Off-Grid and Free: Homestead Road-Building and Site-Clearing

Reader Contribution by Ron Melchiore
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The Off-Grid and Free series recounts one homesteading couple’s journey to build a new homestead in Nova Scotia.Read the full series here. Find the author’s book, Off-Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness, at Moon Willow Press.


Once we chose our property, one of the first priorities was to reclaim the beautiful gravel road that is about a mile long heading across the peninsula. From lack of use, the road was overgrown with alder. After consulting with a local contractor, he recommended that we use an excavator with a grapple that can actually grab an alder bush and rip it out by the roots. This is by far more costly and time consuming but it is the best method in the end. We could have opted for a bulldozer to plow and shear the road open but any alder roots that remained would regrow quickly and we would be overgrown again in a few years.

Another alternative would have been to use either a chainsaw or clearing saw to hack the alder down but we would be faced with doing that routine every few years due to the roots sending up new shoots. Using an excavator with grapple is the best method for long term control of the alder lining the road. It also leaves the majority of the roadbed undisturbed so hopefully the roadbed doesn’t reseed and rejuvenate itself in alder.

Up until this point, we had been lugging gear and supplies through the alder to get to the proposed house site. We are getting older, have thrashed and bashed our way through the bush over the years and having road access so we can actually drive to our site would be heaven, so the excavator couldn’t get its work done fast enough. How nice it was to drive our car down a freshly cleared road with a newly graveled extension right to the house site! Now we could bring in supplies and set up another tent to serve as a temporary, albeit long term home while we built our house.

Choosing a Building Site

We also had to select a specific location for the homestead itself, a daunting task that we accomplished by wandering around the heavily treed property. We chose an area that looked to be an old homestead site or pasture. From the vantage point of cliffs and high ground about 65 feet above sea level, the site overlooks the ocean. The views are magnificent.

Johanna and I cleared the property via chainsaw. Much as we did at Hockley Lake, our last homestead site, I cut and limbed the trees while Johanna lugged off the stems and brush and piled them along the edge of the clearing we were creating for dealing with at a later time. Stems would ultimately be firewood and all brush would go through our chipper for garden and orchard mulch.

Safe Chainsawing

Please take note in one picture of my chain sawing attire. Although we are closer to medical help than we were when living alone in the wilderness, it is still imperative to be fully protected when using a chainsaw. Steel toed logging boots, Kevlar chaps and a helmet with eye and ear protection. For those who haven’t read my book, I spent a good 20 years logging our wood lot in Maine. My very first day “on the job”, I was very lucky not to be seriously injured when I looked up and a falling branch hit me in the eye. Foolishly I had begun my logging career with no personal safety gear. Fortunately, I was given a second chance and I immediately bought all the proper equipment. I’ve safely cut thousands of cords of wood since that incident so please consider wearing all safety gear before using a chainsaw!

At that point in time, we had the septic approval from the Province and the building permit application was started. Roughly one acre would be our homestead site.

Once the acre was cleared, it was much easier to assess the lay of the land and stake out the exact locations of house, garden, orchard, well, septic and solar array. The relationship between each of these entities is essential to an efficiently laid out homestead. While the excavator was out, once it was done with all the road and driveway work, we had it dig the well. Before spending any money on building, it was imperative to know we had a potable source of water. That told us a lot. In addition to telling us the quantity and quality of water at our disposal, we determined the depth of the overburden and where the water table was. Overburden in this case is referencing to how thick the layer of soil and gravel is until bedrock is hit. That along with the depth of the water table dictated how we built the foundation as well as if a root cellar/basement was feasible under the house.

One additional consideration for us is the fact that we are on high ground overlooking the ocean. It is obvious that the soil is eroding at the cliff edge although at a fairly slow rate, or so we thought. The rate of erosion seemed slow because further down the eroding slope approaching sea level we could see mature spruce trees that had a tenuous grip on the soil. But we have lost more ground than anticipated in the couple years we’ve been here. Regardless of the minimum legal setback from the ocean, 25 feet, we set back a longer distance from the edge, at least 125 feet. This will hopefully give us peace of mind plus there’s no point making the news when the last remnants of our house slide over the cliff into the ocean to become a curiosity for the fish.

Join us again in the next installment when we flag out the house, start a new garden and invite the excavator back to dig a foundation.

Ron Melchioreand his wife Johanna are currently building a new homestead on the coast of Nova Scotia. Ron is the author of Off Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness published byMoon Willow Pressand is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Connect with Ron atIn the Wildernessand onFacebook and Pinterest  Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS postshere.

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