The McRae Lake Shrine

The McRae Lake Shrine

From Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul

The McRae Lake Shrine

My people’s memory reaches into the beginning of all things.

Chief Dan George

On the edge of beautiful Georgian Bay lies an exquisitely private and majestically wild lake. As old as the rocks that surround it, the lake has witnessed and reflected the birth of our nation and the human struggle that accompanied it. Particularly special because it is pinched off at both ends and accessible only by canoe or a good hike, McRae Lake has held its secrets fiercely, beneath its cool, deep waters. Back in the 1960s, it was my good fortune to enter McRae Lake by canoe from the Georgian Bay side. As I looked up, I noticed a dash of unusual colour on the southern cliff face as I paddled by.

Leaving my canoe on the rocks below, I climbed up the cliff to discover a tiny statue of the Virgin Mary perched on a ledge amongst a grove of cedar trees. The elements had taken their toll; the statue had obviously been there for many, many years. As I looked at the shrine, I wondered what its story was.

A year later, while canoeing in the same area, I came across a magnificent yellow tepee sitting on the bank of the Musquash River. Curious about its solitary, elderly male occupant, I couldn’t resist stopping. I’m glad I did. What I learned that day changed my life forever.

The gentleman, a retired ambulance driver from Toronto, had visited the area every summer since the Great Depression. Originally sent to camp nearby as a child, he, like so many others, had fallen in love with the beautiful land and with McRae Lake. Over the years, by patiently watching, listening and researching, he had managed to discover some of the lake’s secrets. He shared with me many wonderful stories that day. The one I am most grateful for, however, was the story of the little Virgin Mary statue resting on the ledge at the entrance to McRae Lake.

The entrance into McRae Lake is an island of rock on the edge of Georgian Bay. The tiny island is constantly exposed to the westerly breezes, which steadily stir the waves against its primeval rocky shore. In the early part of the last century, a trapper and his wife and young daughter lived in a cabin on a large island in the middle of the lake. Early one morning they were startled awake by grunts and woofs and breaking wood. The trapper and his family were in sudden and great danger—a hungry bear was trying to break into their cabin. While trying to chase it away, the trapper was seriously mauled by the bear and left near death.

Frightened and alone, with only an old rowboat for transportation, the woman and her young daughter dragged the barely alive body of her husband out to the edge of the lake and managed to lift and roll him into the boat. Then they desperately began to row their precious cargo towards the Georgian Bay entrance, the only possible source of help. The boat was difficult to row and the cargo heavy. When they arrived at the rocky narrows separating the lake from open Georgian Bay, they were completely exhausted and unable to continue. Not knowing what else to do, they walked between the cliffs of the narrows to the end of the long rock island separating the two bodies of water. Out of ideas and out of hope, the woman sat down and prayed for a miracle. She promised to build a shrine there if help should come and her husband lived.

Soon, to their great joy and amazement, a Georgian Bay taxi, powered by a converted gasoline auto engine— somewhat rare in those days—was passing by the entrance. Seeing them waving, the driver came to their rescue. He was only too happy to take the family to the town of Penatanguishine, where the injured man received the medical help he needed—and his life was saved.

Grateful beyond words, the unnamed woman returned to the lake and, good to her word, built her shrine of thanksgiving high up on a ledge, on the wild shore of Georgian Bay.

As a biologist, I noticed years ago that the shrine was perched in amongst a grove of cedar trees, Eastern white cedars to be precise. But as I looked around at the vast expanse of shoreline and forest, I realized there was not one single Eastern white cedar tree anywhere to be seen— except right at the site of the shrine. Curiously enough, the Latin name for The Eastern white cedar is “arbor vitae”—which means “the tree of life!”

Steve Magee
Brookville, Ontario

You are currently enjoying a preview of this book.

Sign up here to get a Chicken Soup for the Soul story emailed to you every day for free!

Please note: Our premium story access has been discontinued (see more info).

view counter

More stories from our partners