Inside Passage boaters who follow Fraser Reach on their way north to Southeast Alaska know the sad story of Butedale continues. The picturesque old British Columbia fish cannery and its array of buildings someday soon either will slide into the bay or settle into the earth.
The one cheerful note at the isolated site in a bight of Princess Royal Island (roughly 350 miles north of Seattle and 120 miles south of Ketchikan, Alaska) is Lou Simoneau, who has led a hermit-like life at Butedale for eight years. Although century-old frame buildings crumble about him, Lou still is busy at his self-appointed task of greeting boaters, doing what he can to arrest nature's urge to demolish the settlement, and swapping stories with visiting boaters.
On several trips north in earlier years I steered into the little bay to stare at the sagging wreckage of a plant that once processed salmon, halibut, and herring with a work force of 500 who lived on site. I never stopped. Anchorage was difficult because of building debris on the bottom and the battered planks of the moorage floats looked scary.
Recently, I was part of a crew helping deliver the 81-foot yacht Scorpius to Ketchikan and we pulled into the bay and immediately were greeted by Lou and his dog, who were out in a battered aluminum skiff. He waved and motored toward the mooring floats. Our professional and U.S. Coast Guard-licensed skipper, Jeff Coult, has been there many times and knew the drill well. He maneuvered to a stop inches off the float where we found Lou ready to take the lines. A gingerly landing was necessary–a hard bump by the 93-ton yacht would have reduced the very short remaining life span of the float to a second or two and Lou would have been swimming in 42 degree water.
It was mid-March and the float planks–normally slippery in wet weather–were extraordinarily slick with a slush of rain and fresh snow. We made our way ashore with careful, almost prissy, steps, sometimes doing a balancing act on a single 12-inch plank that linked floats. Lou had cleared a path up the ramp to the building in which he lived, but when I stepped away from the cleared route I found about 15 inches of snow. (Jeff said this would be a spring cruise!)
Looking around, I could see that many of the buildings–but not all–were falling apart. Roof framing had collapsed in several; piers that supported others had failed and sections of structures had been torn apart and fallen into the water. In some, the wood structure of buildings had settled and broken but sections of piping and machinery still were suspended in place, apparently because they had not been consumed by rust. This process of collapse is decades old, but it hurts to see a community die.
Lou's home and shop appears solid, although weather worn. He has maintained several smaller buildings in useable condition and in the past has offered rooms for rent. As we walked through the single room that serves him as living area, galley, and workshop, Lou told us the Butedale processing plant operated from 1909 through 1967. When the owners closed it they simply walked away, leaving buildings as they were on the last day and many remained lighted because the small hydroelectric plant up the hill was left running. Some of the lights burned for years as the flow of water from a lake raced through pipes and flumes into the powerhouse. Flows from the lake also create a spectacular waterfall nearby.
The turbine generator (Lou thinks it was installed about 1940) still turns and apparently remains capable of generating 600 volts. However, the switching gear and transformers are gone and there's no way to manage that much power.
Lou, however, is ingenious. Using V-belts, he harnessed the spinning energy of the turbine shaft to turn an automotive alternator mounted on a nearby frame. It sends 12 volts into a battery bank–much like you'll find on many boats–and the batteries feed an inverter that creates 120VAC that zips to his house over salvaged wire. It's not a lot of power, but it's enough for lights, a refrigerator and freezer, a TV (on which he watches movies on tape), and the burning tools he needs for his newest business/hobby of producing native-style artwork.
A long table through the center of his living area is covered with tools and parts, samples of his artwork, and who knows what else. His eating area is at one end and I noted that a pancake from breakfast (maybe lunch?) sat cold on a plate. Another table on the edge of the room is his workshop and it's crowded with tools, old alternator parts, and an indescribable bunch of stuff.
Lou led us up a steep hill, along a seldom-used path through snow that came halfway to my knees, toward the powerhouse. A wobbling double-wide plank catwalk spanning a chasm of indefinite depth carried us into the concrete structure. A thin board offered a shaky handhold as we each slowly, carefully stepped along the catwalk. Falling snow didn't make it any easier. Water leaking from the turbine wheel had frozen on the powerhouse deck and getting around was hazardous until Lou attacked it with a scraper.
Bob Hale, who publishes the Waggoner Cruising Guide–a yearly volume on boat travel in Washington State and British Columbia–visits Lou every season and devotes a fair amount of type and photos to Butedale. Several years ago, Bob reports, the water supply to the turbine washed out in a winter storm. Lou, working alone, scavenged planks from a ruined building and built a flume over rough terrain to keep water flowing and his lights on. Lou told Bob he wanted to build a hot tub overlooking the bay. I saw no evidence that work had started, but Bob's advice: “Don't bet against it.”
But for his dog and cat, Lou lives alone. I got the impression that we were the first boaters to stop by in several months. His only communications device is a VHF radio and his days must be long and quiet.
He creates his artwork at a work station attached to a windowsill, where the light is good. Lou copies Northwest Indian designs and burns them onto cedar plaques that he cuts from logs using a chain saw and finishes with a planer. Some are coated with varnish and others are painted. The artwork is not original, but his presentation has a Grandma Moses rustic nature that I liked and I happily paid $20 for an oval plaque with a painted sea bear. I will hang it aboard my boat.
Lou heats his home/studio/shop with a single wood stove. He cuts dozens of cords of firewood during good weather for winter warmth and his upper body is heavily muscled from that work.
Three small boats are tied to the ragged float below his home. One is capable of taking him the 68 miles to Kitimat, B.C., where he lived for many years. Socializing and provisioning complete, he heads for home at Butedale after a few days. (Klemtu and Hartley Bay are slightly closer, but Kitimat is a larger town and friends are there.)
Lou is 60 something. He told me he soon will be eligible for monthly checks from Canada's version of Social Security. He hints that may be sufficient cause for him to return to Kitimat permanently. Jeff, who knows him well, doesn't count on that happening, money or not. While winters are cold and lonely, summer is different. Boaters stop into the bay to gawk at the wreckage and some pick up a moorage and stay awhile. Lou collects a small fee from overnighters.
Although he lives the lonely life by choice, Lou obviously likes company. He welcomed us into his home and talked at length about Butedale. Jeff and his wife, Janet Kowalski, invited Lou aboard Scorpius for dinner. After a beer and steak he walked back up the icy path to his home. But he was back early the next morning to watch Jeff dive to remove a loose piece of line from a propeller and joined us for coffee in the galley. Janet said farewell by hurrying up the hill to give him a big chunk of fresh-baked blueberry coffee cake.
I may not see Butedale again for a couple of years. I know more buildings will be returning to the earth, but I'm betting Lou will be on the dock.