“So you’re her.” Three words, uttered softly, but delivered with utter scorn. The hair on the back of my neck rose as I swivelled around and met the eyes of the person I had felt staring at me.
Grasping each side of the casing with a meaty hand, legs spread wide, her girth filled the door frame to my office. I swallowed. Hard. I had known this day would come eventually, but my office? Located on the second floor of the Hamlet building, other than storage, mine was the only room up there. Me, the only person.
She didn’t move. I stood…maybe that would balance things out. I had a good 4 inches on her in height. Trying to remain calm, I asked if I could help her. “No.” was her clipped reply. “I just wanted to see what I was up against.” And she turned and was gone…as quickly and silently as she had appeared.
I sat back down as I felt beads of sweat trickle down my armpits. So much for antiperspirant.
I had heard about her for years. Tough as nails; stronger than most men; a good heart; a fighter; all muscle. Those were a few of the ways my husband had described Lilly* after his many encounters with her.
They had met years prior, in another northern community. My husband, a Mountie, was working when she was brought into the RCMP Detachment cells after being arrested for starting…and ending.. a fight at the bar across the street. The two officers that lead her in were having difficulty getting Lilly into the cell. Hands grasping either side of the cell door and legs spread, feet firmly planted, she wasn’t moving. Ron ducked under her arm, stepped into the cell and said, “Come on Lilly. Come in for me.” Well…she took that as an invitation…and released her grasp and stepped quickly into the cell. Thankfully not before my husband, even quicker, ducked out and slammed the door. I think for Lilly, it was love at first sight.
Each time she was arrested, which was often, she’d ask for Ron….demanding his presence whether he was working or not. It was a challenge for the other members to get her to stop fighting them and get in the police vehicle or cell. One night while trying to arrest her without a fight, she looked at my husband and his partner and said “I’ve never hit a woman, but a man is another fucking thing.” She never swung at Ron though.
Years later when we moved to her home community, and after her dropping in to ‘meet’ me, the phone calls started. At least three nights a week, the phone would ring, I’d answer it and it would be Lilly wanting to speak with “Sarge”. Many a night “Sarge” would be out on another call. It was the busiest detachment we’d been at, and the most violent. Seven members to police a community of just over 900 people.
She had several ‘pet’ names for me, suffice it to say, none of them flattering. Midnight, 2am, 3:45am…didn’t matter. When Lilly got in the bottle, and often in a fight, she’d call “Sarge”…often just to talk. And often, after passing the phone to him, he would lay in bed and talk Lilly off whatever cliff she was on. An hour, 20 minutes…once over 2 1/2 hours, he would patiently lay there in bed talking her through her demons, all the while I laid beside him fuming at another sleepless night because of the other woman in my husband’s life.
Often, as I mentioned, “Sarge” would be out on another call when Lilly phoned. I’d ask if it was an emergency, did she want me to call another ‘cop’ for her, was she in danger, had she hurt someone, had she hurt herself….and so we danced. Over the phone. Me trying to be as patient and understanding as my ‘social worker’ husband, all the while getting more and more short tempered. Lilly, getting more and more agitated and verbally abusive.
One night, after going in circles with her for what seemed like hours, and her threatening to kill herself if “Sarge” didn’t call her, in anger I shouted “DO YOU WANT ME TO LOAD THE DAMN GUN OR SHARPEN THE KNIFE?” Not my finest hour.
As the receiver slammed in my ear, I was instantly regretful…and terrified. What if Lilly DID kill herself? I would forever live with the fact that perhaps I had somehow encouraged her. I immediately called Ron. After calming me, he went to find Lilly. And took her to jail…where she wanted to be. We both slept knowing she’d make it safely through another night. I never lost patience again with her regardless of how frustrated I became. I finally realized that Lilly, like many of the people that crossed our paths, was dealing with demons that we could never understand. A lesser person may have succumbed, but not Lilly. She fought them with every breath…and drink… she took.
Weeks before her youngest son’s wedding, Lilly had talked to Ron and told him that she was making him a promise. She was NOT going to drink at her son’s wedding. That way, she said, she was sure she’d stay out of trouble and not ruin his big day. The best laid plans.
It was a Saturday night, about 11pm. The phone rang. It was Lilly. Ron was home but not on duty. He just said “Oh Lilly. You promised.” Not accusatory, not judgemental. Just sad. He got up, put his uniform on and left the house. I waited for him to come home. Hours later when he finally got home, he started to laugh. You know that old saying, you may as well laugh as cry? Well, this was one of those times.
The wedding had gone without a hitch, but a couple of hours into the reception, with several drinks in her…and most everyone else, Lilly’s sons got into a scrap. All three of them. With each other. Lilly reacted and jumped into the frey…cold cocking all three of her boys, including the groom! “They pissed me off and ruined the day” was her explanation to “Sarge” when he asked her why she’d done such a thing.
We both have many Lilly stories, Ron more than me. From that very first moment, these two people, with such extremely different lives, felt a kinship, a bond of caring and respect. It had nothing to do with anything more than the fact that each had empathy for the other.
A few years ago, we were saddened when we learned that Lilly passed away. Odd, but even after all the hours I spent with her on the phone over the years, I never saw her again after that one day that she stood in my office door eyeing up her competition. But her memory lives on as part of our collective family history, for in a strange and wonderful way, that’s what she became. Part of our family history. She caused us many a sleepless night, but most of all she made us laugh. Rest in peace Lilly.
* Lilly is not her real name, and it’s out of respect for her and her family that the two communities aren’t named in this post.
“You know, I’d be able to brag about you more if we didn’t buy our firewood already split.”
It was -32C and I had just come in from changing the oil in the generator and topping up the batteries that store our solar energy. I was on my way to the control panel in our laundry room to force a bulk charge so I could test them in a few hours to see if I needed to equalize before I left for a trip to see my Mother who lives back east.
I stopped, looked at my sweetheart who had just spoken those words and started to laugh. “Nutbar” was my retort as I continued down the hall.
A few years ago, we had decided to buy our firewood for the cabin. When we checked on pricing, we found that for an extra $25, we could buy it split. It was a no brainer. And so, as we listened to people joke about ‘buying wood to take out to the woods’, we coughed up the $350 it cost for a cord of split firewood.
The first year we owned the cabin, we had to remove the old wood stove. The bottom of the firebox was so thin, hot embers would fall through onto the piece of metal it sat on. Plus, no one would insure us as it wasn’t…and couldn’t be, WETT certified. WETT stands for Wood Energy Technology Transfer, and refers to an inspection required for insurance purposes for all wood burning appliances. The inspector must be certified and will inspect your appliance to ensure it is safe to use and that it has been properly installed, generally by a licensed technician.
So, that first year, we installed a wall mounted, direct vent propane furnace. With little insulation, plexi glass windows and the propane heat, we struggled to heat the place up each Friday night and keep the place warm enough to use each weekend. We’d run our two table top propane heaters, turn on and open the oven and stay in our snow pants, parka’s and big boots until things thawed and it was warm enough for fleece jackets and flannel lined jeans! Boots generally remained on until bedtime.
The following year, deciding we needed more space, and better heat… we closed in the screen porch and turned it into a living room. We insulated the walls and installed real windows…hand me downs from our accountant who had just replaced all the windows in her house. In addition, we installed two veryheavy sets of old wooden framed patio doors that we picked up from the side of a street where they had been set out for the garbage. I just happened to be sick the day they went in so our older daughter and her Dad installed them. Years later when Ron and I removed one set, I was shocked at the weight and surprised that the two of them had managed the installation on their own!
Once we had the room closed in, we bought a new wood stove and brought it out. A beautiful stove, a Vermont Castings Defiant.
Top load, fireplace screen and catalytic converter … it was perfect. And heavy. And expensive. But then we had to have it installed by the company we purchased it from…and buy the stove pipe and chimney. At the end of the process we were $5000 poorer, but kept our insurance in place.
When we bought the cabin, there were two big stacks of logs, all tarped, on the property. The spring we installed the stove, we built a couple of sawhorses and bucked up one of the piles but then realized a lot had to be split as well. Growing up using wood and an oil drip stove for heat, I knew how to split wood. I also knew that would be a far easier job in the winter, so we left it and the following winter each time we were at the cabin, we would both haul out the axes and split some of the wood. At -20C a light tap makes for easy splitting. The frost gets in the wood and makes it almost brittle to the fine honed edge of an ax. At 30 below it’s even faster…and you stay warm doing it!
Once we had gone through all the wood in those piles, it was time to get our own firewood. Where we live, it is illegal to cut wood without a permit. And, even with a permit, you have to drive over an hour to get to an area designated in your permit. We did that – once. After that I checked, and found that we could gather deadfall, or cut dead standing on our lease, so that is what we did. We’d take the snow machines out in the spring and find dead felled trees along and off the many snowmobile trails. We’d get as close as we could with the machines and then often hike thigh high through snow to limb and cut up a fallen tree with the chainsaws into five and six foot lengths. Then we’d drag them back to the machines and roll them into the toboggans and pull them back to the cabin where we’d stack them and let them sit until fall when we’d start the process of once again cutting and splitting.
Eventually, we bought a small electric wood splitter that was on sale at Canadian Tire. We found it would handle up to about a 12 in log without issue, and since most of the trees we found were smaller than that, splitting wasn’t an issue. We’d set it up beside the lake so we didn’t have to pull the logs to the top of our ridge, and then we’d bring down the small generator to run the thing. We still have that same splitter all these years later. We found we never needed the big gas powered splitters that can cost nearly $2000! This little one was a tenth of that price.
Of course, the other thing we were missing was a woodshed to store the wood once we had it split. Many people don’t bother and just let their firewood season in a pile or stack outside, but given our winters and snow, we wanted it undercover. Keeping budget in mind, and difficulty in getting things to our little cabin, we tried to recycle as much as we could. When we torn off the old rotting deck and steps, we salvaged as much of the lumber as we could, the rest we hauled to the dump. We couldn’t burn it as it had been painted with oil paint. Luckily, we had just enough 2×4 boards to frame two rudimentary woodsheds…that were just that…lean to frames. We had some old plywood scraps and a piece of corrugated metal we’d found on the side of the road, so we used all of that for the roof on each shed. The second year we had them we hung a tarp on the northeast side to help keep the snow off but those little scrap sheds served us well for almost 12 years!
In 2013, when we installed the solar system, we built a three room shed, 20 feet long by 8 feet deep. In the centre we made a generator room which we insulated and installed a double propane light for heat. It was all we needed to keep the generator warm enough to start. On either side was a 7 x 8 foot woodshed. Because of the height, we could squeeze almost 4 cords of wood into each woodshed.
At our current home, we also installed a propane stove for shoulder seasons when a wood fire would drive you out of the house. It also provides peace of mind on days when neither of us can be home to stoke the wood stove, and ensures the house won’t freeze up if the fire goes out before we get home.
We have off grid friends that use wood, propane, oil, or wood pellets….or a combination. For us, propane makes the most sense as a supplementary heat source. Propane also runs our on demand hot water heater, our kitchen stove and our back up generator. It’s really about personal preference, cost and access. With the type of winters we have in Canada’s north, the length of them, and the fact that we live off grid, having reliable heat is critical to being comfortable…and safe.
Today, we still buy our wood split, but we also continue to harvest deadfall and enjoy the warmth of a wood fire. And my sweetheart can brag about all he does. … because it’s a lot.
There is no wrong way to live off grid. Many self professed experts look down on those of us that have back up systems or 21st century creature comforts like flush toilets and running water. Yes…it’s true. Off grid snobbery is alive and well.
Your best resource will be talking and learning from those that have done it. You will find huge pay-offs by learning from their mistakes, and their successes. Without exception, every person I have ever met that enjoys some sort of off grid life has been eager and happy to help and teach.
True, there are magazines and books that are helpful, as well as many, many online resources and guru’s. But beware, many want to sell you something…like their book…and what they offer can mean hours of sifting through a mountain of information that may not necessarily be specific to what you want and how you want to live. It can also be difficult to understand when you are first starting out. I’m not saying don’t look to experts for specific things…like solar and wind power, best water systems, etc. but folks near where you plan to practice your lifestyle can be extremely helpful.
Not every off grid home is a rustic 10′ x 10′ cabin in the woods and not every off grid dweller sustenance hunts or bakes bread in a wood stove oven, although a great many of us do.
From where I sit, any effort we make to live a greener, healthier lifestyle is a win/win. Whether you sell your excess solar back to the grid; live by candlelight and wind power; or grow a few herbson your apartment balcony, it helps.
Off grid living varies from person to person. Personal preferences and budget play a large role in where each of us sits on that sliding scale of self sufficiency.
For us, it was about getting older and wanting a healthier, more active lifestyle (aka forced movement). It was also about cutting costs…although after 14 years of having an off grid cabin we weren’t delusional enough to think our off grid choices and lifestyle would be cheap. Systems can be expensive. It was more about where we wanted to spend our money. But it was also about environment and location.
When we decided to make the leap to this lifestyle full time, we owned a lovely 2700 sq foot home in town with beautiful views of Yellowknife Bay on Great Slave Lake. But every weekend, we locked the door and headed to our happy place…our cabin on one of the many lakes outside of town. Often, during the summer and winter,I would stay out at the cabin fordays, or even weeks , with Ron joining me during the winter when he could drive across the frozen lake, or I’d pick him up by boat over on weekends in summer. It was our favourite place in the world to be.
Because my husband was…and still is…gainfully employed full time (I retired years ago when we sold our businesses), we couldn’t live full time at the cabin due to location. Boat access in summer and ice access in winter…but in between there were two times of year when access was impossible…freeze up and break up. That could be anywhere between six weeks and three months depending on Mother Nature’s mood that season.
Renting during those times would have been difficult. Not many people want to rent for only two months at a time, and even fewer would rent to people that have a large dog.
Cabins on the lakes outside of town that had road access came up for sale now and again but nothing we were interested in, or could afford. Besides, we loved our lake, especially the area where our cabin was, near the mouth of the river where boat traffic was mostly local cabin owners or sledders (snowmobilers) just passing by to join up to a trail that connected all of the lakes along the Ingraham Trail to town. So we lived our lives, enjoyed our cabin and dreamt of full time life at the lake.
It took us over 3 years to find a cabin we could afford…with no road access. Our hopes weren’t high to find one with road access. Because most cabins near Yellowknife were on either federal or territorial leases and not titled land, and because it had been years since any new leases were issued, most places that do come up for sale are never listed, but rather, sold by word of mouth. Demand is high. We all know someone that is looking, and so a phone call or two will usually sell a place in a matter of days if not hours. Since devolution, all leases are now held by the Territorial government and about 2 years ago there was a lottery for 22 new leases that resulted in over 900 applicants!
When we found our little piece of paradise, all those years ago, it was basically a 480 square foot of plywood box with a loft. Built atop a rock ledge, the footings were tree stumps and there wasn’t a piece of glass in the place. The windows were handmade frames with plexi-glass which swung open to screens stapled to the opening to allow for summer breezes.
A small wood stove that had seen better days was the first thing to go. We couldn’t get insurance as long as we kept the stove, so out it went. It was June so it didn’t really matter. We spent every evening and weekend over the first three weeks hauling out all the garbage and catching mice. Mickey, Minnie and their extended families had enjoyed the benefits of a single, seldom present owner and made themselves quite at home!
Our little 12 foot Crestliner left the small birchbark log “dock” each trip, loaded with everything from mattresses and old batteries to the previous owners underwear, or as we jokingly called it…our gift with purchase. We cleaned and swept and scrubbed everything in sight, twice, but only after we had filled every hole, crack and crevice with spray foam insulation and steel wool to keep the rodent population out.
The next three weeks were spent taking load after load of our own things out to the cabin; dishes, bedding, towels, mattresses, books and games. There was a small kitchen on the back of the main room that also housed the living room. Built into the bright orange counter top was a two burner propane stove top and a pail under the sink held the dirty dishwater which eventually was dumped down the hole in the outhouse.
The first order of business was water. Carrying 5 gallon pails of lake water up the hill wasn’t working for us, so we scraped together enough money to buy a small water pump, 200 feet of PVC 2″ pipe and another hundred feet of plastic fire hose. We filled four plastic garbage cans with water and we’d draw from those for our usage.
During the first few months when the lake was warm, we’d just bath in the lake after a long day of building, but as summer gave way to autumn, we decided we needed something where we could have a warmer wash. We had tried the black plastic shower bags, but they only held enough water for one person and with our long summer days the water could be scalding hot! With advice from neighbours, I found what was called a Buddy Shower Bag, which was basically a round reservoir with a cordura bag encircling it. We hung it in the trees and would heat water on the propane burner, dump it in the reservoir, climb inside the bag, pull the lever, and voila!! Warm showers!! You had to dress quickly when getting out or the mosquitos would have a feast!
That water pump and hose was the same system we used for 14 years, although we eventually changed out the plastic hose with fibre fire hose. In fact, during summer, we use the same system today at our current home. When we built an addition on the cabin 3 years after we bought the place, we put in a 250 gallon water tank and ran water lines to the tub and kitchen sink. We had cold running water which made life even easier!
Getting water to the top of our hill was easy in summer. In winter it became a real challenge. After working long days, we’d head to the cabin where my husband would roll out the sections of fire hose to connect with the PVC pipe that stopped just below the crest of the hill….often crawling through thigh high snow banks. Over the years water levels on our lake dropped considerably. We went from that 6′ piece of birch log dock to building over 160′ of dock by the time we sold the cabin 14 years after we bought it. That also meant we had to go further out to pump water and eventually we had between 300 and 350 feet of fibre hose.
Keep in mind, during winter, our temperatures can be in the -30C range, with stretches of days in the -40s. Trying to get a gas powered ice auger going in those temperatures so that you can drill a hole in over three feet of ice is a challenge. Trying to get a water pump primed and going and keeping it going is an even bigger challenge. Trying to keep over 300 feet of soft hose from freezing while pumping the water up the hill and into the tank…well, you get the picture. And of course, the second you turn that pump off….you have 300 feet of two inch hose instantly frozen solid…filled with ice. Luckily, we had bought the hose in 50′ sections so we would take it all apart and put each heavy piece in the toboggan, pull it up the hill with the snow machine and carry it into the house where we’d stuff it into the tub and wait for it to thaw before tackling the second piece. By the time it was all thawed, it was time to pump water again. And so it went.
When we bought our current home, directly across the lake from the cabin , we put in two 350 gallon water tanks, and now during winter we have a smaller tank that sits in the back of the truck. About twice a week my husband fills it at the pump station in town. This is the same place that the commercial water trucks use year round and RV owners use in summer. All he has do do now when he gets home, is thaw the hook up valve on the tank with a butane torch, make the connection, start the water pump which stays in our heated generator shed and top off our inside holding tanks. A far easier process!
There are a few people we know of that have different water systems, such as heat tape along the entire line or special submersible pumps with self draining valves, but for us, those options were both expensive and too complicated for what we wanted. Our system is simple, cost effective and easy to drain if we want to go away for any length of time. Turn on the taps, hook up the compressor and blow the lines…done in under 5 minutes.
At the cabin, we ran all of the water lines outside of the walls. There were several reasons. First, the original cabin was only 2×4 construction, as opposed to the additions we made over the years which were all 2 x 6, providing for far greater R factor in our insulation. By the time we decided to put running water in, we had renovated and added on to the whole cabin. All of the walls had been insulated, vapour barriered and covered with beautiful 4′ tongue and groove pine. We weren’t about to undo all of that work. Also, because we weren’t there all the time, we wanted easy access to frozen pipes should they occur. So we ran Pex lines from the water tank to the kitchen through our bedroom, with all of them tucked up between the walls and the ceiling, which was the best location as heat rises. Only a few times, at extremely cold temperatures, did we experience frozen lines and it was usually in the same two spots. A couple of minutes with a hair dryer was a quick fix. When we bought our current home, we ran the water lines inside the walls as in any on grid home. It was easy to do as we took most of the house back to the studs and renovated the entire place.
Life off grid not only made us more energy conscious, but we became acutely more conscious of how much water we use. Our new home has duel flush toilets that use very little water; our front load washing machine and our dishwasher are both the most energy efficient, water saving models we could find; and both of our showers have water miser shower heads. We still need to do some things differently than we would on grid. Because we are allowed to have our grey water exit onto the ground, in winter we have to let the tap run a bit when we brush our teeth. Otherwise, that wee bit of water doesn’t make it all the way out the pipe and can freeze causing a build up of ice until there is a real issue. That was a hard habit to break, as in town, we’d always turned the tap off when brushing!
There are other things to think about off grid. Because our grey water (shower, sinks, dishwater) goes onto the ground, we use only natural soaps and cleaners and never commercial drain cleaners!! We also make sure, before any dishes go in the sink or dishwasher, that they are wiped with paper towel or napkins so that food particles don’t end up as a critter attractant. Where the drains empty, we dug pits, filled them with sand and added pea gravel on top. I’ve tried to grow shrubs near them to take advantage of the water but haven’t had any luck…yet. Spring is coming and I have some new ideas, so never say never!