Hermit of Desolation Sound

Chapter six: The chicken of the woods

Previous chapter [“The trek,” May 3]: In September 1977, Russell Letawsky and his girlfriend Audrey embarked on an epic hike of a lifetime, with the goal of crossing the jagged Coast Mountain Range, from the interior of BC to the ocean, using only a map and a compass, and without the help of any roads or trails. They went straight up, through the bush, and into an area infamous for its landslides and seismic instability. Along the way, they had a few near misses with grizzly bears. Then, about two weeks into the trek, Russell lost his footing on a steep rocky ledge.

Away Russell went, crashing hundreds of feet down the rock face, disrupting stones and boulders, and leaving a cloud of dust in his wake. He finally tumbled to a stop in the valley below. When the dust cleared, Audrey looked down in horror. Russell Letawsky lay motionless at the bottom of the slope. Audrey thought for certain Russell was dead.

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At the bottom of the slope, Russell was conscious, but in shock. He lay very still, trying to figure out if he was hurt. After a few moments, he sat up. Then, he gingerly got to his feet. Miraculously, somehow, none of those cascading rocks or boulders actually hit him. Save for a few scrapes, Russell was shaken up but completely fine.

“I’m okay!” he called up to Audrey. At the top of the ridge, she let out a huge sigh of relief.

Russell had managed to slip down that slope mostly on his backside, which was protected by his 55-pound rucksack. It took most of the damage, and even that wasn’t too bad. Audrey and Russell both knew he was very lucky to walk away from such a fall.

They thought the hiking would get easier as the forest thinned into Mount Meager’s alpine, but they occasionally had to traverse through shale: ever-sliding, sharp, flat rocks found on steep mountainsides. It was like trying to walk up a hill covered in broken dinner plates.

As they inched ever closer to the glacier and the summit of the range, their food was quickly running out. Every time they looked at their progress on the map it appeared as if they were barely making any. Audrey was fed up. Two and half weeks in, Audrey believed that they were never going to get out of there alive.

She wanted out. “Light up a flare,” she insisted. “Construct a big red cross, an S.O.S., anything!”

Russell told her that they weren’t going to get a helicopter ride out unless one of them broke their leg.

Audrey glared at Russell. “So then break my leg.”

Russell of course wouldn’t do it, and they eventually pressed on to the glacier. What other choice did they have? It was now a shorter distance to the coast than it was from whence they came.

Russell believed it was too dangerous to camp on the glacier, so he attached a 50-foot rope to each of their waists as they made the seven kilometre crossing in one shot, trying to avoid potentially deadly ice crevices.

And then, three weeks after they were dropped off on the logging road back in Pemberton Meadows, with their food almost gone, the frail twosome scrambled up a final ridge. Russell put his bony hands on his hips and exhaled.

“Would you look at that,” he exclaimed with wonder.

Far below, partially enshrouded in clouds, was the winding, deep green saltwater inlets of Desolation Sound, BC.

Their celebration was short, and they forgot all about the hallucinogens they had packed for that moment. They were starving, and they still had a long way to go. They pushed on, down the mountainside, through the alpine and into thick, almost impenetrable salal bushes.

By the time they reached the cool, towering, coastal rainforest, the only food they had left was a little piece of beef jerky and some garlic. They were exhausted and burning an immense number of calories every day.

They ate berries when they could but it wasn’t enough. Russell wasn’t able to catch any fish or spot any game to shoot. They picked seed pods from skunk cabbage and scraped lichen off rocks. Mushrooms abounded but Russell was nervous about eating any of them.

Then Russell remembered reading about something called “the chicken of the woods,” a bright orange, edible fungus that grows in shelf-like patterns on the sides of tree trunks and nurse logs. And it tastes like chicken, apparently. Luckily, they found some, and with the garlic and jerky and other forest ingredients, they sliced it and diced it into what they hoped was not their last supper.

The next morning they ate the leftovers for breakfast. With renewed energy, they pushed forward, downhill through the dense rainforest. Later that afternoon, Russell wanted to set up camp, but Audrey wanted to keep going, sensing the end was near. Russell agreed to hike for another 15 minutes.

Five minutes later, they were shocked to stumble out onto a logging road. A few minutes after that, they stepped into the late September broil of a mountainside clear-cut. Russell and Audrey spotted a lone logging tractor fighting with a freshly cut log like a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot.

Russell and Audrey shouted and waved excitedly as they picked their way across the slash. When they were within about a 100 feet, the door of the tractor slowly opened.

Read the rest of this 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.

Copyright © Powell River Peak


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