Heating things up

“You know, I’d be able to brag about you more if we didn’t buy our firewood already split.”

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One of my ‘granddogs’, Kali, helping me gather brush after limbing trees.

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.

Duck Fred!
Ron felling two rotten birch trees on the property. Birch tend to rot from the top down and these two posed a threat of hitting the cabin if they fell during a storm, so, down they came. Notice his full PPE! (Personal protective equipment)

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 very heavy 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.

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Our beautiful, efficient wood stove. We put a new one in the cabin the year we sold it, and also installed the same model in our current home. I cook on it all winter and love the ease, and lessened mess, of the top load.

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!

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Gathering deadfall for firewood

 

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.

Gramma wood
Our first woodsheds, filled with birch which we learned burns fast and hot, so we began to mix the hardwood with softwood which provides a longer burn and more even heat. We seldom burn hardwood anymore.

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!

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The frame of our new combo generator/woodshed

 

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.

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Me wearing about 4 layers of clothing. My sister and I had just completed hauling 6 cord of wood up the hill and stacking it in the woodsheds. We were tired, sore, filthy and silly.

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.

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Our propane stove, at our current home, provides back up heat and comfort on chilly spring and autumn days when a wood fire would be too hot.

 

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.

Water: Nectar of the gods.

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Bailey’s Bluff, our off grid cabin the year after we bought it. This photo shows our first glass window, lakeside, which would eventually provide the view from our new kitchen.

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.

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The screen porch on the cabin when we first bought it. As near as we could figure, the grey tarp was to keep the pilot light from blowing out on the propane fridge which was located in that corner.

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 herbs  on 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 for  days, 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.

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The kitchen, where you can see the two burner propane stove, under the spice rack, built into the lovely orange counter.  On the right is the rusted out wood stove that we had to remove. Not only wasn’t it safe, we couldn’t get insurance on the cabin as long as it remained. Our lights were the three naphtha lanterns hanging at the top right of the photo. 

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!

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The ‘dock’ when we first bought the cabin. A rotting pile of birch bark logs held together with rusted 6 inch spikes and a few rocks that held the ‘crib’ together. 

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!

 

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The day our friend Paul hooked up water lines to the tub and kitchen sink. I was so happy to have running water…even if it was just cold. Hot water would come a few years later.

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.

 

 

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Ron trying to keep the pump going so we can fill the water tank in the cabin. This entire process could take hours…not fun at -30C!

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!

 

 

 

It was time for a change….

1487447_10153646858950015_607173355_nIt was three years ago this month when we made the leap. A conscious, life changing decision, both of us were 63 and we’d decided to move off grid. Full time. In the Canadian Arctic. North of the 60th parallel. Land of the midnight sun….and land of long, cold ,dark winter months. Brilliant!

s-l1600This wasn’t a stretch for me. I grew up in a fishing village on a small island off the southwest coast of Nova Scotia. Hand pumps for well water, outhouses for toilets, buckets down wells and ice boxes on the side of your house  for refrigeration were things I grew up with. Kerosene lanterns,  oil drip, coal and wood stoves, getting eggs from the hen house and then eating the non layers, beach rocks warmed in the oven to heat our beds…all familiar territory.

My husband…not so much. A self professed “navy brat”, he grew up on an armed forces base with swimming pools and indoor arenas to skate on. At home they had always had a fridge …well, as long as he remembers… and had the first TV on their street.

Our training ? Well, we had owned an off grid cabin for 14 years. We bought it 17 years ago after looking for three years for one we could afford. We took it from a 460 sq ft, mouse infested, dark, dank, two room plywood box to over 1200 sq ft cabin and, with the helpful knowledge of other cabin owners, mostly full time residents, had managed to make it quite comfortable over the years. Accessible by boat in summer and snow machine in winter (truck, if it was a low snow year or we paid to have a road ploughed across the lake once the ice was thick enough) left two seasons when the ice was either forming or melting where living there full time just wasn’t feasible.

We had built our own rudimentary solar system several years ago. It provided enough energy to run a 12 volt RV pump for our water tank, a couple of electric lights and later, as we became more knowledgable about the very important difference of modified and pure sine inverters…a small TV and VCR (the precursor to a DVD player for anyone reading this that’s under 35 or so.)

The cabin was built on a solid rock ledge, but I quickly adapted and began to grow edibles in flower pots and other resourceful things…like old wheel barrows. Given the short season we had to access the cabin I stuck to what I called my salad garden. 541161_10152121434835015_1878836795_nSeveral kinds of lettuce and some spinach filled the wheel barrows and the in pots I grew an abundance of cherry tomatoes, radish and a few green beans or peas.

 

 

 

Herbs did well with our beautiful southern exposure and I always had an abundance of rosemary, dill, thyme and cilantro. I also learned that big pieces of birch bark spread over the soil will keep the squirrels out of your planters and doubles as a decent mulch…without being ‘mulched’!

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Growing up with 4 uncles…with me, always underfoot at my grandparents house…and the oldest daughter/grandchild/niece…and being the stereotypical tomboy, if I hung around long enough to be a potential nuisance, I was put to work. That could involve cleaning fish, plucking ducks or chickens, splitting kindling, stacking firewood or shingling. It didn’t matter. If it had to be done and I was there, I helped do it.

10501762_10155604131810015_4265636635731372641_nAnd that was how I came to be such a natural ‘homesteader’, ‘bush woman’, ‘pioneer’. I carried the bundles up the ladder and shingled the roof of the generator/woodshed we built at our cabin. With some help from my husband doing the peaks, I clad the outside walls of the cabin with white cedar shingles we had shipped from New Brunswick…the same shingles that were used on my grandmother’s house, and my own east coast home.11180597_10155604130055015_8087949643775523095_n

There were still things I needed to learn. I took both my non restricted and restricted firearms training back to back one spring and placed at the top of the class in both. Bears beware!

10391463_10154288354570015_3737174284033511103_nI learned how to handle boats…first a 12 foot Crestliner with a 30hp outboard motor , which we called a ‘kicker’. Then came  a 19 foot Harborcraft with a 90hp motor, and finally a 20 foot Hewescraft with a 150hp outboard. I confidently, and often alone, drove them across the lake and docked in all sorts of weather.

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Solar energy has always interested me, and when we finally installed a ‘proper 12 volt system at the cabin, maintenance of the batteries and running of the system became my domain…including climbing on the roof to clean the snow off the panels in winter. With the system we installed a back up generator. This also fell into my list of jobs at the cabin. Keeping it full of gas and making sure the oil was changed or topped up as required became as familiar and scheduled as making a stew on the wood stove or baking a pizza on the BBQ.

I had driven snow machines before, but that, and our ATV…or ‘quad’ … became our necessary modes of transportation at the cabin, not toys like they are for many. Hauling lumber, 100 lb propane tanks, groceries or firewood, these were two essential pieces of equipment. And so, like with everything else, I became what I jokingly called ‘a northern biker chick’ .

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My husband and both sons are very skilled with chainsaws. I can use them but I wouldn’t call myself skilled by any means! We both have…and wear…full safety gear; kevlar chaps; steel toed, cut resistant in-lay, lug soled boots; helmets with face shield and ear protection. Yes siree! I am a homesteading fashionista when I get that gear on! I’ll be honest…I’m better using the wood splitter than the chainsaw!

I’ve been working on some stories about our off grid life, from the cabin to our current full time home. I’ll be sharing those in the coming months and I look forward to hearing your comments…and sharing your laughter as I relate some of our more interesting adventures over the years.  I also have some posts in the works about our life across the Arctic. There are some adventures to be told from those years! 2018 is about to get interesting! Stay tuned.