22 July 2012
We had planned to sail by Butedale, and rush onward to the hot springs at Bishop Bay. But as we rounded the corner into Fraser Reach, BC Ferry’s Northern Expedition headed towards us, forcing us in closer to Princess Royal Island, towards the cove where Butedale is located. At the same moment, a man crossed our path in a ramshackle launch, dragging a few logs behind him. We thought he came a bit close to the ferry, but he waved to the bridge, as if he and captain and crew were old friends—which, we later thought, they probably were.
By then we could read the faded sign: “Butedale Marina–hot showers, ice cream.” Right, we thought, that will be the day. We edged into the bay behind a yellow sailboat that tied off at the long rough form of a dock built from rows of logs and boards tied and chained haphazardly together. We still were not sure we wanted to stop. We called out to the other boaters, “Is there good water?” They pointed to a wooden trough over which a stream of water gushed, then dropped into an old black hose. Nearby, a raging falls boomed and sprayed into the sea. “Looks like lots of fresh water,” we said to ourselves. It’s good not to miss an opportunity to fill your tanks. So we pulled up to the ramshackle dock and tied up, just as the little launch arrived with its cargo in tow. And that’s how we met Butedale Louis.
Butedale was once the site of extensive lumber and mining operations, as well as a booming salmon cannery, where hundreds of workers at a time had been employed between 1911 and the 1950s. Then, as with so many canneries up and down that coast and on our own Atlantic shores, as refrigeration became commonplace, and the larger vessels began to process their own fish, the big canning plants became redundant. They reduced their operations and then closed.
In Butedale, many of the buildings still stood, although in a state of flagrant disrepair. A boiler shone out from one building, which was missing an entire wall. The roof caved in on a huge rooming house, and another wall was shattered. Large wharves were crumbling into the sea. Yet a few houses and outbuildings still stood.
Louis lived in one, with his cat, but his dream of running a marina, and offering rustic cabins for rent, was fading. Still, he worked hard to keep things up. He’d planted a garden with flowers and vegetables, and two cabins were furnished and starkly hospitable.
He kept some trails cleared and mowed paths between the various buildings.
Louis also collected old movies and videos, and watched for Kermode bears—he’d made a video of one playing with a bucket on the beach. And he kept the power supply going in the old power house over Butedale Creek, just above the falls. The old wheel still turned, but the generator was now hooked up to a 12 volt alternator that powered Louis’ house and fridge and two outdoor lights, which he never turned off.
Once a little railway had connected the factory’s buildings, transporting workers and goods to their designated stations. Apparently Butedale had been a segregated site; workers had lived in separated “villages,” according to the racial designations of the day: “Japanese,” “White,” or “Indian.” The forest was already reclaiming “Japanese” and “Indian” housing zones. Now birds called wildly in the trees, and we watched for bears in the berry bushes along the paths. The ghosts of bustle rang from so much derelict machinery, but the people were almost all gone.
Once it was possible to catch, clean, and freeze the fish on a boat, and rush it back to the city for sale, no one needed an island outpost in the middle of the fishing grounds, so far from roads and markets and demand. Butedale was a relic, and even water and ice cream and wilderness experience seduced few visitors. It seemed most important these days as a stopping place for kayakers or boaters like us, and as a safe mooring for fishermen in small boats racing back to Bella Bella from the Skeena River. It offered a night off of watch, a respite from vigilance or bad weather.
Louis, it turns out, was Quebecois, originally from La Beauce. He wouldn’t say why he had left home, whether love or work or a sense of adventure had taken him west. According to Louis, Butedale’s owner is a grumpy, elderly Californian man who doesn’t want to sell, but also isn’t prepared to try to preserve the place. He had let Louis come every summer from Kitimat, to try to run a marina in Butedale. But now that the government was demanding that the cannery wreckage be cleared from the water and shore–no small task or expense–the owner seemed to want to collect some dues from Louis, or at least oblige him to do some remedial work.
We should have recorded Louis; many of his stories were hilarious and full of voices—he imitated all of his interlocutors. The stories were almost all about how le petit gars de la Beauce (the little guy from La Beauce) outwitted some stupid bigwig. Or put him in his place. Or else about fighting with local Haisla people—Butedale is at the southern edge of traditional Haisla territory. In fact, the Haisla name for Butedale is C’idexs, which means “runny diarrhea,” thought by some to refer to the many berry bushes in the area, or what happens if you gorge on too much fruit.
Louis was clearly depressed from his solitary life in Butedale; he tried to keep himself busy by burn-etching copies of First Nations artwork on slabs of board, then painting and selling them to passersby. Such imitations did not stop him from telling stories about how he “cussed up the Indians” every chance he got. Still, did not want to move back to Kitimat; he seemed to like his status as the keeper of Butedale; he even relished his title, “Butedale Louis.” And he particularly liked female visitors, so we were treated quite well. We even begged some rhubarb from his garden to make rhubarb crisp, which we shared with him and the sailors in the yellow boat docked in front of us, who were enroute from Alaska to retire in Oregon. The world is full of such intrepid adventurers.
After visiting the power house and shooting many photos, we hiked up a path through the rainforest. The trail wound past huge trees and the remains of a large logging operation to a mountain meadow and then stopped at the lake, where we scrambled over fallen logs and by silver snags to the open water. The day was hot and we’d hoped to swim, but the lake was so clogged with logs and bark and debris that we gave that project up.
Louis asked for $50 a night for his ramshackle dockage but could be bargained down to $25. At night, under the moon and a clear sky, the abandoned factory rattled with ghosts and wracking losses. A fascinating, but hard place to stay.
Our tanks full of fresh water, early in the morning we were ready to sail on to Bishop’s Bay for a bath in the hot springs.
And yes, the sign was honest advertising. Louis’ Butedale Marina still does offer ice-cream and hot showers. At your own risk.
Statement about the significance of the Butedale Cannery as a heritage site in the Regional District of Kitimat-Stikine http://www.rdks.bc.ca/content/regional-district-community-heritage-registry?q=node/58
On Kermode bears (Ursus kermodei), also known as “Spirit Bears” http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/08/kermode-bear/barcott-text
For information on the Haisla Nation, see http://haisla.ca/
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I stopped over in Butedale many times over the years, on my way to and from Southeast Alaska and look forward to visiting with Lou and exploring the abandoned machinery. On one visit i rewired the battery bank he uses to power his small inverter. On my last stop< Lou told me he was "done with Butedale" and was heading off to his girlfriends place for good. I have not been back since???
Great story, thank you! We’ve not been there for a couple of years, but had heard that Lou might not be coming back. We may have a chance to return this coming summer–we’ll see and report on what we find!
Karin and Marike
Thank you for the great write up on Butedale. We were there after meeting you, and after ypu wrote this. We are sailing back to the great Pacific Northwest from Hawaii in a few weeks. Hopefully you are still cruising and we will meet again.
Howard & Stephanie, S/V Holy Grail
In 1979, as a 28 year old woman seeking adventure, I was given the position of caretaker of the ghost town Butedale. It had by that time been abandoned for almost 30 years. The investors who owned the town paid a mail plane to drop me there in November and return to get me in the spring. I was the Louis of Butedale (except this was winter so it was absolutely quiet with no company passing by in boats) I lived there completely alone throughout fall and winter- climbing the stairs often to keep the screen on the dam at the top of the waterfall clean of debri and maintaining the generator. At that time the houses were still somewhat in tact with lights on all over the abandoned town- ( i had to keep a load on the generator) It was cold and dark and the woods were snow all winter. I wore boots with cleats to walk on the ice covered elevated boardwalks that were the sidewalks above the marshy ground between buildings. (Princess Royal Island is a rainforest.) I passed time by carving things out of the fallen cedar and deer antlers that I found litering the woods. I did some writing. There was no way to contact the outside world though supposedly between 2 and 4AM one could make the short wave radio work— I never tried. On Thanksgiving I met three fishermen who stopped for a night on their way down from Alaska. Other than that I had solitude for almost 5 months.
I am incredibly grateful for that time- it was magical.
I am now about to retire from a wonderful and long career as visionary director of a charter school in CA and I’m dreaming again of adventure. I’d love to return to Butedale. My soul calls for that solitude.
Thank you so much for this write up.
LInda Lambdin (831)-246-4246
Hi Linda, I too landed by float plane and had a bit to do with Butedale a few years after you.
Be interesting to talk to you. Maybe we can get in touch.? Try firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you don’t get through to my E I may try to contact you by phone, I live.in South America now.