The New Homesteaders

For three years in the 1970’s I lived off the grid, in a drafty log cabin south of Ishpeming in the Upper Peninsula. Without electricity, plumbing, running water or natural gas, my husband and I burned wood in an inefficient old Round Oak Duplex for heat, hauled water from the lake and used kerosene lamps for light. But then we gave up. It was too hard.

We knew others who were doing the same thing, struggling to live on land they’d bought cheap in the U.P. Recently I tried to find some of the original group. But, after 30 years, hardly anybody was left. Instead, I found a different community of people living off the grid in the Huron Mountains near Big Bay. I was eager to see how these people were coping. Following are the stories of three families who chose to buck convention, consumerism and convenience for a different, simpler life – unplugged, empowered and closer to the earth.

Jan Zender, Rochelle Dale and Kalil

Jan Zender, Rochelle Dale and their daughter, Kalil, live three miles from the nearest plowed road, at the dead end of a rough two-track. Most cars bottom out while crossing the trail’s bridgeless ditches eroded by runoff flowing down the hills toward the Yellow Dog River. After the snows start, no cars come in, and the two-track becomes the family’s snowmobile trail.

The countryside is dauntingly hilly, with snow so deep that, on the winter day I visit, a wolf had taken advantage of the hard-packed route. Jan slows the snowmobile so we can watch its fresh tracks run for about a mile before veering off toward the river.

They chose the land, 90 acres, 18 years ago because it has good moving water – a river, springs – not the standing water on the cheaper land where mosquitoes drive people and animals crazy. We ride through a mixed forest of aspen, pine and maple trees – good for building material and firewood.

Jan and Rochelle make their living creating museum-quality replicas of items from the 18th- and 19th-century frontier lifestyles. The vocation flows from their passionate interest in that period, and their daily lives embody that same passion. The cabin is nearly round, like a teepee, with a door on the east side. It’s built of poplar logs with broad overhangs, a skylight and a roof nailed on by the couple’s mothers. Jan wanted a dirt floor, but Rochelle insisted on wood. While building the house, they lived in a wigwam on the property during summer and in town in the winter. Their son, Ian, played in the forest and helped his mother cook on an outdoor stove. He has since grown and moved away, a musician making his way.

During the past 18 years, the family added a few modern conveniences, choosing carefully. I’d called them on their cell phone when I arrived at the snowmobile trailhead. They have a clock, flashlights, a kerosene refrigerator. A power outlet lies on the floor of the root cellar under the house, connected to an outside generator for vacuuming and power tools. Solar panels power other outlets for listening to National Public Radio shows like "The Thistle & Shamrock" and "Mountain Stage."