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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Legends of Little and Big Indian Lake

    A long time ago, before the days of my grandfather’s grandfather, a people settled here.  They were lucky and strong and fierce and wealthy.  This land lays between the Cree in the West, North, and Northeast, and the Ojibway who came from the East and South.  The land was generous and gave food and shelter to the people and instead of making war the Ojibway and Cree traded tools and weapons for meat and skins.  The people were at peace and prospered but all their good fortune came from a powerful sorcerer, the most powerful the people had ever seen.  He took many wives and the best of all the food and as long as the people honoured him he used his magic for them, to call the spirits of the animals and the land to help them, and destroy their enemies.
     Over time the people began to resent and fear this powerful man until one day they stood up to him and said “Our good fortune has nothing to do with you.  We work hard and honor the creator while you take the best of everything.  You do nothing for us.  We will serve you no more.”
     The sorcerer said nothing but the next morning he had left the people.  He fled into the bush with his wives and children.  The people said “Good riddance.”  And got on with their lives.
     But the sorcerer and his family cursed the people. He built a lodge on the back of a giant sleeping turtle and called on the sacred pines that grew there to send an evil wind.  He dressed his family in beaver skins and used his magic to change them into giant beavers.  He swam to the sacred cliffs and painted an evil curse on the rocks.
     That spring the wind blew away all the rain clouds until the trees were tinder dry.  In summer they sent lightning to start a great fire.  The evil wind blew smoke and fire through the people’s village and they ran before the flames.  Many elders and children were killed.  The wind sent winter early, there was no fall, and the people froze without their homes.  The flames had chased away all the game and no traders came. 
     The sorcerer’s family built a giant beaver dam.  In the winter the evil wind brought snow deep enough to bury a tall man standing up and next spring the rains never stopped.  The relentless waters pushed the survivors west.  They were starving and poor.  The Cree saw their former allies were cursed and would not help them.  The Ojibway found the sorcerer’s curse painted on the rocks and visited no more.  The curse was so powerful anyone who spoke of seeing it would die.  It called forth a Wendigo.  The evil wind blew the smell of the people to this horrible creature and it followed them as they ran from the sorcerer’s wrath.
     The people ran night and day, never sleeping, never eating, through swamps and dense bush.  The wind always blew against them and the Wendigo howled at their heels.  They were weaker every day.  Finally they came to another lake.  In desperation the survivors built canoes and set off on the water.  They almost escaped but when the Wendigo reached the shore and saw its prey escaping it roared to the evil wind and called a great storm.  The tornado scattered the people and they were lost and alone among unfamiliar islands and waterways.  The fearsome Wendigo hunted down every last one of the people on that lake and they are no more today.  That is why both the Cree and Ojibway call it Lake of the Wendigo.  Storms come up suddenly, islands can confuse even experienced hunters, and the Wendigo is always hungry.
     The sorcerer’s lodge on the back of the giant turtle was dry and safe from the floods and fires but when his family returned to be changed back into people he could not do it.  He had forgotten he needed human skins to change them back to people and nobody would come close enough for him to take their skin.  So he took the skin of a beaver that wasn’t a relative and changed himself.  He still lives there with his wives, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.  The Cree name for the lake made by the beaver dam means The Lake Where Few People Live.  White men translated this to Little Indian Lake.  The Ojibway named the lake beside the cursed rocks Lake of the Powerful Man.  White men call this lake Big Indian Lake.
Anishnabe elders say these waters are still cursed today.

     Perhaps the most noteworthy feature of Little Indian Lake isn't the ancient multi-generational beaver dam that forms it.  It certainly isn't the "loon shit" on the lake-bottom - thick, stinking, voracious mud 10 feet deep and named after the waterfowl that populate the area.  Nor is it the small, circular, ancient pine and granite island centred on the water.  It isn't even that the lake and the island are exactly the same shape.  No, what is remarkable about Little Indian Lake is it drains into Big Indian Lake through a gap blown in the beaver dam by the government.
     Every spring snow-melt and rain water would overwhelm the landscape and threaten rail lines and nearby mining claims.  So one year the provincial government sent a man in a canoe to find the cause of the flooding.  Beavers were suspected.  He found the ancient dam and with government issued explosives blew a wide gap in the line which prevented miners and railway men from coming to detonate the entire structure.  The annual flood drained like a punctured abscess into Big Indian Lake, then further into the watershed and eventually north to Hudson's Bay.  An extra bounty was placed on the beavers and they too quickly disappeared .
     The government man was curious about what lay beyond the dam and returned with his canoe the next spring.  Guiding it through the gap he made in the dam the year before he found himself in a different land.  Behind him lay swamps and bogs full of stink, sucking mud and insects, black spruce and jack pine.  Here beyond the dam the air was suddenly clean.  Noble white and red pine trees stood sentinel on sheer granite and basalt cliffs etched and decorated by time and hardy colourful lichens.  The gloomy grey sky parted and sunlight fell like a benediction to kiss the cool water dripping from his pale birch paddle, and sparkle like gold on the pure clear lake.
   He paddled slowly that first day, hugging the shore as it ran in a straight line gradually north-east, then due south, before turning sharply back to the west.  With no single outlet to the triangular body of water, drainage occurred through a myriad of cracks in the stone that at some points towered 100 feet over his head.  The lowest point he observed was still ten feet above the waterline.  With the sun sinking toward the western horizon he found a stone shelf large enough to land on, hidden behind a cracked basaltic outcropping.  He pulled his canoe out of the water and discovered the shelf led deeper into a fissure formed centuries ago when the rock face spalled away from the ancient, eroded mountain.
     In the fading light he made his camp near the water's edge.  He had no wood for a fire so made do with dry rations and warm blankets.  He slept there while the lake lay in a perfect calm reflecting every star.  As the full moon rose it lit the scene like a silvery noon day sun.  Eerie, haunting loon calls penetrated the government man's sleep and gave him strange twisting dreams.  When the sun finally climbed out of the east the white man was fully awake and breaking camp.
     Before leaving he couldn't resist the temptation to further investigate the giant crack in the stone.  Curiousity turned his feet up the smooth slightly sloping pathway framed by sheer rock walls to his right and left.  Open to the sky above the natural alcove suddenly widened then ended abruptly.  Images were carved and drawn on the rockface in front of him.  Turning in a slow circle he realized complicated designs and signs, animal shapes, human and supernatural figures and surrounded him.  The rising sun's light slowly revealed more and more images until he could see the rock faces were covered in pigment and scratches almost the entire length and height.
   Excited now the government man took a notebook from his pack and began to sketch the sacred drawings.  Long hours passed.  He forgot to eat.  The pages of his notebook filled with the pictures on the hidden cliffs.  He copied everything he could find.
     At the end of the day, in the dying light he saw a final image near where he'd slept the night before.  It was ugly and crudely drawn.  A large triangle with a smaller circle occluding the westernmost corner was surrounded by different figures.  Representations of trees and what looked like beavers with human legs were drawn around the circle.  Behind them were small crouching human figures circled in red.
     He felt a shiver across his shoulders and dismissed it as the rising evening breeze.  Ravens swooped and croaked above his head.  He was distracted by their flight and looked away for a moment, watching them play.  The wind became decidedly stronger.  It carried a smell like the carcass of a bear or skunk long in the sun.
    Something, a movement, or a sound made him turn back to the last drawing.  A new and disturbing figure filled the odd triangle shape.  The government man could have sworn it was not there at first, but now that he saw it, it seemed to move and grow and reach out for him. It was a large and grotesque man covered in long red hair, with red eyes, and a red dripping mouth. The red outline of its form was filled in with blue.  It lay on its back with outstretched arms like a drowning victim but it seemed to shimmer and rise from the rock face.  
   Blaming hunger and poor light for this vision he drank water from his canteen and had a snack of deer jerky before turning to the last blank page in his journal.  As he copied the final rock painting, the insistent breeze became an angry wind and soon water was spraying up against his legs while waves worried and pounded his canoe.
     Three days later an Abitibi survey crew set up camp at the north-east corner of the lake and made a gruesome discovery at the cliff base.  A man's body lay face down in a canoe, dead from an apparent bear attack.  The foreman surmised the man had escaped back to the canoe only to die of his injuries, then drifted away with the current.  Holding their noses against the corpse's pungent sticky smell and brushing away horseflies they found a blood-soaked notebook locked in the man's hands but when they tried to open it the blood had glued the pages together.  The pages tore and cracked and the book was unreadable.
   With much effort and cursing the survey crew packed the body and the canoe back to the nearest rail stop. The local RCMP detachment collected the body, had it identified, and shipped it back east to his widow.  A month later all development south of the rail-line and the new highway running parallel to it ceased.  The area, including Little and Big Indian Lake was to be the newest provincial park, natural in perpetuity.  In fact the only ways in or out are still on foot through bog or swamp, or a single lane of ministry maintained, washout prone, gravel road.