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by Cherie Thiessen
(for Travel Writers’ Tales)

Can an island be hostile? We’re beginning to think so. “What is it about this place?” My partner, David, asks me uneasily as we struggle through the shadowy, claustrophobic tangle of torn limbs and dead trees, trying not to trip over the vines underfoot.

“How can we have lost the path?”

Photo 1 Haunted D’Arcy is only accessible by boat, and even then risky.

We’ve just left our sailboat jostling in the current on the west side of D’Arcy Island, here to check out the island with a nefarious history. It’s a desolate place where Chinese lepers were once banished. Isolated and surrounded by reefs and tricky currents, and often with a mysterious layer of fog shrouding only the island, it’s located in a no-man’s land, skulking in Haro Strait south of James and Sidney Islands, only barely within Canada.

“The island is notorious when there’s a tide. You can see it from the air. It’s just wild,” said George Mercer, an ecologist with Parks Canada, when he described the treacherous waters around D’Arcy. “You have rip tides all around, submerged rocks, and powerful tides and currents. Boaters and kayakers have to really choose their time.”

But we’re wondering if there’s ever a good time. Erik Paulsson didn’t think so. He was there to make a documentary film on the marooned lepers. He recalls getting off the boat and feeling a chill run through his body, sort of what we’re experiencing at the moment.

We can see why the City of Victoria would choose this place for their lazaretto from 1891 to 1924: a virtual prison, from which it would have been almost impossible to escape. Some tried, apparently, probably preferring their inevitable watery deaths to a more solid but unmarked grave on this sad and lonely 206-acre island so far from their homeland.

Photo 2 The crumbling ruins of the caretaker’s home.

A total of forty-nine miserable, ailing castaways were marooned here, living in a six unit row house, their only contact being a supply boat that came four times a year bringing opium, food, and coffins. Several of the eighteen lepers who died here committed suicide. Nothing remains of that dreary settlement now except some foundations from the caretaker’s home and nearby steps leading nowhere.

Photo 5 The steps lead nowhere

The rotting buildings were burnt to the ground when the island became a marine park in 1961. The location of the unmarked graves is a secret, so it would appear that these abandoned men are as ignored in death as they were in life.

Photo 3 The ruins of the caretaker’s home as seen from the water

“This might be a trail,” signals David and I turn to follow him, anxious to get out of here. Why is there no birdsong in the height of summer? It’s creepy. As we bash out of this jungle I am not reassured by what I previously read in Bill Wolferstan’s Cruising Guide to the Gulf Islands. “Visitors have reported spooky feelings here, especially at night.” It’s bad enough now, in the middle of a sunny afternoon.

The dense growth finally releases us and we find ourselves in the open, staring over at a beautiful beach, some fenced areas, and in the distance a memorial to the island’s victims.

Photo 4 The beach is beautiful but where is everyone?

D’Arcy has ten campsites nearby but we’ve been told only a few hardy kayakers ever stay overnight and there is no-one here today, although two kayaks have been pulled up on the beach. I wish the occupants were around to help dissipate our unease. Authorities say not many visitors overnight here because Sidney Island Provincial Park is conveniently nearby but is that really the reason? Now I’m thinking of what Chuck Gould, the past editor of the popular Waggoner Cruising Guides, says he had experienced here. “I am not sure that I believe in ghosts, but I have to believe it’s so in D’Arcy Island. My wife Jan and I left D’Arcy Island baffled by some very strange experiences.” (He was referring to disembodied sounds and sudden appearances and disappearances of malevolent deer.)

Somewhere in this infertile, rocky ground, a one-acre garden was once tended by these ailing occupants, who also kept ducks, chickens and pigs. A commemorative plaque dated 2000, quite inconspicuously attached to one of the boulders, lists the names of the 14 who died here, along with four other anonymous unfortunates.

The urge to leave is suddenly pressing for us both. Sometimes a haunting doesn’t have to involve seeing ghosts. D’Arcy Island is a brooding, scary place. We’re outta here!


PHOTOS: David Dossor

1. Haunted D’Arcy is only accessible by boat, and even then risky.
2. The crumbling ruins of the caretaker’s home.
3. The ruins of the caretaker’s home as seen from the water.
4. The beach is beautiful but where is everyone?
5. The steps lead nowhere.

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