Hermit of Desolation Sound

Chapter five: The trek

Previous chapter [“The road,” April 26]: Something snapped in Russell Letawsky in Toronto, which led him on a winding road trip to the west. He eventually ended up in BC in the late 1970s, falling in love with a woman named Audrey who worked at a bowling alley in Kamloops. Russell convinced Audrey to come with him to finish the last leg of his journey; walking the rest of the way, to the ocean, over the Coast Mountain range, beyond any road or trail. After much persuading, Russell’s girlfriend Audrey agreed.

By the time he arrived in Kamloops, Russell Letawsky had gone from businessman to hippie, living in a tent on the outskirts of town. In the months leading up to their trek into the mountains, Russell and Audrey gathered the supplies they would need for at least a month in the bush.

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Bed rolls, tarps, rucksacks, freeze-dried food, emergency flares, canteens, a compass, a topographical map, a machete, rope, and for Russell, one M-1 rifle with a 30-bullet clip. They also brought along an ounce of marijuana and some hallucinogens, which they were saving for the summit of the range.

Audrey did not have a lot of hiking experience, and didn’t even own a pair of hiking boots, so Russell bought her the best set of boots he could afford and they started training for their journey on nearby mountains in Kamloops. Audrey took a month off of work, and finally, they were set.

Little did Audrey or Russell know at the time, but the route Russell had chosen, following the Meager Creek up into the mountains, was one of the most seismically unstable areas in the entire Coast Mountain range. In fact, scientists have argued that Mount Meager, which is a volcano, could be the most unstable mountain, and most active landslide area, in all of Canada.

Their friends drove the pair as close as they could to the confluence of the Lillooet River and Meager Creek near Pemberton Meadows. In September, 1977, Audrey and Russell entered the bush. Russell’s pack weighed about 55 pounds, Audrey’s about 35.

The pair received an ominous warning when they came across a survey geologist, the last human they would see for a long while, on a logging road on day one. When the geologist learned of Russell and Audrey’s plan, he strongly suggested they take caution: two years before, in the summer of 1975, a massive avalanche killed four geologists who were working alongside Meager Creek, right where Russell and Audrey were headed.

Audrey can still clearly remember that after about half a day of walking, they ran out of any semblance of a trail, and the hike became an immediate bushwhacking expedition. The trek was already much harder than anything they trained for in Kamloops.

But Russell was full of positivity, even as every inch of the journey became more and more challenging and exhausting, with plenty of backtracking to get around obstacles like waterfalls and swamps. Their packs constantly got hung up in bushes and overhanging limbs, as they followed the raging Meager Creek into pure wilderness.

Within a couple of days, Audrey thought the whole thing was crazy and wanted out, but Russell cheerfully convinced her to press on, to follow the dream. His dream. She sucked it up and bravely moved forward into further treacherous terrain.

Besides coming face to face with a stinky wolverine, which quickly hightailed it in the opposite direction, they hadn’t seen any wildlife to speak of. That was until about two weeks into their gruelling journey, when Russell and Audrey spotted a grizzly bear, the undisputed champion of the forest, wandering through the low brush on the other side of a valley, but they never saw it again.

A few days later, they found grizzly bear tracks at their campsite.

“We found this flat gravel bar with all these blueberries; it was around three or four in the afternoon and we were going to set up camp, and then I called Audrey over,” remembers Letawsky. “And there I was with both of my boots in one grizzly track, and it was a fresh track. So I guess when we came up there, the grizzlies took off. But then we realized after camp was set up that these bears were all around us and we couldn’t see them. I think Audrey stayed awake for most of the night.”

The night was thankfully uneventful, but Audrey’s nerves were fried. You can imagine what it must have been like, a full two-week hike from any semblance of civilization. The next day, Russell grimly explained to Audrey that if either one of them were to get seriously hurt, either by falling or potentially getting mauled by a bear, it was up to the other to stitch them up. Audrey refused, saying she’d rather shoot off one of their emergency flares.

And then, just minutes after that conversation, while walking along a steep rocky ledge, Russell stumbled. In an instant, he was gone, tumbling helplessly down the slope. Find out what happened 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.

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