The Ghostly Reminders of War at Yorke Island

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

Article follows:

A trip to Yorke Island is not for the faint-of-heart.  The stretch of water off Sayward that surrounds the island is known to be one of the most dangerous in Johnstone Strait (between Vancouver Island and the BC Mainland). Yorke Island is situated six kilometers northeast of Sayward, where the strait meets Sunderland Channel.  However, if you are in the hands of a good skipper like Ron Rennison, who knows the area and has been there many times, you are off to a good start.  Yorke Island is worth a visit especially if you are a military history buff, as it was once a gunnery outpost created to be the first line of defence against a possible attack from the Japanese during World War II.

Once you get there (and fortunately for us it was a calm day), you will discover that there is no way in which to actually land on the island.  There is no dock or place to tie up a boat. That was my first surprise.  My second was when my host and guide Ross Keller, who had brought along his nephew Nick Bowman, told me they were staying till Monday.  “What”?  I was only prepared for a day trip and couldn’t picture myself shivering in the open with no sleeping bag.  Then they reassured me that ‘Captain’ Ron would be back for me at whatever time I requested.  It was early, so I figured 2pm would be good and give me enough time to explore and learn about this unusual place.

Ross then threw his two person dinghy in the water (see photo) and we commenced our shuttle to shore.  I managed to get out of the dinghy without getting wet (unusual for me, as I can never seem to climb out of a kayak without getting well soaked) and Ross perused the shoreline to see how we would get to the trail.  Normally, this part wouldn’t have been a challenge, but a very large tree had uprooted itself over the winter and blocked the beginning of the trail.  It was clear that we were going to have to clamber over the upended tree’s exposed roots and clumps of dirt in order to reach the trail, or bushwack; so that is what we did.

The trail was quite visible after that and Ross commented that the team from Sayward Futures, out-of-work forest employees, who had been organized to make improvements on the island, had done a great job tidying up the trail.  It was wide and comfortable to follow, but fairly steep.  It wasn’t long before we encountered our first evidence of the World War II occupation of the island, a shell of a building that was once the officer’s quarters.  (see photo)  There was more to come.

At the top of the trail, the real gems of its history are revealed.  Yorke Island is small (55 hectares) and slopes steeply upward from shore.  Here the military placed their observation posts, at about 200 feet above the shore, in strategic positions that would offer an unobstructed view up and down the strait.  And these were not just flimsy shelters.  It boggles the mind in fact, to imagine how these poured concrete structures were ever put up under such difficult circumstances, when there was (and still is not)  any infrastructure, amenities or even resources on the island .  One of the biggest challenges was to provide enough water, as Yorke Island has no fresh water supply (and I was thankful I had the foresight to bring my usual bottle of the precious stuff). Along with the 250 to 300 troops, there could be as many as 200 construction workers there at any one time.  As the military deemed that each man should be provided with one gallon of water per day, a huge amount had to be delivered and stored there in a 50,000 gallon (200,000 litre) tank.  While those campers among us might think that several outhouses would suffice, there was a concern over cholera – which had been known to develop where several people were crowded together in unsanitary conditions, so flush toilets with adequate washing facilities were assembled.

Ross’s favourite place is the Observation Post.  Like a pair of kids in a tree house, he and his nephew scrambled up onto a rickety bench then squeezed through a slat in the wall.  Was I supposed to follow?  Not to appear cowardly, I did, and found myself on a sort of platform that offered a magnificent view of the strait facing west.  But this was not all, Ross figured I should attempt the next phase, which would offer an even more fabulous view, and with his help I managed to crawl up the ersatz ladder that led to the roof top of this building.  Although not particularly comfortable with heights, I had to admit that the climb was worthwhile.  I could see why Ross was excited about camping here.

After a picnic lunch on the heights, we continued on our tour, with Ross

Yours truly inspecting the barracks

explaining the purpose of the various buildings and gun ports.  We then headed down a very steep and dry, crumbling slope to the west shore and stopped to investigate the buildings that once housed the gigantic generators.  For anyone who has ever seen the power generated at a mine site, it is comparable.  The generators are no longer there, but were a necessary apparatus for a war time outpost when light might be required at a moment’s notice in case the enemy was spotted.

The dining hall and camp area were at the bottom of this hill, and Ross was thrilled to find evidence in the form of an artifact – a half pottery bowl with the Sovereign stamp, that had been unearthed by an uprooted tree.  We then went down to the shore, which involved more clambering and hopping over the rocks, then followed the shoreline back to our landing spot.

All in all, it had been a great day.  Ron arrived with his boat at the prescribed hour and on board were his wife Sharon and Robert Theoret, a former photographer with National Geographic, who was scouting out good shots of eagles for his photo library.  As Ron said when we got back to Kelsey Bay, his greatest concern is for the safety of visitors to the island.  So far, no tour operator has endeavoured to take groups of people there, although the Campbell River Museum has conducted a tour and Marine Links provided the transportation for last year’s 70th anniversary trip.  The year prior, Ross brought two war veterans John Rorison and Bill Lewis, who had been posted to Yorke Island during its years of occupation.  Ross’s dream is to eventually bring people there on tours, but in the meantime it remains a remote and not easily accessible place, which of course, adds to its intriguing charm.


15 thoughts on “The Ghostly Reminders of War at Yorke Island

  1. That is so cool my mom was there when she was a teenager and Ross was at my school tday doing a fabulous presentation and my family know’s Ron Rennison quite well, my ancestors were also the first white settlers in Sayward

  2. My Father Robert(Bob)W. Rorison was stationed there along with my Uncle John Rorison and my other uncle Joe Quilty (who was married to Violet Rorison). Joe would have been skipper of a boat that moved the troops on and off Yorke Island.
    I was unaware of Yorke Island until I met Ross in Campbell River at the hotel where he works.
    The story about Yorke Island is fascinating, I am eager to learn more and visit the island some time soon.
    Bob Rorison

    • Hello Bob – I’m glad you found my article. I have just completed a book about Yorke Island and the Kelsey Bay area. I knew that John Rorison served there, but I have no information about him beyond that. The name Joe Quilty is very familiar and I may have run across something about him as well. There were several boats that ran the troops there, so it would be interesting to know which boat he skippered.

      Catherine (Kasha) Gilbert

  3. Joe and John did not come to Yorke during the anniversary tour as both were, by that time, physically unable to. The “elderly” visitors were Aurora guests, Peter Moogk and Col. Vic Stevenson from the 15th Field Museum, and various family members of men who served on the island.
    John Rorison and Bill Lewis did come the year before to help to identify and interpret the paperwork available from the period as per how it pertains to the fort.
    Unfortunately, Joe has never been in physical condition to visit the fort in the time I have been introduced to him but he does look through his photo album of Yorke photos often to provide facts and stories about the island.

    • Thanks for the clarification. Having seen Joe Quilty recently, I can see that he would not have been able to do the tour. John Rorison seems to think that he was on the anniversary tour, so must have the years mixed up.


  4. Great write up! I just recently heard of Yorke Island. I would love to make it there some day. Is there anyone or way of still getting there? I would like to go


    • Hi Chris – at this time, it is difficult to get there unless you have your own boat or can kayak there. However, a local company called Hardwicke Transportation –, run by a fellow named Eric, has a landing craft that is excellent and can take you right up to the beach. He can take a maximum of six people. Until BC Parks has finalized a Master Plan for Yorke Island, no one is able to get permits for taking people there on tours. I hope to see this completed by next summer, as so many people are interested in going. I wrote a book about Yorke Island which is coming out early next year. I can keep you on my update list to notify you when it becomes available, and when tours are offered as well.

    • Nice to hear from you Chris. The book, which will be entitled “Yorke Island and the Uncertain War, Defending Canada’s Western Coast during World War II” will be out by the 1st of May. I have you on a list of others who wish to be notified when it comes out.

  5. Last night I seen a short film about Yorke island coastal battery on b.c. knowledge network.I presume you were the august 1943 my parents and I moved to ocean falls from Quebec city a month after I was father was in the artillery.this is the first time I have reference to army coastal batteries on the b.c. you have any idea where I would find list of service members posted to Yorke island during the war?

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