Living Off the Grid: Enhanced Appreciation of Nature’s Gifts

Robyn Griggs Lawrence thumbnailWhen Sue McKay Miller was 48, she quit her job as a geophysicist in Calgary, Alberta, and moved to a yurt on a 130-acre chunk of wilderness on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. She took a radical approach to simplifying, divesting herself of most possessions while she figured out what “back to the basics” really means for her.

“I knew that if I hooked up to the grid and started with all the mod-cons, I'd be unlikely to give anything up,” Sue explains. “So I decided to go at it the other way around: start out off-grid with only the bare necessities and discover what I really needed or missed and what I could easily do without. So, after over five years of 'camping out' (albeit in a large, luxurious tent!), what have I learned? I love the simple life!”

Despite being battered by gale-force winds, deluged by rain and half-buried in snow, Sue’s yurt has provided what she needs to live simply, without indoor plumbing, for more than five years. She heats with wood and lights up long winter nights with kerosene lamps and candles. When the deep snow arrives, she dons snowshoes and hauls goods up the quarter-mile driveway in an old fish crate. The wood-burning stove provides heat for cooking, washing, drying damp wood and socks, and living. “On frigid winter mornings I haul my rocking chair in front of the open oven, sip on coffee kept warm on the stovetop and write (with pen and paper, no less!) in my journal,” Sue says.

Sue’s life unfolds naturally in step with the seasons. In winter she makes stews and casseroles on the wood stove as it heats her yurt. In summer, she keeps the stove off and eats salads and raw foods. As summer nights cool down, campfires provide a fine alternative to TV and computer screens. “There is one power hog I really miss—a refrigerator!” Sue says. In winter, she places frozen gallon water jugs into a picnic cooler that she keeps in a cool spot inside. Summer's a challenge. “Perishables perish all too quickly—and an iced drink or a chilled beer would be most welcome on a hot day!”

She charges her cell phone, runs her laptop and powers a radio/CD player using a 30-watt solar PV panel and a 12-volt battery/inverter. This modest set-up provides ample power in the summer but barely enough to keep a single battery charged during short, sunless winter days. All too often, Sue runs out of power just as she’s deeply involved in writing on her laptop. She’s considering upgrades, and down the road she hopes to build a small open-plan cabin with indoor plumbing, a gravity-feed water system and underground cold-food storage. But she doesn’t want to overdo it.

“Very often I hear off-grid folks declare that 'we haven't changed our lifestyle one bit!' They buy a humungous number of solar PV and water-heating panels and maybe a windmill and large banks of batteries to run the vast array of appliances and electronic devices common to modern life,” she says. “Well, that's fine, and maybe a good option for some people, but is simply unaffordable for many of us.”

Besides, Sue loves her small, one-room home. “I like the simplicity of stove, pot and kettle rather than a wide array of specialized appliances, each with a digital clock blinking hurry! hurry! hurry! at me all the time,” she says. “Once I blow out my bedside candle, the only light is from the moon and stars. And my home is so quiet! No fridge whirring on and off, no water pump clunking, no forced air furnace roaring. That frees up my ears to enjoy nature's music—wind and water, birds and coyotes, frogs and toads (country life is seldom quiet). There is no TV or internet here, and that's mostly a good thing—I'm apt to be easily sidetracked and find it easier to focus without these distractions. However, I'm quite happy to be distracted by MNTV (Mother Nature TV), which may feature silvered clouds waltzing around a full moon, a pair of foxes courting on the frozen pond, or a moose family meandering around the pond and sampling nature's buffet. I live amongst great natural wealth and diversity, and I believe being off-grid greatly enhances my appreciation of it all.”
sue in yurt 

Sue's yurt provides everything she needs. The only thing she misses is a refrigerator. 

yurt inside 

For one or many, the yurt offers cozy, hospitable shelter. 

yurt far away 

Off the grid on 130 acres, Sue's yurt is a sanctuary that allows her to appreciate nature's gifts.