Nicholas Llewelyn-Smith only lived in Canada for 17 months, but it was long enough to leave a big mark. The young Australian made friends easily and was known far and wide as an environmentalist, entrepreneur, outdoors enthusiast, and artist.
He died accidentally after falling from a trail while camping on Slocan Lake last year, two months shy of his 32nd birthday. On the first anniversary of his death, his parents came to see the area for themselves, meet his friends, and place a permanent memorial in his honour.
Nick grew up in Coffs Harbour, a stunning coastal city in New South Wales, between Sydney and Brisbane, where from childhood he developed a strong social awareness.
“His whole life was based on caring for the environment,” his mother Jill says. “There were no barriers to his concern about our planet.”
At 18, Nick began travelling. Over the next decade he worked on yachts in the US, surfed in Costa Rica, was a tour guide in Thailand’s national parks, and spent 3½ months sailing the Pacific. Back home, he studied digital media and worked for a large landscaping firm in Sydney called Garden Makers. He was passionate about permaculture — for both its ecological and social benefits.
He’d bike to work or the beach and wave at people, but rarely did they wave back. The insular, big-city feeling didn’t sit well with him, so he made huge amounts of jam and offered it door-to-door just to connect with his fellow citizens. He also built a community garden in front of his rental property.
“He used to make big pots of chai tea and batches of scones and feed everyone,” his mother says. “Everyone came out of their houses and he created a community there.”
Jill clearly remembers the day Nick told her that, following much research, he was moving to Nelson. She asked: “Why Nelson and where on earth is it?”
He explained it was a “creative town with music and art and a beautiful soul to it. There seems to be such community spirit. There’s real heart.”
“That fitted him to a tee,” Jill says.
With his father Paul’s help, they packed up his Sydney life, filling a shipping container with antique furniture, hundreds of books, and tubs of tea that Nick mixed, blended, and sold online under the name of Madhatter Tea.
Then his next adventure began. In Canada, Nick lived in Nelson as well as Johnsons Landing and Argenta, where he looked after a cottage while the owners were overseas. He tended their garden and sold herbs and vegetables at local markets. He also secured a six-month contract at Athabasca Glacier, where he was a popular bus driver and tour guide.
In the midst of his Canadian sojourn, Nick went to Cuba for three months at the invitation of Roberto Perez-Rivero, a lecturer he met in Australia while studying permaculture. With a bicycle, a couple of friends, and a video camera, Nick toured rooftop gardens and solar energy projects, planning to create a documentary about sustainability programs.
Although he returned to Canada from Cuba, he was set to attend university in Melbourne, where he’d enrolled in an environmental engineering program that “encapsulated everything he was about,” his mother says. “He was keen to get home and get his teeth into that degree.”
On Aug. 29, 2014, Nick was camping with friends at Bannock Point on Slocan Lake, five kilometers south of Silverton. They spent the day in canoes and paddled to the opposite shore. That night Nick cooked dinner for everyone and they stayed up late playing music around the campfire.
“Who’s up for a walk to the ridge?” he asked.
It was a fateful — and fatal — decision. Although the night wasn’t totally dark and Nick was wearing a headlamp, he slipped on some moss and fell about 75 meters from a bluff. His body was found just after daylight.
RCMP initially considered his death alcohol-related, but the coroner disagreed. The notion still upsets his parents. Nick was neither a heavy drinker nor a risk taker, his mother says.
“The coroner delved into this carefully and interviewed everybody who was there,” she says. “He was comfortable not ordering a toxicology report because it was clear to him alcohol did not play a role.”
Amidst their grief, Paul and Jill (pictured at left) faced the logistical nightmare and incredible expense of bringing their son home. Nick’s travel insurance ran out when he returned from Cuba. In his diary, amid poetry and artwork, he wrote “Must renew my insurance.” But he didn’t get around to it.
So his cousin set up an online donation account called Nick’s Voyage Home and $24,000 poured in within days — enough to return his body to Australia, although the process took three weeks, delayed by coroner’s reports and other legalities.
Nick’s parents took some comfort in almost daily Skype sessions with an employee of a local funeral home who coincidentally had been part of the search and rescue team that responded to the tragedy.
Another friend set up a local account that quickly grew to $23,000, which will go to an environmental project in Nick’s name. (The family is still deciding what it will be, although they have no shortage of ideas. They’re also hoping to distill the thousands of photos and hours of footage he took in Cuba and complete his documentary.)
Via Skype, Paul and Jill also got to know the friends Nick was with the night he died and decided they needed to see the place their son loved.
“We knew we had to make that journey,” Jill says. ”We had to come and get some answers. We thought ‘We’re doing this trip for Nick.’”
Paul and Jill spent eight weeks in North America, joined at times by their younger son Alastair and his wife, who stayed behind in BC for a few more months.
They brought with them half of Nick’s ashes to deposit at places either dear to him or that he wanted to see: atop Idaho Peak, overlooking Slocan Lake; at Lion Mountain, near Juneau, Alaska; in San Francisco, where a beach cleanup was organized in his honour; in Portland, where he fell in love with the parks and streetscaping; and in the Rockies, where Paul and Jill visited Athabasca Glacier, and met the people Nick worked for.
“The company adored him,” Jill says. “They said he was the quirkiest, funniest young man.”
Everywhere they went, it seemed, they met someone who knew Nick or knew of him.
On the eve of the first anniversary of his death, they visited Bannock Point with 28 of Nick’s friends. “These are our kids now,” Jill says. “We spent a lot of time with them. They’re healthy, socially aware, wonderful, young people.”
They placed a brass plaque that reads: “Nicholas Ioan Llewelyn-Smith 1982-2014/Oh my brother, wherever you are, you know I love you/Oh my brother, wherever you are, I am thinking of you.”
A university friend of Nick’s in Melbourne made the marker, while the words come from Australian singer/songwriter Darren Percival, who wrote about his estranged brother.
“Nick heard it and sent it Alastair, who was in tears because they were so close,” their mother says. At Alastair’s request, the song was played at Nick’s celebration of life.
On the evening that the plaque was placed, a cloud in the sunset grew fiery red. Friends and family thought it looked like Nick riding a bike while wearing a top hat — which is exactly what he did when had his tea business.
Visiting the spot where Nick died gave his parents some consolation.
“We questioned why you’d need to go up at night, but now we have those answers,” Jill says. “Nick was very spiritual and it was important for him to go and sit under those stars that evening. After being at Bannock Point, we know it’s just the most magical, beautiful, wonderful place. There have been some amazing connections in this little place tucked away in the mountains and we’re going home feeling very fulfilled.”
Below: A plaque was placed at Bannock Point in August remembering Nick Llewelyn-Smith. It’s inscribed with a lyric from a song that was played at his memorial service. Family and friends thought the sunset looked like Nick riding a bike in his top hat — which he used to do while delivering tea. (Courtesy Llewelyn-Smith family)