Posted on June 25, 2012 - by Nadia
Saturday, June 24, 2012
Butedale, Princess Royal Island.
I gasped aloud and stopped pushing against the sloppy, choppy slap of a headwind against current. At long last, never knowing what to expect or when, I had turned a corner. The magnificent waterfall was giving off as much light as spray and the looming, decrepit cannery buildings next to it seemed to dance with a life that has been gone for decades. It was the end of a long day and the start of a delay that was full of surprises.
In testimony to the defining power of persistent presence, Butedale remains a dot on almost all maps of the region, while up and coming places with more people – such as Shearwater – often fail to make the grid. The cove that protects Butedale was first home to a First Nations village. Then, from about 1909 until it operations ended in the early 1970s, it hosted a fish oil processing plant, a cannery and an ice plant. It was home to hundreds of workers. Now, Butedale is slowly sliding off the hill and being reclaimed by its abundant greenery. The herring oil tanks that define one end of the protective cove are mostly rust. The dormitory building is mostly moss. The largest residential building is half collapsed, with a toilet hanging at a jaunty 90 degrees. Butedale offers no cell service and no WiFi, but it boasts a rush of fresh potable water and an abundance of sweet hospitality in the form of Lou, the industrious caretaker who calls it home.
It should not reflect poorly on Lou’s caretaking if a building occasionally collapses and a boat sometimes sinks. It seems a miracle that any of these buildings or docks are still standing. Lou’s caretaking is evident everywhere there are people. I arrived Butedale exhausted after three or four nights of hard rain and rising tides (often, it is not the paddling that wears on me, but the making and breaking camp.)
Lou took one look at me and said, in the swarthy French accent of his Alberta youth: I heard you were coming, I’ve warmed water for a shower. And he boosted a three gallon sun shower into a five gallon bucket, put that on a shelf on the roof of what used to be the cold storage facility, and left me to rinse and warm.
Butedale is both a haven and a hiding place for many types of people in transit. There are few facilities and several challenges on either side of it. Virtually every kayaker stops here, many sailors and motor cruisers and a surprising number of fishing boats stop to moor briefly and continue their march north toward the fishing ground.
The kayakers and sailors especially are likely to ask Lou, “May I charge my …” laptop, cell phone, portable razor? And he says, of course, and then rearranges a couple of extension cords for your convenience.
The cell phone charges though it has no use there, the razor gets its buzz back, all as though a recharge at Butedale is the same as a recharge at a plug at the airport. It’s not. In Butedale, Lou’s simple yes does not begin to reflect the physical labor it took him to build 200 feet of flume out of scrap wood. To drop the flume into the gushing stream off a slick rock bank in order to steer today’s water into yesteryear’s power plant. It fails to underscore the ingenuity it took to rig the old hydro wheel up to a truck alternator. Or the frustrating three months of trial and error it took to figure out the right gear ratio to get the speed and power required to keep the inverter running consistently. In Butedale, there is nothing simple about the answer to the question, “May I charge my laptop?” And yet Lou answers simply. Maybe later he’ll offer a tour, if you’d like, of the power plant.
Because it remains a dot on the map, people stop by. And because they meet Lou, they return and pay his kindness forward. I arrived after a few long hours of windy chop to meet Ramona and DC and Debbie and Neal, motor cruisers I first met weeks ago in Shoal Bay in Desolation Sound. Debbie had miraculously spotted me on the broad Princess Royal Sound and altered course to chat. I last saw them in Port McNeill when I was getting my drytop fixed.
Debbie shouted, “We’ll have dinner on for you!” as they left me in Princess Royal Sound and thank heavens they fixed extra of everything. Even I could not find the bottom of Neal’s barbecued chicken and steak offering as we ate aboard Debbie and Neal’s boat tied to the low and wandering dock at Butedale.
I had arrived at 6 p.m. and the ebb tide best for leaving was at 3 a.m. I was exhausted and decided it would be best if I didn’t push the early departure but stayed to tour this ghost of a place. Like all decisions on this trip, that proved a mixed blessing. Probably a very good thing. Ahead lay two crux crossings: Wright Passage and the infamous Dixon Entrance. The weather forecast called for treacherous outflow winds in Wright on Saturday as a low pressure system built over Haida Gwaii, and persistent winds 15-30 knots in Dixon. Mike and Donna, sailing home to Alaska with two dogs, turned back, choosing to be windbound in Butedale rather than an anchorage short of Wright Passage. Albert and Lynah stopped their headlong rush to the commercial fishing opener to see Lou, but chose to stay rather than take the thrashing they took last year in Dixon. If the forecast was enough to slow Albert and Lynah, I knew it wasn’t something to mess with. I girded for a long wait and started devising alternate plans.
In the back of my mind, I knew Herman was gaining on me. We had never met, but people told us about each other. I had leapfrogged him when I took the ferry around Cape Caution, which he paddled. On Saturday, he appeared around the corner, a lone kayaker drawn in for a closer look at the falls. He had paddled a tough 15 miles already on the day and had planned eight more, but the chop left him worn out and looking for options. I rigged him a shower and a cup of tea as Lou was out wrestling with a breakaway breakwater. Paying it forward.
Herman is headed to Glacier Bay, just past Skagway. He is doing his paddle to raise money for Mexican school kids in need (he lives in Baja.) Like me, the challenges of this middle portion are more fraught with risk and delay than reward. We agreed we are both willing to figure out a way to get a ride around Dixon Entrance. Herman needs to go to Prince Rupert for a resupply and to fix his blown drytop gasket. I do not need to go to Prince Rupert, but would gladly skip Dixon Entrance. For now, we’re working together.
Saturday evening and Lou is now in full host mode just as everyone is figuring out a way to move on. The ever-present specter of looming loneliness is the everyday hardship of the host. He stayed up late talking crafts with Lynah, who is trying to get him to take the winter off. Lou reluctantly admits he’s edging toward 69 and thinking it might be time to retire. He spent last Christmas corking a boat that was half underwater.
“The cold, oh, all day in that damn boat,” he says. “My knees were so sore I could barely walk up that hill.” He needs a tutorial in warm fun. He actually needs a nice widow with a boat. If you’re interested, send him a photo of the boat.
Lou has been taking care of Butedale for 11 years. Its owner, who lives in California, seldom visits. He’d just as soon sell. The environmental regulators, a fisherman told me, would just as soon scrape the whole industrial site away. “Someday they will,” he said. “I never know when I’ll come by here and it will all be gone.”
As I typed this post, sitting in the former mess hall, at an old, 40-foot-long table cluttered with Lou’s life, a breathless Donna burst in the door. “The bear,” she gasped. “The beach. The white bear.”
I grabbed a scope off Lou’s table and took off down the rickety ramp, past the stream that shoots out of a flume. Past the ricketier ramp to the boats. I raced across the roof of the massive concrete dock of rough concrete and rusty bare fittings where my tent was set up. I scanned the beach across the bay, and there, eating berries among the ferns, was a white spirit bear – a kermode bear.
Then, with a glance over its shoulder, the rare white bear, like Butedale itself, faded into the foliage.