Previous chapter [“The legacy,” June 21]: The hermit’s shack that had stood at the edge of the woods in the cove for 20 years was finally torn down in the early 2000s by a Desolation Sound neighbour nicknamed Bernard the German. I reluctantly joined the cleanup. To commemorate the Hermit’s time living in Desolation Sound, we christened the spot “Russell Cove.” But what happened to Russell Letawsky?
Russell didn’t go far. In the early 1990s, he moved north of Powell River to be close to his girlfriend, Louise.
For the first year or so, Russell worked on an oyster farm to raise money to revive an old dream: Russell wanted to resurrect his photography business you might remember from his days in the BC interior in the 1970s [“Chapter four: The road,” April 26]. Russell hauled all of his old camera gear out of storage, set up a dark room and started shooting local weddings and special occasions.
But a friend of Russell’s was a driver for Powell River Taxi. He offered Russell a couple of shifts, and Russell soon realized driving taxi was more lucrative, and far steadier work than photography. He started picking up more and more shifts, and before he knew it, he was driving a taxi full time.
Russell drove nights for years, which he found more interesting than driving during the day, even though a former coworker of his described the late shift at Powell River Taxi in the 1990s as “a gong show of druggies, drunks and people with no money.” And yet, it was Russell’s preferred shift.
“Driving that taxi was the best job I ever had,” expressed Russell. “It was an adventure every time.”
Russell offered philosophical thoughts from behind his steering wheel along the hairpin corners of Highway 101 between Saltery Bay and Lund for over 20 years.
Russell would probably still be driving a cab in Powell River if it wasn’t for his advancing age. According to a coworker, when Russell was 70, he failed his vision test. He lost his taxi licence and was forced into retirement.
For the last several years, Russell has rented a cedar-shake cabin at the end of a long, steep, overgrown, pothole-ladened dirt driveway just off the highway north of town. It’s a mostly pleasant spot on the edge of the forest that gets lots of sunshine for him and his dog, Sky.
In 2016, life would change for Russell Letawsky.
“It was a Saturday morning in the spring,” remembers Russell. “I’d been to the Lund pub the night before. So I get up in the morning and I check the fire in the stove, and something just happened. My hand went into the stove and I got burned, but I didn’t feel it. I pulled my hand out of there, and I knew something was wrong, because I kept falling. One of my legs wasn’t working. I finally sat down in my chair and was trying to figure out what the hell happened to me.”
Russell managed to call his friend Jean, but when she answered, Russell realized he couldn’t speak. She figured out who it was and rushed over.
When Jean found the 73-year-old grizzled hermit, she immediately grabbed his phone to call 911, but Russell insisted that she hang up, that he could handle whatever was wrong. Luckily, the 911 operator put a trace on the call. Two police cars and an ambulance were dispatched.
“They were trying to find my place and the ambulance was parked down on the highway,” recalls Russell. “I remember the cops saying ‘Russell, you have to go get it checked out’ and I said ‘no, no, no, I don’t want to.’ Finally I gave up and said, ‘okay, okay, I’ll go’”
It was determined that Russell Letawsky had suffered a stroke and needed emergency surgery that couldn’t be performed in Powell River.
“After they checked me out my doctor says ‘you gotta go to Vancouver.’ No way! I was not going to Vancouver,” said Russell. “Especially in a helicopter!”
After consulting with his sister Gloria and his doctor several more times, Russell was convinced to get on the helicopter and fly to St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver.
That’s when fate would intervene one more time between my family and Russell Letawsky.
“I was in the helicopter,” recalls Russell. “I was going to St. Paul’s. That’s the way my doctor had arranged it. But then the pilots get a call from St. Paul’s.”
Russell’s helicopter was diverted mid-flight from St. Paul’s to Vancouver General Hospital. Why?
“Your dad,” Russell told me. “Your dad got my spot! It’s all a miracle to me, that whole thing, when I found out who got my spot in St. Paul’s. Your old man! Who could have ever imagined that?”
On the same morning Russell was arguing with his doctor in the Powell River hospital, down the coast in West Vancouver, my 75-year-old father was in the middle of his regular morning exercise routine of push-ups and sit-ups when he suffered extreme chest pain.
My dad was eventually sent to St. Paul’s Hospital for emergency heart surgery. He inadvertently bumped another patient. That patient was his old friend, the airborne Russell Letawsky, Hermit of Desolation Sound.
Over at Vancouver General, Russell had surgery to clear out an artery in his neck that was 95 per cent blocked to his brain. Dad had surgery to clear out several blocked arteries in his heart. Shortly after Russell’s surgery was the second time I had ever seen him without his beard.
Both Russell and my dad have recovered. Russell still has a slight limp and doesn’t go on long hikes anymore. Dad doesn’t do as many push-ups or sit-ups these days. Sometimes Russell finds himself searching for words, but he can still spin a great yarn and hasn’t lost his hearty laugh.
After Russell returned to his cabin, his adult daughter helped him get back on his feet, but after too many arguments with the stubborn old hermit, it didn’t last. Even though she lives nearby, they remain estranged.
At 76 years old, Russell is still roughing it. He doesn’t have running water, he chops his own wood for heat, and he barely has electricity. He runs an extension cord from a nearby trailer into his cabin.
Russell’s landlord would like him to vacate the property so it can be sold, but the hermit would much prefer to stay where he is, because he says he doesn’t have anywhere else to go. If it were up to Russell, he’d die there.
“If I’m going to die,” Russell sighed, “I’d rather go back in the bush here, and not have anyone find me for weeks. I believe in this. I don’t like all the ceremony surrounding death. I think it’s okay to die and have the wolves get at me, and the vultures, and everything else. Hopefully, after a while, people come by and find a bone or two, and find me scattered all over the place.”
As of 2019, none of that has happened.
And so, if you ever happen to be in Lund on a Friday night, stop in to the pub. There you might spot a grizzled, skinny old man with a long white beard, a barstool philosopher waxing poetic to friends and admirers. You should go over and introduce yourself. If you’re lucky, you might be charmed by a story about canoeing the wild rivers of Ontario, traversing the Coast Mountain Range, or living in a hand-built shack in a cove on the rugged Gifford Peninsula, the cove that now bears the name of my old friend, Russell.
That, for now, is the end of Hermit of Desolation Sound. Thank you for reading, and amor fati.
Grant Lawrence is an award-winning author and radio personality who considers Powell River and Desolation Sound his second home. His recent live show from the Max Cameron Theatre will air on Saturday, June 28, at 5 pm on CBC Radio 1 as part of CBC’s Canada Day long weekend special programming. The radio version of Hermit of Desolation Sound is now available as a free, downloadable podcast. Grant will return to the pages of the Peak in the fall with The Cougar Lady Chronicles: The life and times of Nancy Crowther, cougar queen of Okeover Inlet.