They had been a world apart to me since even before I had known anyone who had been there. Ten or twelve miles out in the open Bay from Wahnuhke, to a youngster the Western Islands had seemed as distant as the far side of the moon.
Then one day on an excursion up the shore someone had pointed out several indistinct shapes “floating” on the horizon.
“Look, you can see the Westerns!”
So they were real, not just marks on the chart. But what was out there? Were they like our familiar islands along the shore with pines, cedars and junipers clutching the exposed granite? Or were they like those a few miles further south with boulders, sand beaches, and mostly hardwood trees?
Gradually, through friends and family who had been there, I learned the answers. And, much too late in my life, I found out for myself one October weekend in the 1970s.
From Manitou, our boats sped across a light chop on the open water. At the start, the islands were still “floating” on the horizon, but the farther offshore we went the more distinct the shapes became, looming larger and increasing in number.
As the chart had shown, there were two groups. To the south were mere rocks with the lighthouse tower jutting up. Five miles north were more rocks, but larger with trees and vegetation similar to their inland sisters.
A solitary sloop heading south sailed across our path. Otherwise we were alone out there, not surprising at that late date in those days.
We were going to the northern group, and landed on the highest wooded island, which offered superb views, on that clear sunny day, of the entire Western Islands.
Nine islands make up the northern group. They are situated loosley in a circle, creating a somewhat protected harbour that years ago was a useful base for commercial fishermen when lake trout and whitefish were caught in great numbers on Georgian Bay.
When Frank Rourke was chief keeper of the Westerns lighthouse, from 1956 to 1958, his family would spend the summers there with him. I cannot do better than quote Juanita Rourke in her book Up The Shore: The Lighthouse Years about their first visit to the northern group.
“The children and I had been wanting to explore the northern group of islands since we arrived at the lighthouse for the summer. We waited for a calm day so we could use the small boat. There was too much hard labour and commotion involved in putting the larger boat in the water just for a pleasure jaunt.
“The boat took us up and over the lazy swells. Seagulls rose from the rocks to accompany us. Now and then a saucy wave threw spray over the side of the boat to splash us.
“Frank dropped us off at an island with high bluffs…We circled the island climbing rocks, admiring the odd shaped ones. Across a narrow channel lay an even larger island. We took off our shoes and dove into the water, swam to the opposite shore and climbed out on the slippery rocks.
“It was a beautiful island, well wooded with cedar, pine and oak. There were juniper bushes too, scratching our legs as we made our way through. I led the motley crew as they complained.
“We climbed a high granite bluff and I cautioned my young climbers not to go too close to the edge. I did not want them tumbling down to the jagged rocks below.
” ‘Look,’ said Garnet, spreading his arms out wide, ‘wouldn’t it be fun to dive from here.’ The others agreed with him. I shuddered.”
“We skirted two ravines, which were a mass of trees and tangled undergrowth. A chipmunk jabbered in alarm and we stopped to listen. It seemed a long time since we had heard a chipmunk.
“It was a longer swim to the next island. Frank was in the channel fishing so he watched us until we were all safely across…We were unable to explore all the islands in the group. The afternoon was wearing on and Frank had to get back to the light. We didn’t get to Crane Island. It’s the largest of the group, runs east and west and is a distance from the others….
“We called to Frank to go and gather up our towels and shoes. While he obliged we swam in the clear green water. When he came to pick us up, we reluctantly crawled out of the water and into the boat…
“Frank started the motor. He put the nose of the outboard on the lighthouse five watery miles away. The Rourke explorers were going home.”
“Pristine” is the word that sticks in my mind about those islands back then. I hope they still are, but more and faster boats nowadays have brought more people to the Westerns, maybe with the trash we seem to leave behind us everywhere.
From miles to the east in the Manitou and Sans Souci area can be seen the long flat shape of the most northerly island, which I wonder was the one the Rourkes called Crane Island. I read somewhere that early in the 19th Century a man had been marooned there. He had placed rocks across the flattish top spelling the word “HELP” to be seen by passing aircraft. Can anyone verify that story?