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PostPosted: December 27th, 2013, 12:57 pm 
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Explorer leaves his mark

By Andrew Hind

Pushing through the dense growth of virgin wilderness and paddling along unmapped rivers and lakes, Alexander Murray charted tens of thousands of square miles of what were then the wilds of Ontario. But while he was a prodigious explorer and surveyor, he’s barely remembered today. But he ensured a legacy for himself when he gave name to some of the largest Muskoka lakes during an 1853 expedition to the region.

In the annals of Canadian lore, Murray has always played second fiddle to the likes of David Thompson, Samuel de Champlain, David Mackenzie, and other early trailblazers that pushed back our nation’s frontiers. But when these legends were finished their epic explorations, they left it to men such as Murray to accurately map and survey the vast new regions, essential but little-heralded work necessary for settlement and the exploitation of natural resources. These men were impressive explorers in their own rights.

Born in Scotland in 1810, Murray came from a prominent family of landowners and military officers. His father served in the Royal Navy in the 1790s and commanded merchant ships on voyages to the Far East between 1800 and 1810, so it was perhaps natural that Murray would attend the Royal Naval College and Portsmouth and envision a career as a naval officer. He entered the Royal Navy in 1824, fought and was wounded at the great naval battle of Navarino in 1827, and rose to the rank of lieutenant. But prospects for advancement in the navy were slim, so he retired in 1835 and headed for Canada to seek his fortune.

In 1841, the Canadian parliament passed a bill to fund the Geological Survey of Canada, a project designed to map the nation and chronicle its mineral wealth. It was just the opportunity Murray was looking for, and in 1843 he was named assistant provincial geologist for Ontario.

His first work was to prepare a detailed map of the region from Toronto to the Severn River, butting up against the edges of civilization as it were. He would spend much of the next decade in the wilderness beyond.

At the behest of the Ottawa Ship Canal Survey, which was eying a more northern alternative to the Welland Canal linking the St. Lawrence with Lake Huron, he thoroughly mapped Lake Nipissing and the various channels of French River. The fact that he came back with news that the region offered no feasible alternative doesn’t diminish the importance of Murray’s work.

Even more expansive was his topographical and geological surveys in the land directly north of Lake Huron, which saw him exploring dozens of wilderness waterways, such as the Wahnapitei, Thessalon, Echo, Spanish, and Blind rivers.

Despite being stricken by a paralytic stroke just a few years prior, which affected his strength and stamina, in 1853 Murray’s attention turned to the vast wilderness between Georgian Bay and the Ottawa River, which included the unsettled and largely unexplored Muskoka region. It was an epic undertaking, in which he and his team surveyed most of the numerous channels of rivers such as the Sturgeon, Magnetawan, Muskoka, Petawawa, Bonnechere, and Madawaska, and the lakes connected with them, including lakes Muskoka, Rosseau and Joseph.

While Murray left no physical monuments to mark his passing, he left a personal signature of his Muskoka explorations in the form of the names of several of our larger lakes. He named Peninsula Lake in honour of its shape, with its two distinctive peninsulas dominating the north shoreline.

Fairy Lake was so named because of its inspiring natural beauty and Oxtongue Lake because of its shape. Mary Lake was christened for his eldest daughter, while Canoe Lake earned its name for the simple reason it was here that Murray’s party had to stop and build a new canoe for themselves.

When Lieutenant Henry Biscoe led a brief exploration of the region in 1826, he came upon a large lake on the eastern extremity of Muskoka. He named it Baptiste Lake. In 1829, Alexander Shirreff renamed it Trading Lake, since he found the remains of trading posts along its shores. Neither name suited Murray, so he renamed it once again to a more poetic-sounding Lake of Bays. Settlers preferred Trading Lake, and continued to refer to it by that name for decades, but Lake of Bays was popularized by tourism pamphlets put out by the Grand Trunk Railway in the early 20th century and gradually Murray’s name took hold.

Murray’s final work, undertaken even as he grew increasingly infirm, was the first geological map of Newfoundland, completed in 1873.

Alexander Murray died in 1884 at the age of 75, largely unheralded for his work. But he ensured his explorations would not be entirely forgotten by putting a personal touch in the form of lake names on Muskoka maps.

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