Black and dying trees and what looks to be the shell of the old homestead building along with a few green trees is all that is left on Mad Russian’s Island in the middle of the Fraser River at Soda Creek after wildfires ravaged the region this summer. Monica Lamb-Yorski photo

Fire consumes Mad Russian’s Island, a unique piece of Cariboo history

Photograph before the fires shows green forest and old homestead

An island in the Fraser River at Soda Creek known by locals as Mad Russian’s Island was decimated by the wildfires this summer.

But some of this island’s unique history lives on in a photograph taken shortly before the fires began.

Springhouse 4-H Club member Deven Naumann-Stowell, a Grade 8 student at Lake City Secondary School, took his photograph of the island on June 6 from the vantage point of a mountain side on the east side of the Fraser River, before the wildfires in July left the forest and old homestead in chard ruin.

“I saw the island quite a bit because my mom is also a photographer and we have been there taking pictures several times,” said 13-year-old Deven.

He framed the best of the photographs he took using recycled wood from loading pallets and was happy to see his creation sell for $625 at the 59th annual Williams Lake and District 4-H sale on Monday, Aug. 28.

“I was sad the island burned,” Deven said. “It was a beautiful island and I still want to get onto it some day.”

The island sits about a quarter mile south of Rudy Johnson’s Bridge at Soda Creek right in the middle of the Fraser River.

In one of his Tribune columns historian Barry Sale writes about the island and how it came to be known at Mad Russian’s Island.

The small rocky island claimed as home by a man who appeared in the Soda Creek area around 1956 and began gold panning on the sand and gravel bars in the area.

Rumours began to circulate, the most common one being that the man was a Russian immigrant with a past who wanted little, if anything to do with society, Sale wrote.

Another rumour was that he had been a spy for the West since it was right in the height of the Cold War with Russia and he was hiding from the Russian KGB.

Whatever his story was, he did not share it with anyone.

The man was content to do some small scale placer mining, to live a hermit-like existence and to trade the gold he found for the necessities of life.

For the first couple of years the man built and lived in a small shack in the bush near the river.

Then in 1958 he built a raft, loaded up his partly dismantled shack and all his belongings and floated down river to the unnamed island just below the Buckskin Ranch.

He lived in a rough shack for a couple of years while he logged the island and set up a homestead on the south end of the island. He brought in a head saw and powered it with a Volkswagen engine. Using his mill he cut lumber and built a house and outbuildings.

One whole wall of his house was a fireplace/chimney complex of mortared river rocks.

He continued to improve his island homestead, building furniture, cutting firewood, digging and planting a garden, building an outhouse and adding a root cellar. All the while he panned and sluiced for gold.

He began work on a shaft, some say that like Billy Barker, he was looking for a gold vein deeper down near bedrock, while others speculate that he was working on an access tunnel which would run under the river.

Even though he had very little to do with local residents occasionally he would find it necessary to borrow a tool or implement from Rudy Johnson at the Buckskin Ranch and visit Williams Lake two or three times a year for supplies. He built his own wooden rowboat for the commute from the island to the shore and quipped it with a 10 horse power motor.

Sometime in the early 1970s the man just disappeared. The RCMP were notified and they called the local coroner, but after a thorough search no trace of the man was found.

His house looked as if he had just stepped out for a while with dishes on the table and cook-wear on the stove. His root cellar was full of homemade preserves and his firewood supply was well stocked.His wooden boat was located downriver, overturned near the mouth of Williams Lake Creek, and it was widely believed that he had drowned.

“A few old timers say that they called him Joe, but whether that was his real name or not we will never know,” Sale said in his column.

As for his future photography endeavours, Deven said he plans to continue taking photographs of nature and is looking forward to the opportunity to take images further afield while travelling to games with his rugby team.

With files from Barry Sale

 

Another view of Mad Russian’s Island after the wildfires ripped through the Soda Creek area this summer. Monica Lamb-Yorski photo