Previous chapter [“The chicken of the woods,” May 10]: After almost a month of following only a map and compass from BC’s interior, Russell Letawsky and his girlfriend Audrey managed to cross the Coast Mountain range, which was an incredible accomplishment, but it was still a long way down to the ocean. They were out of food and starving. Then, they stumbled across a logging road, which soon led them to a clearcut. That’s where they spotted a lone logging rig wrestling with some timber.
Slowly the machine lowered its log and turned to face the two figures, like a dinosaur interrupted while devouring lunch. The door of the logging Caterpillar tractor slowly opened.
A logger emerged, wearing dirty overalls, a short-sleeved shirt and a crumpled trucker hat. You can imagine how astonished he was at the site of two bone-skinny and giddy hippies in the middle of his extremely remote clearcut. When that logger stepped out of his cab, it was the first human being Russell and Audrey had seen in a month. They whooped for joy, causing the logger even more confusion.
After a brief and excited explanation from Russell, the logger kindly loaded the exhausted pair into his tractor for the long, bumpy ride down the hill to a logging camp at the head of Toba Inlet, north of Desolation Sound, BC.
“In the last week or so, all we could think about was food,” Letawsky remembers. “You know what we hungered for all the time? I hadn’t had a hamburger for years and years, but that’s the thing I hungered for. All Audrey wanted was an orange. And guess what that guy had in his lunch bucket? An orange!”
The trip had lasted exactly 28 days. Pemberton Meadows to Toba Inlet is roughly 120 kilometres as the crow flies, but with all of the twists and turns and backtracking and bushwhacking, Russell and Audrey figure they actually hiked over double that distance. Miraculously, both of them emerged without any significant injuries, and Russell’s compass orienteering was very accurate.
Oh, and that ounce of marijuana they brought along to enhance the trip? They smoked just one joint early on, and never touched the grass again, nor did they ever use the hallucinogens they also had with them. They weren’t interested, and they didn’t need it.
Russell said he was stoned on the experience. There was too much natural stimulation everywhere they looked, and besides, they also realized they needed to keep their wits about them at all waking hours.
Russell and Audrey’s 1977 trek across the mountains has become the stuff of legend along the myriad trails and après hiking beer parlours in Lund and Powell River, so much so that a man who met and heard Russell’s stories over beers in the Lund Pub decided to recreate the journey.
Russell advised against it, but Brian Couche and Shea Whalen did it anyway in September 2012, a full 35 years after Russell and Audrey. They had just as many adventures and near misses, and came out at about the same spot. The 2012 hike was named Amor fati (love your fate) in honour of Russell and Audrey, but Brian and Shea did not get a ride down the hill in a logging tractor.
With delicious, tangy orange juice running down their chins, Russell and Audrey gleefully road the tractor down the long and bumpy hill. The logger wasn’t sure what the foreman would think of the vagabond hippies, so he smuggled the pair into his camp, snuck them food, and gave them a place lie down, where they slept like the dead in a barely furnished bunkhouse trailer that Russell nicknamed the “Toba Hilton.”
The next morning, the logger introduced Russell and Audrey to the rest of the crew. They shared their story over breakfast and bathed in the glacial estuary where the Toba River met the ocean.
Later that day, they hitched a ride on a barge that was heading into Desolation Sound. It just so happened that Audrey’s sister and her husband had recently purchased a property to homestead in Desolation Sound, a property sold to them by my father, as part of his recreational real estate development in Malaspina Inlet.
When the barge dropped off Russell and Audrey in a sunny place called Salubrious Bay on the rough and rugged Gifford Peninsula, Russell completely fell in love with the off-the-grid, boat-access-only, remote oceanic splendor of Desolation Sound. It was exactly what he had dreamed of, and where he wanted to be.
Russell and Audrey’s relationship lasted for about another year until they broke up. Audrey moved back to Kamloops, but they are forever bonded by their adventure across the mountains.
As for Russell, he stuck around, sold clams, and did some caretaking to get by. He lived in various shoreline haunts throughout Desolation Sound, in romantic-sounding places like Theodosia Inlet and foreboding-sounding ones like Dank Cove, and had his fair share of oceanic adventures in each place.
Finally, Russell ended up in his tent in that little cove beside our family cabin you heard about back in chapter one of this story. So began the decade that would come to define Russell’s adult life, and much of my own childhood as well. You will read more about that 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. He wishes to show his deep appreciation for everyone who came out in support of the “Grant Lawrence and Friends: An Evening of Stories and Songs,” show at Max Cameron Theatre on May 11. Hermit of Desolation Sound is currently airing as a weekly radio serial on North by Northwest, CBC Radio One in BC.