Small, remote, and steeped in mystery, Quanja Lake in the Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory is a spot rarely visited, in part because it is hard to find, but also because of its reputation as a haven for powerful spirits.
I had read about Quanja Lake in a couple of books, and was intrigued that such a tiny, obscure lake could cast so strong a spell. I wanted to see it. But I didn’t have a clue where to begin looking.
Tom Peltier of Wiikwemkoong passed away nearly a decade ago but when this article was being researched in 2004, he was an invaluable help because of his deep interest in traditional Ojibwe beliefs and the supernatural.
Mr. Peltier had visited Quanja Lake in his youth, but it had been so long since that visit that he couldn’t remember the exact route to the lake. He asked around in the community for directions and procured a detailed map from the land office.
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We left the village of Wiikwemkoong and drove through the community of Kaboni, then along South Bay road and past the community’s church to get our bearings, which wasn’t so bad, since I was able to fill my water bottle at a natural spring that bubbles from the ground across from the church.
I had always been puzzled that my Turners map of the Island doesn’t mark Quanja Lake. But during this rest stop, looking at Mr. Peltier’s map and comparing it to my own, I realized that it does: it’s just given a different name, Redrock Lake.
Quanja is the only lake in all of Wiikwemkoong that is large enough to warrant a name, and it has a distinctive kidney shape. The two had to be the same.
One mystery, then, was solved. But we still had to find Quanja/ Redrock Lake.
We doubled back to the dirt road we had eyed but overshot. It snaked up a hill and into the woods. Mr. Peltier was confident that this was the way, so off we went.
Still, when we encountered an old truck heaped with pulp logs coming towards us, we flagged it down and double-checked whether we were on the right track. The loggers assured us we were.
It was slow going. The road was deeply pitted with potholes and puddles. “When I came in here that time before, over 50 years ago, this road was just ruts,” said Mr. Peltier, at the time.
It seemed, to me, little more than ruts then as well. We bounced around in our seats, and the canoe I had strapped to the roof probably would have fallen off if I hadn’t tied extra-tight knots.
Several unmarked bush roads forked off the one we were following, but we resisted the urge to try one of them, and finally we were rewarded for our patience: a sign appeared at a Y-intersection, saying “Kwaan-jaa Lake Road.”
I asked Mr. Peltier about the spelling, was this, perhaps, the proper Ojibwe word for the lake? And if so, what did it mean? Red rock perhaps?
Mr. Peltier didn’t think it meant red rock, not did he think the discrepancy in spelling was significant. “There was an old woman who lived here named Shawanda, I think, and maybe Quanja was just the nickname for her.” Later Gordie Odjig of Wiikwemkoong mentioned that there was still a woman in the community whom people called Quanja, perhaps a descendant of the original Quanja.
We returned up Kwaan-jaa Lake Road, and suddenly the driving became easier, because the ground was generally firmer, I suppose, but also, I suspect, due to less traffic.
This road was certainly more forested: the woods crowded in from both sides, maples and birches and cedars scraping the windows of the car.
And then there it was: a strip of blue visible through he trees, and a small clearing with evidence of people having camped here in the past. There was a fire pit and sun-bleached cedar poles from which a tent or teepee once hung.
Mr. Peltier and I parked and walked down to the shore. I admit I was a bit nervous, having read and heard so many spooky things about water. The water looked clear and warm, not menacing in the least.
I unloaded the canoe and set it in the water and handed a paddle and life jacket to Mr. Peltier. He seemed as keen as me to head out on the lake, but I did notice that he promptly donned his lifejacket and buckled it up tightly.
I don’t normally bother to wear a lifejacket, particularly not on calm, sunny days, but I’ll admit I considered it for Quanja Lake. In the end, though, I used my lifejacket as a kneeling pad, just as I normally do.
We paddled out through the shallows, with the sun beating down on us, a light breeze stirring the surface. Huge cumuli hung in the cerulean sky. It was perfect.
Then the bottom abruptly dropped off, and the water darkened, and I wondered about the advisability of heading out into the very centre of the lake, as we were doing.
Mr. Peltier didn’t seem worried. Yet he himself had told me about his grandfather: Jomin, coming out here with another man, many years ago. “They went down 240 feet with rope and never reached bottom,” he’s said.
“We forgot to bring a rope” I told my bowsman, in an effort to be light hearted. Mr. Peltier nodded and chuckled. And then he took very short, swift strokes with his paddle.
We reached the far shore without incident. Here, the land shoots up steeply, to a height of 80 feet or so, with bare reddish rock faces poking through the thick bush. Surely this red rock explained the English name for the lake.
Mr. Peltier spoke about caves that were said to exist here, and later I got a detailed story from Gordie Odjig, who said two hunters, his uncle Shapnaswe, and Frank Assiniwe, once wandered into a Quanja Lake cave, and were badly rattled when something swatted at their lantern and knocked it down.
But I couldn’t find any caves during a quick search of the shoreline. I should emphasize “quick”, I really did do only a perfunctory search, hopping around in my bare feet. I’d left my shoes back at the car; and that was my excuse for not doing a more thorough caving reconnaissance.
I also took a pass on a swim. I was hot, and it was tempting, but, well, I hadn’t brought a towel.
Plus while coming back across the lake, I got to thinking about some of the other stories concerning Quanja Lake.
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In the Island of the Anishnaabeg, Theresa S. Smith writes that two Wiikwemkoong elders, Sam Osawamick and Angus Trudeau, told her that an underground channel leads from Quanja to Manitowaning Bay (the latter translates as “den of the manitou”), and that Mishebeshu, a much-feared underwater deity of the Ojibwe with horns and a tail, would make use of this underground passage, popping up in Quanja Lake on occasion.
Neither Mr. Peltier nor Mr. Odjig were familiar with that particular story, yet they both thought it conceivable that there could be a “hole” in the bottom of the lake that led elsewhere and seemed generally wary of the lake’s inky depths.
Mr. Odjig related at that time that a friend of his, Dominic ‘Peak’ Manitowbi, and a tribal officer; once tried to test the depth of Quanja and the rope just kept going “down and down.” And “when they pulled it up, there was this slimy stink on the rope, as if it had been in the mouth of a snake or serpent.”
Mr. Odjig said that both these men got “a real eerie feeling, and said ‘let’s get the hell out of here.’ And these were two brave men who had hunted for years in the bush.”
Other spirits believed to frequent Quanja Lake are less frightening. Mr. Peltier says ‘syunsukh,’ the Ojibwe term for ‘little people’, creatures like sprites or the leprechauns of Irish tradition are seen here. They are playful and essentially harmless and mostly seen by children, said Mr. Peltier.
I didn’t see any pyunsukh or horned underwater creatures, for that matter, during my brief tour of Quanja Lake, but being zhagganash (in other words, white.) I probably wasn’t meant to.
Then again, there are many people, native and non-native alike, who have spent time at Quanja Lake without being spooked. Many Wiikwemkoong residents have camped at Quanja during school outings, and a local tour guide used to bring groups of German tourists here to camp.
If you hadn’t heard stories of underwater monsters and cave creatures and pyunsukh, you would probably see Quanja Lake as just any other lake, a little less accessible than most, but worth the trek for its pristine waters and unpopulated shores.
Still there’s something different about Quanja. Crossing back towards our parking spot, over what I presume was the deepest part of the lake, I found myself staring at the opaque greenish-blue tint of the water. I’m not a superstitious person by nature, but it seemed to have an unusual colour, a murkiness, a weird density.
Maybe I was just imagining it.
Mr. Peltier in the bow didn’t seem particularly nervous, yet at the same time there he was with his lifejacket buckled up tightly, taking those short, swift strokes. We were the only people on the lake, possibly the only ones to have been there, paddling a canoe, in weeks, if not years.
Finally we reached the shallows. I was glad to see the sandy loam bottom again.
Because there, just lying flat on the lake bottom, was a plethora of dark, squiggly shapes, that, I’ll admit it, unnerved me briefly.
They were just plants, of course, I don’t know the name, but you see them often in the shallows of lakes.
Except that, as Mr. Peltier noted, “you don’t normally see them lying down. They usually stand up.”
He looked at the dark, snake-like shapes, as did I, and then he said: “That’s Nanabush. He takes on lots of shapes.”
Nanabush is the famous trickster and shape-shifter of Ojibwe belief. It’s possible that Mr. Peltier was pulling my leg, being a bit of a trickster himself, but I don’t think so; I think it was a genuine comment.
What I do know for sure is that I would rather meet Nanabush in a remote, possibly bottomless lake than the much-feared Mishebeshu.
We beached the canoe and lit cigarettes. But before we did so we squeezed some tobacco from the end of our cigarettes and sprinkled it into the water.
“For the lake” said Mr. Peltier.