I never chose to live off grid— I never even wanted to. I grew up in the suburbs. I don’t believe the world is ending and I don’t particularly mind people. I’m lazy and I really like the internet. I always thought that someday I’d have a normal job, rent an apartment, and that would be that. All that changed when I spent a summer on Hornby Island— a 30 square kilometre rock in the Salish Sea, 3 ferry rides from the mainland. I met the man who is now my husband, found a community that I’d do anything for, and fell deeply in love with the beauty of the land and sea. I found myself completely unable to leave.
This island has a population of about 1,000 in the winter— mostly aging homesteaders, eccentrics, and free thinkers. But in the summer, numbers can swell up to as much as 10,000— hoards of tourists, depleting the housing market for young people like us who want to make a life here. Yes, it is more complicated than that, but you get the idea. My point is that housing is scarce and insecure and the economy is a feast and famine annual cycle.
We mostly work doing things like stacking firewood, house cleaning, garbage hauling, and digging in the garden for the people who can’t do it all themselves. It’s rewarding and important work, but it doesn’t pay nearly well enough to compete with people working big city jobs and buying vacation properties. It doesn’t make much logical sense to stay in a place with so few opportunities, but it’s our home.
So anyways… Almost three years ago now, I had been living with my new boyfriend, Kevin, for maybe 6 months when we got evicted. That’s a very long story, but it really wasn’t our fault. After a horrible month of being completely homeless in March and searching frantically for a place to live, the only thing we could find to rent was a small clearing at the back of a large wooded property, far from any water or electrical hookups for $200/month.
We pulled in Kevin’s 50 year old airstream trailer— 26 feet, completely gutted, with holes rotted in the floor and walls full of rodents. There was a single burner propane camp stove, a 6” piece of foam on the floor where we slept, and an old, rusty triumph wood stove with chimney pipe stuck through an open hole in the ceiling where a vent used to be. Water came right through the gaps when it rained. We kept a 5 gallon jug of water in the corner, which we hauled from elsewhere on the island for drinking, washing, and cooking. The only sources of light were candles and headlamps, and our only source of entertainment was a battery powered radio.
It was pretty dismal, but it was springtime, and the situation was “only temporary”. We would be somewhere better by the next winter, I was sure. Spoiler alert— that wasn’t the case.
That first winter was probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. We had an old chainsaw that ran sometimes and we used it to scavenge firewood from the beaches. We brought it home with our $400 80’s pickup truck that also ran sometimes. We had to wheelbarrow it all in from the road, a few hundred meters away, down a narrow muddy path, because the driveway flooded so badly that it would reliably get the truck stuck. It seemed like we were always about to run out of wood. For the entire month of February, not only were the truck and chainsaw broken, but Kevin had slipped on the ice and hurt his knee so badly that he couldn’t walk. Every day, rain or shine, I’d hitch hike to work or just to the Co-op grocery store when there was no work to be had. I’d return with a backpack full of groceries and a gallon jug of water in each hand, walking over a kilometre from the main road through trails made of frozen mud.
I always felt that the cold, wet forest would one day consume us while we sat there in the dark, eating canned tuna and kraft dinner out of a pot I’d just bleached the rat shit off of while the CBC played in the background.
It was enough to drive anyone insane, but we made it through. The sounds of eagles in the early mornings helped a lot. So did our friends. And the poems I wrote directly on to the trailer walls and the trailing shapes Kevin painted on the ceiling. Nights when we cuddled close together under mud-streaked blankets with our little dog and promised each other that something good had to be right around the corner.
Spring came again, as it always does. I had no desire to experience such a winter again, obviously, but with no prospects for a new home, we did the only thing we could— planted a garden. We put down roots and learned to love the place.
While the garden slowly filled itself with snap peas and cucumbers that summer, we had a lot of work to do. The winter had rusted holes in the wood stove, and nearly depleted our savings. The sun came out, the economy took off, and suddenly life was an endless hustle from one odd job to the next. My days were filled with white sheets and wet rags in fancy houses for rent by the week, or else spent in garden beds with dirty fingernails, blackberry scratches up my legs and arms that got stronger and browner by the day. Kevin passed his days getting covered in a wide variety of terrible substances, from motor oil, to fibreglass insulation, to garbage juice. He worked that $400 truck for all it was worth. We bathed in the ocean and spent almost every evening laughing, drinking, singing, spinning fire, and sharing food with our friends on the beach. It’s easy to forget about your troubles when the sun is shining. I don’t regret any of it, though. I’ve got memories I wouldn’t trade for anything from those days.
When the rain started again, it was a real wake up call and we got busy in a hurry. We struggled to figure out our wood stove situation, swapping in and out a few different less-than-ideal stoves that either leaked creosote or took up too much space. We ended up buying a brand new one online. It wouldn’t stay burning through the whole night, but if one of us woke up around 3am to stoke the fire, we stayed warm enough.
We upgraded from candles to strings of fairy lights that ran on AA batteries. They made the place feel magical, but weren’t quite bright enough to read by. Kevin found us a 4-burner propane stove with a working oven in a dilapidated RV. A friend gifted us a little kitten who grew quickly into a fearsome agent of rodent control. Someone donated a used double mattress, which we put on top of a frame slapped together from scrap lumber, and the mouldy piece of foam took a one way trip to the dumpster. We developed a system of rechargeable usb battery packs that we’d plug in at work to power our cellphones and a tablet off of. We downloaded Netflix off the wifi at friends houses to watch in the evenings. There were two car shelters that we had lying around for some reason, so we set them up in the yard— one for firewood and storage, and the other for a mechanical and metalworking workshop.
Although life in the trailer felt downright luxurious compared to the previous year, we were not quite out of problems to solve. The chainsaw and the pickup truck that had sometimes run the year before were now better described as occasionally running. After pouring hundreds of dollars into machines that never did work properly again, we learned the hard lesson that sometimes you’ve just gotta give it up. Not everything can be fixed.
Work can be hard to find in the dead of winter, but with careful saving, networking and a willingness to do some very undesirable jobs (ie: arguing with a large male possum in a 1.5’ crawlspace), we bought ourselves a shiny new chainsaw. That was great, but without the pickup truck running to get the wood home, we ended up hauling it all in the trunk of my taurus— painfully slow and not at all good for the poor little car. After all the work we had put in, we were still living with the constant stress of firewood on our backs and it was hard to focus on anything else.
What happened next was nothing short of a miracle. A few days before the new year of 2020, somebody on the island was giving away a Dodge Ram 1500 with four wheel drive… fully functional, for free, and we were the first people to respond to the ad. As soon as we had it insured, we drove it straight to the beach and started cutting up firewood. We also got engaged that week. It was a good week.
I really think that it was this act of divine intervention from whatever higher power that I have never taken the time to believe in that finally lifted us out of survival mode and gave us the opportunity to thrive. With a full woodshed, we were able to think about other things. Kevin was able to start working more consistently, since he didn’t have to cut wood or fix mechanical issues every other day anymore, and he had some reliable transportation. I got a job at a twice weekly pop up cafe and picked up a few more house cleaning gigs, so I was working almost full time even though it was still winter. Things were going great.
The dodge truck broke down after only 6 weeks, but it was enough. In that time, we’d managed to make enough money that we could buy a truck that we actually wanted, not just one that we could afford. We picked up an ‘86 Toyota 1/4 ton with a flat deck and a four wheel drive system that crawled easily through our deep driveway mud. We spent all but our last couple hundred dollars on that truck, but felt great about it, because March was right around the corner and with spring comes abundant work and money to be earned.
You all know what happened next. A week later, covid hit.
The cafe closed down, people cancelled their housecleaning, and all of Kevin’s contract jobs got put on hold. We weren’t sure we would get any of the government relief money since neither of us had held a “real” job in a long time. The grocery store closed except for mail-in orders, and I had been relying on shopping every day because we didn’t have any refrigeration. Long story short, I had a complete meltdown.
The nearly-a-year since then has been hard in a lot of the same ways that it’s been hard for everyone, so I won’t get into that. But I have to thank the people who hired me to help with their apocalypse gardens from a safe distance, and Kevin for many many reasons, including coming home with a propane fridge he found in an abandoned hippie van one day, which was a total game changer.
Without the distraction of spending time with friends this past summer and fall, we really got our shit together. Kevin welded our old Triumph stove back together with the gas-powered welder we were able to buy for him and we have a fire that burns through the night again. He also traded some mechanical work for a used gas generator, which now charges a set of car batteries that run LED light strips inside the trailer. Finally, there’s good enough light to read by at night! We still haul water in those 5 gallon jugs, but now we hook them up to a syphon system and with the push of a foot pedal, water flows from a tap, into a sink, then into a grey water bucket. Kevin built shelves and we organized the hell out of our small space to make the most of it. We got married in the fall with just a few close friends in the midst of all that innovation, too. Oh, and our landlord gave us the gift of a new, less-flooded driveway that he made with his backhoe.
Now, in the middle of our third winter, an average evening in our home is a brightly lit flurry of activity. Kevin sits at his workbench, twiddling away on his metal work or macrame projects. The cat comes in and out an open window, alternating between hunting in the forest and sleeping by the fire. The dog follows me around the kitchen as I find joy in preparing elaborate meals every night. After dinner, when the kitchen is clean, I entertain myself by crocheting stuffed toys and reading books. Sometimes I’ll bake some cookies, cake, or bread. We’ve decided that unlimited cellular data is a luxury we can afford, so we’ve got internet access, albeit a little slow. We each have a functioning vehicle and reliable jobs to drive them to. I feel like a normal person and I can’t believe it.
I’m always hesitant to tell a story where the moral is “everything is possible” or “ya gotta pull yourself up by yer boot straps”. Because that’s not always true. And when I was going through, that first winter off-grid, it was hard not to think of the gleaming mansions I’d cleaned in the summertime, which I knew were standing empty. The world we live in isn’t fair, and although it likely won’t ever be, we have to make an effort to lift each other up. It’s the littlest things that can make all the difference.
We did not do all this alone. It wouldn’t have been possible without our landlord, who not only lets us live on his land, but also brought us firewood when our chainsaw was down, it snowed, and we had burned our last log. We couldn’t have done it without the friends who let us shower, do laundry, and use their wifi. Or the friends who fed us delicious meals when we couldn’t make them ourselves. The friends who came to hangout with Kevin when he was bedridden with his injured knee and no technology to entertain him. Friends who drove us around when our vehicles were dead. The people who donated the dodge truck. Our parents who were always there to listen and help us out with a few bucks when we couldn’t quite make it alone. Hell, we couldn’t even have done it without the freaking Coronavirus forcing us to focus. We are so unendingly thankful for these people (not so much the virus). Not everyone is lucky enough to have an amazing community like we do.
What’s next for us? Well, we won’t be here forever. We feel that we’ve taken the potential of this little clearing as far as it can go at this point. It’s too shady for solar panels, and too sheltered for a wind turbine. There’s no flowing water to generate power from either. Since we don’t own the land, we can’t cut down any trees, fill or drain the swampy areas, drill a well, or build any permanent structures. We have also been kindly asked not to be here forever, and we’re sad to leave but glad to oblige. We will be moving next summer, although I’m not sure exactly where just yet. Our big focus at this point is to invest in our businesses and to save up for property of our own, which will hopefully be our next move after this upcoming one. We are excited to one day have a place where we can realize our dreams exactly as we envision them. A couple acres for ducks, goats, and a big garden. We want to build a funky house with space to create art, a big kitchen with a pot of soup that’s always simmering and bright windows to start seeds in. It will be warm and comfortable with a door that’s always open to anyone who needs a friend. I’m not sure if it will end up being on or off the grid, but either way, I know we’ll be alright.