Couple Lives Off The Grid In The Woods Near Lake Superior

Categories: Life Stories

Upper Peninsula couple John and Victoria Jungwirth have lived decades without central power, running water or indoor plumbing. They live off the land and survive by selling birch bark canoes they've made by hand.

Mandi Wright, Detroit Free Press

ISHPEMING, Mich. — Winter is already hard in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Imagine going through it while living off the land, off the grid and often stranded from the weather. Imagine doing so for years and being thankful that you can.

"Imagine living in a dream you've had your whole life, literally and figuratively a dream," John Jungwirth, who along with his wife calls this isolated place home. "It's really nice to inhabit your dreams."

He and his wife, Victoria, live in a log cabin in a mountainside forest in the northern wilds of the Upper Peninsula. The nearest road is miles away. The only way to get to the cabin is to hike awhile through the woods.

They own Ishpeming Birchbark Canoes. They build traditional wood canoes at home by hand the way the Ojibwa Indians of the region did hundreds of years ago, a skill that comes easy because they live the way those tribes did back then, too.

As a kid growing up on Detroit's east side, John Jungwirth would find ways to play in nature.

"That's all I've ever known," the 56-year-old said. "I used to run around in the city trying to catch bugs, frogs, all that. As soon as you could get out of town you did. You just lived outside back then."

He tolerated city life only until he got out of high school when he moved north of the city to a part of the state Michigan residents dub he Thumb, where he lived and worked on a farm.

That's where he met Victoria. She came to the farm from England, where she'd been raised in a little town in Suffolk. That country upbringing gave her a sense of self-sufficiency, and this organic farm she'd heard about in the Michigan countryside sounded like a great place to be.

"I grew up in postwar England," said the 59-year-old in a still-thick English accent. "My parents had lived through the war. They just had a kind of do-it-yourself mentality. They grew their own food; my mother made her own bread; she sewed our clothes and knitted our sweaters."

The two got married, pulled out a map of the Upper Peninsula, picked the place farthest from the roads, bought land there, found a clearing and set out to build a cabin using only hand tools and the trees around them.

It was a lot more work than they expected.

"You think you're going to build the cabin in one year," John Jungwirth said.

It took three.

They filled the cracks between logs with moss and salvaged discarded windows to put in their walls. While they worked, they lived in an old trailer set in a valley. The result of all that effort became a two-story, weatherproof, Scandinavian-style cabin that's withstood 30 years of harsh Upper Peninsula winters and stayed solid.

"They were naked for probably the first five years of their life," John Jungwirth said. "Just little, brown towheads; just running around, man. Just what you'd love to see."

The kids moved out long ago, first to college to earn degrees, then to nearby Upper Peninsula towns. That has left the Jungwirths the way they started — together, all alone, in the wilderness.

"It's not like I could say in all honesty this is how I dreamed of growing up," Victoria Jungwirth said, standing by the stove, heating water for tea. "I didn't even really know this was possible. I imagined myself more as a farming and a homesteading type, but not actually living in the wilderness.

"But now that I'm here, I absolutely love it," she said. "I couldn't imagine going anywhere else....

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