After visiting 100 off-grid homes, this is the barebones truth about life in the pathless woods


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BY: TYLER FYFE

In a frostbitten valley in the deep bush of Northern Saskatchewan lives the most isolated couple in North America—100 km away from the nearest unpaved road. The only way in or out is by float plane. Ron and Joanna leave only twice a year for supplies – once before the freeze and once after the ice melts. As Phillip Vannini sat in the kitchen of their two-storey wood house, built only using hand tools, he suddenly felt overwhelmed by the sound of silence.

“How do you cope with the isolation?”

“We don’t cope, we embrace.”

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Photo: Jonathan Taggart

Up until five years ago, when Royal Roads Professor Phillip Vannini turned on the tap, the water just flowed. His water had always been supplied by the city, but when he moved to Gabriola Island, a 22.2 square mile crumb in the Gulf Island’s archipelago, he was forced to move his own water. Then everything changed. He began to become more mindful about where his resources were coming from. And then another thought bubbled. What was it like for those who chose to step away from the grid completely? What did it take to become self-ruling?

Over two-and-a-half years, Vannini and photographer Jonathan Taggart would document the experience of 200 people living on nearly 100 off-grid sites in Canada.

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Photo: Jonathan Taggart

What he discovered was a counter-narrative to the rainbow-child, gemstone-healing generalizations of social media portrayal.

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Photo: Jonathan Taggart

It’s a common stereotype; if you live off-grid, you’re a hippie or apocalypse freak by default. Vannini says that’s a romanticized myth—one largely fuelled by photographers drawn to the visual appeal of Woodstock caricatures under the smothered glow of oil lamps in remote cedar cabins.

Ron is an industrial electronics engineer and Joanna is a registered dietician. While working at an electronics company, Ron felt that his passion was withering under fluorescent light. And he realized his plight was not unique—it was the result of being dependent on others. In the span of time between his parents’ lives and his – things had drastically changed. Now, the average person leans on some farmer in California. They had lost the skills of curing and canning. The only control of consumption had become price point. Why preserve produce when slightly softening bell peppers could be thrown out and replaced in the nearest grocery store aisle? For Ron and Joanna, hopping the timberline into the estranged wilderness was about refusing a piggyback and learning how to walk alone.

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Photo: Jonathan Taggart

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Photo: Jonathan Taggart

But not all off-grid homes are inhabited by those drawn to the dirt-under-fingernails lifestyle of Thoreau. As Vannini puts it, “some are making virtue out of necessity”. Once you step away from densely populated areas—even a step as small as 500 metres—the financial cost of extending the grid can outweigh the convenience. Cradled by white-capped mountains in the Yukon, Barrett’s choice to live off-grid is not the result of some predisposition to technological bitterness. To connect to the grid it would have cost him $250,000 plus monthly bills. He figured there was no point living under the thumb of debt when electricity falls from the sky. Barrett’s system is composed of wind turbines that came in an easy-assembly kit, 24 solar panels and a generator in case of emergency. With everything included, his system cost him $60,000. It costs him $2.00 to buy 300 gallons of water in bulk. Barrett says, he isn’t getting his energy for free, he just paid for 30 years of it up front. Over 30 years, the average North American citizen spends $91,560 on energy. Barrett saved $31,560.

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Photo: Jonathan Taggart

Contrary to the belief that most off-grid enthusiasts are chasing the heels of a sort of Chris McCandless idealism, most are far from ascetics. Out of the 200 people Vannini met, only three didn’t have Internet. When relying on your own knowledge to keep the heat on, the Internet can be a vital organ. The message is simple; technology is not the enemy. The root word for technology, techne, was the ancient Greek word for art. The ancient Greeks didn’t separate the human capacity for creativity into categories. Those who choose to live off-grid embody this; a profound life is a work of architecture. From Dave, a Lasqueti Island environmentalist who built his home using mud as its structure and existing bedrock as its foundation for just $1,000 and cooks his meals in a sun oven to Barrett, whose house is filled with the latest energy-efficient gadgets, technology is reflective of—not oppressive to—imagination.

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Photo: Jonathan Taggart

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Photo: Jonathan Taggart

Technology is not the enemy of the off-grid lifestyle. Those that choose to live off-grid understand that technology is reflective of—not oppressive to—imagination.

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Photo: Jonathan Taggart

Vannini is standing on his deck, skin washed in sun as coastal birds circle overhead creating silhouettes on the wooden panels at his feet.

“It’s not just about changing your lifestyle. It’s about changing how you think. I visited a school in a town that was completely off-grid due to its remoteness. Children there couldn’t understand how someone could pick up your garbage for you at the end of your driveway. It’s the only place I’ve ever seen children arguing about the energy efficiency of their televisions yelling, ‘my LCD screen TV uses less kilowatt hours than yours!’”

For many, going off-grid is not about escapism. Actually, it’s quite the opposite; it’s about taking responsibility for their own footprints. And environmental accountability is a dirty job. It means disposing of your own shit by grabbing a shovel and finding a place to dump a wheelbarrow.

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Photo: Jonathan Taggart

The reality is that those who manage to last more than a year understand that the glamour of the off-grid lifestyle is an illusion that dissipates with the stink lines rising from your shovel. As Karl from Lasqueti Island, a British Columbia community where all residents are completely off-grid, puts it in the newly-released documentary Life Off Grid, “Everyone comes out here with a dream. Either they change that dream after the first four months or often they don’t stick around.”

Judy and Jim moved to a 150-acre property on Prince Edward Island with the dream of running a successful eco-tourism lodge. They built a small cottage above the jagged red Atlantic coast. What they didn’t anticipate was tourist season lasting only the two summer months of the year. Their bookings became scattered. Then they made a common mistake—they both accepted nine to five jobs; Judy, as a cook and Jim as a security guard on a local farm. Beat after long days, they would arrive home to more work—cutting wood for the furnace, tending to their two horses, maintaining their energy system, and emptying the outhouse. Sleep-deprived with a leaking bank account, the couple began to feel that it wasn’t they who owned the property. It was beginning to feel like the property owned them. In their fourth year, they relapsed back into modern society. Last time they talked, Judy told Vannini that she was “just excited to have a real stove again.”

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Photo: Jonathan Taggart

It’s a sobering story. And it’s not entirely uncommon. From old age to health problems to sending children to public school, there are many reasons that off-grid dreams turn sour inside residents’ mouths. But while the unvarnished lifestyle has its deadfall, those who find the independence is worth the toil find themselves not making their dream a reality, but turning their reality into their dream.

The successful ones take life itself as a form of craftsmanship. There are six crucial things you must understand:

1.) Plumbing.

2.) Basic carpentry.

3.) Electrical, like how to transition DC solar panels to AC plugs.

4.) Planning ahead, like stocking perishable food and thermal mass that can be burned in case of an energy emergency.

5.) How many kilowatt hours are necessary to feel comfortable.

6.) How to adapt to any given situation with the tools at hand.

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Photo: Jonathan Taggart

It’s not just about disconnecting, it’s about what you do after. It’s about being self-involved in the way you live and not taking for granted what it is that sustains you.

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Photo: Jonathan Taggart

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Photo: Jonathan Taggart

Vannini says it is possible for anyone to disconnect. He has visited off-grid houses in the heart of suburbia, ones disguised by the urgent pace of city streets and those in truly outstanding isolation. There is no socioeconomic pattern you can easily find. There are artists, school teachers, and even nine-to-five workers who have made it work with a stay-at-home spouse to maintain the lifestyle.

“It’s not about just disconnecting, it’s about what you do after. It’s about understanding that you can do with less and that energy doesn’t just come with the flick of a switch. Maybe you don’t need a microwave and maybe you don’t need to blow dry your hair every morning. It forces you to pay attention to your own impact. And it’s not only an interesting subject for alternative lifestyles. It allows the rest of us on the grid to really ask questions about what we take for granted about what sustains us.”

As the sun recedes from the salty air of the Pacific Northwest, creating an electric orange sky with splatters of deep purple, Vannini looks at the three electric wires connecting to the roof of his house. He’s thinking about pulling the gardening shears from his garage and cutting them completely. But what draws him most is at the same time his biggest reservation—pragmatism.

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Photo: Jonathan Taggart

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Photo: Jonathan Taggart

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Photo: Jonathan Taggart

To watch the full documentary by Jonathan Taggart and Phillip Vannini click here.

To buy a hard copy of Off-The-Grid: Re-assembling Domestic Life click here.

‘Life Off Grid’ trailer from Jonathan Taggart on Vimeo.