Hidden Jewel: You Who?

Formerly known as a haven for backyard elk, today ex-urban creatures are discovering the charmed natural lifestyle of tiny Youbou on Vancouver Island, too.

By Andrew Findlay

In January conservation officers were summoned to Youbou, a half-hour west of Duncan, to rescue a Roosevelt elk entangled in a backyard zip line. A tranquilizer dart gave them enough time to free the big animal before it awakened, a little groggy as if it had one too many at the Youbou Bar and Grill, before wandering back into the forest. It’s a moment that would happen only in Youbou, where elk have become so common, a story about them made the front page of The Globe and Mail.

Unincorporated Youbou (population roughly 1,000), sits on the north shore of Cowichan Lake, next to a frying-pan-shaped peninsula jutting into the water. Its unusual-sounding appellation calls back to early timber-trade days: it’s a hybrid derived in 1914 from the names of the Empire Lumber Company’s general manager, Yount, and its president, Bouten.

In 1925, when the Canadian National Railway extended a truck line up the shores of Cowichan Lake to reach Youbou, truckloads of western red cedar and Douglas fir fed the mill and fueled prosperity for more than seven decades. TimberWest, the last company to own a mill in Youbou, closed its operation 20 years ago, marking the end of an era. Residents took stock of Youbou’s enviable location on the sunny side of Cowichan Lake, and all the recreational and tourism opportunities on its doorstep.

Klaus Kuhn discovered this remote town with a curious name in 1994 while vacationing at Honeymoon Bay with his former wife. One evening, as they paddled their canoe along the south shore of Cowichan Lake, their eyes were drawn across the water to Youbou, set against a steep green hillside and basking in the summer sun.

On a whim, he pitched the idea of retiring in a town they had never set foot in. They bought a lakefront lot before returning to home and work in Campbell River; six years later they built their dream retirement home and made the move permanent.

“It was like a paradise. I had lived on Vancouver Island for years but had never visited the Cowichan Valley,” says Kuhn, over the phone from his living room that has a million-dollar view of the lake and Billy Goat Island. “Cowichan Lake has some of the clearest water I’ve ever seen.” For fun and fitness, Kuhn likes to swim around Billy Goat Island in the summer, towing a bright orange fishing float to warn boaters.

The retired financial planner is now serving a second term as Area I (Youbou/Meade Creek) director with the Cowichan Valley Regional District. Since 2015,  he has seen a spike in real estate prices as more and more people discover Youbou and others build vacation homes on the lake. A plan to develop housing and a resort property on the prime 330-hectare site once occupied by the sawmill came and went with the 2008 financial crisis. A Chinese company now owns the property, but has yet to make public a development plan.

“Downtown” Youbou stretches along (you guessed it) Youbou Road. It’s bookended on the east by Cassy’s Coffee House, where you can fill up on caffeine and gossip, and on the west by the Shop and Save, where visitors stock up on essentials before pulling into their sites at Cowichan Lake RV Park across Bremmer Road from the Youbou Little League Park.

In the off-season, the town retains the feel of a forgotten paradise. “We’re 40 kilometres from Duncan so we don’t get the traffic, but it also means we’re a little disconnected,” Kuhn says. Something tells me that the residents and the elk, like it that way.