Previous chapter: [“The End, part two,” June 28]: A few weeks ago, the CBC's Grant Lawrence wrapped up his latest storytelling serial in the pages of the Peak. It was called Hermit of Desolation Sound, the true story of the hermit philosopher Russell Letawsky. Because of an exceptionally significant and sad event that has occurred since the series ended, Lawrence returns with this special addendum.
“If I’m going to die, I’d rather go back in the bush here and not have anyone find me for weeks,” Letawsky detailed to me on June 6, 2019. “I believe in this. I don’t like all the ceremony surrounding death. It’s okay to die and have the wolves get at me, and the vultures, and everything else.”
“Hopefully, after a while,” Letawsky added with a chuckle, “people will come by and find a bone or two, and find me scattered all over the place.”
When Russell explained that to me, I had no idea it was the last time I would see my old friend.
On July 9, I had just signed on to the WiFi at the remote Homfray Lodge, north of Desolation Sound, when I received the familiar ping of a Facebook message. “He’s dead.”
I stared at the message for a moment, then replied. “Excuse me?”
A return answer came back, repeating the phrase: “He’s dead.”
The messages were from the estranged daughter of Russell Letawsky. My heart pounded in my chest.
I wrote her back. “Are you telling me that your father has died?”
“Yes. That’s what I’m saying.”
I couldn’t believe it. I was in shock. Russell was 76 years old, but I had just seen him a few weeks earlier. I had visited him throughout the spring for this series. We sat together in the sun in his yard talking for hours on end.
The old hermit seemed to be doing all right, considering his still-roughing-it lifestyle and recovery from his stroke in 2016. However, one major, persistent problem for Russell was his lack of running water.
Whenever he needed water, he had to start up his old, uninsured van, drive down his steep, pot-hole-filled, thorny, overgrown driveway just off of Gifford Road north of town, to a ramshackle trailer that did have running water. He’d fill up his jugs and drive them back up the hill. Not a great situation for a 76-year-old stroke survivor with one bad leg.
When I asked him why he didn’t remedy the situation and get water piped into his house, he told me he felt like he was in limbo: his landlord supposedly wanted him to vacate, so why should he invest in a new water system if he might have to move soon?
On that last visit in June, Russell and I had made plans. Later in the summer, we were going to go back out to Desolation Sound for the day, where he lived totally off the grid during the 1980s, and where I first met him. Now he’s gone.
On Friday, July 5, Russell put on his Friday best and made his weekly hitchhiking pilgrimage up Highway 101 to his favourite bar in the world, the Lund Pub, arriving early, in time for “Beer O’Clock” with the locals.
It was a particularly busy night, with many friends old and new passing by to give Russell a hug, a kiss, or a gentle ribbing over his recent exposure in the Peak and on CBC Radio. Some hadn’t seen him in months and complimented him on his jovial spirit, the colour in his cheeks, and the twinkle in his eye.
By the end of the night, Russell had consumed four mugs of Townsite Brewing’s Perfect Storm Oatmeal Stout. He caught a lift home from his friend Dawn Holmen and her partner Sean. Russell was lively and animated on his last ride down the winding highway. When they turned up Russell’s driveway, they noticed his van crashed into a rock.
“That’s a long story,” Russell sighed.
The van’s brakes had failed. That meant Russell currently had no way of getting water to his cabin besides hauling it up the hill on foot. Sean offered to fix the brakes for him soon. They said goodnight at around 10 pm. Dawn and Sean would be the last people to see Russell Letawsky alive.
You may remember the mention of Russell’s friend Jean in chapter 12. She’s the woman who came to Russell’s aid when he suffered his stroke. Jean Burk is Russell’s former girlfriend, who lives in Powell River. She and Russell have remained close. Jean considered Russell her best friend and hiking partner for over 20 years, and she checked in on Russell all the time.
On Sunday, July 7, Burk repeatedly tried calling Russell, but he wasn’t answering. She felt a worrying tug in her stomach. Jean no longer drives and even if she did, she couldn’t get up Russell’s driveway. On Sunday evening at around 9 pm, she called Powell River RCMP. They agreed to check in on him, and she heard nothing more until she received a knock on her door at 1 am.
The police found the bearded Russell Letawsky, deceased in his favourite armchair, looking comfortable, calm and at peace. His loving and faithful blue-eyed dog Sky was beside him. There was also something else at Russell’s side.
The RCMP also informed Letawsky’s estranged daughter of her father’s passing, and handed her what they found on a small table beside his body: a new, zip lock bag containing thousands of dollars in crisp new bills.
Why was that money left there? Was it for Russell’s death expenses, to be given to his daughter? In that case, did Russell commit suicide? There was no note.
Wherever Russell went, he always paid in cash. Did he have his money out with the plan to put it back in its hiding place, but died before he could? Why were the bills and the zip lock bag brand new, pretty much the only clean things in Russell’s dilapidated cabin?
When Russell’s daughter went to the cabin the next day, she noticed an unexplained red liquid on the floor in front of the armchair. According to her, it wasn’t blood. What was it? Some of Russell’s friends I spoke to think it could have been suicide, but there are many others who seemed certain he wouldn’t do that.
Based on Russell’s age, his medical history, and information allegedly supplied from first responders and Russell’s family doctor, BC Coroner’s Service has identified the passing of Russell Letawsky as a natural death. No specific cause has been given as of yet.
Powell River RCMP did not answer questions regarding the bag of money or the red liquid.
Word of Russell’s death began to spread around the village of Lund. On Wednesday, July 10, there was a terrific morning rainstorm. That didn’t stop Lund’s longtime friendly postmaster Ruth Sutherland from rowing to work across Finn Bay to the Lund Harbour.
Ruth was one of the friends who had been with Russell on the Friday night at the pub. She had known Russell for almost 40 years. On Wednesday morning, by the time she got out into the bay, the sun was shining through, creating a spectacular rainbow that stretched all the way from Indian Point to Major Rock, arching over the Salish Sea. Ruth looked up at the rainbow and said: “Hi Russell.”
Russell the Hermit came very close to his death wish. He didn’t perish in a hospital or a nursing home. He didn’t die in the forest to be picked at by scavengers either, instead, slipping away in his favourite chair, in his favourite place, with his favourite dog, in his cabin in the woods. The official date of death is July 7, 2019. Russell’s dog Sky has been adopted by Jean Burk.
On Friday, July 19, an informal wake of friends and family was held at the Lund Pub, the end of the road for Highway 101, and the end of the road for Russell. As the sun streamed in, someone noticed a pod of surfacing orcas in the harbour.
“Must be Russ stirring ’em up!” someone called out, to a round of laughter. Many stepped out onto the deck to watch the whales. As is Lund tradition, someone sparked up a joint and passed it around.
Later this summer, my family hopes to spread some of Russell ashes in the little nook of Desolation Sound where we met, the place now called Russell Cove.
On Saturday, September 7, at 2 pm, a celebration of life will be held for the hermit at the Lund Pub that will be open to the public, and I’ll be there.
Russell Letawksy was far from a perfect man, but he changed my life back when I was a lonely, loser kid in the 1980s. For that, I will always remember him, and I will always share his story.
Hermit of Desolation Sound was originally a series that aired on CBC Radio 1. The entire 13 chapters are now available as a podcast. Grant Lawrence 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.”