Living Off the Grid
A report from one who does
After reading the May 2009 River Journal column “Land Management” by Michael White, I am inspired to tell my story. I agree with Michael that self reliance “is simply a great country lifestyle which brings a certain peace of mind on many levels.” I find that conversations about self-reliant living are often filled with fear and I hope to offer a personal perspective on being prepared for the unknown for the fun of it!
My husband Tom and I both grew up in North Idaho after our families relocated here in the 1970s. Tom was raised in the Bonners area and I lived near Priest Lake and then in the Selle Valley just NE of Sandpoint. We now live about three miles due east of the West Shinglemill road farm where I grew up. Tom purchased our 20 acres in 1988, setting into motion his plan to live in a home built from the trees on his land with views of Schweitzer Mountain where he has skied since the 70s and worked at for over 20 years. I joined the Schweitzer crew in 1990 and we were married in 1992.
For years we spent weekends and free time parking out the property, clearing a building site and decking logs to mill into lumber. In 1995 we started the 16’ X 24’ cabin that makes up the larger half of the home we now live in. We had purchased a starter home in Sandpoint when we got married so we were not under pressure for a place to live. That gave us the freedom to take our time, pay as we could, and build the cabin ourselves. I often hear people say that they built their home and I wonder if they mean that they acted as their own general contractor or if they dug the footings, built the forms, mixed the concrete, laid out the joists, decked off the floor, framed up the walls, placed the rafters, sheeted the roof, nailed each shake... I will move on, just thinking about all that work makes me tired! There are many ways to be involved in a building project and at 42 I would not choose such a hands-on approach today, but at the time we were motivated by the adventure, finding great joy and satisfaction in the accomplishment!
By 1999 we had scraped up enough capital and momentum to make our dream of living on the property a reality. Our daughter Erika was 3 and we both were working at Schweitzer at the time. I knew that if life was too rough we would not be happy in the long run, so I told Tom that in order to move out of town I needed a shower and a washer. I think at the time I said that the toilet was optional but I am glad we opted in on that!
When we called the power company to see what it would cost to connect to the grid, they wanted $12,000 before hookup fees and meters. That was a lot of money to us in 1999 and Tom figured he could set us up on a solar power system for close to that price. He had always been interested in alternative energy and liked the challenge of creating his own power.
I would not call myself a survivalist because the word can bring up images of underground bunkers full of army rations and ammunition, but to survive is one of the two most compelling drives a human has! What does it take to sustain the human? Air, water, food, and shelter are the most basic of necessities. Speaking for myself, I want a shower and a washing machine too! As a society we rely on the systems in place to provide for our basic needs and are very affected by any interruption in those systems, I could digress into apocalyptic scenarios but I will leave that to your imagination.
Personally I do not spend much mental energy on what could go wrong; I prefer to put energy into finding things that work well with how things are now and would also work if the current systems of support were not active. Solar power is a great example; it provides all of the comforts that my grid power friends enjoy with only a little more conscious input. I must be more aware of phantom loads, energy efficient appliances and turning power off when I am not using it. Sometimes when it has rained for a few days and the sun finally comes out you will find me catching up on my laundry and vacuuming. I do not have central air but I do run a window air conditioner when it blazes on our southwest facing hill top at the end of July through August. We use wood to heat our home and propane for on demand hot water, the dryer, the range, and to run the backup generator.
We currently have a large solar array, over 3000 watts, batteries that could hold us for almost a week and an industrial-quality propane backup generator. Some people have a soft spot for classic cars or Club Med vacations but we have entertained as well as sustained ourselves with solar power as our hobby! The system is not perfect; we still use propane and batteries full of toxic materials. We dream of producing hydrogen in the summer with our excess power, and burning it instead of propane. Although there is progress being made in Europe on the technology it is not yet available or affordable for us.
We started with a system about one-quarter of the size and have added and upgraded as our budget allowed. We started in 1999 with the cabin and the power room. The power room is a sod-roofed, partially submerged, 8’ x 12’ concrete room that houses our power system and batteries as well as a freezer and pantry. The cabin is 650 square feet with one bedroom, one bathroom, and a loft over the kitchen accessed by a sliding library ladder. I like to refer to the 8’x 16’x 4’ loft as the “Master Suite.” Because of its compact size we have put effort into using every possible square inch and have been able to use more expensive finishes than we could have in a larger home. The cedar tongue and groove ceilings, slate, tile and fir floors, handmade interior doors and cabinets make the space feel more like a boat than most homes. We have a few friends who “cruise” on sailboats; they say our house is big! The many windows do not leave room for art but it does make the space feel larger and I have yet to see art as appealing as the view.
Over the years we have expanded to include a 20’x 24’ carport, a 10’x 25’ wood shed, an 8’x 16’ garden shed, an 8’x 8’ two-story play house, an 8’x 20’ earth berm greenhouse with a 6’x 6’ root cellar in back and we are just now finishing our long awaited shop. The buildings are all built out of the rough cut lumber we have had milled from the trees off our property. I think of myself of a tree hugger more than a tree killer but over the years I have come to see our forest as a sustainable garden of wood, wood to burn for fuel and wood to build with. The land gives us so much, we try to be aware of how much we use so that future generations will be able to live here in the same style that we enjoy!
Over time our garden and landscape have grown too. Both my mother and Tom’s mom are organic gardeners who grow a lot of the food that they eat and they raised us on garden produce. Beware: once you’ve had a vine-ripe garden tomato you’ll be hooked! Our climate is a zone 5 and I also have some zone 6 crops like seedless grapes that like our southwest slope. We cultivate about 2,000 square feet of garden in annual crops like tomato, zucchini, cucumber, pumpkin, garlic, potato—too many to list! We also have fruit trees, berries, herbs and perennial flower beds. I like to joke that I am in training for subsistence farming but at this stage it is really just a hobby and the bulk of our food is imported.
Many people believe that you need flat land to garden but frost will settle in the low areas and if you have a slope, especially with some rock, you will be less effected by sneaky growing season frosts that can catch you by surprise the day before you were planning to make pesto and turn your basil brown! There are many tricks we use to extend the growing season here and so many different micro climates in the area I will save that for another article and wrap up my garden comments by saying that it is my passion! I often hear people say that they do not get enough time to do the things they like to do, that they don’t have time to work out, or have the money to eat right. I find that gardening gives me some workout, and healthy food to eat while I am spending time doing what I like to do.
I feel fortunate to live in an area where there is so much of what we need all around us. If you ask what the products of North Idaho are the list will be long but the first that come to my mind are trees: lumber and fuel; livestock: meat and dairy; grass: grain and hay; water: fresh drinking water, hydropower, fish, and recreation! Bonner and Boundary counties are approximately 70 percent state, federal, and timber company land with a population that could self sustain through times where imports were too expensive or not available. Already a large portion of our population fill the freezer with meat from local farms or game from our forests. We purchase local produce from the various outlets or grow our own. We live the good life purchasing inexpensive imports from around the world, happily using fossil fuels to keep us warm and for transportation but we could survive without those luxuries.
This brings me to a point on which I disagree with Michael: I do not believe that if imports were to stop flowing into our area “the private lands would quickly become hunted out” and that we would need to hunt on public land to survive. I suppose that is one approach but you could also consider buying one of the many established farms and raise animals or stock up on what you need from your local farmers and have an alternative power to run your freezer! We can survive crisis in this area if we ban together and network. I think that there are already many moves being made to keep our community strong and promote local food production, for health and commerce as well as a way to reduce our vulnerability! Man does not survive well alone. It may work in the short run to isolate yourself and wait out a challenge but to truly survive and thrive we must evolve past independence to interdependence! We can work together to make North Idaho as strong and self sufficient one self reliant, interdependent Idahoan at a time!
Photos courtesy Kristina Kingsland