For the past 20 years my wife and I have spent 10-12 weeks each summer living off the grid on a non-electrified 5-acre island in eastern Ontario.  Doing so was a logical extension of the shorter vacations we had been spending there for the preceding 30 years.  No big deal!  We were just doing longer what we had always done before.

But when we tell our friends, especially new ones, what we have been up to they respond in astonishment “Is such a thing still possible?”, or in puzzlement “Why would anyone want to do such a thing?”, or even with a tinge of envy “Gee, could we do that?”  Unasked by everyone, but clearly lurking just below the surface, is the question “What’s it really like to do that for three months?”

Here is my attempt to answer the question. 

The basic setup is a three-room cabin, two tent platforms, and a 9′x12′ bunkhouse.  In the cabin is a cook stove and refrigerator both powered by propane gas, a hand pump connected to a 30′ hose that is suspended in the lake, a woodstove for the many frosty mornings, two Coleman lanterns hung from rafters for interior light, a composting toilet a short walk back into the woods (there is no interior plumbing), and a small flotilla of boats.  About three-fourths of the island remains untouched and is just the way nature created it (and periodically changes it).  There is a small town three miles away across the water with a grocery store, a pharmacy, a medical clinic, and a much appreciated public  library.

One of the things one quickly learns living off the grid is that there is precious little of the thing called ‘free time.’  Simply keeping up with household chores eats up hours of time every day.  Propane tanks are filled five miles away and ferried back and forth; drinking water comes from a friend’s well on the mainland; laundry is done in five-gallon plastic buckets; the composting toilet needs attention each day (no need for details on that subject); an old-fashioned broom is in constant motion (remember brooms?); and any remaining energy can be usefully employed cutting up can-01-mdand splitting the next summer’s firewood.

Habits of personal hygiene need adjustment. Privacy concerns are the first to be tossed by the wayside … but then we’re all friends so who cares!  Bathing usually takes place in the lake.  Early in the season, doing so is always a ’shriveling’ experience (female readers may not get the reference to ’shriveling’).  Hot showers are gone for the duration.  Since laundering is such a chore we tend to wear clothing a bit beyond the ‘best by’ date.  The composting toilet (we call it the CT) works pretty well as long as one doesn’t dwell too much on what is piling up a few inches below seat level.

The whole arena of communications is perhaps the biggest challenge.  Email and Internet?  No way except at the local library during its limited open hours.  Telephone?  Even pay phones in town are disappearing.  Cell phone?  Watch out for roaming charges that would make a grown man weep.  TV?   Are you kidding? /  Forget about it!     Battery-operated radio reception is most reliable in hours of darkness (for reasons I’ve never understood).  And. ironically, for a liberal like me, the one American AM station that we can get clearly all day, every day - WHAM in Rochester, NY - gives most of its air time to Glen, Rush, and their ‘wannabes.’  Newspapers, quite naturally, concentrate on Canadian news; and mail forwarding from the U.S. is ‘iffy’ at best. 

The noises that break through the silence are different, especially at night.  No hum of air conditioning, no buzz from florescent light bulbs, no gurgling of water pipes, no roar of nearby traffic, no neighbors slamming car doors, not even the soft thump of the morning paper hitting the front stoop.  Instead there are periods of deep silence, a kind of silence most folks have never heard, broken by the call of the loons, the hooting of the owls, the rustling of raccoons trying to break into the trash, the occasional bat careening around inside the cabin, and the ‘mysterious’ deep-in-the-woods sounds that can get the imagination pretty riled up.

 Darkness is another aspect of life that takes on new meaning off the grid.  When was the last time you were really in the dark?  There always seems to be a nightlight burning somewhere in the house or a street light beaming through the window, not to mention the glow in the sky from the local malls, factories, and construction sites.  Off the grid when the moon is new or hidden by cloud cover, darkness is complete.  Whatever is sneaking around the cabin floors and walls remains a mystery.  Conversely, when the moon is full and the sky clear the majesty of the heavens is on display as it never is in ‘civilization.’  The electric light is a great boon, but sometimes it just gets in the way.

Finally, we turn to food.  Although they are hardly fashionable these days in normal circumstances, canned foods are all the rage off the grid.  One of the marks of living successfully without electricity is being able to keep trips to town at a minimum.   Canned goods that would never be found in my home kitchen are staples off the grid.  They include meats, soups, vegetables, evaporated milk, desserts, frostings, stews, and baked beans, whatever.  ‘Fresh’ and ‘local’ are not words for us, except during August when blueberries, peaches and tomatoes all come at once.  Talk about breaking a fast! 

Now, I should confess that we have not been entirely faithful to off-the-grid living during our summer stays on the island.  As already mentioned we did go ‘modern’ with our CT, which replaced a perfectly functional outhouse.  And we now use a portable set of solar panels to charge a good-sized battery that can recharge camera batteries, cell phones, I-pods, and other such newfangled stuff our visitors bring.  Not only that but solar power will run a 60-watt energy efficient lamp for hours, extending our reading time well into the night.  I wonder what we will do next?

In summary, I will only say the come Spring I can’t wait to get up north, but come September, I’m ready to come on back.

So, there you have it.  My answer to the question of “What’s it like to live off the grid?”