Saturday, December 20, 2008

Looking back: How Red Lake got its name

Artery Lake pictograph mural
In just one more year Bow Narrows Camp under Baughman family ownership will celebrate its 50th season!

A long-time guest and good friend, Dave Myers, suggested I write something about the history of Red Lake and it got me thinking about the years gone past.

There are several books already written about Red Lake's history but most of these probably aren't sold anywhere but in the little town of Red Lake itself.

So, I thought I would follow Dave's suggestion and from time to time write a bit about what I know of the history of the area. It's too involved to do all at once so I'll make a series of it and call them Looking Back. I thought I would start with how Red Lake, Ontario got its name.

The fact is Red Lake is one of the most famous towns in the world. At one point it was the scene of the world's busiest air traffic based on landings and takeoffs. That was in the early 1930s.

The reason was gold, or maybe better expressed as GOLD!!!

In 1926, there was a gold rush to Red Lake that saw 10,000 people rushing to the lake by dogsled and canoe and eventually, by floatplanes and ski planes. What made it all the more remarkable was there was no road to Red Lake until 1948. These people came from the nearest railroad stop which was in Hudson, Ont., near Sioux Lookout. That was more than 100 miles away.

Despite the remoteness of the area, they came from all over the world. To this day it is still the world's third-largest gold rush. Only the Klondike gold rush and the San Francisco rush were larger.

That's the history that most people are interested in -- the gold rush.

But I always think history should begin with the first people in the area -- the native people. It was one of the blessings of my life to have grown up with the Ojibwa people who walked the land and paddled the waters of Ontario for countless generations.

There is evidence that native people lived in the Red Lake area for many thousands of years. I would like to read history books about them. The names of some of these ancient peoples are now lost. We know them by the terms archeologists have given them such as the Paleo-Indians and the Laurel Culture.

The problem, of course, is that they weren't lugging typewriters around or snapping photographs as they pursued the herds of caribou that are believed to have roamed this area after the glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago. Book publishers were also scarce in those days.

So today, what we find of these ancient cultures are stone tools such as spears and arrow points along with some pottery shards and most intriguing -- pictographs or rock paintings.

I've seen copies of the first maps made by explorers to Canada and they called this Red Ochre Lake, or Red Paint Lake, not Red Lake. Red ochre is the iron oxide that some of these ancient peoples mixed with animal fat to make brilliant and incredibly long-lasting paint used to make images on flat vertical rock surfaces.

The funny thing is there is only one known pictograph on Red Lake but there are many on lakes just to the west in what is now Woodland Caribou Wilderness Park. The park borders the west end of Red Lake just a few miles from Bow Narrows Camp.

The pictograph mural shown in the photo above is from Artery Lake, on the border between Ontario and Manitoba, perhaps 40 miles west of camp. It is one of the largest such murals in the world and one of the reasons that the United Nations is considering making the park a World Heritage Site.

In one of our first winters in Red Lake, perhaps 1961, we lived near the Forestry Point and the home of Isaac Keesick, one of the oldest Ojibwa men in Red Lake. My father, Don, asked Isaac why this was called Red Lake. Isaac replied it was because this is where the ancient people came to get the ochre to make their paintings. Red ochre just doesn't exist most places in the Canadian Shield which is mostly granite. But here at Red Lake, along with gold and many other interesting minerals, there is iron that makes red ochre.

I believe that is the real story of how Red Lake got its name.

However, one of the first explorers to Hudson Bay wrote down a different tale and that's the one you'll find in the history books.

It recounts a story told by the native people that there was once a Matchee Manitou or evil spirit on the lake and that the people here killed it and its blood turned the water red, thus Red Lake.

Curiously, the one pictograph on the lake, which incidentally we pass every time we go to and from camp, depicts people in a canoe apparently attacking some sort of creature. The creature has no head, and some think this means that it wasn't an ordinary animal like a moose or a caribou but was a spirit.

So that's an alternate theory of how Red Lake got its name.

You can explore the history of Red Lake yourself. Next time you're here, try stopping at the Red Lake Heritage Centre.

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