Nanabush Chuckles

Mazinaw rock 2

Two summers ago, my partner — let’s call her e.g. — and I decided to take our almost-son, Jack, on his first camping trip. After researching the various Ontario Provincial Parks, we decided on Bon Echo. This beautiful park has everything we were looking for: a small swimming beach, a canoe rental and one-day loop route, a radio-free camping area, a history of visits from various Group of Seven painters, and Mazinaw Rock.

Mazinaw Rock is an escarpment that runs for just over a mile along one side of narrow-but-deep Mazinaw Lake. The cliff face towers 300 feet above the water’s surface (and maybe another 150 feet below it). On the rock at canoe level may be found over 250 red-ochre paintings. Because no foolproof scientific method has yet been devised for dating pictographs, no one is sure how old they are — anywhere from 200 to a thousand years or more — or exactly who made them.

Nevertheless, the pictures are definitely Aboriginal, and the Anishnaabek people recognize some familiar faces among them, the most popular being that of Nanabush.

Nanabush was the son of the West Wind and the grandson of the Moon. Some say Nanabush created the world, or recreated it after the Serpent People flooded it. His pictograph on Mazinaw Rock, the one that Bon Echo Provincial Park has adopted as its logo, shows him with canoe-paddle-sized ears, holding a stick as long as himself in his left hand. Is it a rifle? A spear? A tent pole? Jack thinks Nanabush is leaning against a tree, watching and waiting. I think he is hovering at his doorway, a crevice in the rock into which he will slip with a parting chuckle after playing a trick on someone.

For Nanabush is a trickster. He is a shape-shifter. He is a teacher, commissioned by the Great Spirit to help instill a little wisdom into humans.

On our canoeing day, we paddled the half-mile across the lake to view the pictographs more closely. E.g. took some photos.

tour boat

On our final morning, we boarded the 26-seat Wanderer Too’r boat to learn more. Our guide told us that Nanabush would sometimes put stumps or roots in front of children, to teach them to pay more attention to where they were going and what they were doing. I laughed, imagining those poor startled kids still lacking the adroitness of adults, literally running into Nanabush and his tricks.

The tour boat docked just below the gift shop. Jack and e.g. each found a souvenir they liked. I couldn’t resist a white coffee cup printed with the logo of Nanabush and the words, “Bon Echo” — the perfect souvenir! Smiling at my enthusiasm, the clerk wrapped the cup in tissue paper and placed it in a nice shiny bag.

On exiting the gift shop, we trooped over to the nearby comfort station. E.g. went first, while Jack and I took a seat on a bench outside. It was hot. I took off my bookbag, set it on the bench beside me, and placed the bag from the gift shop on my bookbag. Yes, the nice shiny plastic bag. Containing the coffee cup. Was resting on, not in, my sloping bookbag. But not for long, of course. Withing seconds, the plastic bag slipped off the bookbag, over the edge of the bench, and onto a pavement tile with the sickening crunch that lets you know that your brand-new souvenir china mug that hasn’t even come out of its shopping bag yet has broken and it’s all your fault because you put it on your bookbag instead of in it. I shrieked. Jack hovered solicitously, patient wisdom softly lighting his eyes.

Nanabush, pictograph on Mazinaw Rock; photo by G Barfoot, 2006

Unwrapping the tissue paper, I found the drinking part unharmed and the handle in three pieces. Perfectly intact pieces, mind you. Then I heard the laughter, and I laughed too. “Look at that, Jack! Nanabush has taught me a lesson! Do you think we’ll be able to glue the pieces back together?”

Jack was convinced we could. Once back in the city, I successfully repaired the cup, and it has held my morning brew ever since. I am honoured that Nanabush the trickster left me a unique souvenir of Bon Echo.

2 Responses to Nanabush Chuckles

  1. eyegillian says:

    Your coffee mug is a wonderful souvenir!

    [That reminds me of the time I was camping with my family and tripped over the (cold) fireplace because I was running in the dark…]

    I think that coffee must be Nanabush’s favourite drink — after all, what does the fridge magnet say, something like: “Coffee helps you do stupid things with more energy” …? So the mug is a perfect reminder of stupid things we all do and can laugh at (hopefully) … even if it means you’ll be made an example of later on.

    [Now you can make an example of me.]

  2. lavenderbay says:

    Thank you, eyegillian, for letting me make an example of you. And by the way, happy anniversary! Nine terrific years today!

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