Making a Living Out of Living (Off-Grid in the Wilderness)
A glimpse into two households living off the grid in the American wilderness.
Posted April 16, 2013
When the sun sets on Charlie Larson’s cabin, he does not flip a light switch- his cabin doesn’t have electricity. It takes several moments longer to reach for his kerosene lamp, strike a match, and adjust the burning mantle to shed a dull light on the walls of the single-room cabin. A curl of smoke rolls inside the chimney of the lamp before the heat makes the fuel burn clean.
Living by lantern light - the nearest power line nearly three miles away - can be one person's vision of paradise while another's anxiety-provoking nightmare. No TV? No microwave? No Internet? Nobody lives like that anymore, right?
In a 2006 USA Today interview1, Home Power magazine's publisher, Richard Perez, estimated that approximately 180,000 people live off the grid in the United States. A number that's no doubt grown in the seven years since the article. Intervening years of doomsday predictions drove people into bunkers and the "do-it-yourself" and "green" movements turned people on to lifestyles of self-sustainability.
Living off the grid refers to a household's self-sustainable power. A dwelling that does not rely on electrical power transmission from the national grid system. In other words, these are properties dotted with distinct features like wind turbines, solar panels, micro hydro installations (water power), and/or the burning of any number of fuels to generate electricity, heat, or light. As for the use of televisions, microwaves and computers- that depends who you ask.
For John and Victoria Jungwirth, living off the grid does not mean living without all modern conveniences. They don’t use a microwave but they do occasionally turn on their small television- powered by their home's solar panels. Victoria uses a computer at the food co-op where she drives 30 miles to work two days each week, but they do not have Internet at home. Her mail order medicinal botanicals business does things the old-fashioned way: no website, just a hand-written catalogue and a post office box.
Their home is about as far removed from “the grid” as one can imagine in 21st century America. For 25 years the Jungwirths have lived on 80 pristine acres of remote wilderness in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. They build birch bark canoes, make maple syrup every spring, and harvest wild plants for sale and trade. They make blankets, boots, and coats from the tanned hides of animals they hunt. An existence heavily influenced by the local Native Ojibwa culture and John’s long-held dream of living off the land.
Next-door neighbors by Northern Michigan standards, Charlie Larson lives approximately three miles from the Jungwirths. That's three miles direct by snowmobile, when the rough gravel roads are made impassable by winter storms. With no towns for miles, no mail delivery, and only a handful of year-round residents, snow plowing is not a top priority on this distant stretch of terrain. Snowmobiles, 4-wheel drive vehicles and snowshoes, on the other hand, are essential for survival.
For the past 26 years, Larson has not just survived on his idyllic plot of land, he has relished every day. "The time hasn't been long enough," Larson typed to me, his letters carefully crafted on a manual typewriter, complete with white correction tape. "Days fly by, so do weeks and months, and now the years are doing the same."
Conducting our interview by mail, I wrote back, "What inspired you to move so far into the wilderness?" I waited weeks for his reply. "When I was in junior high, my great uncle and my grandfather took me to stay at a camp which is down to my East about 4 miles or so," he wrote. "After staying there that night I always wanted to live out in the woods. Just getting up in the morning and smelling all the clean fresh air was enough to hook me. Everything was so sweet and fresh smelling, and you could detect the different odors throughout the day and into the evening. All different, telling you the time of day or night. No rush to get things done, but things do get done. You enjoy doing them and at a slower pace but satisfying one."
That savoring but productive pace has given Larson the time to build by hand his cabin, a 50 ft x 50 ft garden, a barn for several cherished goats, a sugar shack for his annual maple syrup production, and a view overlooking a pond that one could scarcely describe with words in a letter.
As I talked sustainability philosophy with Jungwirth, by cell phone from my condo smack dab in the middle of Chicago, and as I exchanged letters with Larson, typed out on our very different keyboards, I wondered about the other side of living off the grid. Questions the rest of us surely wonder about such an existence: What about money? What if you get sick and need a doctor? Don't you get lonely? What will happen when you're older? Questions of resilience.
“It keeps my brain healthy. It’s a paradise,” Jungwirth responded, when asked about the psychological impact of living off the grid. “It’s nice to be alone and have time to think, but when you don’t have many people around you do relish people.” For living so far from mainstream communities, the Jungwirths are far from sheltered or isolated. They socialize with many friends in local communities and with other families who are also off-gridders. While raising their two children they participated in community events and regularly traveled to London, England- Victoria’s country of origin.
“My kids are now 27 and 29. Now they are like their peers, but growing up they naturally had animosity toward their parents. One of my sons did experience bouts of Seasonal Affective Disorder growing up, but it was helped by getting outside into the sun and getting exercise. They may have initially felt deprived but now they appreciate it and realize there’s not many places left to live in the wild,” Jungwirth explained. “Now, my eldest son has a goal of living in the woods.”
As for medical care and insurance, Jungwirth hasn’t required hospital care since they moved off the grid in 1988. The family does have a friend who is a doctor in a nearby town in case they need sutures, and Victoria prepares homemade healing salves. “We’re experts with infections and skin abrasions, tinctures for colds. When you don’t have insurance, you really pay attention, “ John explained. "Connecting to others is real insurance."
The Jungwirths have a modest income, but they also have far fewer needs than what most households are accustomed to. “It’s so much easier to lower our outcome than raise our income,” John said. By working one week per month for the past 30 years, he explained, he’s made enough money to buy his free time for the rest of the month. With very few needs that his family cannot produce themselves or obtain by swapping products and services with friends, there are few financial obligations. “Everything’s paid for so we can save now and have anything we want- which isn’t much because we make everything.” A point in life that Jungwirth calls “pure sustainable sanity.” Making a living out of day-to-day living.
Larson, long retired from any sort of formal job, similarly has fewer wants and needs than the average American family. He travels to the nearest town on Thursday each week to pick up his mail and purchase a small amount of groceries for the week ahead. He spends a couple hours with his family and in the afternoon makes the hour-long drive back down the rough gravel road. Back to his cabin where he tends to an unlikely collection of exotic cactus, weaves tapestry from homespun fiber on a homemade frame loom, and grinds grain for his breakfast.
The address for Larson’s cabin is not listed in any phonebook. You won't find the Jungwirth’s 20 square-foot cabin pictured on Google Maps. And with regard to the private and serene paradise they’ve each created - by co-existing in the wilderness with the utmost respect for their natural environment - that’s just how they’d like to keep it. Not disclosing their location, but happy to tell their stories and all the possibilities they contain for the rest of us if we’re willing to listen with open minds. “My Ojibwa teachers taught me to see my language with new eyes,” Jungwirth told me. “You can have this [story] from me, but you have to pass it on.”
UPDATE: A recent interview with the Jungwirths in the Detroit Free Press, 'Couple turns dream into reality in U.P. wilds,' includes photos of the couple and the story of their growing birch bark canoe business.
1 USAToday.com: “Off the grid or on, solar and wind power gain.” - http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/tech/news/techinnovations/2006-04-12-off-the-grid_x.htm
Brad Waters MSW provides career-life coaching and consultation to clients internationally via phone and Skype. He helps people explore career direction and take action on career transitions. Brad holds a Master's degree in social work from the University of Michigan. He is also a freelance writer whose books are available on Amazon and BradWatersMSW.com.
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