Deadman’s Island on Burns Lake

Members of the Young Rangers Band on Deadman’s Island with their leader, William “Bill” Saunders of Palling [~1940]. (Lakes District Museum photo/Lakes District News)

Members of the Young Rangers Band on Deadman’s Island with their leader, William “Bill” Saunders of Palling [~1940]. (Lakes District Museum photo/Lakes District News)

Deadman’s Island just out of Burns Lake approximately two kilometers east of Radley Beach. Just one hectare in size, it is British Columbia’s smallest provincial park, and (having been established in 1933) one of the region’s oldest.

There are several versions of how the tiny island got its name. One old-timer whose family came to this area during the second decade of the 20th Century says that railway contractors Foley, Welch & Stewart located a deadman (a heavy weight buried in the ground as an anchor for a cable, pole, or guy wire) on the island to facilitate removal of rock from the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway right of way. It bears noting that a promontory on the island’s east end contains a large pit of indeterminate origin.

The book Burns Lake & District: A History suggests that Deadman’s Island has a darker history, and can trace its name to an accident that occurred during construction of the railway. The author, who spoke extensively with old-timers who worked on the railway, claims that fifteen men working on the construction crew died when dynamite exploded prematurely on the nearby ‘Big Cut.’ While there is no documentary evidence to support this version of events, deaths on the right of way were common. In 1913, men were unloading a coyote hole (a short T-shaped section of tunnel driven into a rock face and filled with explosives) when something ignited the contents. The resulting blast killed three workers and tossed their bodies two hundred feet in the air.

While the source of the name may be in doubt, the island’s value as a local playground is not. During construction of the Grand Truck Pacific Railway, workers toiling on the nearby “Big Cut” – the heaviest bit of rockwork on the entire Grand Trunk line – sometimes spent their days off there. In the 1930s, members of the local Young Rangers Band (a service club for young people organized by Forest Ranger Walter Wilson and Palling resident William Saunders) regularly camped among the island’s stately birch and poplar trees, and later built a cabin to accommodate their outings.

For several years, the Village of Burns Lake organized canoe races that started and ended at Radley Beach. Participants paddled around Deadman’s Island before heading to the finish line. It was a difficult task, but worth the sweat and blisters.

Today, Deadman’s Island remains a favourite rest spot for boaters exploring Burn Lake’s myriad bays and inlets. People still skate, ski, and hike over the ice to it in winter, too. It’s a great place for a wiener roast, but if you want a campfire, better bring your fuel. Firewood collecting is prohibited on the island.

© Michael Riis-Christianson and the Lakes District Museum Society