‘Up The Shore’ by Juanita Rourke

That title may bring back memories to people in southeastern Georgian Bay. For decades it was a weekly column in the Midland Free Press and its summer hand-out The Georgian Tourist.

In 1994 some of the columns were published in a book with the same title. Two more books of the Rourke family’s life and adventures living year-round at the Bay also have been compiled, edited and published by Juanita Rourke’s daughter Bonnie.

Juanita (Myers) Rourke, known to family and close friends as simply Nita, was a product of “the shore”. Her father Charles (Charlie) Myers was the son of the first permanent settler in the Moon River area, south of Parry Sound, William Myers (whose pioneering story may be told in a future blog post).

After marrying a Scottish girl, Euphemia, while overseas in World War 1, Charlie brought her and their son back to Canada and the family home by the Moon. When their second child was on the way it was decided that Euphemia and infant would be better cared for at Charlie’s sister Clara’s home in Victoria Harbour on the south shore of the Bay.

So that was where Juanita came into the world on Dec. 29, 1919, but as soon as mother and child were able to travel they returned to the mouth of the Moon River. As she grew up there, Juanita and the Rourke/O’Rourke family she married into developed a deep and abiding love for their home region.

That comes through in all her writing, and rings a bell with any readers who share those sentiments. The first and third books describe the family’s experiences at Minnicognashene Island where Juanita’s husband Frank Rourke was chief caretaker at the Sea Cadet camps Princess Alice (at Minnicog) and Queen Elizabeth on nearby Beausoleil Island. The second book covers the family’s years as lightkeepers at the Western Islands, Great Duck Island, and Cape Croker.

My own experience with Minnicog began in the summer of 1936. In our family archives is a photo of a quite un-cute infant (myself) in a pram at the fancy summer hotel on the island then. We were there for a brief holiday while the cottage at Wahnuhke was being built a couple of miles away.

Later in the early 1950s, my father Kenneth With, being a naval officer, joined the management of the camp in its final year, and I as a Sea Cadet had my first summer job there. By then the Rourke family had been living on the island for a number of years. From that time on, both Dad and I felt a connection with the Rourkes. For me that strengthened a decade later when I became an editor at the Midland newspaper and was the first to get to read Up The Shore each week.

Juanita Rourke’s photo as it appeared with her column Up The Shore.

After Minnicog the family made Midland their home town, and Frank started his lightkeeping career at the Western Islands, 15 miles or so out in the Bay. That part of the family’s story is covered in Up The Shore, The Lighthouse Years, and is edited by Bonnie Rourke from Juanita’s writings. It was published in 2001.

Georgian Bay inspires creativity. Many are the artists — from the Group of Seven to my father Kenneth With and aunt Helen Ritchie Hegnauer — who have interpreted its beauty from that era on paper and canvas. Less common, it seems to me, is published writing from that period. The Happy Islands (what an apt title!) by Marlow A. Shaw (1926) and Ojibway Melody by Harry Symons (1946) are two that come to mind. Juanita and Bonnie Rourke’s names now join that list.

Having immersed herself in editing her mother’s writing, it appears that Bonnie was also bitten by a creative bug. She set about writing the story of the Princess Alice and Queen Elizabeth Sea Cadet Camps, inviting recollections and photos from many of those who attended them. In 2008 this monumental effort was published by Huronia Museum of Midland, and is titled The Sea Cadet Years on Georgian Bay. She also has written a children’s book, Christmas on Georgian Bay, An Up The Shore Adventure.

After retiring from lightkeeping Frank Rourke lived at the family’s home in Midland. He died there in 1972. For a long period of her adulthood Juanita had struggled with cancer, but she didn’t let it prevent her from seeking a fulfilling life. Eventually she left Georgian Bay for six years to live and work on a guest ranch in Alberta. After returning to Midland she married an old family friend and continued to enjoy the Bay. But sadly, the cancer returned and she died in 1996 at the age of 77. Her ashes were scattered near where she grew up at the mouth of the Moon River.

Thanks to her daughter, Juanita Rourke’s evocative prose of life at Georgian Bay lives on in book form. The original Up The Shore unfortunately is out of print. A very limited stock of The Lighthouse Years is being held by Bonnie, as is The Sea Cadet Years. Christmas On Georgian Bay in paperback or Kindle editions is carried by amazon.ca. Bonnie Rourke herself can be reached at shoredoggeobay@gmail.com.

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