Off the grid:

🕔Apr 07, 2009

First there’s a sign: Proceed with Caution: Narrow, Winding Road. Then there’s a line to cross, where tarmac turns to gravel, where electrical poles stop and cedars creep back to the edge. This is off the grid.

“That term wasn’t in my vocabulary before,” Angela Johnson says as she pokes at the fire in her woodstove. She is one of about a dozen residents who call this section of Tow Hill Road along the northern tip of Haida Gwaii home. Cabins built from driftwood dot the landscape of beach and forest. Residents collect rainwater in barrels and heat their homes with wood. “When I moved here, I didn’t know what living without electricity or running water really meant. I had this romantic notion it would be a great way to spend the summer.”

But now it’s winter. Things become less romantic when water barrels freeze solid and outhouse seats frost over. Angela stuffs newspaper into the woodstove. “Sometimes it takes a couple hours to warm up in here,” she apologizes. It’s cold enough to see our breath.

Now Angela understands what it means to live off the grid. It means a constant preoccupation with three basic elements: heat, water, light. It means splitting wood, hauling water, knowing where your headlamp is at all times. It means wearing wool socks, cooking by candlelight. “And trying to keep clean,” she says with a laugh. “Sometimes, it means going dirty.”

One-room cabin
But Angela is no ‘dirty hippy,’ as some townspeople joke about those who live this side of the Masset town line. Just two years ago, she wore business suits and high heels. “Even matching handbags,” she says. She was as young-corporate-Vancouverite as they come, eating fusion-cuisine at hip restaurants and splurging on antique vanities.

Despite her new digs–a one-room cabin decorated with thrift-store finds–traces of that woman remain. An entire tote is dedicated to grooming products: body scrubs, facial masks, pumice stones. When Angela goes into town to teach a class at the college, you’d never imagine she’d washed her long, chestnut-coloured hair with the nozzle of a camp shower filled with wood-stove-heated water, or applied her eye-shadow by candlelight. Only the gumboots give her away.

She pokes at the fire again. She offers me a blanket. “I never realized this was happening,” Angela says, taking in the two-burner propane stove and mason jars filled with all manner of pulse and grains. “I just woke up one day and realized this is the way I’m living.”

It’s rare these days for anyone in North America, especially a lone woman in her early thirties with a penchant for designer handbags, to live this way. Some call living without running water and electricity living in squalor. But if this is squalor, I want to sign the lease. The cabin is clean and bright. It smells of cedar and Earl Grey. It’s obvious Angela is happy: her eyes sparkle. You feel like sitting down and drinking tea with her for hours. She has a hearty laugh, especially when she laughs at the irony of her new life–how it’s more important now for a prospective suitor to know how to use a chainsaw than a Blackberry.

‘Squalor’ also comes with a fantastic view. Angela looks out her picture window that faces a wide swath of ocean. “I know I’m disconnected from the grid and all that entails,” she says as the fire finally begins to blaze. “But I’m connected to something else now–the natural world. I know what the beach is doing, what the moon is doing. I know I’m part of all this.”

Important choices
Not everyone arrives off-the-grid so serendipitously. Meredith Adams knew exactly what she was getting into eight years ago when she traded in her life as a deckhand activist with Greenpeace for a go at homesteading. She’d heard rumours of hard-core hippies living off-the-grid in a place called North Beach. “But,” she says, placing a tray of biscuits in the oven, “I prefer to call them hippies with hard cores, rugged people who use their hands, who build things.”

If a hard-core hippy is someone like Meredith, I want to be one. Not only can she build things–chicken coops, greenhouses–she can dig potato drills, change a transmission, skipper a sixty-tonne boat.

She stands in front of the oven, head slightly cocked. A mischievous twinkle in her eye seems to ask: Don’t you know you too can do all this?

When she picks up two-year-old Fisher, her blonde-haired, blue-eyed son straight out of a painting of cherubs, the miracle of Meredith is complete; she does all this while raising a child. “Now that I have a child,” she says, “the choices I make are all that more important. I’d like Fisher to know there’s an alternative to living in a skyscraper in downtown Vancouver.”

I look around the octagonal walls of her cabin, the antithesis of a skyscraper. Huge windows display the surrounding forest. A rooster crows. For a rare moment, Meredith sits down. I notice a cell phone lying on the counter beside a jar of canned peaches. “I’m not someone who shuns technology,” she says, as Fisher climbs onto her lap. “I embrace it. I just don’t understand why we support antiquated ways of keeping antiquated systems alive, why we use things like diesel to produce electricity when so many creative alternatives exist.”

Little white switch
Meredith raises her nose in the air and sniffs. “They’re ready,” she says, and springs to action again. She returns seconds later with hot biscuits and butter, then walks towards the door. I notice a white plastic lightswitch screwed into the cedar log wall. The lightswitch says it all–anything is possible off the grid if you’re Meredith Adams—even home-made power. “When I flip that switch,” she says, “I know I’m flipping it on differently than most people in North America.”

If you walk a few hundred metres beyond the forest and into the sand dunes, you’ll see what she means. A wind turbine rises above the Pacific. Meredith talks about amps and kilowatts, wind shear and voltage drop. Her little white switch makes it possible to run a skill saw, fire up a laptop. If she were ever to apply eye-shadow, she could do it by the light of a compact fluorescent bulb. These little conveniences, which total one-sixteenth of the average household’s power consumption, make living off-the-grid feel downright luxurious.

It’s hard not to notice that Meredith pulses with the same kind of energy she’s learned how to harness. She’d scare the hell out of me if she didn’t insist on scaling down her accomplishments to human proportions. “Basically, I’m just a demonstration,” she says, buttering a biscuit for Fisher. “But a demonstration of what? If everyone did this–burned wood, had their own power system, drove 16 kilometres to town to get groceries–we’d be screwed. Living in a skyscraper would probably be more efficient.”

I can’t help but relax and settle into the colourful cushions of Meredith’s couch. I begin to wonder if off-the-grid isn’t more of a state of mind than a place. A state of mind where it’s less important to be right than creative. Where it’s possible to trade in high heels for gumboots, and activist placards for wind turbines.

And as I think of that line where tarmac turns to gravel and electrical poles stop, I wonder why I didn’t cross it sooner.