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.”

Today, a fire crackles in the Jotul wood stove in the center of the single downstairs room. Water simmers for tea. The room is large and dim but, with the winter sun, cozy. A black wood cookstove stands along one wall near the kitchen countertop; nearby is a dining table, cupboards for dishes, and a washstand with an enamel basin, soap and towels. An office of sorts lines another wall – shelves full of books on Native American arts and crafts, medicines, ways of life.

Hanging from support posts are leather bags adorned with beads and porcupine quills in traditional Woodland and Plains Indians designs. There’s a fully quilled eastern Sioux knife sheath, a long-fringed and beaded medicine bag, a shot bag with Huron-style quillwork and a small beaver fur medicine pouch.

Rochelle works on a pair of moccasins at a table beneath the largest southern window. Weak winter light streams onto a clutter of leather scraps, tin, bristly piles of quills, beads, beautifully handcarved tools. She bends over her work, long hair pushed behind her ears, snipping the barbed tip off indigo-dyed quills and pressing each with a “flattening tool” carved from an antler by Jan. The moccasins, a special order, smell of wood smoke. Their work is carefully done “to show respect for the animals (that the materials came from) and for the craft,” says Rochelle.

Jan shows me photos of authentic crafts, including a full-length birchbark canoe, which he and Rochelle (with the help of neighbors in the case of the canoe) copy exactly, down to the shade of red in the quills and size and placement of designs. Their creations go to museums to be displayed while the real piece is preserved in climate-controlled storage. They also sell their crafts at historical re-enactments and conferences. The work allows them to stay home in the winter, a necessity considering the energy expended by trying to get into town.

The evening continues in a timeless way – cooking, storytelling, reading. Two candles and a kerosene lamp lend a warm glow to the sitting area around the wood stove. Manicotti bakes in the wood-fired stove.

Kalil’s red hair shines in the light of the candle as she sits curled in her chair reading Tolkien. Sometimes she rises to help with supper or to practice a kick-boxing move on her father. She’s just begun lessons in Marquette. “I don’t care to talk on the phone too much. I see my friends enough,” she says. It’s enough to use the Internet at the library. She’s satisfied with going to Marquette once or twice a week where she plays the violin with the Northern Michigan University orchestra.

Jan leans against one of the supporting posts that glows golden in the lamplight, and he talks about the problems and pleasures of living off the grid. “My whole quest is to be as close to nature as possible,” he says. “Here, we find that peace that only nature can offer.” For him, living close to nature is a spiritual quest with financial and personal side benefits. The family uses what nature has to offer, and they avoid depleting the earth. In so doing they have raised Ian and Kalil to be capable of hunting, trapping, fishing, canoeing, finding their way in the woods and living outdoors, even in winter. “Here they learned self-reliance,” Jan says.

Once when Kalil was 3 or 4, the snow was too deep for the snowmobiles, so they tried to walk through knee-deep, then thigh-deep snow in dropping temperatures, abandoning groceries along the way, until they arrived at the cold cabin, exhausted. Now, during winter, they always try to return home in daylight – at night, it’s too dangerous if something goes wrong. “Life is full of stress. But here, stresses are different … and it’s up to us to solve it,” Rochelle says.

Getting ready for bed, I wash my face in a small pan of warm water. The family carries all water from a nearby spring, so it is “ever so valuable,” says Rochelle. Most guests say lack of running water is what they miss most.

Eight hours later, the day begins with the quiet thunk of wood being added to the stove, the rattling of coffee perking, the quiet voices of Jan and Rochelle as they begin their day. Rochelle rolls up the window quilts, and the thin morning light streams onto the breakfast table. It has warmed up in the night – to 16 degrees. Another group of visitors are expected tonight. People stop in often. In fact, Jan built a spare room over the workshop for overflow company.

Shortly afterward we load my skis and backpack onto the sled behind the snowmobile, snug them down with canvas and bungee cords and motor out to my car. The wolf tracks from yesterday are still visible, revealing the animal’s slide down a steep hill to the trail.

Ryan and Courtney Dalman

Ryan and Courtney Dalman and their children, Ari, 4, and Ona, 7, live on a dirt road that climbs, narrowing and meandering, through forested hills as though laid out with no particular plan in mind. The county plows to within two miles of their house, and Ryan keeps the rest of the road open because it makes sense with children, plus the couple welcomes customers to their pottery studio.

When I arrive, smoke billows from two chimneys in the cluster of buildings – the studio, the kiln and a newer two-story house overlooking a creek. Ceramic garden ornaments poke above the snow – a mossy green rough-edged pot, a clay person fissured like a dry desert floor. An outdoor Korean-style Noborigama pottery kiln looks like two beehive mounds beneath a roof, all surrounded by piles of firewood.

Inside the main house, barefoot 3-year-old Milo, the son of their friend Mojo who lives nearby, also off the grid, loads blocks into a toy truck and noisily dumps them out again. He frequently scrambles over to his father, who sits on the floor, to be cuddled. Courtney Dahlman sits with her back to the fire burning in the masonry stove. Built of concrete blocks in the center of the house, it works with only one or two fires a day.

Courtney said her house is bigger than she thinks they need, especially after living for six years in the first house – now the pottery studio. She’s still getting accustomed to having a guest bedroom, indoor bathroom with a composting toilet, dining room and large living area downstairs, plus two bedrooms upstairs, though they’ve been in this house for one and a half years.

With no water pump, the family relies on plastic gallon jugs of drinking water brought in from Courtney’s parents’ cabin nearby and stashed beneath the kitchen counter. In addition, covered five-gallon buckets hold water for washing. They use about 20 gallons of water a week excluding baths, which they take at their parents’ homes or when a friend fires up a sauna.

They also have a generator that they start occasionally to vacuum and operate tools. Rarely, they’ll power the television so the kids can watch a movie. Kerosene lamps, candles and a single gas lamp provide light. The apartment-sized refrigerator runs on propane, but they store meat in freezers at their parents’ homes.

We drink tea, and conversation turns to why they chose to live without the conveniences that require electricity or running water, which most people consider essential.

Courtney’s voice is passionate when she talks about living simply, avoiding consumption, recycling. It’s a priority, a conscious goal, something that weighs heavily in her choices. She works in town one day every week and is repulsed by the consumerism she sees flaunted on television. “That really opened my eyes. This is what they’re taking in all the time … cars and clothes and big houses. The more I lived there, the less I liked it,” she says.

Not to mention that a lack of convenient shopping saves “a ton of money. In town I thought, I don’t have this and this and this … so I’d go get it,” Courtney says. Now if she can’t buy something, she does without. Temptations to buy things simply aren’t there.

Because they supply their own power and water, “We’re conscious of everything, like not leaving the lights on,” Courtney says. It can be inconvenient but suits their ideals.

Their larger inconveniences have to do with maintaining the road – removing fallen trees, plowing snow. Sometimes they get stuck. And Courtney grows nervous walking in during the monthlong spring break-up when the road is too muddy to drive, and bears are emerging from hibernation.At noon, Courtney drives out to pick up 4-year-old Ari at the bus stop. He comes in, chattering about his day at preschool. He and his sister attend school in Big Bay, but Ryan and Courtney are contemplating homeschooling. They wholeheartedly like the school, but find it stressful to meet the schedule.

Courtney says one day she was alone and needed to meet her daughter’s school bus. Her son was taking a nap. The car wouldn’t start. Their old beater woods-truck wouldn’t go into gear. They don’t have a phone because they can’t get cellular coverage, so she couldn’t contact anyone to help. She finally had to pull her son on a sled to a neighbor who had a working telephone.

Besides, a lot of the idea of living off the grid is self-sufficiency, and that includes educating children. All of their close off-the-grid friends homeschool – a group that includes 13 kids.

Out in the studio, Ryan relaxes on the stool at his pottery wheel, kicking the wheel to get it spinning. He gracefully forms mugs from wet gray balls of clay, one after another. Clay splatters onto the wide plank floor. A string of small Tibetan prayer flags hangs above the window.

Ryan concedes he’s the more social parent. He finds a reason most days to visit someone, to help with a project or to receive help. When a house is going up in the neighborhood, he’s one of those who “oozes out of the woods” as he puts it, to get the job done – like the people who helped him with his roof joists.

Ryan and Courtney have weighed the trade-offs. They could get a mortgage, buy an expensive house downstate – be tied to a job to receive a paycheck or maybe make more pots, go to more shows, to pay bills. But they’ve chosen instead to be responsible for almost everything that sustains their family. Ryan calls their success “conscious independence-making. You must have a goal and the ability and self-discipline to see it through.” They’re creating a life, not working to earn money to buy a life, and they find that intensely satisfying.

Cynthia and Bob Pryor

I park in a small plowed area off County Road 510 to meet Cynthia Pryor, planning to ski about a mile to her house, set on 250 acres of hills, trees and streams in the Huron Mountains. We glide past friends’ houses, past a storybook log cabin, through pines weighed down by snow. We pass a pond recently moved into by a beaver and climb a steep hill. At the top is her house overlooking a field and a hill beyond. Goldfinches fly madly about, and downy woodpeckers pound at suet.

The house she and her husband, Bob, built in 1994 when they semi-retired is warmed by both the soil and the sun. The back is built into a hill. Sun fills the south-facing rooms, shining through large windows. A black Amish-style wood cookstove dominates the kitchen and adds the final measure of warmth to the house.

In the summer Bob works at the Huron Mountain Club near Big Bay. Cynthia works for the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve. They can get by with very little: money to pay taxes, buy vehicles, pay for gas and food.

A spring that flows from the hill below the house provides water. The water’s six-foot drop at the spring powers a ram pump that pushes water up to 80-gallon holding tanks in their loft. Inside the house, water flows by gravity from the tanks through the plumbing system, including a flush toilet and faucets in the bathroom and kitchen.

Water heats as it coils through the wood cookstove, providing running hot water at the faucets. There’s even enough to soak in the bathtub, looking out through sliding glass doors onto the valley.NPR plays on the radio. Cynthia rolls out dough for apple dumplings in the kitchen under an electric light. Another electric light brightens the bathroom. She shows me photos of her recent trip to Alaska to visit her 70-something mom – also an off-the-gridder – on a small DVD player. And throughout the evening the telephone rings, people calling about her work trying to stop a sulfide-mining project that some fear will damage the environment and their quality of life.

As darkness settles over the valley, Cynthia lights a kerosene lamp, and neighbors Nick and Sharon Cartier, who also live off the grid, arrive on skis. During dinner we reminisce about the 1970’s when Nick moved to the Huron Mountains, lured by an ad for cheap land in Mother Earth News. He was part of the same generation of back-to-the-landers that I was. Thirty years later, he’s one of the few who remain. Others perhaps lacked the skills to build, repair machinery and hunt; the ability to bring in cash by working at odd jobs or a craft; and the grit to withstand frigid winters and buggy summers.

During the past 30 years, solar and wind power have become relatively inexpensive, and people now have the expertise to use it. Cynthia says it cost roughly $2,500 to install their power system and water supply. It helps that Bob knows how to build. Three solar panels and a wind generator are visible high on a pole behind the house. A small gasoline-powered generator is used rarely as backup to charge batteries or to run power tools.

The two couples agree on the requirements for success: the drive and skills to get things done. “Don’t bring in high expectations,” Cynthia says. “Don’t change things to make things the way they were at home. When we see that we have to ski in, and that’s the reality, and we love the reality, that’s wonderful,” she says. And of course: “You gotta like winter. Women who like winter are just fun people.”

And why live this way? They stare at me blankly. Isn’t it obvious? “There’s a spiritual aspect when you’re off on the trail,” says Cynthia. The spiritual quality of a place empty of people and stuff … being one with nature … being closer to God … the independence … becoming stronger personally … doing things the way you want … avoiding the control of utilities.

Later that evening Nick and Sharon leave, skiing down the hill and disappearing into the dark forest. The house settles, softly creaking. The wood fire whispers.

The next morning, snow drifts down in fat, fluffy flakes, obscuring the split-rail fence and tufts of dried plants in the garden. The same small goldfinches flutter around the feeder, and NPR broadcasts the morning news. The aroma of perked coffee, sausages and Swedish pancakes fills the house.

Later we ski out, stopping to see Sharon and Nick. This is the Cartiers’ second home off the grid – sleek and modern and full of light and bright wood. Nick brings out a guitar he made. He, Cynthia, Bob and other off-the-gridders have a band called Lost Creek, named for the creek flowing in the ravine below their home. As he plays, rich, mellow tones fill the house, and I notice a plaque behind him on the wall. On it are the words: “Happiness … A Little Fire, A Little Food, An Immense Quiet.”

That is true, I reflect, but I had not been able to consistently achieve that 30 years ago. These families, however, have clearly done so, possibly because they are better prepared, or maybe because technology has come so far. Whatever the reason, I admire their conscious pursuit of a responsible life and feel privileged to have been with them for these few days.

Leslie Askwith writes from Sault Ste. [email protected] This article was originally published in January 2008.