Phil Smith


Three Rivers

FIRST there were the propane lamps. Then came wind turbines, followed by solar panels that powered William Shay’s off-the-grid vacation home overlooking Lake Billy Chinook.

And now, two decades after the first road was paved in Mr. Shay’s unusual central Oregon vacation community, sun-powered super homes hug the rimrock above his humble-by-comparison octagonal cabin.

”When I first came out here it was wild, wild West,” said Mr. Shay, who owns a vegetable oil distribution company in Portland, three hours to the northwest. ”People walked around with six-shooters and you thought there was a snake under every rock.”

Now it seems more as if there is a Porsche Cayenne S.U.V. in every garage at the 3,800-acre Three Rivers Recreation Area, home to more than 500 off-the-grid vacation homes, from trailers too long in port to air-conditioned McMansions with solar arrays costing tens of thousands of dollars.

”The lifestyle here, you can get simple or you can be real extravagant,” said Lorne Stills, whose late father, Doug Stills, started Three Rivers roughly four decades ago. The history of Three Rivers has been a trend from the former to the latter.

At first, what today is perhaps the country’s only off-the-grid second-home subdivision was just juniper and bunch grass, grazing land for cattle and sheep across the Metolius River arm of Lake Billy Chinook from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Reservation.

Mr. Stills’s father originally envisioned building a hunting preserve, but his financial backers preferred the idea of selling lots to Portlanders and others looking to escape east of the Cascade Mountains on weekends, said Mr. Stills.

In the beginning people just pitched tents or parked their pickups on lots down beside the lake, said Mr. Stills’s widow, Delores. It was a place for working men to come and ”let their hair down,” said her son.

”When the campgrounds were full or they got kicked out for being too noisy, they came up here,” said Ms. Stills. There was no marketing beyond word of mouth, but by 1979 all the lots were taken, she said.

Eventually rough cabins started replacing the tents and trailers, but one problem remained: no power, water or telephone service for miles around.

Most buyers were of modest means but significant ingenuity, so there was a period of experimentation in power sources, from windmills to simple generators to modified automotive parts.

Some tried lighting their homes with propane lamps, but ”it was just about as dark inside as it was outside,” said Lorne Stills.

A hot shower was a coffee can with holes in the bottom hung from a peg out on the deck and filled with water heated on a propane stove. Or, if it was a hot enough day, a splash bath in the lake would suffice.

Three decades later, off-the-grid vacation homes have become practical for those not inclined to tinker and jury-rig car parts …

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Mike Basich - in his self built home next to the ski slopes

Pro-Snowboarder builds Tiny Home

Mike Basich was earning $170,000 a year, travelling the world to compete in international snowboarding championships and living in a 4,000 square foot home. Ten years ago, he gave up the luxurious life of a pro-athlete for his own 40-acre ‘private-resort’ that he built himself in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
With no neighbours for miles and an endless playground of pistes, Mike Basich has taken himself off the grid and set up camp right in the middle of the slopes.
Speaking to Make: Basich said that he created his new home, named Area-241, because he wanted to “learn how to produce the things I have taken for granted, like electricity and water coming out of the faucet”. He wanted to get closer to mother earth and over the course of 5 years, he built his own mountain cabin. The cabin is a pocket-sized, 228 square feet, pentagon shaped property built out of granite, pine and Douglas fir from the surrounding area. 80% of the property is granite and it took 2 and half years to complete the rockwork alone and shift around 175 tons of granite. Natural water flows on site and he has a large south-facing window that not only stores heat but also provides stunning views across the peaks. He has also built a 600 foot vertical rise chairlift and a wood-fired hot tub. He has certainly settled into a very unique way of life.
Mike said that he has always been “a self-doer” and creating the cabin fulfilled a “childhood dream”. When asked to provide advice for others inspired by his story, Mike replied, “[don’t] wait for the right time. It’s always going to be hard — that’s the best part about it all in some ways”. Mike faces unique challenges that are alien to the majority of city-dwelling folk. He uses an outdoor toilet, collects his own water, has no internet, no indoor plumbing and his electricity is solar powered. His shower is a stone clad corner of the cabin with a granite seat. Mike will sit and pour water over himself with no shower curtain. Then once the seat has been dried by the sun, the shower becomes a relaxing area.
Mike always felt like something was missing from his life whilst he was living in the city. Talking to Seeker Stories Mike said that, “in a city you always feel like you are in a rat race. And here it feels like you are in sync with what is actually happening”. Mike rises with the sun and sleeps when it sets, he feels like he is no longer racing time. Although his pace of life has slowed, he still is able to carve up and down the slopes on his board. The slopes are effectively his back garden. It took 8 months to build his chairlift and as he was once one of the …

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Off-grid community in Leipzig

Sustainability and pursuing the eco dream is no easy feat when living in the heart of a major European city. High rents, cramped living, pollution, noise, expensive transport, capitalistic commerce. But there can be ways to flourish in a co-operative without money (or electricity), to live decently, to expand, to breathe. I got a taste of how to live off-grid in a comfortable mansion on a recent visit to Leipzig.

Just an hour south of Berlin, Leipzig is a city of over 500,000 people crawling out of the shadow of its big brother. As the young creatives and professionals of Western Europe are packing up and moving to Berlin in search of a sustainable artistic life, Leipzig is being bypassed by migrators. The city has been given several nicknames over the past few years, notably “Little Berlin” and “Hypezig” -for good reason. It is an artistic haven also known as the “City of Music”. It has history; Johann Sebastian Bach was choirmaster at St. Thomas’ Kirche for more than 25 years. Mendelssohn and Schumann also spent time in the city.
I travelled out to Leipzig for the second time last autumn and found myself living in a communal building in the artistic quarter of Lindenau. Upon arrival I discovered the exterior of the building to be formidable and mildly disconcerting. Graffiti clad and poster covered, the house also had kid’s toys mounted on either side of the front door. Where there could have been stone lions guarding the entrance, there were My Little Ponies in their place. This is an artist’s home.
The use of space is what made the building so efficient and multi-functionL. After the collapse of the wall hawk-eyed Western Germans bought up large areas of Leipzig and began the capitalist rejuvenation of the city in 1989. The landlord of our building However, was a mythical creature that had been heard of but never seen. The occupants of the space basically had free reign and had spent the last few decades making the building their own.
There were three other guys on my floor of the building, Max, Marcel and David. Max was an arborist and had been living in the building longest. Along with help from Marcel, they had built and installed a coal burning system that heated the whole floor. Each room had its own stove that was built from clay and raised on blocks above the wood flooring. Coal and wood were used as fuel and smoke was funnelled out through a pipework system. Left to heat up for half a day and then constantly re-fuelled, this provided more than enough heat. Wood burning ovens were also employed to cook both in the kitchen and in the rear garden. Coal was stored in the cellar where it could be kept dry and in mass.
As an arborist, Max had access to an abundance of …

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Loneliness and the Off-Grid Dream

433546In 2011, Sylvain Tesson left his home in Paris for a 6 month stay, on his own, on the edge of Lake Baikal. He stayed in an old geologist’s hut that was heated by a cast-iron stove and attempted to lead a “simple life and claim back time”.
Lake Baikal in Siberia is the largest freshwater lake by volume in the world and contains nearly 20% of the world’s unfrozen surface freshwater. The lake is a Unesco World Heritage Site and is 395 miles long, 49 miles wide, 1,642m (just over a mile) deep, and 25 million years old. In fact, the lake is so huge that the surface area is as large as Belgium and, at normal walking speed, it would take you 4 months to walk all the way around it.
Off-grid living has the potential to become one of the most amazing experiences or life changing moments in one’s existence. However, if the destination is Lake Baikal, the chips are stacked against you. It is not the extreme environment or the wild and fierce creatures lurking in the dense wood that you will succumb to. It will be the extreme solitude, isolation and loneliness. One must mentally prepare for the marked change from the abundance of faces around you in the city, to the only face for miles and miles is that of your own reflection in the shimmering water. He was driven there by truck in February when the temperature was -30 degrees Celsius and the ice was a metre thick. It was a 6 day walk to the nearest village and a day’s walk to the nearest neighbour. His equipment included: “an axe and cleaver, fishing poles, kerosene lamp, ice drill, saw, snowshoes, tent, liquor glasses and vodka, cigars, provisions (pasta, rice, Tabasco sauce, coffee) and a library of almost 80 books”. Although his time in the Taiga was an experiment and not a complete emigration, Tesson still needed to account for and appreciate the enormity of the solitude he was facing out there.
“Cabin Fever” is an expression for a reason. Cooped up, alone in a hut for days on end can send someone into a spiral of depression. Tessson said that the pain derives from, “the sorrow of not sharing with a loved one the beauty of lived moments” and also “what others miss out on by not being with the person who experiences it”. Routine and remaining occupied are two ways to combat loneliness.
Tesson was warned prior to leaving Paris that boredom would become his worst enemy. He therefore decided to immerse himself in literature. With a library around him, he suddenly had an abundance of friends and stories to be listened to. His collection extended from philosophy and poetry, through to nature books, non-fiction and fiction. DH Lawrence would stir his senses. Nietzche and Schopenhauer would keep his mind …

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Why young people are moving to canals

The freedom and tranquil bliss of canal networks are attracting young people to take up a transient life on the water. With a comfortable, live-on-board narrowboats averaging between £20,000-£30,000, its clear life afloat is cost effective. And icanal haggerstont’s a global trend, everywhere from Silicon Valley to Northern Europe. Nowhere is it more true than the center of world finance, London, England.
A report from Swiss Bank UBS says London is “less affordable for locals who wanted to buy than any city except Hong Kong” Foreign investment and enticing buy-to-let schemes have made it near impossible for young Londoners to even contemplate owning their own home in the future.
Walking along the Regent’s Canal between Haggerston and Islington, it is easy to see what attracts people onto the water. The life of houseboat residents is idyllic. Moorhens, swans and mallards drift alongside the porthole of your bedroom and as the sun sets on the bow of the boat, the bars and restaurants that line the canal are just outside your front door.
Its a sustainable life on the canals. Residents are well stocked up with firewood for their wood-burners and a stalwart part of the top deck is the 25kg bag of coal. Water buts for excess water are used as storage on most boats. The main supply of water is procured from pumping stations along the canal. Similarly, waste is disposed of at sewage stations. Many houseboat residents have large sacks of compost and soil in order to grow small vegetables and herbs on the roof of the boat. Whilst passing by one delightful canal boat one mile from Angel I was welcomed by the face of Jeremy Corbyn. The inhabitants of this particular boat had planted a Support Corbyn poster outside their vessel. There is a sense that the younger members of the canal community are a left leaning group who were seeking to define their own water based sub-culture. A warming sight whilst strolling along the towpath were two men, back from work, enjoying the evening on the water. They had speakers set out on deck, a crate of beers, and a PlayStation linked up in front of them proving you can still get hold of all the home comforts you desire.
I spoke to Daisy, a 27 year old Londoner who will be moving onto her houseboat in early February 2016. Having spent her early twenties moving from rented flats in east to west London and a brief stint in a woodland commune in Surrey, the housing crises in the capital caused her to consider narrowboat living. When she came into some inheritance, the first thing that came into her head was to buy a canal boat and with her boyfriend’s carpenter expertise they set about renovating there £30,000 boat over the course of a year. Solar panels are fixed onto the roof and will …

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Heat my Homestead

There are many ways of staying warm in your off-grid home without the aid of the sun. Here are some tips on how to keep toasty during the frosty winter months.
Clothing: Warm yoursefl and not the room!!

Two great websites for buying your essential winter clothing are:

Woollen, insulating socks, gloves and hats are a must to keep your extremities warm. Waterproof
jackets and trousers will mean that you are both cosy and dry when working outdoors collecting
wood or tending to your livestock. Army surplus stores are also great for buying durable and warm
clothing that will be dependable for many years. A friend spent some time in northern Sweden as a musher. With an average temperature of -25 degrees Celsius he needed the correct clothing and bought the majority of it via army surplus stores

Layers of lighter clothing for outdoor work are ideal as they will allow body heat to travel easily
through the various items of clothing, providing you with a jacket of circulating heat. Steel-capped boots, goggles (with a UV protection lens) and face masks will also make the outdoor hours more

Firewood: Wood, wood and more wood is the order for the winter. Stocking up on firewood in the months leading up to winter will mean that you can rest easy in the knowledge that you have an abundance offuel to keep those wood-burning stoves roaring. Jamie writes in his blog
Prepping for an Off-Grid Winter how he buys “slab wood from a nearby mill” at a cost of “$20 for 1 ton (2000 pounds)”. Slab wood is the rounded part of the wood that goes to waste after boards are created. So on an eco-level, employing this wood for your fire puts it to good use. The bits of wood tend to be rather small so are ideal for continuous feeding of your fire. Larger logs should be used for overnight heat and off-grid blogger

Jamie collects these from fallen trees and branches in the local area. Make sure that all wood is kept in a dry storage area. Furthermore, if you have a generator or vehicles, you need to stock up on gas and petrol. This is especially important if your home is liable to being snowed in and unreachable.

Rooms: Be cautious and conservative with how much indoor space you are using at any one time.

Shut off rooms that won’t be used for prolonged periods of time. Block up the space under the door with blankets. If door and window frames have expanded and contracted, cracks and crevices will have appeared. These can be sealed with gaffer tape or plastic cling-film. By using a candle or lighter and tracing the frames, the flame will flicker where air is passing through, signifying where you need to apply a seal. Attic and loft insulation …

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Off-Grid 101

Rainwater Harvesting: Global Storming – Bring it on

Water harvestingInstalling a Rainwater Harvesting System (RHS) could be a major step in achieving your ideal, eco-friendly home. You could be collecting your own water through the beauty of nature rather than seeing the bills pile up on the doormat from the Utility Company. By installing a run-off system from your roof that leads to a storage area, pumps and purifiers, rainwater can be used across your home.
Even if you are already connected to the water supply, there are advantages to harvesting rainwater. If you are on a meter, your water bill will be reduced as the collected water can be put to use for non-drinking purposes such as showers, baths, flushing toilets, washing dishes. Drinking water is not easily renewable and if you wish to use your collected water for things that don’t require purification, harvesting is cost effective and requires little maintenance. It is also beneficial in terms of reducing wastage.
If you are cultivating your own crops and living off your plot of land, the collected water can be funnelled into an irrigation system. On an environmental level, the collection of rainwater will vastly improve the levels of groundwater. With a rise in population, groundwater levels have decreased and therefore increased the strife in parts of the world where water is scarce. Rainwater harvesting also reduces the level of surface water and lessens the chance of flooding, soil erosion and river contamination brought about by rainwater running through pesticides and other agricultural chemicals.

The disadvantages of rainwater harvesting are two-fold. Firstly, the initial cost of installing a storage system, purification methods and pumping can, according to YouGen, cost between $3000-$5000 (£2000-£3000 )and then running the pump will cost 5-10c a week. However you can now have your RHS plumbed straight into your existing piping and according to the Rainwater Harvesting Association can reduce your water consumption by as much as 40%. The use of a cistern to obtain drinking water in a city can be a tricky business. Shingled roofs, rather than clay or metal are less clean and liable to allow pollution to seep into the water. A pre-filtering system would have to be set up on the shingled roof prior to deposition in the tank to achieve drinkable water.

With water remaining in storage for a considerable degree of time, it is prone to stagnation, algal blooms and rodents spreading water-borne disease. Your harvesting system therefore has to be regularly maintained. Then of course, you are at the mercy of the clouds. Rainfall can be unpredictable and your levels of water will be affected by your geographical location.

The legal and red tape processes one has go through in order to begin to harvest your own water vary wildly. In 2012 a RHS case went viral when 64 year old Gary Harrington from Oregon was sentenced to 30 days in prison for illegal collection of …

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Slab City – American Dream Deserted

slab graveyardXOff-Grid living is the American Dream manifest: “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.
For the residents of Slab City, an encampment in the Sonoran Desert,freedom is paramount. But what happens when the ideal morphs into the un-ideal? Peace and love has been replaced by drugs, strife and Law Enforcement officials. A vision of utopia became dystopian.

The definition of off-grid living according to the Oxford Dictionary is “not using or depending on public utilities, especially the supply of electricity.” Yet if ‘The Slabbers’, as they call themselves, live in “the last free place in America”, what does it mean to be free? And is the sacrifice worth it?
Sandy Parker, an upper class Brit taking American Studies at College, pointed her feet at Slab City, 156 miles northeast of San Diego, whilst studying abroad. She had transferred to a Californian campus to follow her love of 20th century American poets such as Walt Whitman and the Beat Generation, championed by Ginsberg, Snyder, Kerouac and Ferlinghetti.

“I just got the feeling out there that I wasn’t too safe,” Sandy told me later. “… that it was highly dangerous. In London you can walk through a supposedly rough neighbourhood. This neighbourhood had burnt out cars, the roads were terrible and there was extreme poverty around every corner”.

Sandy was a high achiever at school, learned the clarinet and piano from an early age and took ballet lesson as a child. Having been exposed to the wonders of American Studies, and absorbing herself in the sub-culture texts on offer, she now wears her hair in dreadlocks, practices Taoism and veganism. With much anticipation she began her road trip around the USA in Seattle in a hired Toyota Camry, then headed straight for Slab City.

The site was converted by the The Slabbers from an abandoned World War II marine camp to sub-culture commune in the mid-60s. It entered into the mainstream with John Krakauer’s book Into The Wild – Buy it on Amazon (1996) and Original Poster from Sean Penn’s film – Buy it on,(2007)
Both works document the travels of Christopher McCandless who spent time amongst the slabs in the early 1990s whilst journeying up to isolated living in the Alaskan mountains. As for many others, it was these works that drew Sandy to Slab City. However she was acutely aware (having researched the site) that McCandless had arrived at the Slabs when the last “vestiges of a generally safe community” were still visible.
Ecological reasons for off-grid living are not high on the priority list of the average resident in Slab City. When I asked Sandy what problems the residents faced, the issues were both environmental and ideological. Sandy arrived at the edge of a homestead to be greeted by a bullet hole riddled ‘Welcome’ sign. The car thermometer read 44 degrees Celsius. Without electricity and therefore “the …

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