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.

‘Into the Wild’ – New temporary exhibit of Strathcona Provincial Park in 1910

‘Into the Wild – The 1910 Ellison Expedition and BC’s First Park’ is a new temporary exhibit at the Museum celebrating the 100th anniversary of the journey that culminated one year later in the creation of British Columbia’s first Provincial Park – the 429,000 acre Strathcona Park.   The exhibit draws on archival photographs and passages from a journal kept by one of the Ellison expedition members, Harry Johnson and chronicles their journey along a watershed now much altered.

The expedition, a 36 day trek that was essentially a reconnaissance mission, was undertaken by a group of twenty two men and one woman, who  travelled by canoe and on foot along the Campbell River watershed to Buttle Lake. After a nine day detour to climb Crown Mountain, the party headed overland, making the traverse through a rugged mountain pass to Great Central Lake, then finishing their journey in Port Alberni.

They left Victoria on July 5, 1910, boarding the steamship the “Queen City”, and sailed to Vancouver for supplies.  Among those participating were some notables, like Reverend William Washington Bolton, Headmaster of Victoria’s University School for Boys, who had made an exploratory journey of Vancouver Island in 1894,  (Beyond Nootka – Lindsay Elms), and the Honourable Price Ellison, Minister of Lands and leader of the expedition.  They arrived in Campbell River on July 7, 1910 and stayed at the Willow’s Hotel, with which they were very impressed, not expecting to find such fine accommodation in such an isolated community.  Some of the rooms actually had running water!

 “Campbell River was a very small and quiet place in those days, but very lively on week-ends as there was a large logging camp located near the mouth of the river, and the Willows Hotel with a big barroom open for business six days a week”…This is the best place on the Pacific Coast for Tyee salmon fishing”.

Getting to the Buttle Lake area at that time was very different from how it is today.  A wagon was able to take the group along the newly formed road to McIvor Lake for a distance of six miles (9.6 km).  There they camped before continuing on their journey up the Campbell River.  The inimitable Lord Bacon, an eccentric character who lived alone at Buttle Lake with his dog ‘Man’,  had  joined them in Campbell River as their guide, and entertained them that evening.

“While waiting for supper we have our first talk with one of the leading figures of the expedition, Lord Hugh Nathan Bacon, one time of ___ Scotland, now Lord of Vancouver Island; and make the acquaintance of his sole partner, “Man”, a little fox-terrier. We find very soon that the Lord is no ordinary person. He spends his time in the princely fastnesses of his forest-home back in the Buttle Lake region, and comes down to the settlements only when the silence of the forests palls on him and he feels it his duty to come down and straighten out the rabble of the ordinary workaday world. He takes a fore-place in the hotel bar and tells the loggers they are a pack of drunkards and under the persuasive influence of good old Scotch recites Kipling to them to tell them what they may expect in the next world”.

They paddled up the Campbell River and through the small Lower Campbell and Upper Campbell Lakes, fording rapids and portaging, combating mosquitoes and camping on islands in the middle of the river that are under water today.  They did take time to enjoy the scenery however, as this description of a sunset at Lower Campbell Lake illustrates.

“The sky is clear except for a few clusters of clouds in the west, and there is one of the most gorgeous possible sunsets.  The clouds change from gold to red and wine.  The peaks are blue, then pink, then lavender, and the forests all about and up the mountain sides are every delicate shade.  The water about us too takes on all sorts of shades of light and dark blue, green, yellow and pink.  The changing colours last until 9:45 and we continue our fishing until then just to watch them.”

Upon reaching the Elk River, they took a detour west towards Crown Mountain, as ascending this mountain was a pertinent objective on their itinerary, being a landmark to mariner’s on the West Coast.  Nine members of the group (including the author, Price Ellison and his daughter Myra) were elected to make the ascent.

Once this was accomplished, they continued on their journey through the Buttle Lake area and on to the traverse across to Great Central Lake.  While their journey was roughing it in many ways, they didn’t suffer when it came to the food.

“Pete (the cook) rewards us for our noontime fast by offering us vermicelli soup, lobster pates, mutton (canned) a la Spanish etc, and plum pudding with proper sauce – not bad for the woods!”

They arrived in ‘Alberni’ August 11th, and were officially out of the woods. Telegrams were sent to the Premier McBride and to the expedition member’s families to inform them of their safe arrival. From there went by road to Nanaimo, and the trip was almost at an end.

“Lunch at the hotel, (August 13) a walk about the streets of Nanaimo, more rain.  Then we board the afternoon train of the Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway, and are in Victoria at the Empress in time for dinner.”

This expedition will be replicated this year in July by local mountaineer Philip Stone and several participants (see

All the above excerpts in quotations are taken from the ‘Journal of BC Exploratory Survey Trip into the Buttle’s Lake region by Harry McC. Johnston.’  The journal can be found in the Museum archives and is a rare treasure – full of wonderful descriptions and humour.  It is strictly a reference item, and is not available for reproduction.  Many archival photos of the Park are also available in the Archives, open Tuesday – Sunday 1-4pm or by appointment – 250-287-3013.