I had heard the phrase before but had never considered, before living here, what an "off the grid" lifestyle entails. There are as many ways of living in this way as there are people who do it but here is what it is for our family.
We do not have a faucet that gives us hot water that comes from a reservoir I have never seen. Our water comes from a spring a two-and-a-half miles from our cabin. In previous summers, we submerged a five gallon bucket into the stream and hauled it home dispensing the amount we wanted directly into our cups. It's been tested time after time and always proves itself, untreated, some of the best water anywhere. These days, we place our 65 gallon tank in our four wheeler trailer and drive to the spring. Our pump connects to the ATV battery and we stand and chat with passersby as the water effortlessly piles into the tank. Once full, we drive the unit home and use the same pump setup to send the water into our 220 gallon tank in the loft. Once stored there, we turn on our kitchen faucet or showerhead and out drops clean water. NOTE: I drafted this entry at the beginning of the summer. Since then, we've had an ongoing beaver issue: these not-so-cute-before-they-get-their-winter-coat pests have constructed a series of dams resulting in water backing up above the normal spring access point, a large stream pouring over our road (instead of through the dammed culvert), and a growing concern for water purity. It is a sticky situation since we are a mixed community of year-round Alaskans, seasonal workers, and National Parkies; year-round residents can kill the beavers but most of them have wells so they are not as affected by the issue, beavers do not yet have their winter pelts and thus are not currently valuable, and if the beavers are not killed but their dams are destroyed they rebuild. Over and over and over. All that to say, it's been a real struggle. We have adapted by going farther upstream for our water and using a hefty water filter (that previously was unnecessary).
Most of our daily powered needs comes from our 100lb propane tank. A local has propane delivered to his house and when we are in need, we drop a tank at his place with our name and number written on it in Sharpie, he fills them, we return a day or so later and leave some cash for him. Austin has plumbed lines from said 100lb tank to our tiny oven, stove, and fridge as well as to our (also tiny) on-demand water heater. Both water lines (sink and shower) pass through this fabulous unit so we have quick, as-hot-as-you'd-ever-want-it water as long as there is H2O in one tank and C3H8 in the other.
Alaska is known as the Land of the Midnight Sun. Currently (NOTE: again, I drafted this in June), the sun is rising here at 3:49am and setting at 11:14pm and we have not even hit solstice yet! After sunset there is not enough time for it to get fully dark before sunrise. Thus, our one 100W solar panel gets plenty of sun, hanging from the south-side of our cabin. The power is stored in the deep-cycle battery and gives us plenty of electricity for lights (which we do not really need until later July) and charging our devices.
This is where I suppose our version of "off the grid" diverges from that of folks who adapt to this lifestyle for environmental reasons. Another local, with heavy machinery who completes many construction projects in this valley, has gasoline delivered to his shop and supplies our community members with gas using a similar system as that of propane. This fuels our generator which fires up our power tools, washing machine, and any other high-powered appliances. We do not use this often since solar and propane takes care of all our daily needs.
Compost, Burn, Nonburn, Creek.
We are hundreds of miles from the closest dump. Thus, we have to be conscious of how we dispose of our waste. First consider, "will this decompose?" If so, compost (except egg shells, the protein of which is a bear attractant). If no, think, "will this easily burn?" If so, put in the burn-trash bin. If no, ask, "can this be recycled or cleaned up enough that when thrown in a bin it will not stink?" If so, put in nonburn-trash bin for hauling to a faraway dump. If it does not fit in any of these categories (i.e. moldy bread I forgot about and now smells like death) it goes into the swiftly moving creek as fish food.
When I first came to McCarthy in 2013 I was most concerned about having to use an outhouse. Previously, I had only experience with rarely maintained port-a-potties at trailheads and fairs. I soon learned to love outhouse life. While there are some homes with flushing toilets they are uncommon because of the need for leach fields. These require enough effort and money to construct that most forego this little luxury. Plus, cabins here tend to be only as large as necessary (think money to build and space to heat when it gets cool). Outhouses do not stink if cared for properly: no rotting toilet paper in the hole and peeing in the woods whenever possible. It is so refreshing to do your business outside, away from everyone, while watching leaves rustle in the trees and listening to nearby birds whistling. Our outhouse features two seats (one adult and one toddler); a custom door built by yours truly with her handy mom-in-law complete with a spruce tree cutout to let light and air pass; old window with wavy glass (also installed by we women) with a cafe curtain (made by my sweet mom); a magazine rack providing literary options in the aviation, home decor, speech therapy, and anthropological genres; and a vase with a wildflower perched on the sill. It is a super getaway.
Our cast iron house heater runs on wood we find on our property (we'd never run out!) and matches. It heats this place up in no time and the warmth helps dry clothes indoors when it is too wet and rainy to hang them on the line out back.
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Yes, it takes effort to live in this manner. No, I am not tough or crazy or a pioneer-woman. There actually is freedom in spending time working on living and ignoring the things that do not actually matter: talking to friends at the water hole vs. sitting in a car in traffic, walking through the woods gathering firewood vs. watching television shows. It is simple. At least it is in the summertime. I do not plan to ever be able to speak to off-the-grid living in Alaska winter.