Off-grid living
Sunday, November 29, 2009 at 12:25PM
[Lisa Rae]

I'm pleased to report that at age 39 I've never had an electric bill in my name... and I hope that I never have to.  For years and years I lived without any type of electricity in my hovels.  And at many of our bush locations, we still live that way- save the satellite phone which links us to the outside world.

But our main cabin has evolved into an off-grid power hamlet, which comes with its own rhythm and costs.  The first solar panels came as a gift from an acquaintance who was surviving the world growing up around her.  Power came to her homestead in 1995, and she bequeathed her two panels and some other supplies to me at that time.

So the initial power set up was enough to run a car radio, a small fluorescent light, an oldstyle bag-type cell phone... and that's about it.  Slowly over the years, we've been able to build things up a bit- and as a result, some parts of our life up here on the mountain are strikingly modern.

The progress from hand washing laundry to installing an antique wringer washer was one really huge step.  That step was magnified greatly when we traded it out for an incredibly efficient front loader.  Wow.  I'm relieved I didn't have to wash all those cloth diapers by hand... though I did exactly that on a several week long winter backpacking trip when our daughter was just a wee one.

Last summer we did some wheeling and dealing, and came home with a wind turbine.  Then, a few months later, we traded a rifle for a tower.  Ben welded some modifications onto it, and hopefully this summer we'll be able to raise it at the site of our new airstrip.

Every upgrade is expensive and time-consuming, and ties us that much more to a life of luxury.  Batteries are the weak link, and they wear out about every ten years, as well as being the #1 limiting factor in an expanding energy system.  Ours are due to be replaced, and its disheartening to say the least.

Generators for backup are pretty much a must have, and they wear out over the years too.  The little Hondas are super quiet, fuel efficient and run a true sine wave that keeps electronics safe... and with a little maintenance along the way, they pay for themselves quickly.

Around this time of year- December 1st or so, we get ready to lose the sun altogether until January.  Technically its only 21 days without any direct sunlight... but the weeks that precede and come after the long dark are pretty dusky themselves, with only a few scant minutes of sun at a time.

In the depth of winter we have about four and a half hours of grey light.  The sun never makes it up over the mountains.  And let me tell ya, its a striking thing to see the first real shadow when the sun finally gets high enough in the sky to grace us with its presence.  Time to dance.

So here we go again.  We go to sleep earlier, wake later, hibernate more.  Chore times get altered so you can get things done when there's enough light to manage.  Animals hunker down and the world gets quiet.  I love this time of year.  Everything slows its pace to meet the dwindled daylight. 

And before we know it, it will be peak season in the land of the midnight sun.  More solar power than a person could harness, and enough light to read a book all night long without a headlamp.  We'll be burning the candle at both ends then, trying to get everything done at once while the weather allows.

Thus goes the rhythm of our off-grid life in the North country.  Our energy levels wax and wane with the seasons of the year.  Winter gives us plenty of down time to dream up enormous projects for the next summer.  It also gives us time and space to recuperate from the wild journeys of summers past.

Dealing with and preparing for changing conditions is the name of the game up here.  That factor alone is enough to weed out the dreamers from the doers.  Actually its probably the same challenge that has faced homesteaders and pioneers over millenia.  Though perhaps the greatest asset that we have above the ancients is access to modern research and community via the internet.

Our simple life is filled with strange adaptations and complexities.  Home made cabins and satellite internet.  Solar fences and hand dug springs.  Propane refrigerators and snowbank ice boxes.  Lots of sweat and plenty of creature comforts.  There's nothing like living off-grid.

Article originally appeared on Lunachick Farm of Alaska (
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