Two Years Traveling and 10 Lesson's Learned

Categories: Life Stories

It was in 2011 that I first understood what off-grid living really meant. Before then I had heard people claim they were off-grid if they switched their cell phone off for a day or two. Other people thought anyone who lived in remote places was off-grid. None of that made any sense. It was when I first visited British Columbia's Lasqueti Island and later the floating home community of Clayoquot Sound that I got a real taste of the off-grid life: life, that is, in a place disconnected from large natural gas and electricity networks.

For the next two years, photographer/videographer Jonathan Taggart and I travelled close to 105,000 kilometres together across Canada to find people who live off-the-grid and visit them in their homes. Occasionally we lived with them for a short period of time. Sometimes we followed them around as they fished, harvested, collected wood and built or fixed their homes. And we too practiced living in off-grid homes and cabins for short stretches of time. Overall we visited about 100 homes and interviewed about 200 off-grid Canadians, as well as many American and British expats living in Canada. We managed to find off-gridders in every single province and territory, and through our book and forthcoming film we narrated our travels and chronicled the experiences, challenges, inventions, aspirations and ways of life of a few of them.

To make our travels and encounters with off-gridders possible, Jonathan and I had to fly on dozens of planes, ride snowmobiles, paddle kayaks and canoes, walk in snowshoes, ride ATVs, sail on ferries and small boats, bike and trek across many beautiful regions of our country. Our encounters with off-gridders young and old, far and near and rich and poor inspired us to reflect not only about off-grid life in itself, but also to question our collective, modern, on-grid way of life. The lessons we learned are about disconnection as much as they are about everything we all take for granted about the modern condition and its comforts, conveniences and connectivity.

To end our Tyee occasional series, we thought we would share with readers 10 simple lessons.

1. An off-grid home is not a hands-off home

Our modern homes are designed to run themselves, free of our involvement. They are also meant to shelter us from the outside and separate us from nature, with a guarantee that power, heat and water will flow unrestrained under all weather conditions.

Off-grid homes, instead, demand that you take care of them. They require you to become involved in how efficiently they run. They expect you to be aware of how they work and why they work, and sometimes why they don't. They need you to be patient with them, to wait for resources to become available and for technologies to be adapted to local conditions and sudden changes.

2. Off-grid life is simple, but not uncomplicated

One of the great appeals of off-grid living is that it allows you to practice a form of voluntary simplicity based in frugality, sustainability, self-sufficiency and resilience. The "voluntary" part refers to a deliberate act of choice: an awakening leading to a lifestyle conversion. The awakening consists of gaining the critical awareness that global society has spun out of control. Simplicity consists of voluntary choices, such as to buy less, consume sustainably and ethically, eat more local and natural foods, reduce clutter, recycle and re-use, practice creativity, take a more active role in self-education, use renewable energy resources, prefer smaller-scale forms of living, and develop skills based on the values of self-reliance.

Off-gridders are simplifiers. But the first thing they will teach you is that simplicity does not mean living free of complications. Rather, it means embracing challenges and living genuinely and free of pretensions.

3. Off-gridders are people like you and me

Most Canadians who live off-grid did not choose to move off the grid; their local utility made the choice easy for them. It did so by making the connection of their homes to the grid too expensive.

Rural properties far from the nearest electricity pole need to pay a lot of money to stretch the grid all the way to their outside walls -- as much as half a million dollars. Who would do that and then pay monthly bills on top?

In two years we met all kinds of these people: single men, single women, young families, retirees, professionals, farmers, artists, expats and individuals young and old.

4. You don't need to live in the bush to live off-grid

Most off-grid homes are in rural areas, where availability of land makes it easier to collect (and burn) wood, tap into groundwater, dispose of waste through septic fields or composting systems and even grow food. The old rule that you need at least 10 acres to live off-grid isn't a bad rule at all.

But a 10-acre property isn't a cheap buy in some places, especially in areas like the West Coast or in highly popular ex-urban areas nearby Canada's major cities. So, for some, living off-grid in a small lot in the middle of a city may work very well instead. The sun shines in Calgary or Ottawa just like it does in rural Alberta or Ontario, and firewood can be found aplenty and gratis in the discard piles of construction sites. Besides, when you live off-grid in a city you don't need to have a truck to drive to work or to the grocery store -- a bus or a bike might even end up giving you the carbon footprint edge over environmentally-sensitive but car-dependent rural off-gridders.

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