Hermit of Desolation Sound

Chapter 12, part one: The legacy

Previous chapter [“The reality,” June 14]: At the beginning of the 1990s, after more than a decade of living way off the grid, Russell Letawsky returned to civilization. He met a woman who was interested in him, but not his roughing-it lifestyle. Russell realized he was ready for a change. I missed Russell’s departure from the Sound, because I was on my own adventure: a seemingly endless tour with my rock ‘n’ roll band. It wasn’t until I finally returned to Desolation Sound as an adult in the 2000s that I realized, to my great surprise and delight, that Russell’s little cabin was still standing.

Over the decade since Russell’s departure, without anyone to look after it, the little cabin had been slowly rotting, but I had always hoped and possibly even assumed, that one day, Russell would return. It turned out the owners of the lot the shack stood on had other ideas.

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One morning, when I was up for a weekend in Desolation Sound at our family cabin on my own, one of our new neighbours lumbered up our front stairs. I could feel the house shake with his every step. I looked through the window to see a huge ox of a man emerge, with deep-set dark eyes over a large, black handlebar moustache. He was known to many around Desolation Sound as “Bernard the German.” I didn’t know him that well yet, and was wary when he knocked on the door of our cabin.

“Mornin’ buddy,” he said in a slow hoser drawl. “Your next-door neighbours want that old cabin of Russell Letawsky’s torn down. I’m gonna do it in a few days and could use your help.”

That news did not endear me to Bernard the German. I couldn’t bear the thought of destroying my backwoods mentor’s homemade domicile.

“What? No! You can’t do that! That’s Russell’s home. That’s a historic Desolation Sound building!”

Bernard chuckled.

“Uh, yeah, well he’s history alright. That dude ain’t comin’ back, eh? It’s rotten right through, nothing salvageable. It’s gotta go and I’ll be rippin’ it down in two days.”

Without another word, Bernard the German turned and left me standing there, looking down at Russell’s shack, and then to the wide back of Bernard the German’s oil-stained life jacket as he thumped down the stairs to his boat.

I scrambled down the rocks and crossed the beach of the cove. I climbed up the rock stairs to Russell’s cabin. The door was ajar and hanging on just one rusty hinge. When my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I saw that since I had last been there, someone had rooted Russell’s leftovers and strewn them about, making a nasty mess worse.

I stepped inside, and looked around, trying to convince myself the dank chamber was worth saving. I took another step, and then suddenly, where there was floor, there was none.

Like a trapdoor on an opera house stage, a wide plank gave way under my weight. I threw my arms out to the side to stop me from falling straight through onto the rocks and empty bottles below. I heaved myself forward and dragged myself along the rotten muck until I could regain my feet.

Maybe it was time for the shack to go. But I would have no part in it.

Two days later, a crew of a few men led by Bernard showed up in a couple of boats. They were armed with sledgehammers, chainsaws and a can of gasoline. Within an hour, the little cabin Russell the Hermit had called home for so many years was flattened and set ablaze.

I stared out down at the column of smoke feeling empty.

After the shack had burned and the fire was smouldering, the crew left, leaving only Bernard the German down in the cove, staring at a mound of unburnable trash that had been previously hidden by the shack. It appeared that over the course of the decade the Hermit called the cove home, he brought a lot of stuff in, but didn’t haul a lot of stuff out.

And with the shack gone, it all lay in plain, rotting sight.

Bernard the German pulled on a thick pair of rubber gloves and starting stuffing the trash into a garbage bag while I watched from our cabin above, forehead against the window, and arms crossed. Then it began to rain. Then it began to pour. Then it got Biblical.

Bernard the German never looked up, and kept stuffing the garbage bags. I grabbed my raincoat, pulled on my rubber boots, and stepped out into the rain. I scrambled down the rocks and crossed the beach. Bernard stood up tall and stretched when he heard me. Water was dripping off the ends of his moustache. He towered over me.

“Nice of you to show up. Your hippie guru left a hell of a mess down here.”

Together, Bernard the German and I worked for the next two days, stuffing garbage bag after garbage bag with the hermit’s remains: hundreds of rusted pipe tobacco tins, rotting tarps, broken glass, soiled clothing, and an unbelievable amount of odd wool socks infested with swarming carpenter ants.

When we finally hauled the last of it onto the bow of Bernard’s skiff, we sat down on the rocks, cracked a couple of bottles of Bernard’s potent Bavarian pilsner, and exhaled.

Almost every scrap of evidence proving that Russell the Hermit had lived in the cove was now gone. I urgently expressed to Bernard that Russell’s time in the cove needed to be remembered, to be recognized. Bernard turned and glared at me.

“After cleanin’ up two dozen bags of that guy’s leftover junk, you want to remember him?”

“Yes. I do. As far as I know, this cove has never had a name, Coast Salish, English or otherwise. I think we should call it Russell Cove.”

Bernard let out a deep burst of laughter.

“Sure, whatever man.” Bernard raised his bottle. “In the memory of Russell the Hermit, we hereby christen this spot Russell Cove.”

We both took a swig and sat in silence, looking out over the water. Bernard turned to me and put his huge paw on my shoulder.

“I’m sure Russell would appreciate that gesture,” offered Bernard. “Wherever he is now.”

A couple of days later, to make it unofficially official, I nailed up a sign to a big fir tree that read: “Welcome to Russell Cove.”

Amazingly, and without my doing, as the years have gone by, Russell Cove has started to show up on maps and charts of the area.

But I know what you might be asking: What happened to Russell Letawsky? You’ll find out in part two of chapter 12 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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