What you are about to read is the true story of a man who dropped out of society to live a self-imposed life of solitude along the shores of the rainforest north of Powell River for many years. He lived in a tiny, hand-built, one-room shack without electricity, plumbing or running water. This is the story of the Hermit of Desolation Sound.
Our motorboat chugged across Malaspina Inlet, bound for our little cabin that sat perched like a spider on a granite outcrop. My dad loved the unbridled, raw, boat-access-only wilderness of Desolation Sound, but it made the rest of our young city-slicker family – my mom, my eight-year-old sister, and me, age 11 – pretty nervous.
What was out there, behind the cabin dad had built for us, in the forest? On a glorious summer day in the early 1980s, we were about to find out.
In the mid-1970s, my straight-laced, no nonsense, conservative father had purchased a strip of raw oceanic coastline on the Gifford Peninsula, buffered on either side by the then-recently established Desolation Sound Marine Park. He carefully chose the site for our cabin, but had no idea we would soon have a neighbour: a hippie philosopher who didn’t hold a title deed.
Dad cut the outboard in front of our cabin. The little aluminum skiff’s momentum slid us atop a thick kelp forest floating just offshore. Dad tilted the motor up so the propeller wouldn’t get tangled in the vines.
We came to stop with a soft thud of aluminum onto seaweed-covered rock. I pushed my glasses up my nose and took a deep breath, sucking in the summer scents of the Sound: the pungent smell of the slippery seaweed exposed at mid-tide, the thick moss clinging to the moisture of rain three days earlier, and the lingering exhaust from the outboard motor.
We unloaded our supplies from the skiff onto the small rocky outcrop in front of our new cabin. Then Dad spotted movement at the edge of the forest.
My father squinted in the sunlight and raised his hand to his brow. Then he saw the movement again. The rest of our family was startled by my dad’s frozen posture. We followed his stare into the woods.
It was then that I saw him for the first time. Blending in perfectly with the foliage a few hundred feet away from us was a bearded man with a long, thin face. He was casually sitting cross-legged on a fallen log at the edge of the forest. His clothes were the same colour as the earth, woods and rocks. The only reason Dad had spotted him was because of his Zippo lighter, which had winked at us in the sunshine as he lit his pipe. And the man was looking right at us.
“Who is that?” Mom whispered nervously.
“I’m not exactly sure,” Dad replied slowly, not taking his eyes off the figure in the woods. Dad had heard from the workmen that someone had been camping in the cove, and he knew that the little cove where the man was sitting belonged to a fellow from Vancouver named Tom Berryhill, but this person was not Tom.
Slowly, the lanky figure rose to his feet, and in a loping, easygoing gait, he crossed the stretch of pebble beach in the cove and began to climb up the rocky ledge to where we stood.
“Hello there!” the man cheerfully called out as he approached.
When he was face to face with us, we observed a tall, lean and weathered hippie. He was about 40 or so, with a friendly smile and warm, alert eyes. He had a salt-and-pepper beard thick as steel wool, and his dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail. His skin was brown from the dirt and sun. His nose was long and pressed into his face like a hockey player’s. Upon reflection, he kind of looked like a cross between a taller Willie Nelson and a skinnier Liam Neeson.
When he was right in front of us, he proclaimed “I’m Russell Letawsky! You must be the Lawrences!”
Russell helped us schlep our supplies up to the cabin. Then he accepted a Labatt Blue stubby as we all sat down on the deck. My sister and I were completely transfixed by this wild woodsman.
Russell explained that he had convinced his friend Tom to buy the cove lot, and that he had Tom’s permission to pitch a tent and live down on the shore at the edge of the forest for the foreseeable future. Like, long term.
Upon hearing this, my dad’s face turned a pale shade of grey. He was extremely disapproving of hippies. He didn’t even let us listen to The Beatles.
The hermit’s polite demeanor wasn’t showing it, but he wasn’t too excited to have nextdoor neighbours either. He had arrived first, before the construction of our cabin, and the constant generator noise, whirring saws and banging hammers for the past eight months was a source of great irritation.
The Hermit of Desolation Sound had travelled a great distance through hardship, mishap and adventure to find the tranquility and solitude the little cove had to offer, and now a conservative family of four, plus a dog, was practically on top of him, since our new cabin looked right down into his cove.
Dad asked Russell some questions: “Where are you from? What do you do? How did you discover this place?”
Russell slowly reached down and unsheathed a dramatic buck knife. All of our eyes widened. The hermit used the formidable blade to pop the cap off another one of Dad’s beers. Then he stretched out on the stairs of our deck and waved a dirt-encrusted hand toward my parents.
“Would you believe that I was once as straight as you two, maybe even straighter? A suit and tie guy in the financial district of downtown Toronto?”
We couldn’t believe it. My family glanced at each other as the Hermit of Desolation Sound launched into his radical tale.
You’ll find out how a businessman from downtown Toronto turned into a grizzled bushman in the upcoming chapters of Hermit of Desolation Sound.
Grant Lawrence is an award-winning author and radio personality who considers Powell River and Desolation Sound his second home. Hermit of Desolation Sound is currently airing as a weekly radio serial on North by Northwest, CBC Radio One in BC. The Peak is proudly presenting “Grant Lawrence and Friends: An Evening of Stories and Songs,” Saturday, May 11, at Max Cameron Theatre. Advance tickets are on sale now at the Peak, Unit F - 4493 Marine Avenue.