Hermit of Desolation Sound

Chapter 11: The reality

Previous chapter [“The fight,” June 7]: Russell Letawsky recovered from a vicious fight in the Lund Pub back in his little homemade shack in Malaspina Inlet, which was right next to our family cabin. Over the years that followed, the Hermit continued to be my barefoot backwoods mentor along the rocky shores of Desolation Sound, teaching me about everything from knots and knives to insurgent rock ‘n’ roll, philosophy and counterculture. Those teachings would be the current that would pull me far away from Desolation Sound, my family, and the Hermit.

When I was a teenager, fuelled by much of the music Russell introduced me to, I became the lead singer of a rock ‘n’ roll band called the Smugglers. I chased my own dream hard, touring far and wide for many years. That band took me to the places that Russell spent the last half of his life trying to escape: downtown urban centres choked with traffic, people and pollution.

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The Smugglers often performed our songs in windowless, smoke-filled clubs painted black. I was exactly where I wanted to be, just as the Hermit was exactly where he wanted to be. Amor fati: love your fate.

Before my complete departure from Desolation Sound, I remember being shocked to learn that the Hermit Russell Letawsky had a daughter. I couldn’t believe it when my parents told me. Where was she? How old was she?

During the 1980s, while the Hermit was living alone and roughing it in the cove, his daughter would have been in her 20s. Their relationship had always been rocky ever since their family broke apart almost 20 years earlier in Toronto, which you read about in chapter two [“The greaser,” April 12].

I could only imagine how challenging it must have been for Russell’s daughter to get ahold of him, since he had no means of communication in the woods.  

I only ever met Russell’s daughter once. She was engaged to be married, and the Hermit made a rare sojourn from the bush to the city for the ceremony. Russell, his daughter and her fiancé came over to our family home in West Vancouver for a visit.

We were stunned when we saw Russell, so out of context from the bush. If you can believe it, the Hermit of Desolation Sound was wearing a three-piece, beige corduroy suit, with his chest puffed out. He was as proud as he could be. It was one of only two instances that I ever saw Russell clean-shaven. The next time would come many years later, in much more unfortunate circumstances.

You could point to a few events that occurred at the end of the 1980s that finally drew the Hermit back to town permanently after a decade in Desolation Sound. In 1988, Russell’s ex-wife, and mother to his daughter, tragically died from a heart attack while apparently in attendance at live comedy event. According to Russell, she died laughing.

And even though Russell Letawsky considers his time living in the cove as the best chapter of his adventurous life, he was getting lonely. On one of his visits to town, he met a nice woman named Louise. They fell for each other, but Louise was not interested in living in a dank shack in the wilderness. Go figure.

The Hermit finally moved back to civilization. Amazingly, just as he had emerged unscathed from his trek across the Coast Mountain Range you read about back in chapter seven [“The inlets,” May 17], the wily Russell Letawsky suffered more injuries in the Lund Pub than he ever did in his many years living in the woods.

Because the Hermit always had a big dog as company, large predators steered clear, although he does clearly remember hearing cougars screeching at night, a sound that petrified him. His worst memory was when he returned home from a fishing trip to find his rifles stolen. They were hidden in such a way that he knew it must have been a so-called friend from somewhere in the inlet, and it planted seeds of distrust.

And for a guy who had never so much as built a doghouse, that little cabin the Hermit called home proved very sturdy. Only once does Russell remember the feeling of peril.

“One time, in the middle of winter, there was a storm, and it hit at exact same time as one of those high, high tides,” recalls Letawsky. “The logs in the cove were banging against the steps of the house, and slamming right up against the poles that held up my cabin.”

The huge grey waves of a dreaded southeasterly winter storm coupled with a king tide was the worst possible scenario, and yet the foundation survived the pummelling of logs and ocean. It was a long night, and Russell’s bed was right above the pounding. Had those posts given way, he would have tumbled into the drink.

“It was hard to sleep, that’s for sure,” chuckles Letawsky, 30 years later.

When I finally returned to Desolation Sound as an adult after my long rock ‘n’ roll walkabout, Russell the Hermit had been gone from the cove for almost 10 years. You can imagine my surprise when I arrived to see his little cabin still standing.

It appeared as if he took nothing with him. Inside, it all sat untouched: a musty, dripping, mouldy museum of the Hermit of Desolation Sound.

Next week, you’ll read about Russell’s lasting legacy in the cove, and his fate after he returned to civilization, in the final chapter (part one) 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.

Copyright © Powell River Peak


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