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The Philosopher Kings

It's been over a decade since renowned broadcaster and indie rock musician Grant Lawrence launched his writing career with the award-winning Adventures in Solitude, yet some things never change—including the winding Sunshine Coast Highway, close calls at the BC Ferries ticket office and carsick children. But this time, Lawrence returns as a husband and father, not as the vomiting and nerdy kid dragged along by his athletic and unflappable parents.

In his inimitable, high-voltage style Lawrence interweaves the rich and harrowing history of the Desolation Sound area with his own experiences of life on the coast.

In this excerpt, he shares the story of what happens when man of many faces Russell Letawsky, meets New Zealand-born Dr. Raymond Bradley adrift in Dank Cove, neither expects the spirited friendship that will spark from the meeting. Once a farm boy turned suit-wearing Toronto yuppie and lately a hermit on BC's remote coast, Russell finds an intellectual equal in the cosmopolitan professor. Notwithstanding their animated philosophical conversations, nothing can quite compare to the raw, untamed wilderness surrounding them.

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The locals called it Dank Cove because it received barely a ray of sunshine in summer and absolutely none in winter. On one particularly nasty day, Russell was blending in with the shoreline when he spotted, through translucent sheets of cascading sideways rain, a twenty-six-foot sailboat drifting in circles out in the inlet. It looked to him as if the lone sailor was having an issue with the rudder. Through his water-damaged binoculars Russell could read the boat name: the Kia Ora. Australia? New Zealand? he thought. By current and happenstance, the sailboat drifted into the shadows of Dank Cove.

The man on board was tanned, stocky, well-groomed and handsome, with combed-backed silver hair and a trim salt-and-pepper beard. Russell thought the sailor looked like a dashing Ernest Hemingway emerging from the mist. When the man noticed Russell in the murk of Dank Cove, he called out in a sharp, educated accent as thick as his white wool turtleneck sweater.

The sailor on board the Kia Ora—the term was indeed a Maori greeting meaning “be healthy”—was Dr. Raymond Bradley, a professor from New Zealand who had taught at places like the University of Auckland, Oxford’s Merton College and the Australian National University before relocating to Canada to become the head of the philosophy department at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby. Besides his teaching career, Ray Bradley was a world-champion skier, having won over sixty medals in major events and setting records unbroken for decades. He was also an author, a pilot and a burgeoning shellfish farmer. In the summers since arriving in BC, he had enjoyed sailing throughout the Salish Sea, which is how he discovered Desolation Sound.

In the early 1970s, Ray convinced the then vice-president of SFU to go in with him on forty prime waterfront acres at the mouth of Theodosia Inlet. There, over the course of several years, Ray designed and built an impressive two-storey octagonal log cabin for his family from cedar, fir and hemlock trees that he felled himself.

Ray’s land partner had decided to build a geodesic dome for his own family, but once the frame was up, fishing kept getting in the way of finishing the oddball structure. When Ray bought out his partner a few years later, the dome’s frame was warped from winter rain exposure. Ray managed to finish it anyway, turning it into a unique dwelling for guests and caretakers.

Russell knew a thing or two about being rudderless, so he helped Ray out that day, and the gregarious, bearded duo became instant friends. Russell had been down in the dumps and flat broke in Dank Cove and was considering a move back to town. Ray had recently split with his wife and was lonely. Russell couldn’t believe his luck at meeting a man in a rainstorm in the middle of nowhere who held a Ph.D. in philosophy. Ray had recently published his first book, Possible Worlds: An Introduction to Logic and its Philosophy, which further blew Russell’s mind.

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Russell knew a thing or two about being rudderless, so he helped Ray out that day, and the gregarious, bearded duo became instant friends.

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The men talked for hours at that first meeting as the tide rose and fell, and they soon engaged in colourful philosophical discussions and debates that would play out like chess matches, a single conversation pausing and picking back up again over hours, days, weeks. Russell considered Ray an intellectual equal in the wilderness. Before long he pulled up his meager stakes in Dank Cove and moved into the wonky geodesic dome on Ray’s Theodosia Inlet property, living rent-free in exchange for his caretaking services while Ray was teaching.

When Ray wasn’t there, he allowed Russell into the octagon cabin to bathe. On a misty winter afternoon, Russell was lounging in the relative luxury of the bathtub when he heard a loud thump above him. Whatever caused the thump also cut out a considerable portion of natural light from the large skylight cut into the ceiling directly above the bathtub. Russell looked up, thinking a tree branch might have fallen onto the skylight. The next thump he heard was the back of his head banging against the bathtub as he instinctively flinched.

Directly above him, perched on the skylight, was a cougar. Russell could see through the condensation on the glass that the big cat’s ears were perked, its head cocked, its black-tipped tail twitching from side to side as it stared at Russell’s naked soapy body.

Russell stared right back up at the cougar. He could see each of the animal’s round black toe pads pressed up against the glass and the white fur of its belly. The cougar’s tawny winter coat was thick and fuzzy like a Christmas cardigan.

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Directly above him, perched on the skylight, was a cougar. Russell could see through the condensation on the glass that the big cat’s ears were perked, its head cocked, its black-tipped tail twitching from side to side as it stared at Russell’s naked soapy body.

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Russell’s eyes widened as it struck him that if the skylight were to give way under the cougar’s weight, the cat would fall directly on top of him in the bathtub. He snapped out of his wonderment to wave his arms, splash and yell angrily, but the cougar didn’t budge. Russell slid out of the tub without taking his eyes off the cat. After he had dried off and dressed in the hallway, he closed the bathroom door with a click and went into the living room to go over his options. In the otherwise silent octagon cabin, Russell could hear a rhythmic thudding and realized it was his heart. He glanced out the window at his wonky dome. It was about a hundred metres away, through a forested patch. The winter light was fading fast. Russell found one of Ray’s rifles, but it was unloaded—the ammunition was kept separately in the outdoor shed. Russell cautiously opened the bathroom door and looked up. The cougar was gone.

Back in the living room, Russell peered out of each window on the sides of the octagon into the darkening mist. Nothing moved outside. Still, he decided that he wasn’t going to risk the dash to the geodesic dome with a cougar on the prowl, so he cautiously made sure all the doors and windows of the octagon were closed and locked, then he pulled a can of beans out of the pantry and cooked them up on the woodstove. Russell still couldn’t relax, constantly getting up to peek out the windows, so he dug out a bottle of rye from the liquor cabinet and drank until he passed out.

Over the years, Ray had developed a clam and oyster farm that he now put Russell in charge of. Trying to beat the long-haul car travel to and from Vancouver, Ray also put his pilot’s licence to use by purchasing what Russell described as “a really strange, amphibious flying-boat type-thing that I wouldn’t have been caught dead in.”

The four-seater, two-hundred-horsepower Lake Amphibian looked like a life-sized version of those two-piece balsa wood model airplanes for kids that usually last ten minutes. Ray told Russell that he had found the plane for sale at a lake in the Kootenay region of BC. After a few lessons from the seller on lake landings and take-offs, Ray flew the plane from Nelson, BC all the way back to the coast.

One weekend, a year or so later, Ray flew in to Desolation Sound with his ex-wife Molly for a visit. The day before they were to leave, Russell informed Ray that a few of the oysters they had in storage seemed a little stinky. When Ray inspected the warehouse, he was aghast to discover about six thousand pounds of rotting oysters. Russell said some other part-time workers had overpacked the trays, layering oysters on top of each other instead of using a single layer per tray as Russell had instructed.

Russell and Ray were awake for most of that night, trying to salvage the remaining healthy oysters. The next morning, as Ray later wrote in his book Not a Dull Life, the weather was overcast and drizzling. Ray’s usual routine was to take off from Theodosia Inlet, then land briefly in Powell Lake to wash off the salt water before continuing his journey. That day, because it was overcast, the sky and the lake were an identical shade of abalone grey, and Ray lost his depth perception. He thought he had a few dozen metres to go before the plane touched down on the water, but he suddenly slammed into Powell Lake like it was a brick wall. The plane flipped over and tore in half before plunging beneath the surface.

Somehow, both Ray and Molly managed to free themselves from their seat belts. Molly burst through the surface of the lake on one side of the plane with blood streaming down her face. Ray, on the other side, struggled to stay afloat with what he would later learn was a broken ankle and torn knee ligaments. Two life jackets also fortuitously popped to the surface, which helped Ray and Molly swim to an island. Ray was “fading fast,” he remembered, but they were soon rescued by people in a passing boat. The amphibious plane was gone. It had sunk to the bottom of the lake within seconds and is probably still there.

Once Ray recovered and made it back up to Theodosia, Russell’s employment and living arrangements soon ended, though the two remained on friendly, if at times strained, terms. Ray Bradley sold his Theodosia property in 1990 and moved back to New Zealand. His octagonal log cabin is still there, as is the oyster farm, now called Theodosia Seafood, owned and operated by François and Krystal Mathieu and their kids.

After leaving Ray’s place, with a few short stops in between, Russell was back in the soggy little tent that had sheltered Audrey and him on their trek across the mountains—the same tent we spotted set back in the woods beyond the cove next to our family cabin. So began the decade that would define much of Russell’s adult life—and much of my own childhood as well.

Excerpted from Return to Solitude, by Grant Lawrence (2022) with permission from Harbour Publishing.

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Learn more about Return to Solitude:

This lively book recounts the life and times of the legendary Cougar Lady, tracks a phantom-like squatter known as the Spaghetti Bandit, and details the bizarre exit and even more bizarre death of Bernard the German. Here too are many of the beloved personalities introduced in Lawrence's first book, including hippie recluse Russell the Hermit, plus the continued voyages of Big Buck$, the decrepit family boat, and the incredible return of large ocean mammals to Desolation Sound.

From a hilarious, heartfelt and slightly wiser voice comes a momentous story of time, family and place whirling around one increasingly ramshackle cabin on a beautiful and not-at-all-desolate coast.

April 28, 2022
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