Living Off Grid: Lessons Learned

Reader Contribution by Ed Essex
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Each new season brings about change and each new year adds to our experiences. While our life experiences prepared us pretty well for our new adventure three years ago it is an understatement to say that life here is quite a bit different than condo living in the city.

Our house and property building projects are mostly complete. They include the house, barn, garden, fencing, chicken coop, and a host of other small projects we needed to live in the style we want to be accustomed to.

Wood and wood heat – In the past I’ve heated with wood I cut myself but it was different wood than what we have here. An updated learning curve was required. I used to cut, split, and burn hardwood. All of the wood here is softwood like pine, fir, and tamarack. Tamarack and fir split easily. Pine doesn’t split at all. Pine is full of pitch which creates creosote when you burn it. It’s a good thing our masonry heater burns wide open and hot. That resolves the creosote problem. It’s a good thing because pine is mostly what we have here.
I used to split all of my wood by hand. Now I use a mechanical (not hydraulic) splitter. I even learned the difference between having a table on our splitter to not having one. Having a table will add years of wood cutting capability to my back and the rest of my body.

Road Maintenance – We’ve learned a lot about road maintenance and snow removal. We maintain three miles of dirt and gravel road. It hasn’t been a problem the first two winters but last winter we got a lot of wet snow late in the season. It is near impossible to plow with my tractor and attached snow plow. It piles up faster on the sides of the road until you run out of room. I’ve added a small 40 year old dozer to my arsenal so next time it happens I have something heavy enough and tough enough to get the wet snow way off the road which will also help with melting and runoff.
You don’t just drive down a dirt and gravel road that is thawing. For about three days you might sink up to the axles and there isn’t any way to get you out until the thaw is over and the road dries up. The best thing to do is to avoid that situation entirely by staying home. Our situation is further complicated because we have a 1000’ gain in altitude from one end of the road to the other. The bottom may be thawing while the top is still frozen. Then end result is a road that becomes torn up and rutted in places. The dozer will help with the wet snow and washouts but for road maintenance I have added an old heavy duty back blade for the tractor. I wanted an old one because it is reinforced (many new ones are not) and the steel is of way better quality than you can get now.

– We’ve learned a LOT about home canning. We are on our fifth use with our reusable canning lids. We’ve learned to water bath and pressure can – fish we’ve caught, meat we’ve raised, all sorts of vegetables and fruit, and this year we made jelly from wild berries on our property and tomorrow we are going to try pickles. Not everything has turned out but most of it has and if we don’t get something right we do it again until we figure it out.

Gardening – Last winter we grew our own fresh vegetables all winter long for the first time in our insulated cold frames. No artificial heat or light. The key was attaching the cold frames to the south side of our house. We also grew food inside the house during the winter. The end result was fresh veggies all year long and the temperatures go below zero here! Not bad for rookies.
Neither one of us has ever had a garden before. To date we have grown spinach, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, zucchini, peas, pole beans, bush beans, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, swiss chard, beets and beet greens, herbs, lettuces, and berries we have planted here – all for the first time. We have also harvested berries and mushrooms that grow wild here.
Next year I am putting in a small orchard. Mostly apple trees. I have been told by many it can’t be done at the 4200’ altitude but I know that’s not true and I fully intend to at least have apples next year. We are also adding rhubarb and asparagus to our garden next year.

There is so much more to tell about what we’ve learned but I will save that for another time.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their