Thursday, August 16, 2012

Sacred Places -- Agawa Rock

You drive out from the lake at Agawa Bay along a road that climbs sharply as it rides the edge of the great hill that makes the northern end of the bay. Up and round and up you go and you think you'll have to come down again to get to the pictographs 'cause no one's crazy enough to make a sacred place on the lake that you have to walk down to from here, not even Indians who knew a thing or two about walking the hills.

Mostly, now they're in their cars too.

Then there's a sign to the left, "Agawa Rock". It's somewhere down there.

Down and round and down you go, a small road run through close meadow and smallish woods and I'm not sure it's all cut over and grown back different but it's a reasonable bet. Or maybe that's just what it's like along the sides of precipitous hills hard to the lake -- jutting hummocks of stone breaking patches of meadow fringed by narrow trees, everything at an angle, the whole place often shrouded in fog.

Come round a downhill curve and the small road abruptly ends with a forked tail. Right leads to Sinclair Cove and a boat ramp. A splendid natural harbor, intimate and fair protected from the caprice of Superior. It's easy to picture a half dozen Canot du Maitre (MontrealCanoes) put up for the night and a glittering necklace of small fires reflected upon the water, what with camp put up tight on so narrow a shore.

Take the left, to Agawa Rock. No need for imaginings today.

The parking lot is nondescript. A simple informational kiosk. An eco-friendly privy, hidden by trees. But there're no picnic tables anywhere and the lot has ample space set aside specifically for buses, so there's that. This morning, the place is near to empty.

There are two trails. Both lead down.

One is called by some a "shortcut". I've taken it once, which was enough. Having just counted them, a fellow traveler told me how many steps there are -- narrowly cut straight through nearly perpendicular walls of black granite, dripping with moisture. An amazing set of stairs, like steps carved out by an unknown hand at the beginning of history. I don't remember exactly how many the traveler said. A whole bunch, by any measure.

The 2nd trail is more typical in that it follows the natural slope of the place along small switchbacks using stones and roots for stairs, construct relegated mostly to trail stabilization and maintenance. The thing is still steep but hardly precipitous and a damned sight easier to make whether hauling an abundance of gear or just unused to walking the hills.

Down and round and down you go, until you think you must be there because at the bottom where these two trails nearly meet, the landscape turns mad. Funhouse mad, with irregularly sloping ground hosting tilted trees  riding wildly between tumbled stone, everything hemmed in by sheer rock walls.

You've entered the realm of the volcano. And once there, intuitively understand why this place has been sacred pretty much forever.

2.5 billion years ago, molten rock formed these granite walls. One billion years ago, pressure fractured granite, allowing lava free flow through these cracks in the world. There was no lake, then.

In time, this became the place we see today, much the same as the Indians saw when first they arrived some thousands of years ago, to a landscape of such powerful, evident significance that it could only have been the construct of Gods.

And still the trail leads down. Not so steep as before but across the mad terrain, mercifully freshened by the breath of big water. You're close. You can feel it.

Finally, the trail leads to an outcropping of tumbled rock overlooking the lake...

From there, only a few steps remain to clamber down...

Where, once you gain a tenuous foothold on the sloping shelf, along the sheer rock wall facing the lake you find such treasure as this:

And it occurs to you if you didn't already know, our modern perspective is skewed. These were meant to be viewed from the lake, to be visited from the lake. Meant for Superior to see them and for Mishipeshu to see itself, honored in the reflection of human art for as long as art and memory can last.

Superior was the only highway. No one walked down from the hills. When ancient peoples first crossed open water and came to this rock, all they had to do was go up and round just a bit, to recognize a sacred place.


As part of that narrative there's supposed to be a site corresponding to Agawa near the Carp River in the Porcupine Mountains of Michigan. In Henry R. Schoolcraft's writings appears a drawing by Seth Eastman of those pictographs, copied from birch bark scrolls given Schoolcraft by the Ojibwa shaman Chingwauk. Unlike Agawa, this site has never been 'discovered'.

When Johnny & Heather & I were young and regularly bustering around the Porkies, we determined to find this these 'lost' pictographs. Of course, we never did. When I'm hiking around the Porkies this October during myArtists in Residence stay, I'll at least keep an eye out if not my hopes up, old habits die hard.

But there'll be no road leading down to the site. No parking lot, with room for buses or otherwise. Most folk think that in all likelihood, the pictographs near the Carp River have long since disappeared -- worn with time, grown over by wilderness or committed to rock now crumbled to pieces with time. Maybe even stolen with hammer and chisel by thieves, in some circles called "collectors".

What's known is that Chingwauk spoke the truth about Agawa.

I like to believe that if the art said to be a 'half day's march" near the Carp river that flows through the ancient Porcupine Mountains ever did exist it still does. Whether in fact or certainly in spirit, as sacred places don't die just because red ochre fades.

And I've come to believe that this sacred place is no need of discovering.

Because (as long as we're imagining) those folk who know a thing or two about walking the hills...they're likely protecting the place already and with the help of their ancestors too, no tourists need apply.

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