Previous chapter [“The greaser,” April 12]: The future west coast bushman grew up a farm boy surrounded by siblings in a small Northern Alberta prairie town. He became a juvenile delinquent and car thief in the late 1950s, but straightened out after graduating high school and entering into the world of sales and business, first in Vancouver, then in Toronto in the 1960s. Russell Letawsky was a yuppie when everyone else was a hippie. That was until a series of events began to change his perspective on the world around him.
In the late 1960s, one of Russell’s co-workers invited him on a canoe trip. The proposed journey would take them from central northern Ontario to the shores of James Bay. Russell didn’t really know what to make of the invitation. He was a city guy now.
“Back then I didn’t even have a pair of running shoes,” Letawsky recalled. “I only had business clothes. I didn’t have a pair of jeans, any of that kind of stuff.”
Despite his lack of recreational clothing, Letawsky’s coworker talked him into it.
“So there we were on this one-week trip down the Moose River to Moosonee,” remembered Letawsky. “A whole week on the river, on our own. Three of us. There were all the fights we had and everything else, but I found a part of me on that trip.”
After the fateful canoe trip, Letawsky started trekking into Northern Ontario on an increasingly regular basis.
“Uninhabited country,” explained Letawsky. “No roads, no trails, no train tracks. Sometimes it was for a long weekend, sometimes longer, and I started changing. That was 1969.”
When Letawsky started spending as much time as he could in wild places, away from the city, it put a strain on his marriage, since his wife didn’t share his sudden enthusiasm for unhabituated wilderness. His wife wanted Russell to stay in the city and try something else.
“She was always intrigued by marijuana and drugs and stuff like that,” remembered Russell. “I liked a little bit of booze, but that’s all. I thought marijuana was like heroin, and we even had arguments about it. Finally, we went to a party hosted by a stockbroker friend from Bay Street, and we decided to try it. Upstairs, everyone would be in the kitchen toking up and then they’d go downstairs to where the party was.”
Letawsky and his wife went up upstairs and decided to try and smoke marijuana for the first time.
“So we sat there toking and toking and people would come by and say ‘are you still here? Aren’t you stoned yet?’” Letawsky recounted with a chuckle. “No, we’d say, don’t feel anything. Then we stood up!”
Apparently his wife hated the experience and never tried pot again.
“But I grabbed on to it and I loved it,” laughed Letawsky .
His older sister Gladys has said everything changed when he starting smoking marijuana. His short-cropped hair became increasingly longer, and his clean-shaven face sprouted a beard for the first time.
Between the wilderness and the marijuana, the lifestyle change was too much for Russell’s wife, and they were soon separated.
During this period of personal awakening, Russell was also becoming increasingly dissatisfied with his career in sales. He enrolled in night classes at York University, then often compared to progressive American schools like Berkeley or NYU. He took courses as diverse as engineering and philosophy.
Russell Letawsky delved deeply into the writings of David Hume, and a particular passionate belief of Friedrich Nietzsche. It proved to be life-altering.
Eventually, Russell’s sought-after white-collar prestige felt like a noose. The status, the yuppie lifestyle, it all suddenly felt as empty as Bay Street on a Sunday. Then, something snapped in Russell Letawsky. You’ll read that story in the next chapter 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.