Intriguing Yorke Island Re-Visited

For those interested in Yorke Island and BC’s coastal defence, a book about Yorke Island has just been published.  See link below for full story:

In 2004, museum docent Danny Brown (see left, yellow jacket) gave a presentation at the Campbell River Museum on a unique west coast military defence installation, Yorke Island, and later in the year took a group of people there on a tour.  The conditions had to be just right for this tour as this tiny island is surrounded by one of the most dangerous stretches of water in Johnstone Strait.  Located six kilometres northeast of Sayward, off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island, Yorke Island was considered to be a strategic site during World War II as it commands an exceptional view of the strait.  Then, there was another kind of danger lurking in the water; Japanese U-Boats had been sited in the vicinity as early as 1939 and especially after such a U-Boat launched a shell at Estevan Point lighthouse on the west coast of Vancouver Island in 1942, the Canadian military felt it was critical to establish a gunnery post in defence of British Columbia’s west coast.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Yorke Island with outdoor guide and military enthusiast Ross Keller, and one of the most profound impressions the site leaves is of the sheer magnitude of the construction that still remains.   While the windows might be missing and some of the paint peeling, these poured concrete edifices look as serviceable today as they must have been during the war years.  Yorke Island was occupied from 1939 – 1947, after which some of the portable buildings were taken to Hardwicke Island (about one kilometre away).  Prior to that, the only evidence of occupation was a cabin left by an individual who had been there in about 1925.

The island would not have been a hospitable place to reside on as it was missing one crucial resource – fresh water.  To resolve this problem, the military had to import enough fresh water to fill a 50,000 gallon (250,000 litre) tank.  Each of the men by military standards had to be provided with one gallon of water per day.  With 250 men posted there and sometimes as many as 200 construction workers, it was a formidable task to store enough of this precious commodity.  In fact, sea water was used to supplement their requirements in places like the toilets.

As a result of Brown’s talk on the island, he met a veteran who had actually been posted on Yorke Island, Gordon Kurton (now deceased) of Powell River.  His research also lead him to meet Garry Ogrodnik, manager of the Campbell River Superstore, whose father had been posted to the island, and he provided Brown with a photo of his father in uniform.  Other archival photos (see right) were donated to the Museum by the Bishop family , whose father Jack Husted had also been posted to the island.

Isolated as Yorke Island was, it was not a popular post and has been referred to as ‘Little Alcatraz” (Raincoast Place Names, Andrew Scott).  Many young men living there, especially those not used to coastal conditions, found the circumstances extremely trying and in Peter Moogk’s book, Vancouver Defended, he relates a few amusing tales of attempted escapes.  Not so amusing is the story of a soldier who committed suicide on the boat returning him to spend another stretch of time there.

The island is currently under the protection of BC Parks, and as it is without a dock, is not an easy place to reach.  A boat can anchor there, but a kayak or dinghy is required to reach shore, unless you have a landing craft like the Aurora Explorer that can lower its drawbridge and place you safely on the beach.  Although the undergrowth and buildings have been well cleaned up by out-of-work foresters through Sayward Futures, a visitor has to be fit enough to climb the steep hill to the top (200ft) in order to properly view the abandoned buildings.  For now, it remains even more remote than it did during the war years, which adds in many ways to its intriguing charm.

While the Museum no longer has tours to Yorke Island, there will be historic boat tours beginning July 11 with Discovery Marine Safaris to many of the other Discovery Islands.  Call us to find out more!  250-287-3103.