Previous chapter [“The inlets,” May 17]: Russell Letawsky and his girlfriend Audrey survived their 28-day trek across the coast mountains, coming down into Toba Inlet. They hitched a ride on a barge and got off on a beach in Desolation Sound that was recently purchased by Audrey’s sister, and sold to her by none other that my dad, as part of his off-the-grid recreational real estate development. Letawsky loved the area. In the early 1980s, he managed to convinced his friend Tom Berryhill to buy a lot, too, in a picturesque little cove with a babbling creek, apple trees, and a gravel beach rich with oysters the size of a basketball player’s shoe. The deal would be that Russell would be caretaker of the lot while Tom and his wife prepared to build their dream cabin. When my family arrived on the day you read about back in chapter one, that’s exactly what Russell was doing, right beside our family’s newly constructed cabin.
The sun was starting to set over Moss Point by the time Russell Letawsky, still stretched out on our deck, finished telling both his life story and most of my dad’s beer supply for the weekend. He stood up, stretched, belched, and thanked us for the hospitality. And then he ambled back down the rocks toward his tent.
My sister and I hopped to our feet. I pushed my glasses up my nose while we watched him until he disappeared into the forest. I was in awe. For a bespectacled little city nerd like me, it felt like I had just met Crocodile Dundee, John Lennon and Grizzly Adams all rolled into one.
My conservative father was not as enthusiastic about Russell’s presence. My mom was cautiously optimistic. But Russell was nothing if not charming. Whether he was in downtown Toronto or in the Desolation Sound bush, he was a natural-born salesman. My dad later said that if you gave Russell the chance, he could sell sand to a camel.
Over the course of the next several months, the Hermit of Desolation Sound would loom large in our family as he etched out his lifestyle so far beyond the end of the road.
Russell had a tiny leaky skiff with a two-horse power Seagull outboard motor that could get him to the government wharf in rough weather, and a two-seater kayak that could get him there in pleasant weather. In the kayak, Russell would sit in the back cockpit to paddle. Obediently sitting in the front cockpit was Russell’s huge and friendly dog, Loop. Loop had paws the size of oven mitts and looked like a cross between a German shepherd and Chewbacca.
The bearded hermit and giant dog made for quite the scene of authentic Desolation Sound living for all those gawking occupants in passing yachts and sailboats in the summertime.
Each time our family rounded the point and puttered our boat into the cove, my sister and I would eagerly peer over the bow, looking for any signs of life from the cove.
“I see campfire smoke! His boat in there!”
Once or twice we even came across Russell bathing, which amounted to the grizzled hermit sitting naked on the gravel beach in the cove, waiting for the tide to come up around him, scrubbing himself as it did.
Even my staunchly conservative dad had warmed up to Russell. They seemed like complete opposites: unlike my dad, Russell seemed much more imperfect. He had long hair, a beard, dirt under his fingernails, and was tall and lean. Dad was clean-shaven, short and stocky.
Russell smoked, swore and drank a lot, none of which my dad did. My dad started the morning with three hundred sit-ups and three hundred push-ups, and from what I could tell, Russell started the morning with a doobie, a West Coast wake ‘n’ bake that he harvested from his thriving marijuana grow-op in the forest. It was a marvel to me that someone like Russell could exist in the flesh.
Russell and Dad would also get into raging political debates deep into the night, each of them knowing just what buttons to push to infuriate the other. My sister and I would listen in our bunk beds as they argued in front of a crackling fire in our pot-bellied stove.
Fuelled by booze, Russell would sometimes get angry and start swearing his head off, but Dad would laugh it off, defusing the situation, and soon Russell was laughing, too.
But Dad always warned us that Russell probably wouldn’t last, that living in a tent may be okay in the summer, but that he would almost certainly move on when the rains came.
But… Russell didn’t. He lasted through the fall, and into the winter, living his dream. And much to our surprise, he was still there when we showed up in the spring. Dad was impressed, too, and thought Russell must have been giving cove living a year before heading back into town.
But this was no 12-month sabbatical. Russell’s plans were long term. You can imagine my dad’s surprise when Russell announced over dinner that it was time for him to build a permanent structure of his own in the cove. 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.