Out of the Way Places – Butedale

Butedale from the M/V David B
Butedale in 2010

There’s a stop we make on our way to and from Alaska that’s not like any other. It’s a place that’s best photographed in wide angles, and color accented black and white. It’s a place that only cruisers and a handful of small tour boats like the David B make as a port of call. This place is Butedale. When I talk with others who know the Inside Passage, they always ask with the slyness of knowledge in their voices, “Do you stop at Butedale?”

“Wouldn’t miss it.” is the answer I always give.

What brings people to Butedale is hard to know. Maybe it’s because this outpost in Princess Royal Channel is ghost town and has been for years. Stories of this former busy herring cannery are told up and down the coast and maybe it’s lore that brings the gypsy live-a-boards and the well-to-do yacht owners together on a rickety dock that’s made mostly of dirftwood.

The story that Jeffrey first heard about Butedale was from a tugboat captain he was working with. It was night and Jeffrey asked if Butedale had been a cannery.

“Sure was,” the captain said. “And back when it was first abandoned, they just left all the lights on. It was kind of creepy to see the buildings all lit up like that at night, with nobody home.”

“Why did they leave the lights on?” Jeffrey questioned.

“Because the of the power plant they’ve got up there. They didn’t want seize up the generator that makes the electricity, I guess.”

Bowling in Butedale
Bowling in Butedale

Jeffrey’s love of old-school technology, is what brings us to Butedale year after year and no trip to Butedale is complete without a trip to the power house to see the generator running. To get there, the caretaker Lou takes you up a path, telling his stories in a quiet mumble with a thick Canadian accent. When you come to the creek where the powerhouse is perched, there’s a bridge to cross. It’s the sort of one-person-at-a-time kind of bridge that somehow stays standing. I think it’s the ropes that Lou has tied to the surrounding trees that gives the bridge lateral support. Once inside, that’s where the magic is. The generator sits whirring as it takes fast moving water and turns it into the power that has fueled Butedale since 1917 when several hundred people lived and worked here. Jeffrey, who is always enthusiastic about how things work, happily points out all of the important parts. His enthusiasm is contagious and what had seemed like and old piece of junk when you entered has become an interesting and cherished treasure.

For me, a visit to Butedale is a chance to spend time chronicling the slow and methodical way that Mother Nature reclaims her land. I photograph everything I see; old mechanical parts, unused signs, broken windows with vines coming through. Anything that is haunting and shows the tug-of-war between man-made and Nature is fair game for my camera. As our visits end, I usually detour along the dock to the old pilings to search the shadows for shrimp, sea stars and small jellyfish.

Butedale is ghost town, but an active one. It’s an amazing spot to stop that’s rich in history and character. It’s also on the edge and maybe even a little dangerous, but watching where you step and being careful are easy rewards for a truly unique experience.