Gillies Lake: aka Ghost Lake

Gillies Lake: aka Ghost Lake has a mysterious past as its original name, Ghost Lake, implies

Gillies Lake or Ghost Lake as it is also known, is located near the northeast shore of the Bruce Peninsula, overlooking the beautiful waters of Georgian Bay.

Although the first image one has of this natural phenomenon is one of awe. There is also lurking in the back of the mind a sense of foreboding. After all, one has to wonder what caused this eerie freak of nature?

Writing in the mid-twentieth century, in The Bruce Beckons, author Sherwood Fox described Ghost Lake as it appeared from an airplane, as “a long, narrow splash of white enamel dropped on the mottled, green-gray pavement of forest and limestone.”

Fox continued on to say that even “the aquatic plants that project above the surface of the water are coated with the dried spray of whitewash” and that “the many kinds of tiny mollusks that are seen throughout the shallows are glaring white.”

Adding to the mystique of Ghost Lake is a rare species of fish that early native and non-native visitors found in the waters. The “mountain trout” as they were called had jet black backs, but their underbellies, sides, fins and flesh were chalk white.

Scientific examination of this uniquely colored fish later identified them as a variation of lake trout. 

Now the probable explanation for Ghost Lake’s eerie overwhelming whiteness is due to the fact that the lakebed at the western end is a shining bed of marl. However, a native legend provides a much more colorful rationale for the lake’s appearance.

Native Legend Tied to Gillies Lake

The legend that has survived the centuries tells the story of a large group of natives who had journeyed to the lake and set up a camp to fish in the late weeks of winter.

A native village of huts had been built on ice, to facilitate the harvesting of the teeming numbers of fish that lived in the lake.

One day, without warning, there was a loud, almost deafening bang. The natives who had not been on the ice at the time looked up from their shoreline positions just in time to see the ice disappear into the depths of the lake, taking with it the homes and the people who were in them, to a watery grave.

A few natives survived the catastrophic event by hopping from one small ice floe to another until they reached the safety of the shoreline. 

The native legend suggests that the whiteness of the lakebed is due to the bones of those who lost their lives that day.

But Ghost Lake is unusual for its shape and location as much as it is for its colour.

Ghost Lake is about two miles long and at its widest point it spans about half a mile. Its eastern shore lies precipitously close to the edge of a steep cliff that plummets sharply to the Georgian Bay shoreline below.

Many have wondered why the lake does not simply pour its contents over this cliff and create a magnificent waterfall.

Gillies Lake is very shallow at its western end, gradually deepening until reaches its eastern terminus, where the lakebed plunges to unfathomable depths.

Once again, native legend provides an answer to this geologic formation. The story suggests that spirits hollowed out the eastern end.

However, science has now provided a response. Geologists suggest that before the lake was formed there were massive limestone caverns.  Because the roof of the caverns were only a thin shell, separating the void from the surface, the ice from various ice ages managed to crack and crush the caverns thin cap. As time passed, water from springs and winter run-off created the lake.  

The existence of Ghost Lake and the stories surrounding its creation and color are very colorful to say the least. But, if you are looking on a map of the Bruce Peninsula for Ghost Lake you will not find it. Because, today it is called Gillies Lake, a name bestowed upon it after European settlement reached the Bruce Peninsula.

A version of this story first appeared in my Local History column in the Owen Sound Sun Times.

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