Nicole Salter sat on the bank of the Columbia River bawling. Hours earlier, she and Craig Lagore watched as their best friend Leslie Wetselaar was swept away in the current.
“He was my best friend,” she told me.
They had been hanging out at the Centennial Park boat launch last Wednesday, Apr. 21, when Wetselaar lost his balance and fell in. Lagore and Salter tried to pull him out, but were unable. Les, as he was known, was torn away in the current.
The Revelstoke RCMP, Search & Rescue, and Fire Rescue Services began an extensive search of the river. A police boat and private boat set out onto the water while an RCMP helicopter was brought in to look from above. Teams walked the shoreline as far as the 12 Mile flats but after two days of searching, they were unable to find Wetselaar.
The RCMP issued a news release saying they considered him a drowning victim.
The news was met by sadness across the community. One of Revelstoke’s few true homeless, Wetselaar, 69, was a familiar and friendly face around town. He lived outside, sleeping wherever he could find a safe place. He would panhandle outside coffee shops, trying to get enough money to get by. He would greet you with a friendly grin, his face framed by a scruffy beard and big glasses.
“He was a great guy,” Salter told me a few days after Wetselaar drowned. “So friendly, loving, caring. He would do anything for you.”
“He would give you the shirt off his back,” added Lagore. “He could be broke as anybody and he’d give you money.”
Wetselaar was born in Lethbridge, Alberta, in 1946. According to an article in Reved, he was given up for adoption at the age of two and dropped out of school by grade 10. He worked various jobs across the country and spent much of his life living on the street, where he felt comfortable.
While it’s not known when he moved to Revelstoke, Salter said she was his roommate 30 years ago. Over the years, he became a fixture in the community.
Salter and Lagore were among the few people who were part of Wetselaar’s circle of friends. They lived together for a time in a trailer near the Illecillewaet River. They would spend time together, going for coffee, grabbing a bite to eat, and drinking.
“He always used to say we were his family,” said Salter. “No matter what, we’d always take care of eachother. The last couple of days it’s been a real rough go for everyone.”
Wetselaar’s drinking was an issue and it would get him in trouble. While he was generally calm and friendly, occasionally he would fly into rages, leading to involvement with police.
“I think a lot was depression,” said Salter. “He wanted more for himself and that’s what made him drink more. That’s what I think.”
Added Lagore: “No one gave him the help he needed and it went downhill from there.”
Wetselaar’s sudden death prompted reactions by many. Krista Manuel, the owner of Sangha Bean, where he would spend time, started a memorial page on Facebook.
“Thanks for teaching me not to be so judgemental, for teaching me to be more giving,” wrote Bob Gardali. “You’ll be remembered and talked about for quite some time.”
Wrote Leon Remus: “In his quieter times you could see a very insightful man. I only wish I had taken more time to listen and know him. This is my loss and might I suggest our ‘collective community loss.’”
Manuel said she and Gary Sulz are planning a memorial ceremony for Wetselaar.
Salter said she would never forget him. “I still don’t believe he’s actually gone. I don’t want to believe it.”
Read Rory Luxmoore’s story about Wetselaar from the December 2013 issue of Reved. We re-published it with their permission.
Les is more
By Rory Luxmoore
You have probably seen Les around town. Perhaps he was drinking a hot coffee in one of our cafes, warming up in the community center or walking the streets of Revelstoke looking for warmth, food or company. You can’t miss his tall, thin stature or his thick layer of clothes. He has made Revelstoke his home and his home consists of warm blankets and a series of makeshift shelters.
When Les walks down a street, some people step aside and some people send a smile in his direction. Whatever the reaction, few of us know his story. That is why on a cool day in November, I decided to join Les for a cup of coffee and ask him to tell me his story.
Les was born in Lethbridge, Alberta on December 6, 1946. At the age of two his parents gave him up to the Salvation Army and he was adopted by a Dutch family. He had a challenging childhood, characterized by a little too much mischief and a little too much partying. He dropped out of school by grade 10 and his adopted parents were dead by the time he reached the age of 18.
Life on his own brought Les to many areas of Canada. He helped build a railway in Alaska. He fought fires in northern B.C. He washed dishes and cleaned cars in Calgary. Like many of us, he rented his own apartment, paid the bills and went to work. He also lived as a hermit in the mountains of southern B.C. But he has chosen to spend most of his life living on the streets. He has survived Vancouver and Halifax and “froze [his] toes in Winnipeg.”
Today he can be found walking the streets of Revelstoke. “I like the excitement, I never know who I am going to meet,” he says.
Les knows how to survive. “I have a spark in me that says never give up,” he beams.
He shows me a key tab that states ‘Just for Today.’
“Expectation and anticipation are the biggest killers of today,” he claims. He does not expect too much and tries to make the most of each day. Yet he has his challenges, “I drink too much,” he admits.
Les is not alone in that regard. Drugs and alcohol are a problem many people face. It saddens him that so many of our youth are being “sucked in” by its allure. “It concerns me because I was young and it reminds me of myself.” He claims that many of us are bored of our lives and we find ourselves looking for entertainment, some of us in unhealthy ways.
Les has chosen Revelstoke as his home. “I love it here, I would not trade it for the world,” he states. “I love the mountains and rivers, they speak to me.”
He also appreciates the community. “I see love coming from the heart, it can be overwhelming,” he reflects. The generous donations of food, money and clothing warms his spirit and keeps him going.
With a warm meal inside him Les gives me a hearty handshake and smile and heads back out into the cold to face another day.
This article was originally published in the December 2013 issue of Reved. We re-published it with their permission.