High Altitude Living in Washington and Colorado: Natural Resources

Reader Contribution by Bruce Mcelmurray And Ed Essex
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Bruce and Carol McElmurray live in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Colorado at an elevation of 9,750′.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State at an elevation of 4200′.

Bruce and Ed, bloggers for The Happy Homesteader at Mother Earth News, have decided to collaborate on a blog about their high-altitude living.

What natural resources do you have on your property and how do you utilize them? 

Ed Essex: We use the sun for solar power. Our whole electrical system is powered by the sun including a 220V deep well pump. We do use a backup generator for about 100 hours per year which is the equivalent of four days. The sun powers us the remaining 361 days per year. Our house is wired the same as everyone else and we have all of the same amenities and appliances. 

We also use the sun for passive heat in our home in the winter and to keep our insulated cold frames warm enough to grow fresh veggies in the winter without any other source of heat. 

We use the existing groundwater for our drinking water. We have a 300′ deep well with a water source at 114′ and another source at 200′. Our water is wonderful. We really lucked out. 

We use the rainwater to fill our cisterns. We have two cisterns that get filled from the house roof and one at the barn that gets filled from the barn roof. 

We use the two cisterns at the house to water the garden and the one at the barn to water our two horses. We usually have enough rainwater to keep the cisterns full about 11 months of the year. This year was exceptionally dry and we finally had to use well water for our garden for about three weeks and four weeks for the horses. It hasn’t rained here for almost three months. 

We use regular gutters to capture the water off of the roof. Most people don’t think that is a good ideas in snow country but you just have to install the correctly and they work just fine.  

We use our timber to heat our home and cook with. We do have a propane stove but we also have a masonry kitchen stove we cook with a lot. If the temperature is cold enough to require some heat but not too much then we use the kitchen stove to heat our home with. Since it is already going we use it to cook with as well. We can have bacon frying in 10 minutes.  

When it gets below freezing every day then we use our masonry heater to heat the house. We use about five cords of wood per year which is pretty good at 4200′ elevation. We would probably only use three cords at any elevation under 1500′. Our heated area is 1400 square feet. 

We have two cut and fill areas, one for the barn and one for the house. The slopes at the fill areas are steep and long. Our property is full of larger boulders. You can’t avoid them anywhere (our access road is called Big Boulder Lane). We took all of the boulders that were dug up from constructing the house, barn, water, and drain lines and shoved them into the toe of the slopes with a huge excavator to shore up the slopes and help keep them from eroding in a big rain storm. We used other boulders for retaining walls instead of buying retaining wall blocks. If you build on a slope you are going to have retaining walls. 

Bruce McElmurray:
We have many natural resources on our property. We have abundant timber which we use for firewood and building projects after we mill it into lumber. We have built decks, a wood shed, a garage, furniture, picnic tables, and several other useful projects.

We have delicious water that comes from 215 below the ground, and such an abundance of rocks that we can’t dig a hole in the ground without considerable effort. The rocks that are of suitable size and are flat we have used in covering the exterior of the house. Not only are they attractive but are non combustible and protect the house against the potential of wildfire. They also serve as insulation against the cold and heat. We have two small spring creeks on our property but do not use them other than an occasional bucket for watering our garden during extreme drought. We are not allowed by Colorado law to catch and store rainwater.

We have grid electricity and our electric cooperative is reliable, affordable and the men and women who work for the cooperative are friendly and helpful. 

Has reading how other Mother Earth News contributors used natural resources inspired you for using your own? 

Ed Essex:
Laurie brought home a Mother Earth News magazine about 2006. By 2010 we were living off grid. Mother was the single biggest source of information we used. We checked out books at the library and had other magazine subscriptions but Mother Earth News was the one we waited for every two months and read cover to cover.  

We kept all of our magazines for future reference. For instance we didn’t always have chickens. When we got our chickens we dug out all of the back issue articles on raising chickens and got educated. 

Now we have partnered with Mother Earth News by having a booth in their Puyallup, Wash., Fair last June. It’s been a really good relationship that continues to grow. 

Bruce McElmurray:I first started to read Mother Earth News the first year it was first published. The more I read the more a spark grew in my mind to put some of those contributions to work for me. I have been an avid reader since that first issue.

Many of the contributors over the years have not only given me inspiration and encouragement but also ideas like our garden boxes, milling lumber, plus the benefits of having a small tractor and using our natural resources on hand. Had it not been for the willingness of manyto share, inform and inspire me through their unselfish articles I have no doubt that I would never have undertaken mountain living.