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By Cherie Thiessen
For Travel Writers' Tales

October is a haunted month. Gulf Islanders know that ghosts are drawn to their shores, so when the nights close in and the fogs and mists and drizzle wrap themselves around the coast, you'll find most islanders indoors after dusk.

They know about the haunted Yew tree on South Pender Island that witnessed murder most foul and still reluctantly harbors the murder weapon. They've heard the cries of a drowning sailor rising eerily from a long ago shipwreck near Mayne Island that seems fated to repeat itself over and over. They've experienced inexplicable feelings of isolation, depression and fear when visiting D'Arcy, the island of lepers. These unquiet waters and troubled spirits seem to loom larger in October.

South Pender Island - The haunted Yew.

The beauty, serenity and luxury of Poets Cove conceal a ghostly secret. That inviting white shell beach at the resort's waterfront was once a gory murder scene. Over two hundred years ago Bedwell Harbour was a sheltered anchorage for European schooners. Two sailors from such a ship pursued a young native woman here. They caught her near a Yew tree, assaulting and brutally murdering her, using oarlocks and then driving the bloody weapons into the Yew's trunk.

Since then the area around the tree has been frequented by an otherworldly presence: a glowing figure, a strange mist, the sound of bare feet running, moans, and an invisible hand that touches the unwary visitor's shoulder.

The Yew tree, revered by many ancient mythologies, is said to be over 1000 years old. It stands as mute witness, the oarlocks still embedded in its trunk. More chilling still, when Poets Cove was excavating the area for its resort, the bodies of a woman and a child were actually found under the tree. They were left there. .

Mayne Island - The Wreck of the Zephyr

The Salish Sea has a long history of marine tragedies, so perhaps it's no surprise that Mayne Island's shores echo with past cries of distress.

On February 13, 1872, a snowstorm struck a three-masted sailing vessel, the S.S. Zephyr. It foundered on a reef and sank between David Cove and Edith Point near Mayne's north coast, drowning two of its crew.

The wreckage was the first to be designated an historic wreck. Its rusted anchor and part of the cargo, a sandstone column from Newcastle Island headed for the construction of the San Francisco mint, still stand in front of Mayne's tiny museum in Miners Bay. Once a jail, it's now a spot best avoided on an October evening.

So is Campbell Bay, close to where the Zephyr went down. This beautiful beach by day can become a nightmare on some stormy nights, when the sounds of a sinking ship and the cries from its occupants can be heard near where the ship went down.

D'Arcy, the island of graves.

Nobody visits D'Arcy more than once. Erik Paulsson, there to make a documentary film on the forgotten lepers, recalls getting off the boat and feeling a chill run through his body. Most visitors feel the same foreboding: the island is not welcoming, even less so back in 1894 when it became a leper colony for Chinese immigrants.

Forty nine miserable, ailing castaways were marooned on D'Arcy until 1924, living in a six unit row house with their only contact being a supply boat that came four times a year to bring opium, food, and coffins. Several of the eighteen lepers who died here committed suicide. Nothing remains of that dreary settlement now. The rotting buildings were burnt to the ground when the island became a marine park in 1961 and the location of their unmarked, unvisited graves is kept a secret.

However, directly on the other side of the island, the skeleton of the caretaker's cottage and other concrete structures still molder, lonely monuments to misery. Although the island is beautiful, with several beaches, trails and campsites, few ever take advantage of them. Most overnighters have experienced the same feelings as Paulsson.

Why do the Gulf Islands have so many ghosts? Some believe it's the Salish Sea's history of shipwrecks and slaughter, others suggest watercourses being fed from Mt. Baker, and the conjunction of forces of energy called ley lines. Whatever the reasons, there are as many tales of the supernatural on the islands as there are shells on the beach.

Plan your visits for the daylight hours.

The Lepers of D'arcy Island - Greater Victoria Public Library - Our Collection Local History Tales from the Vault

PHOTOS by Cherie Thiessen

1. The monument to the Zephyr stands outside Mayne Island's tiny museum. Avoid it at dusk.
2. Could D'Arcy Island's forgotten graves be somewhere in this eerie place?
3. The ruins of the caretaker's cabin on haunted D'Arcy Island.
4. Many unknown bodies lie in Mayne Island's graveyard at Miners Bay. How many drowned sailors stir uneasily among them?

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