Maurice East was a Northern pioneer
‘People like him don’t come around very often’
He was abandoned as an infant and eventually adopted in the United States. At 18, he crossed the Rainbow Bridge into Niagara Falls. It was December and he wore no scarf, hat or mitts. He wore only a raincoat and was penniless. But he was determined to join the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Maurice East, former owner of the Killarney Mountain Lodge, passed away on Sept. 10 after battling an infection and declining health for a few years. He leaves behind his beloved wife of 53 years, Annabelle, his two daughters and three sons, including Ted East of Killarney Outfitters.
“He was one of those people who came from absolutely nothing and pulled himself up,” daughter Katherine East says. “He was abandoned as a child, but created something marvelous. And he did it without seeking financial gain. He was so excited about Northern Ontario and the people and the First Nations people. He had a curiosity and joy in life; he loved the wildflowers and the flora and fauna of life. He sucked the marrow out of life.”
After serving in the military during the Second World War, he began his hospitality career in 1959 when he married his first wife. They worked at her family’s lodge in Huntsville. Maurice later took over the Muskoka Sands Inn and revitalized the region with ski hills. He even helped to establish the Mount St. Louis ski hill along Highway 400. He founded a boys’ school, construction company and Air Muskoka, and was deeply involved in his community.
“People like him don’t come around very often,” East says. “Usually people are more ego-centric or braggarts or they want attention, and he just wasn’t one of those types. He was a real old-fashioned renaissance man.”
In 1962, Maurice decided to head north to Killarney. He purchased Killarney Mountain Lodge — long before there was a road leading into the enclave — and he married Annabelle two years later.
He wanted to ensure his children got a robust education that went beyond the bounds of the classroom. During the warmer months, East attended a one-room schoolhouse in the village of Killarney.
“It was mostly First Nations people and it was Roman Catholic, which we are not,” she says.
During the winter months, Maurice and Annabelle typically took their kids south to the Bahamas, where they were home-schooled.
“Dad taught himself how to sail and so we would go to the Bahamas and there are 700 islands there, most of them are uninhabited,” she says. “I knew how to clean conch and clean fish before I could even walk practically. He taught us everything about the flora and fauna there, and about sailing . ... He was very interested in my sister and I getting more influence than just the little school and that’s why he wanted to take us to the Bahamas to see something.”
East attended the dramatic arts program at Sudbury Secondary School and boarded in Sudbury so that she could participate in extracurricular activities.
While he ran the lodge, he also worked as a spotter for search and rescue mission son Georgian Bay, rescuing lost aircraft and vessels. For a time, he also ran the Sportsman’s Inn in Killarney and launched Killarney Outfitters in 1972.
Flight was never far from Maurice’s heart and he also started Air Killarney, which offered sightseeing and charter flights, and helped spur the establishment of the airfield in the town.
Maurice had been told his mother was dead, but while in England, he found out she was alive and they reunited. East says her father “was not ecstatic” about the reunion, but they reconciled and mama eventually moved to the lodge in Killarney.
“She was one of my favourite people, I even had an English accent when I was a kid because I spent so much time with her,” East says.
Maurice was awarded the Queen’s Golden Jubilee award in 2002 for his work in the community of Killarney.
After more than 50 years, Maurice and Annabelle sold Killarney Mountain Lodge in 2015 (when he was nearly 91) and moved to Parry Sound. During his later years, he spent time in a nursing home, but he was not a good fit.
“He was such a great man, a strong visionary, they just don’t fit well in nursing homes,” East says. “He hated it and didn’t eat or drink very much. His immune system deteriorated and he got an infection and died in three days.”
He died in hospital on Sunday at the age of 93. East was at his bedside, but her sister, who lives in Miami, could not get away because of Hurricane Irma.
“Heartbreakingly, she’s missed the whole thing with my father,” East says. “She’s having to drive around and here he is dying in the hospital. It’s just awful. I spent three nights in the hospital with him, I slept in the same room.”
Annabelle has lost her partner of 53 years and as East explained it, they worked, lived and travelled together. The void is significant.
“Death sucks,” she says. “They were this unit, you know? They have a big, beautiful home in Parry Sound on the bay. It’s just sad to see her alone.”
East explained that her father was an ardent atheist who did not want a funeral service or obituary, so true to form, the family has planned a wake to celebrate his life. It takes place at the Killarney Mountain Lodge on Sept. 30 from 4-6:30 p.m.
“He wanted us to have a party,” she says. “There’ll be a big party in the bar. There’ll be hundreds of people. There’ll be drinks and hors d’oeuvres. Dad didn’t believe in sad.”
Maurice and Annabelle East. Maurice East died earlier this week.
Annabelle and Maurice East enjoy a summer day on the Killarney Mountain Lodge boat.
Maurice East during his younger days, as a pilot.