daughter or her children to follow it. I understand your love for it. You don’t know it, but lives were lost painting them, and I am afraid they will be lost through the wind and the weather, if something is not done to preserve them. Luckily, the other picture graph is hidden and out of the weather, but only two people alive knows where it is located. Fred Jack Amikoonsgiyamanitoumahwhingon Miles, Mishkikiiwinini

  • Lysippe, sorry I missed your comment earlier. I was in the middle of a 45-day kayaking trip. Great story and experience. There’s something magical about the big lake.

    Roger, that’s sweet! Have you visited the “Witch Tree” near Grand Portage? It’s another sacred site that you should leave a tobacco pinch in exchange for calm water. I think you’d enjoy it.

  • Not yet, but there is still summer left :-)

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