I had come to see petroglyphs, rock carvings made by Native Americans centuries ago. Would I even be able to see them?
Over to the old Vilas Bridge I went -- it is but a block from downtown -- and walked along the dirt road just south of the bridge. I looked upriver and down. No petroglyphs. But as I walked back up toward the bridge and looked down again, I noticed two yellow dashes painted on rocks.
They were there for a reason, to indicate where the petroglyphs were carved. There they were, below the markers, the wild water of the river lapping over some of them, but visible.
So far so good. I was one for one. It was my first stop in a two-day search for New England petroglyphs, the closest thing to the written word that Native Americans of long ago left behind.
With its rich cultural past, New England has long been a destination for those who like to combine travel and history.
The Boston Freedom Trail links together 16 historic sites and attracts 3 million visitors a year. People drive the winding old roads of rural New England just to see 18th-century farmhouses. Historical sites like the Mark Twain House in Hartford draw busloads of visitors.
But New England has another history that goes back much further than European settlement.
The Native Americans who peopled the region before 1600 may have left no literature, but they left a record, a tangible history.
They left arrowheads, tools and other artifacts that archaeologists and others still unearth today, giving hints of civilization before the arrival of Europeans.
They also left the carvings they made in rock, some of them enigmatic, some of them more easily understood even today.
It is rock art, and there is more of it than you might expect.
Some of it has weathered the centuries well, a voice for the ages, a voice that certainly seems more permanent than today's e-mail, never mind a text message.
So I worked my way down the riverbank to get a better look at the petroglyphs. They were carved in two clusters, one with 30 visible images, the other with 11. Recent research indicates some of the carvings were made in the centuries after the arrival of colonial settlers -- but some were pecked into the rock many centuries ago, using pointed stones.
Each cluster is dominated by simple images of faces, typically an outline of a head, two eyes, a mouth. Some have horns. What do they mean?
Edward J. Lenik, an archaeologist who specializes in cultural resource investigations for clients, has been researching petroglyphs since 1976 and is the author of "Picture Rocks: American Indian Rock Art in the Northeast Woodlands" (University Press of New England; 2002). He says a petroglyph is a window into a long-ago culture.
"The charm is, it reflects the Indians' thought process, their culture in terms of their stories and myths and belief systems, which you don't really get from artifacts," Lenik said. "Here you look at the artwork and try to imagine what it means. Is the Indian trying to make contact with the spirit world? Or is it something else? That is the fascination."
A spiritual place?