Rock Paintings Add Mystery To The Cliffs Of Northern Light Lake

These pictographs can be seen on Northern Light Lake near Saganaga Lake at the tip of the Gunflint Trail north of Grand Marais. (Sam Cook photo)

While fishing with Mike Berg and Stephen Foster of the Seagull Creek Fishing Camp on Northern Light Lake recently, the two guides showed me a couple of sites on the lake’s cliffs where pictographs — rock paintings — were located. Pictographs can be found in numerous places throughout the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park and on other lakes.

Northern Light Lake is located just east of Saganaga Lake, which lies at the end of the Gunflint Trail north of Grand Marais. It’s a huge lake with many bays and narrows

Pictographs are believed to have been painted by native people who lived in the boreal forest perhaps a few hundred years ago. Michael Furtman of Duluth wrote an excellent book about pictographs called “Magic on the Rocks.” He photographed pictographs at many sites in the canoe country and interviewed Ojibwe people to learn more about the paintings.

On his website,, Furtman discusses the paintings and his book:

“…I will tell you of one conclusion: that the resilient, hardy people who lived here, and whose visions are painted on the rocks, sensed a spiritual world that most of us will never see. Pictographs give us a peek into this world of wilderness, of magic, and of the people inseparable from both…  The book does not ‘decipher’ the pictographs. Only the original artist knew what he or she intended to convey. But by placing these drawings in respectful context with Ojibwe history, lore, and religion, the book does provide clues toward possible interpretations.”

Many pictographs, like the ones we saw on Northern Light Lake, include paintings of animals — moose, caribou, bears, pelicans, rabbits. Some seem to indicate people in canoes. Others are thought to represent thunderbirds

It is something to sit in a boat or a canoe and imagine someone standing there long ago, perhaps dabbing at a palm full of “paint” and creating these images on the rock. They have faded through the years, but, remarkably, many are still clear and haven’t been covered by the lichen that also grows on cliff walls.

Here are two more photos of the pictographs of Northern Light Lake:

Though faded, these pictographs on Northern Light Lake seem to portray a caribou and a bear. (Sam Cook photo)
Some pictographs seem to be symbols, like these on Northern Light Lake. (Sam Cook photo)