Thousand Islands Adventures

By: Alexandra O’Rourke

Volume 18, Issue 10, October 2023

[Editor's note: The author is actually writing her autobiography! I say "actually," as I wonder how many of us would love to do the same? But somehow the day for starting never comes. We thank you Alex O'Rourke for starting and for sharing this chapter with TI Life.]

Thousand Islands Adventures

The sun was splitting the sky, as we set out that Sunday afternoon; it was late August, in the summer of 1966. The sleek wooden boat glided through the glistening clear river with a smoothness associated only with old wooden boats. The Thousand Islands had been a summer playground since the turn of the century and before.

The Ahmik had been built in Rockport, ON, at Andress Boatworks, on the shores of the St Lawrence River, in the heart of the Thousand Islands. Ahmik means Beaver in one of the local indigenous languages. To say that this was my Mum’s boat was a bit perverse, since she disliked all boats intensely. It was, however, the first boat that my Dad had bought for her, in 1956.

The Ahmik, my mother's first boat

Half Moon Bay bills itself as having the tallest cathedral ceiling in the world. It is an open air, non-denominational church, set on the corner of Bostwick Island, near Gananoque, ON, in the heart of the Admiralty Group of the Thousand Islands. The natural granite rock formations on this corner of the island form a half moon-shaped bay and locals and visitors alike have been worshiping here on sunny summer Sunday afternoons since 1887. The bay is only accessible by boat and is packed with small craft at 1600h (4 pm) every Sunday afternoon in the summer season. Hymns are sung, passages are read, and all the while the congregation sit in their small boats beneath the beautiful summer sky.

There were five of us in the boat that day, Dad, Mum, my sister, our Nanny, and myself. It was a long run to get upriver from our island, as the boat did not move at a high rate of knots, but the sky was blue, the wind low, and our spirits high. An afternoon on the River was just what the doctor ordered for this glorious late summer day. Following the service, during which the array of small boats and canoes rafted together, we set off downriver towards home.

As we approached our island, Dad announced that we were going to head further downriver to Ivy Lea, to refuel the boat. Pulling up at the gas dock of Hunts Marina, anticipation welled up in me; would I be allowed into the small store to get a popsicle? I loved going to Ivy Lea!

Looking back now, I have no idea whether I actually got that popsicle. As we prepared to leave, refuelling completed, my Dad stood on the dock and instructed my sister (who was 15 at the time) to put the blower on and start the engine. The Ahmik, as mentioned, was a wooden boat built in the late 1950’s. It had an inboard engine, housed in a wooden box, in the middle of the boat. There is a fan, called ‘the blower,’ inside the engine compartment, which blows excess gasoline fumes from the engine compartment prior to starting the engine. Clearly, on this day, the blower was not functioning properly. My sister pushed the start button on the engine compartment housing several times. The engine turned over but did not start. My Dad, getting annoyed, jumped aboard, brushed my sister to the leeward side of the boat, and went to start the engine. What happened next was like something out of a horror story.

My sister and my father enjoying a day on the River my mother's boat the Ahmik.

The ensuing explosion rocked the tiny village of Ivy Lea! The red leatherette and plywood engine compartment cover blew into the air as the flames from the engine grew high around us.

I could feel the frame of my 9 year old body scraping against the dock as I was pulled up by the arms onto the wharf. Fear engulfed me, but shock took over. I watched from the shore as onlookers tried to get my Nanny out of the burning boat; the forward deck of the boat had collapsed on her legs as she sat beside me on the most forward bench seat. I could see my Dad, back on the dock, calling to my sister, who was in the water on the far side of the boat. My Mum was not a strong swimmer and was now in the water, although whether she jumped in or was coaxed by my sister to abandon the burning launch, I had no idea. My sister guided my Mum to shore and safety. As it transpired, my Mum had been thrown from the boat into the water by the explosion!

At the forward end of the craft, people were desperately trying to free Nanny and get her out of the boat. After what seemed like hours, but were in fact minutes, Nanny was out of the boat and being carried towards the small store at the end of the dock, to await the arrival of the ambulance. My Dad had somehow managed to get back onto the dock before the burning craft, half submerged in the water, was pushed away from the gas dock. She floated in flames as she quickly caught the current and drifted off towards the Thousand Islands bridge.

My Dad made the decision to have the boat raised. She had sunk while still in view of the marina. Local divers were hired and in about a week she was found, under the Thousand Islands bridge. Lasting memories of the contents of my Mum’s summer purse laid out on a table drying in the sun. Yes, treasures – cash and my Mum’s jewelry had all been successfully salvaged.

Life went on as before, everyone healed in their own time. The Ahmik, once raised, was sold and seen on the River for several summers after that. My Mum had a new boat the following summer, an outboard . . . less chance of explosion!! This boat can still be seen bombing up and down the River, some 56 years later!

By Alexandra O'Rourke

Alexandra O'Rourke's short bio is just as exciting: *River Rat since 1957;* 30 years in Ireland; *20 years back on The River; *Closing up my last property on The River this year, retiring to Knowlton. QC; *Worked in Retail then a second career in health care; *Started work on my autobiography last year; *Currently the Facilitator of Lac Brome Writers Group.

Posted in: Volume 18, Issue 10, October 2023, History, People, Places, Sports

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