Pictographs at Hegman Lake
By Zach Johns
Have you ever experienced a moment when it was so quiet it was actually loud? I have and it was amazing. Take a typically silent place such as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, cover it in sound-muffling snow, add numbing temperatures that keep other visitors away, and you have a recipe for total, absolute silence.
Once a year I find myself making a pilgrimage along the Echo Trail to about 15 miles northeast of Ely, where I visit the Hegman Lake Pictographs. They were made by Native Americans anywhere from 500 to 1,000 years ago and it’s one of those places that has a special kind of aura that connects me to the past in an almost primal way. No matter how many times I go, it always moves me to hushed reverence. My trips are often unplanned, dictated last minute by the weather. I like to visit when temperatures drop to between ten and twenty degrees below zero because those conditions make a normally busy section of the wilderness a place of personal, silent reflection.
Last winter I brought a group of friends for a trip to these ancient drawings and for some it was their first outing in the wilderness in any season. A few of us were on skis, others opted for snowshoes. I’ve found that the trail is usually so well-trodden that it’s just as easy to simply hike in boots.
Even though the air temperature was frigid, the bright sunshine and lack of wind made it feel much warmer. After filling out our wilderness permits, we began our trek down the portage trail under the graceful limbs of majestic pines. We soon descended steeply and found ourselves at the southern end of South Hegman Lake. Instantly, that feeling of raw, wild isolation came over me. It’s a difficult emotion to describe, but if you’ve ever been there, you know what I mean.
We made our way across South Hegman, the snow squeaking under our feet, and soon crossed the short portage to North Hegman. Like most wilderness travellers we found ourselves falling into a rhythm and our steps became more purposeful as we made our way toward our objective. Then we came to a large boulder, eight, maybe ten feet tall, sticking out of the ice. There’s nothing truly special about it, yet I was drawn to it, like a monument. I paused. It was the first place I heard the silence. Even the merry chickadee, who you can always count on to brighten a winter day, withheld its song. It was wonderful and eerie.
We continued and arrived at the large cliff face that held the reason for our hike in sub-zero weather. The massive rock wall was multi-colored, covered in patches green-gray lichen and streaked with black mineral stain. On a clean, buff-colored section, the famous Native American drawings stood out clearly in reddish-orange paint, yet they seemed to be a natural part of the rock.
No matter how many times I’ve seen them, they always make me pause, kind of like seeing the Grand Canyon or the Tetons for the first time.
I’ve read many different theories about what the pictographs represent, but I like to just take them at their most basic forms. A man-like figure presides over the scene standing with arms outstretched, six hash marks above his left shoulder. Farther up there’s three canoes with paddlers. Below him, a moose and a wolf or dog above a horizontal line. High above all, an X or equal-sided cross. The moose is my favorite part of the scene. I envision the artist sitting on the ledge, creating their masterpiece, unaware that hundreds of years later people would still be coming in to admire their work.
We drank some water and had a snack, then donned our packs for the trek back to the trailhead. I’ve never stayed at the pictographs very long, in part because it’s always so cold and I want to get moving again, but also out of respect. I feel like I shouldn’t linger, just pay homage and move along. Turning around, we found the sun lower in the sky, casting shadows of the pines across the lake. Winter days are short in the north country and even though the round trip to the pictographs is only about three and a half miles, you have to make sure you leave early enough or be prepared to hike back in the dark. After crossing the two lakes, I paused at the bottom of the portage and let my friends climb the hill. As the last one crested the hill and disappeared into the woods I stood still and listened once again. Silence.