On Mishipeshu & Pie Island

Boat Journey

I come from a magical place, at the end of the world. Thunder Bay sits on the northern tip of Lake Superior, a lake so fierce and mighty, she’s more like an ocean. Her Anishinabek name is Gitchi Gami. Her temperament changes on a dime. She’s taken lives, but also saved them. She’s fierce, but fair, and predictably unpredictable.

            They say her spirit materializes as a chimera of serpent, lynx, and dragon. Her tail is spikey; she’s wears a crown of demonic horns. Some say she’s evil. They won’t say her name— Mishipeshu— less attract her wrath. Though, I’ve also heard she’s good. Protective. It’s a blessing to see her. She keeps you safe, will grant you a wish.

            Whether she’s good or bad, the truth lies somewhere in between, I bet, just like anything else. Our universe is both chaotic and divine, depending on your perspective.

            More than one island in Northern Ontario says it’s the home of Mishipeshu; as though it’s a claim to fame. I’m not saying one place is right over another. She probably has more than one home. She’s the lake, after all.

            I saw her at Pie Island. Her tail cut through the waves. I couldn’t tell if we were welcome. ‘We won’t be here long,’ I said to the sky. Our boat rolled as we sought refuge from gale-force winds, the bay somewhat blocking the southwesterly winds.  

            There’s another documented sighting of Mishipeshu at Pie Island, properly on the record, from the 18th century. Under oath, a man claims he saw her and tried to shoot, his aim interfered by an old Ojibway woman who threw him off balance as his barrel lined up with Mishipeshu’s crown of horns. There were consequences. That night, a storm cackled. The lake swept away the camp’s boats, leaving the group stranded on Pie Island.

            We respected Mishipeshu. Gemstones lined Pie Island’s shores, but I wouldn’t dare take one. I inspected the prettiest up close, lusting their beauty, daydreaming how much I could make if I harvested them, polished them up, sold them to one of those new age bookstores with Tarot Cards and Himalayan Rocks. I left them on the beach. Best not tempt fate. These spirits are wary of colonialism, of white men raping their lands and polluting their waters.

            At night, our dog barked and barked and barked at some indiscernible shape in the water, like she saw something we couldn’t. It’s the waves crashing, my husband said. It’s Mishipeshu, I countered.   

            It’s all perspective— she was out to get us.

            We departed from Thunder Bay, the city, to journey from Thunder Bay, the bay. Calm seas angered, waves built. Our stabilizers (a technology to prevent the vessel from rolling) malfunctioned, our boat rolling and pitching like a 360 degree teeter-totter.

            Our coffee cups flew through the pilothouse. My cast-iron pan slid off the stove. A scented candle, a flashlight, and an empty wine bottle rolled across the carpet from starboard to port, to starboard to port.

            It’s all perspective— she was protecting us.

            Pie Island was nearby, with a bay a divinely designed to give us shelter from the southwesterly winds. What if our boat had malfunctioned later in the trip? We’d be too far for help, stuck on the lake in waves forming pyramids like Giza, stranded on a deserted sea. What if, what if, what if?

            We were blessed. Mishipeshu’s a protector, an entity who grants wishes. I wish…

            When I recounted this story to my mom— as she drove to camp to drop me off at our truck stored on gravel driveway, the leaves along the road transforming to their autumn tones, a sign of our closing window to leave the lake— she reminded me that Mishipeshu spared my father’s life at the very same place, the shores of Pie Island, many moons ago. Throughout my life, I’ve heard versions of this story, though there’s no cohesive movie I can play in my mind. The story comprises blips of fable recounted by relatives over the years from various degrees of zoom.

            Officially, no humans live on Pie Island. Somehow, there’s moose on the island; perhaps they wander over when the lake freezes, becoming trapped when their path melts under the spring sun. The island is pocketed with plywood huts, nailed in haste by hunters hoping for a kill.

            My dad’s a hunter. He tempted Mishipeshu, embarking on his sixteen-foot aluminium boat towards his desired prize: a bull of Pie Island. Much larger boats are wary of Gitchi Gami’s temperament. An aluminum boat is no opponent to her tantrums. She stormed and stormed, drowning my dad’s boat with her tears of rage.  

            Somehow, by the grace of Mishipeshu, my dad awoke on the shores of Pie Island. I tried to clarify this tale. What happened next? Was his boat with him? How did he get back to Thunder Bay? I can’t find a cohesive answer. Everyone has their own story. My grandfather swears he heard my father’s distress call on CB Radio—I picture my grandfather in a rocking chair in his log cabin, the CB Radio nestled between tins of my grandma’s ginger snap and chocolate chip cookies— and mobilized the Coast Guard, though when I recounted this to my mom, she laughed and said, ‘it’s funny he thinks that’, his memories grow more legendary as his mind ages, the spools of mythology unraveling, threading tales in their wake.

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