A Kayak Trip to D’Arcy Island
D’Arcy Island, lying just of the east coast of the Saanich Pennisula on Vancouver Island, BC, is a beautiful and tranquil place to visit either as a day paddle or an overnighter. There are beautiful cobble beaches and Arbutus and Douglas Fir forests cover the island. However, all this beauty hides a much darker past when the island was a lazeretto or Leper Colony.
What is commonly called D’Arcy Island is actually two islands. Big D’Arcy is the largest of the two at around 83 hectares and is now a part of the Gulf Island National Park Reserve containing 7 wilderness campsites with picnic tables and pit toilets. Little D’Arcy lies just to the east and is private property. For more information on camping in the GINPR click this link.
The History of the D’Arcy Island Leper Colony
In 1891 five Chinese lepers were discovered in a shack in Chinatown in downtown Victoria. The traditional horror of this disease and a good dose of racism sparked the municipal council of the day into action. By the 20th of May, 1891 they had not only obtained approval from the province for the colony but had sent a crew of men over to construct the necessary facilities. The facilities were described by the media as excellent at the time, but these sick individuals were left there to fend for themselves with no medical care and had to collect their own water which was seriously lacking at the time. Their only relief was that a supply boat would deliver them supplies every 3 months along with a medical officer to check their condition however, the residents received no treatment.
Conditions were deplorable on the island. A letter written by Dr. Ernest Hanington of Victoria at the time described it this way: “I have been to the island twice, and it was a very painful experience. The wretched beings, some in the last stages of the disease…, lined up on the beach and cried like children when we were leaving.”
In 1905 the Provincial Government finally got involved and convinced the federal government to provide some financing, and in 1906 the federal government passed the Leprosy Act and the colony became a true medical facility with new buildings and even a caretaker. Perhaps more importantly was a new attitude towards lepers and the disease which resulted in a repatriation of the some of the residents back to China and the necessary medicines to alleviate their suffering. The facilities at D’Arcy remained in operation until 1924 when it was permanently closed and a new station was opened up on Bentinck Island, near the quarantine station at William Head.
Today the island looks much like they did back then but there is little remaining of the colony except for the foundations of some of the old buildings and the slightly more substantial remains of the caretakers building. The City of Victoria placed a bronze memorial on the island in 2000 and there is a pictorial/information placard near the campsite on the east side of the island.
You can access the ruins by paddling around the island and landing at the various beaches, or you can choose to land at the campground and hike around the island on the unmarked beach trails or across the island on trails marked by colour coded surveyors tape. There is a map of the trails posted. A word of caution, while the trails start out well cleared and distinct, as you get further into the forest they are just marked with surveryors tape, which at times is really easy to miss and find yourself off of the trail.
The easiest and shortest paddle craft access to D’Arcy Island is from Island View Beach Regional Park about 20 km or 30 minute drive from downtown Victoria. Island View has a large sandy beach from which you can launch, and there is a rather rough, deteriorating boat launch, which gives you easier access to the water without having to climb over the driftwood logs. There is a large parking lot, which can get busy of nice summer days, particularly on weekends.
The crossing to D’Arcy is about 3.5 nautical miles (6.5 kms) across Cordova and Sidney Channels. These waters are very exposed to prevailing southerly winds and currents of up to 3 knots in these channels add to the risk because current met by an opposing wind can create larger, steeper waves. This trip is not recommended for novice paddlers because conditions can change very quickly with a simple change in direction of the current.