After an entire B.C. town was abandoned, this artist began capturing the magic of how it's changing

What Mike Andrew McLean found in Jordan River was more than the story of a modern-day ghost town.

What Mike Andrew McLean found in Jordan River was more than the story of a modern-day ghost town

Mike Andrew McLean. Detail of Cut Block, Looking North Below Lower Reservoir, Version Two. Oct. 22, 2017. (Courtesy of the artist)

Misty purple mountains. Magenta forests. If you're willing to suspend disbelief for a second, there's a magic moment that comes with seeing photographs like this one.

They're taken from JR, an ongoing series by Victoria photographer Mike Andrew McLean, appearing at Vancouver's Chernoff Fine Art to May 4 as part of the city's Capture Photography Festival — and the actual location of that soft and alien landscape is, per the "JR" of the tile, in Jordan River, B.C.

It's a small place, a hamlet, on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island, about 70 kilometres northwest from Victoria.

"There's a campground, it's a real hotspot for surfing," says McLean, describing the place as one of those familiar, tiny places people might see a million times from a car window but never visit — a spot that day-trippers en route to the Juan de Fuca hiking trails pass on the regular. "Like most people, most of my friends and family members out here, I thought of Jordan River as this strip of houses along the highway."

But that strip of houses is gone now, along with the people who lived in them.

It was an image in my mind that I just couldn't shake.- Mike Andrew McLean, photographer

Jordan River's patch of Vancouver Island happens to experience the strongest seismic activity of anywhere in Western Canada, possibly the country. That in itself wasn't what cleared out the community. About 12 kilometres away from the hamlet, there's a 100-plus-year-old dam, one that cranks out a third of the Island's power.

In December 2014, B.C. Hydro announced that if (when, really) a big one hit (an earthquake reaching 8 or 9 on the Richter Scale), the dam would break, and break quickly, leaving residents no chance of escaping the crushing flood. All but one of the dozen homeowners sold — which is a whole other story — and by March 2017, demolition was wrapped.

When the news broke, McLean was fascinated.

Mike Andrew McLean. 11798-B Triptych. March 9, 2017/Oct. 9, 2017/Dec. 23, 2017. (Courtesy of the artist)

"It captured my imagination in a big way," he says. "Knowing where the townsite was, and that it was basically in the path of this massive inland wave that would've been coming down the mountain — it was an image in my mind that I just couldn't shake."

"I just imagined what it must feel like for the families who lived there, what it would feel like to go to sleep knowing that if there was an earthquake in the middle of the night, you'd have basically four minutes to get out of there."

"It was just a really, really, really vivid picture that it painted in my mind. I wanted to learn a little bit more about the place, and what that relationship is between the settlement and the landscape up there."

"I knew that it was going to be a landscape in transition. It was going to look different in the not-too-distant future."

So, since early 2015, McLean and his large-format 4x5 camera have been making the drive up to Jordan River, exploring the empty cabin community and beyond, driving up logging roads and hiking through clearcuts for images like the violet mountain vista that appears above.

Mike Andrew McLean. 11798-B. May 3, 2015. (Courtesy of the artist)
Mike Andrew McLean. Diversion Dam Below Spillway. May 17, 2015. (Courtesy of the artist)
Mike Andrew McLean. Service Road Heading NEbN Towards Lower Site. May 17, 2015. (Courtesy of the artist)

"It would be a real stroke of bad luck if you just happened to be in that valley when [an earthquake] happened," he says. "For me, anyway, it's always in the back of my mind — and standing below, directly below the dam site, you can't help but have those feelings that you're out on a limb a little bit."

His desolate discoveries — roadways blocked by boulders, before-and-after scenes of the demolition, the old dam itself — are captured in both black and white and infrared colour. Blanched, boarded-up cabins are engulfed by acid-pink brambles, for instance.

One of the reasons why I was taken with it [infrared] was it made what is a somewhat familiar landscape look really unfamiliar.- Mike Andrew McLean, photographer

McLean talks a bit about how the historical use of infrared film techniques played into the project. Kodak Aerochrome film, for example — now discontinued and so rare that McLean says the project will probably wrap prematurely when he blows through his limited stash — was invented as a military tool, something that spy planes might use to detect any camouflaged danger hiding below. Real trees and plants would appear pink, exposing the enemy's hiding spots in more ways than one.

"One of the reasons why I was taken with [infrared] was it made what is a somewhat familiar landscape look really unfamiliar," says the photographer. And it also hints at the idea that even though the community cleared out, it's still flush with electric purple signs of life. The place isn't exactly abandoned, which came as a surprise to McLean.

Mike Andrew McLean. Shooting Gallery, Fore Bay Road. May 3, 2015. (Courtesy of the artist)
Mike Andrew McLean. The King of Beer, Casings and a Blasting Cap. 2017. (Courtesy of the artist)

The cabins are gone, but many of the past residents still live a short drive away, and McLean says he's met several of them over the course of this project. The series doesn't just capture evidence of what's been left behind, but also the activity that still continues — even though you might have to journey off-road to photograph the evidence. It's an area that's seen heavy industry, both in the past and present (mining, logging), in addition to attracting ATV-riding weekend warriors who blow off steam on backwoods tin can shooting ranges. This isn't just the story of a ghost town.

"As I was wandering," says McLean, "it became pretty apparent that this place was more than what my initial preconceptions were."

"I thought, 'What a horrible thing this is, these people are being forced from their homes. This isn't good!'" That might have been the case for some, he says, but for others, he got the impression that the move was hardly the melodrama he imagined, and as Jordan River's story continues, he'll continue to document it.

It became pretty apparent that this place was more than what my initial preconceptions were.- Mike Andrew McLean, photographer

B.C. Hydro is reportedly looking to sell 28 hectares of land in the area, once it's been rezoned to restrict housing and overnight lodging, and the Pacheedaht First Nation, whose ancestral village sites are located near the mouth of Jordan River, presented a plan in May for buying and developing the territory. "If that ends up coming to pass, and they get ownership of their territorial lands back, that would conclude the project for me," says McLean.

"Even though my project is specific to this one strip — it's basically a 1x12 kilometre part of very, very small parcel of Vancouver Island — there's a universalness to it, too," he says. "Whether it's land claims or resource extraction or people having to move away from rural living situations, these are common issues that face people all over British Columbia and realistically, all over the country."

Mike Andrew McLean. Outbuilding, Version One. May 3, 2015. (Courtesy of the artist)
Mike Andrew McLean. Outbuilding, Version Two. Dec. 23, 2017. (Courtesy of the artist)
Mike Andrew McLean. Cut Block, Looking North Below Lower Reservoir, Version One. May 17, 2015. (Courtesy of the artist)
Mike Andrew McLean. Rock Barrier and Structures Soon Relocated. March 5, 2017. (Courtesy of the artist)
Mike Andrew McLean. The Empty House at the Bottom of the Hill. Dec. 23, 2017. (Courtesy of the artist)

Mike Andrew McLean. JR. To May 4 at Chernoff Fine Art, Vancouver. Part of the Capture Photography Festival.


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.


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