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Women Off the Grid
In Life Off Grid we hear from a Lasqueti Island man about the strong role of women in his off-grid community. Wanting to learn more about the women’s perspective we reached out to three women – one who’s been doing it on her own for 30 years, one who lives extremely remotely, and another who’s raising her daughter among a strong network of off-gridders. They talked with us about essential skills, community, retirement plans and more.Meet The Women
Women Off the Grid
What’s it like to live totally off the grid?
Filmmaker Jonathan Taggart and ethnographer Phillip Vannini spent two years trying to answer that question. They interviewed almost 200 people across Canada: Inuit stockpiling frozen fish, back-to-the-landers living out their dreams in the Maritimes and climate-concerned innovators building tiny water wheels on the West Coast’s Lasqueti Island.
They channeled what they learned into a film (premiering on Knowledge December 10), a book, a series for The Tyee, photos, audio stories and blogs – organizing most of this content into a website. Seems there’s a lot to learn from off-gridders, whether you’re curious about generating sustainable energy, living deep in the bush or building an efficient (and pretty) outhouse.
In the film, folks lead us through their innovative set-ups and explain why they chose to live as they do. These makeshift tour guides are typically men, and yet a Lasqueti Island resident named Dave says, “The women's community I found to be very strong, Women are… much more prominent in the community.”
I asked Phillip Vannini (who is the Canada Research Chair in Innovative Learning and Public Ethnography) why we don’t see more of the strong women Dave alluded to in the film. Vannini explained that while women made up about half the “off-gridders” he and Jonathan Taggart met, not everyone agreed to on-camera interviews. This was often the case with single women, he said.Phillip Vannini (right) chills in an off-grid home. Photo by Jonathan Taggart.
“Maybe these women did not want the whole world to know where they lived and the fact that they lived alone. At times, they were simply shy about it.”
The book is more representative of the gender balance than the film, he said. Wanting to learn more about off-gridding from a woman’s perspective, I reached out to three women living distinctly different off-grid lives:
Phillip Vannini introduced me to Johanna. She’s been living off the grid for almost 30 years with her partner Ron. They started their off-grid lives in Maine, but have called Northern Saskatchewan home for the past 16 years. They live a secluded lifestyle, leaving their home just twice a year – via chartered floatplane. We spoke via satellite phone.
A friend suggested I be in touch with Chris. She lives “about halfway between Williams Lake and Bella Coola” and has lived alone and off the grid for over 30 years. Her closest neighbours are about a kilometer away, across a river – too close, she says laughing. I reached her on her landline.
I found Bronwyn online. She lives on a land collective on Lasqueti Island (part of the Gulf Islands) along with hundreds of other off-gridders, partner Paddy O'Rourke and their daughter Similkameen O'Rourke.
Here’s (a condensed version of) what they had to say about…
THEIR OFF-GRID-NESS (ON A SCALE OF ONE TO TEN…)
CC: You are either on or off… Sure, when I go visit a friend I think it’s really nice to have a shower or use the washing machine… but I don’t miss them. They’re not important to me.
BP: I’m a ten, completely off the grid with as little generator use as can be. And that generator boosting comes in these hump periods when there’s not enough sun quite yet and not enough water yet to run our water wheel.
JM: We’re definitely a ten. We are very remote in Northern Saskatchewan. The only way to reach us is by bush plane. There aren’t any roads or trails to get here. There’s no power lines or utilities of any sort. Any power we have to generate ourselves.
WHAT FUELLED THEIR OFF-THE-GRID LIFESTYLE:
CC: My parents… were very much a do-it-yourself couple because they had no money right after the war in England. I grew up with the idea that if you want something you make it… I read things like Call of the Wild when I was a kid and I had this weird idea that I wanted to go to Canada… one of those romantic ideas that get in your head… When I was in Australia I went backpacking in the bush for four days alone; this was the first time I’d been alone for more than just a few hours. It was the most euphoric moment of my life. It was something that I knew was important to me… but I actually didn’t do a lot about it until quite a bit later.Life Off Grid researchers took this shot of "Judi" while she took a “break from daily chores to rest with her friendly goats”. Photo by Jonathan Taggart.
BP: There was some inner voice that said Lasqueti was a special place. For years Lasqueti was famous for its Halloween dances. Friends of mine would go up and something always said to me, don’t go – you’re going to know when the time is to go. I met and got together with somebody who lived on Lasqueti and it just seemed right.
JM: For me, it goes back to when I was a teenager. Back in the ‘70s the back-to-the-land homesteading movement was in full swing. I latched on to that concept… religiously read Mother Earth News magazine and Organic Gardening and Farming magazine and really wanted to do the whole self-sufficiency… thing. Being off the grid sort of stemmed from that. [Ron] was already off-grid when I met him… We were the perfect match; we had the same interests, the same common goals and we’ve just been right on the same page ever since.
FAMILY AND FRIENDS’ REACTIONS TO THEIR DECISION TO GO OFF-GRID:
CC: Well it wasn’t a decision to go off the grid. It was just because there was no grid where I wanted to live. Mom was always a very independent one… a very well read person and an armchair-traveler, but a few of the comments she made made me realize that she really hadn’t a clue what it was like to live in Canada as opposed to Europe!
BP: I’m from a left wing-y family, so ethics were aligned completely.
JM: Well, gosh, it was so long ago. I think probably friends thought, you’re out of your mind. You’re crazy. Family was sort of the same. They accepted it; I can’t say they were necessarily 100 per cent behind it because they were so far away. When I first moved [off the grid in Maine] we didn’t even have a telephone.
MOST IMPORTANT SKILLS FOR LIVING OFF THE GRID:
CC: Pigheadedness. I think that’s number one. It’s the belief that you can do it. Of course, I had some skills because my dad was a furniture maker and I grew up using tools and making things out of wood.
BP: You have to stay open to the community’s advice. Get local. (Not to say there aren’t good books and resources; don’t come completely naïve.) Allow [your] dream to be shaped by local knowledge.Life Off Grid researchers took this shot of "Elizabeth" while she prepared dinner with a co-op farm's massive solar oven. Photo by Jonathan Taggart.
JM: Certainly, you’ve got to be comfortable with yourself because we only go out twice a year and that’s the only other time that we see people. It helps to have lots of varied interests to occupy your time, to keep you busy. We do: we’re never bored. It helps if one person is kind of the handyman… as far as carpentry, plumbing, electrical stuff. I’m not good at that stuff, but my husband is. I take care of the garden… food preservation… the cooking. I keep us clothed; I can sew, knit, spin, do all that stuff. We each have our respective strengths, but they kind of overlap, so we kind of make a perfect team.Johanna Melchiore demonstrates how to light up a wood stove used for both cooking and ambient heating. As there are no temperature knobs to work with, getting the right temperature is achieved by regulating air flows, which may take some "getting used to". Photo by Jonathan Taggart. Caption by Phillip Vannini.
WHETHER THEY FEEL PART OF A COMMUNITY:
CC: Oh, yes, very much so. There are two little tiny communities within my orbit… It’s the one east that I gravitate to… an extremely wonderful community… like a big family. When I lived out in the bush I had one or two friends, but I didn’t really have a community.Chris Czajkowski (right, wearing glasses) floats with friends and her dogs on Chilko Lake in west-central BC. Photo by Reginald D. Mess of Master’s Touch Inc.
BP: I definitely do. Community’s your best friend and your worst enemy at the same time. You know everything about your neighbours, whether it’s true or not. I’m also [part of] a micro-community being on a land collective. It’s amazing… I was having an anxiety attack one night at three in the morning. There was lightning hitting the house and I had a three-month old baby. I was there alone. I didn’t know quite what I had to do with the inverter… so I just bundled up, put a headlight on, went out into the pouring rain and showed up at my neighbour’s house at three in the morning. I said, “I just want to lay on the floor.” You can do that here – without reservation.
JM: No, I can’t really say that I do because there isn’t any community out here per se. We have friends in the town of La Ronge [100 miles away] that we always visit… when we go to town. There is a quilting group in La Ronge and it would be fun to be part of that, but not to the point where I would ever want to move to town and be part of civilization anymore.
THE ROLE OF WOMEN IN THEIR (RESPECTIVE) COMMUNITY:
CC: Oh, equally as strong as men or more. They’re almost all strong women because if they weren’t then they wouldn’t be here – if they wanted a push-button existence and if they were too frightened of the animals. All the women I know are real go-getters: they’re out on horseback, ranching, [riding] ATVs. They do their own hunting… or they’re running the community in some way.Chris Czajkowski says five women worked on her house. Together they erected the shell, including the roof, in five weeks with no heavy machinery.
BP: There is a very strong female community. There are… community potlucks, events, dances. There have been two massive fundraisers in the last couple months for people in need who’ve had cancer. $16,000 raised in a night… from a small community. There’s that support there in the most creative and beautiful ways. People get sick and everyone knits love squares… and then a whole love blanket is created. Unfortunately, there have been so many made recently. If somebody has a baby in our community they won’t cook for two weeks; meals will be arranged. There’s a big volunteer culture. The men are incredibly, incredibly strong in that aspect as well – definitely women lead, but the men will offer that support.
WHAT THEY ‘VE LEARNED ABOUT BEING A WOMAN THROUGH OFF-GRID LIFE:
CC: One thing I did notice… when I first [went to stores to get building supplies] 30-something years ago, some of the men in the stores didn’t know how to talk to me. But now you go into the same stores and I would think ¾ of the customers are women, so it’s obviously been totally accepted that a woman can do do-it-yourself stuff as well as men.Chris Czajkowski says she built two of three cabins pictured here in Nuk Tessli, BC, on her own and had help with the third. She lived alone here, a “14-hour hike from the nearest road in best conditions” for 23 years.
BP: Sometimes I’m like, oh my goodness, I am playing a gender role when there’s a crisis with one of the systems – like our power system or our water system – and I don’t know what to do and I immediately need to call my partner or someone. Sometimes it feels like, oh, Bronwyn, come on! You’re such a feminist, but in this very moment you’re not! At the same time, it’s honouring all that and making choices: do I actually want to be out there using a massive chainsaw? No, I don’t – so how do I support that in other ways? It’s always humbling.
SPECIAL CONSIDERATIONS A WOMAN SHOULD BE MINDFUL OF IF SHE’S THINKING ABOUT GOING OFF-GRID:
CC: I can’t really answer that. I’m just me and I happen to be female. I’ve gravitated to this kind of life and I don’t think it’s extraordinary for me to do it. Other people seem to think it’s extraordinary; I think they’ve all been hoodwinked into the Hollywood idea of what a woman should be.
BP: As a mother, I’m mindful of education opportunities. I took our daughter off for elementary school because I wanted her to be in French immersion... On the flip side, my daughter just spent the last three years doing home school on Lasqueti. She had horses; she would go traveling on rock-climbing trips and stuff. She’s just started up in high school in Victoria. I wanted her to have more opportunities for engagement.Bronwyn Preece takes a family selfie with her partner Paddy O'Rourke and their daughter Similkameen O'Rourke.
JM: I can’t really think of any special considerations for women… everything that I can think of applies to both men and women.
WHAT THEY’D DO IF SOMETHING HAPPENED TO THEIR PARTNER:
BP: Well, there’s support [on Lasqueti]. Many days I’m like man, I don’t know these systems as much. I don’t run a chainsaw. I don’t know… there are very few single women on the island. There are more single men then single women.
JM: Fortunately, that’s never been an issue. I admit that I could not stay here in this remote location by myself because I’m not competent in plumbing or electrical stuff. That would be a problem here.
CC: Much the same as my regular life I’m afraid. I’m still writing and I’m still getting my own firewood. The last… 12 years I’ve had WWOOFers to do the heavy work.
JM: Just more of the same. We want to continue to be off-grid… as self-sufficient as we possibly can be with our food needs. I’d never want to go back.Chris Czajkowski walks through an alpine meadow high above Nuk Tessli, BC. Photo by Alexandra Blumenthal.
Looking for more stories and insights about life off the grid? Chris Czajkowski has published 11 books about her experiences and she keeps a blog. Bronwyn Preece wrote a “hopeful” children’s book called Off-the-Grid Kid. And Johanna Melchiore says her husband Ron Melchiore’s book, Off Grid and Free – My Path to the Wilderness, is due for publication next year. You’ll find a wealth of stories on the Life Off Grid website; their film premieres on Knowledge December 10 at 10pm.