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.
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.
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.