Previous chapter [“The friendship,” May 24]: “Because of some of my past experiences, I would give myself a year at things,” remembers Russell Letawsky. “I knew I could handle anything for a year, all four seasons. So when I went to live in the cove in Desolation Sound I didn’t know how long I would last. But that one year turned into another one, and another one, and another one....” Letawsky lived on his own in the 1980s without any modern conveniences such as running water, electricity, or a toilet. Lasting through that first year gave him the confidence to ditch the tent for a permanent structure.
The cove where Russell chose to make his home was right next to our newly constructed family cabin. It was a catchment for all sorts of flotsam and jetsam. If it could float, it often ended up in Russell’s cove.
To find many of the building supplies he needed for his cabin, Russell only had to amble down to the shore. All the other supplies that weren’t found on the beach came here and there, borrowed or traded from oyster farmers and hippies up and down the inlets of Desolation Sound.
Over the course of a few months, Russell managed to construct a sturdy little one-room shack held up on four posts, and partially supported by a slab of flat rock, just above the shoreline.
Russell built his home in the shade of a cedar sapling. The tiny dwelling had a sloping, cedar-shake roof capped by a protruding chimney, and a picture window that looked out onto the cove. It had a wraparound deck just wide enough for Russell to be able to walk along, holding on to the smooth, curved, bark-stripped cedar bows he used for railings.
When you stepped inside his dark, one-room dwelling, once your eyes adjusted, you’d see that the Hermit fended off near-constant dampness with a jet-black, cast iron pot-bellied fireplace that doubled as a stove, with a coffee pot on top. Beside the stove were two mismatched chairs tucked into a wobbly wooden table.
On the table was a chessboard, and the only thing in the entire cabin that could be considered remotely state of the art: a little transistor radio with a crooked antenna that hissed out the strains of Powell River’s distant CBC Radio signal all day long.
A thick plankwas nailed in place about hip level to serve as a kitchen countertop, with various plates and cutlery strewn about. Above the counter were open wooden boxes nailed to the wall that Russell used for cupboards. He stuffed them with canned goods, bags of rice, boxes of pasta, and tins of pipe tobacco.
Just under the picture window was Russell’s bed, a wide wooden bunk covered in wool blankets and dirty pillows with no cases.
Above the foot of the bed was a sagging bookshelf overflowing with mouldy, water-stained philosophy textbooks, alongside equally damp and well-worn paperback copies of science fiction, literature, pulp and Beat classics.
The little cabin led to no end of fascination for my sister and me, and for any friends who would visit, peer down from our deck at the little shack, and marvel that someone actually lived in there full time, year-round.
In the early 1980s, the Canadian economy was in the dumps. My dad had to work very hard to makes ends meet, which meant he couldn’t spend as much time at the cabin as the rest of our family. With Dad away, I spent more and more time with the Hermit of Desolation Sound.
At my persistent urging, the Hermit taught me things Dad wasn’t yet ready to trust me with, like firing up the outboard motor and driving the skiff all by myself. Russell showed me his network of trails through the woods, his meditation spots high up on cliff edges overlooking the ocean, and all of the herbs, berries and fungi that were edible, like chicken of the woods, and which were not.
But there were certain times when Russell did not want me to follow him, and it wasn’t until years later I realized it was because he didn’t want me to see his marijuana patch.
My parents weren’t the fishing types, but Russell Letawsky was an expert fisherman by necessity for sustenance, and I was desperate to go fishing with him. He eventually thrilled me by taking me out in his leaky, derelict skiff, where after what only felt like a few minutes we were hauling up bug-eyed monsters from the deep: lingcod, red snapper and rockfish. Russell showed me how to clean and cook the fish for the freshest food in the world.
About once a month, Russell would head into Lund, the nearest settlement from our cabins, for a supply run and some socializing. Occasionally, he’d catch a ride in our boat with my family and we’d all go into town together.
Once, when Russell and I were walking together down the Lund boardwalk, we came face to face with a friend of mine from school, who was on summer vacation with his family. That friend was a cool, preppy kid, and he was shocked to see a pre-teen nerd like me wandering around a coastal backwater with a lanky, bearded, dirt-encrusted hippie with a knife in his belt and an eagle feather in his headband. My friend’s first question when I saw him at school back in September to start grade eight was: “Who was that guy?”
And just like Russell didn’t want me to follow him to his marijuana patch in the woods, the notorious Lund Pub was also off limits.
So we’d split up. My sister and I would run along to the Lund General Store to gorge on candy and pray for a freshly stocked rack of Archie Digests.
Russell would saunter into the pub, which, according the Hermit, was drunken den of culture clashes in the early 1980s: commercial loggers and fishermen versus hippies and back-to-the-landers.
Usually, the mild-mannered hermit was able to avoid the flying bottles and fists. That was until one rowdy time at the pub, when it was skinny Russell Letawsky who wound up at the centre of a bloody bar fight.
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.