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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. Marie.
Note: This article was originally published in January 2008 and was updated for the web February 2008.