Section E - Day 2: Petroglyphs
On the last day of July, I start my day walking along the shores of Pinto Lake. It is a surprisingly large lake for being so high in the mountains, and in the morning light the surface is oil smooth and a perfect mirror. There is a sign there telling the story of a family who lived on the shores of the lake in the 1800’s. The man had accidentally shot himself in the arm and was forced to do a home amputation. The family was stuck there for many months before they were discovered by a Stoney hunting party and were subsequently rescued by the RCMP months after the initial incident. I feel very thankful to have a GPS emergency beacon strapped to my shoulder.
After the lake, there is a lot of marshy riverside walking, and the bugs are so vicious I can hardly stop for more than 30 seconds to eat or refill my water bottle before they are upon me. So I suppose I have the skeeters to thank for the fact that I’m making such good time this day. On the parks border where the White Goat Wilderness Area begins, there is a trail register, and I brave the bugs for a good 5 minutes reading the notes from GDT hikers who have passed through here together. Everyone is so stoked about the passes yesterday, nobody is stoked about the bugs, everyone can’t wait to get to Jasper to eat a burger. It is very clear from the repeating themes that, though we may be separated by days or weeks, we are all going through the same experience. It feels both nice and lonely to be on this trail together, and I wish I could meet more of them.
Along Cataract Creek I come across a large boulder with ancient petroglyphs on it. The guidebook had mentioned to look out for a “distinctive boulder” and I recognize it as soon as I see it. I walk around to the southern face of it and my breath catches in my throat. I’ve really never seen anything like this before and I stand transfixed for some time before I gather myself together and step forward and look closer. There on the rock, finger-painted with red ochre and sealed in by the calciferous weeping of the boulder over eons are the forms of human stick figures, v shapes, four-legged animals, and most miraculously, red pressed-in hand prints.
I feel as though time has slowed to a crawl and I spend a long time examining each form and trying to understand what they might mean. There is no information in the GDT guidebook, or on the app. It strikes me that the field of ancient petroglyph translation must be the most speculative of all. We can hardly look back that far in time and understand simple questions like “what did people eat”, let alone “what do these shapes represent” in a culture which far predates the assemblages of modern Indigenous nations of North America. Perhaps what matters more is just the miracle of a human mark, preserved here on the shores of a creek, not in a museum, startlingly bold and real, staring back at us from deep time.
I am drawn to do what I imagine every hiker who passes is drawn to do, and I place my hand palm-to-palm with the clearest handprint and I am startled by the shock of wonder which ripples through me. As though someone were there, on the other side of the rock pressing their palm into mine, centuries apart, yet only a millimeter of cool stone between us. The hand print seems very small compared to mine. Was this a small person? A child? Were people just smaller then? Have the tips just worn off and it looks smaller?
As you’ll know if you have been following this blog, I’ve been thinking a lot throughout this hike about deep time. When I look at the deep u-shaped valleys carved through these mountains in the previous ice age, or when I kick at a piece of sedimentary rock and marvle as it comes apart in layers that are seeing sun for the first time in billions of years, I’m reminded of the normalcy of tremendous change. How species come and go, and landscapes are twisted, carved, and piled together.
I’ve been thinking about how this all offers a deep perspective on the great turning that climate change is bringing to us in this generation. This perspective is good, but I think it is dangerous, and it is important how we use it. The question posed to us by Robert Macfarlane, a favourite author of mine, is: Do we let knowledge of deep time crush the present moment into irrelevance, or does it make the present moment more luminous, crucial, urgent?
And I think about all these humans around the world painting handprints and figures onto rock with ochre paint, from France to Siberia to the Columbia Basin to the Himalaya, anatomically identical to us today, but otherwise as different as possible. I think too of the question put forward by those writing about this big-picture view of humanity who ask us, are we being good ancestors?
And what will remain of the anthropocene? I somehow doubt what we leave in the fossil record will inspire the same awe I am feeling at this moment.
Later I do a google search for more information about the petroglyphs. The date is not known, it is in the “columbia plateau tradition” of pictographs, and the marks along the top cut-out of the rock are tally marks, and some of the pictures are “possible zoomorphs” or animal representations. I wonder what the V’s could mean. Could it be a hunting record? Directions? Something more spiritual and hard to define? Or is it the prehistoric equivalent of the “Brad Was Here 2013” carved into the park bench a couple of days later?
We cannot know and I kinda love that.