Of the many things that I am not, I can now add lumberjack to the list. I had a feeling that I might be, as is often the case when I try something new. I had romantic visions of heading out to the forest, picking out trees, efficiently cutting them down and then into pieces and hauling them back to the trailer. I brought my camera because I expected there would be plenty of time to wander around taking pictures, and I expected to be in a good mood because I love being out in nature. Well let’s just say it didn’t quite work out how I envisioned it.

It was a beautiful day, warm (+5 C or so) and sunny. Snow was melting, there wasn’t a hint of wind. And then we started the walk into the cutting zone. What appeared to be fairly hard-packed snow wasn’t- at all– but it was deep. Up to my knees deep, which made getting moving again quite the trick. And I had worn my Ropers, the most comfortable little work boots that I own. Work boots that come up to my ankles.

Within about 5 minutes of walking into the forest, my boots and socks were soaked through, and my jogging pants were wet to above the knees. Within about twenty minutes my pants were sopping wet and so heavy that I had to keep pulling them up to keep from losing them in the snow. The backs of my calves were frozen and scraped raw from the ice. Nevertheless, I tried to tell myself that it would get better. And then we started hauling the trees back through the snow to the trailer.

Shane will be the first to tell you that he never makes me do anything. But how am I going to stand there and let him do the work? I can’t do it. But I should have. I’m not sure how many muscles I pulled in my neck and back, trudging through the knee-deep snow and carrying more weight than I ever should have attempted. I think it would be safe to guess “all of them”.

After the first few loads of wood, I stopped by the trailer and looked at our pitiful collection- and that’s when I started to whine. It was either that or cry, and I do not like to cry unless I’m alone, so… I opened with, “I think this was a stupid f*cking idea.” And it went on from there. Shane suggested that I just sit on the back of the truck and relax, but you know that I couldn’t do that. How would he hear me whining from the forest?

So even though this is the same man who chopped just the tops off telephone poles and proceeded to move the heavy ends around the property with a chain slung around his waist, I made the decision that he needed me and went back out to finish what we started. After witnessing Shane wielding a chainsaw with one hand, and using the other to push the tree in the opposite direction of where it wanted to go (refusing to listen to my frantic yelling at him to let it go and get out of the way), I decided it was best not to watch him and to just haul the lighter lengths to the trailer while he was cutting.

I’m glad that I didn’t watch. I don’t know what crazy stunts I missed but I did catch him leaping into the air with a running chainsaw at one point. “You’re too heavy,” I keep telling him. I don’t have the upper body strength to carry him if he seriously injures himself. He listens about as well as his wife though.

Long story short- we did not great but not too badly, all things considered. Just under a cord of birch wood, for five dollars and a tank of gas. The next time we head out should be much easier without the snow. That really impeded our ability to move quickly. And the next time I plan on dressing appropriately and bringing extra footwear. But I think it’s safe to say, a lumberjack I’m not.





Spring has Sprung!

It has been a long and ridiculously cold winter. Last week we were seeing temperatures of -40 C and this week, I’m thrilled to say, we’ve hit +5 C for several days in a row. For my foreign readers, +5 C is t-shirt weather in Canada. Another two degrees and it’ll be time to break out the shorts. Granted, there’re still several feet of snow on the ground- so it’ll most definitely be shorts with boots- but such is spring in Canada.

Like many of my cold compatriots I’ve spent the last several weeks poring over seed catalogues, dreaming of warmer days. Yesterday I finally got my act together and put my orders in. I ordered my seeds through Salt Spring Seeds and The Cottage Gardener, two wonderful Canadian companies with a wide variety of heirloom seeds. That was the exciting part of the day.

Now, I have to say- there are times when I still get comments on the “About” section of this blog and I think the reference I made to us as “city kids” as passé. We are so beyond that. We know what we’re doing now. We are country folk. And then I remember, “oh no you’re not”. The gardens being a good reminder- because I still have no real idea what I’m doing, other than that some of it is working out.

The one brilliant tip that I have put to good use is to mimic nature, mixing my plants instead of planting all clean rows of single species. For the last few years I have happily thrown seeds willy-nilly all over the place and had pretty amazing results. Last year I had such a bumper crop of tomatoes I was eating them like apples throughout the day. Still, I know that I can get even better results if I know a thing or two about the vegetables, herbs and flowers that I’m planting.

As much as I love the seed companies that I deal with they are miserable for providing useful information. Take this as an example, from a Cottage Gardener package of Horehound seeds: This herb takes its name from Horus, Egyptian god of sky and light. Folk legend through the ages attributed it with the power to break magic spells. Syrups and cough drops have been made from it since at least he 16th century. So if I’m Harry Potter or a seed-historian, this is great information. But what about planting and caring for the little f*ckers?

So after ordering the seeds, the next stage involved inputting all of my seeds into an Excel spreadsheet. I have about 65 species to sort and I want to know everything from when I can expect them to mature, sun required, soil preferred, how tall/wide they grow, spacing, whether I should be planting a second crop later in the season, which are good companion plants, which will do best in a hoop house, etc.

That took me all freaking day. I had to google most of the plants one by one, and then a lot of the sites only had partial information so I had to research multiple sites. I am not quite done yet but even if I get no further, I have a ton of useful information. And I know a lot more about my plants that I ever did before.

My next step will be plotting a map, so that I can design my space to get the best results. And then I’ll need to start moving earth again (once the snow melts) and preparing the different soils for planting, building a couple of pathways between gardens, and getting the hoop houses ready. All this with one arm tied behind my back- because spring has finally arrived and though it may not be recognizable as such to my friends from warmer climes, I am Canadian! Full of piss and vinegar and ready to get my game on!☺

Beets from years past

Beets from years past


I received a note from a reader a while ago asking whether we’d hooked up our solar system and was surprised to note that I never did actually write about that part of the project. I suppose if it hadn’t worked I’d have been on top of writing about that but as it turns out it’s been working quite well for us.

I should start by saying that we do not have the massive loads that we did at the older (traditional) house. And there are some things we do without, or will do without for now until the system can be expanded. The best advice that I can give anyone wishing to go off-grid is: figure out what you can do without, and then cut it back just a little bit more.

Some of the things that we don’t use (and couldn’t if we wanted to, without compromising our energy bank) are any electric devices that convert electricity to heat: coffee percolator, electric heater, curling irons (Shane has to go au naturel), hairdryers, microwave, toaster- those sorts of things. We could get away with using some of these devices during peak energy times but they’re such a draw and there are easy alternatives that we don’t bother. We also don’t run a lot that works on a 24 hour cycle, like clock radios. Our router and cell phone booster are the exceptions to the rule. This house is as solid as a fortress- without the booster we’d be SOL for a signal. (It’s worth noting that we did unplug both last night, and saved ~15 amp hours, so we may start doing that regularly.)

We don’t do without very much. We use stovetop espresso makers for our morning coffee, battery operated alarm clocks, LED lanterns provide nice room light, and florescent bulbs provide brighter light for reading or cooking. Shane works from home and requires two monitors, an iPad, and a standard computer, in addition to his personal computers (2) and I have 2 laptops that I use fairly regularly, for online courses, research and writing. We also have a nice speaker system that we’re running regularly. We have a woodstove for heat and a separate woodstove for cooking, and I have an induction cooktop that I’ve yet to use but plan to check for power usage some time in the next while, though I expect it’ll be primarily a summer item. We haven’t used a television in ages now but we watch movies, documentaries and shows on a big screen computer (below).


Now… there are some things that I don’t expect everyone would be happy to sacrifice. We don’t have running water yet, and I’m not sure what kind of system I’ll ultimately settle on (powered or gravity fed). I have as much rainwater as I could possibly want to last me into the spring and beyond but I do have to move it by pail, whether into the Berkey for filtering and drinking, or to heat for dishes. We also have to dispose of greywater manually, which makes it easy to direct but a pain in the ass sometimes nonetheless. There’s a photo of the laundry sink and pail underneath it at the end of this article. Old school, but it works for us right now.


We also don’t have a traditional toilet, but then we’d moved over to the Humanure system long before we moved into the new house. I’m used to it, and a strong proponent of the system having used one for four or so years now, but it will no doubt freak out houseguests. Which is actually not a huge downside to me because I’m not an entirely big houseguest-person.

Other little things that we do- I have a haybox (which is not so much a haybox but a what-can-I-throw-together-in-under-a-minute box) that I put my teapot inside in between uses and overnight. It’s a rough model but it does keep my tea warm for quite some time. And our fridge is a converted freezer, so we don’t waste cold air pouring out of the fridge every time that we open it. It’s a pretty easy conversion (especially if, like me, you just watch someone else do it- thanks babe) and is decent on energy. And we have a gazillion, or at least half a dozen, LED lanterns and flashlights that we use rather than turning on room lights every time we are passing through, or for use in rooms like the water room where we don’t need a lot of bright light.


We also have a couple of small independent solar powered items. We have a Soulra speaker system that is solar powered. We used to use it as a primary system (with Shane’s iPod) but have since switched to new speakers. Still, it’s good to have. Would I recommend running out and buying it? Meh. I wouldn’t run, but it’s decent- it takes forever to charge by sun but it can be charged electrically as well, and charges quickly that way. And we have a solar JOOS charger- the orange model- and use it to charge everything from iPods to cell phones. Unlike the Soulra it is a very good little machine and I’d highly recommend it.


I think it’s a good sign that I have to rack my brain for things I’ve had to do without, or adjust to. So far, so good. And we’ll see what we decide to do going forward to enhance the system. As I’ve mentioned repeatedly over the years, though I’m fine with a pretty serious off-grid transition I’ve never had any desire to live like a hobbit. Not that I have anything against hobbits, or people who choose to live like hobbits, it’s just not my bag. The longer we live here, the more my fear of that fate lessens. Still, I’m keeping an eye on my hobbit-lovin’ fella…




I have a ridiculously short attention span. I’ve probably mentioned that before. I’ve done, what I consider, well with maintaining this blog over a three year period but I’m finding it increasingly difficult to come back to with all of my other interests taking priority. Anyway, it occurred to me that I have not updated this page since our mass heater fiasco and the ensuing mad dash to replace it with a working stove.

After all of the effort required to take this project this far though, I do intend to finish it with our experiences actually living in the off-grid home we worked so hard to complete. So you can expect, sporadic (as usual) updates over the winter and into the spring and we’ll see how I feel about writing anything more (on this subject) at that point.

We’re doing fine- I’ll start with that as I keep getting asked. We’re not freezing. Quite the opposite- there are times when I have to strip down because it’s so hot in here, but I am absolutely not complaining. The humidity that some of my readers were wondering about is pretty much non-existent, with the wood stove drying things out enough that I have to keep a pot of water on the stove to add humidity.

Our solar power is serving us quite nicely, but we don’t have the loads that we did at the other house. More on this in another blog. Suffice to say that I don’t worry about having lights on, or running my computer (and Shane’s five computers), or the speakers, or the fridge and freezer. (Though I will say that Shane’s constant hovering is enough reminder to conserve energy, in addition to being annoying.) We do, however, have generators just in case, or to equalize the batteries during the long, dark winter.

I’m still adjusting to using a wood stove for all of my cooking. My breads turn out beautifully, as do pizzas, stews, stir fries. More precise cooking (like my delicate cookies, or yoghurt) will take a while to perfect. Sometimes I am beyond impressed with my newfound abilities and other times I can be found swearing a blue streak in front of the stove. It’s alright though- I have been swearing a blue streak over something since I was yea high; if it weren’t the stove it’d be something else. “Hot little pistol with a potty mouth,” is how Shane sometimes describes me, which simultaneously makes me laugh and creeps me out (who uses the expression “potty mouth”??).

Bearing in mind that this entire thing was one grand experiment for us, a couple of ‘city folk’ trying to see just how far we could take an off-grid lifestyle, we’re doing quite well overall. I haven’t taken photographs of the entire interior yet but I’ll leave you with a view of our living room. It’s not finished (since our rocket mass heater demolition) but it’s as finished as it will be until spring.


Do you remember how glowingly I spoke of rocket mass heaters? How excited I was to have one as the primary heating system in our home? And it wasn’t just me- Shane was equally enthusiastic about the technology, possibly even more so. The potential to build our own heating system, for relatively little money, the possibility of storing heat in mass- that would in turn provide a cozy sitting area, the efficiency of the burn, our very positive experiences with rocket stoves– all of these qualities made rocket mass heaters extremely attractive to us. Add to that the fanfare, oh the fanfare

Well I can’t stand rocket mass heaters. I would never build another one, unless I had an immense amount of time on my hands with absolutely nothing better to do and wanted an outdoor bench as a novelty item to be used periodically in the cooler fall months. And I’ll tell you why…

They are extremely finicky. It can be exciting during the build: getting the measurements just right, reshaping the bell chamber, getting the length of run perfect for maximum efficiency. Sure, it wears on a person after a while, but there is immense satisfaction in finally getting the bloody thing just right. That rocket sound when everything is working perfectly- WOW! But don’t get too excited- just because it’s perfect, doesn’t mean that it will work all the time.

If there is a strong wind, or say very cold temperatures (hello Canadian prairie!) all bets are off. Now you’ll have to fight a down-draft, or a nice column of very heavy cold air. Good luck getting that thing started. Oh sure, you can open a window to rebalance the air pressure, install a fan in the pipe to try and combat the problem- and if you’re persistent (like Shane) you may even get it started. This time. But try again the next morning when your wife has already moved out in frustration and you’re feeling blue- and very cold.

And then there’s the fact that you must not have any other occupation. This is perhaps appealing to some- say monks, or hobbits- who might have all day to contemplate life and feed the fire. But the average person cannot sit by the feed tube all day long, feeding the endlessly hungry beast little pieces of wood lovingly chopped down to (again) just the right size. I can only imagine what was going through Shane’s head (because again- I wasn’t here) but I’m betting it wasn’t, “man am I glad to have all of this time away from all of the other tasks on my list. I hope that I can do this every day.”

And then there are the marvellous fumes. You can’t actually close the top of the stove, for very long anyway, because you need to keep feeding it (remember?) and it needs a bit of air. This is no sealed unit you’re dealing with. So if you have breathing problems to start with, or allergies, you’ll enjoy hours of feeling like someone has your lungs in an iron grip and is slowly squeezing the air out.

There are positives. The mass does actually retain the heat for a good while. And since you can’t leave the heater during your waking hours you will get to enjoy that cozy warmth under your bum, periodically, when you’re not up and feeding the thing more sticks. But that mass does relatively little to add heat to a cold room. And it is indeed efficient- there is hardly any ash left over after burning piles and piles of expertly chopped sticks. And you can shape it to look like a dinosaur, or a mermaid, if that’s your thing.

Unfortunately the negatives far outweighed the positives for me. We tore the f*cking thing out and replaced it with a Blaze King Princess (thank you Analogman, for the very helpful advice and support). Guess what? The house is perfectly comfortable now, and it’s only been in two days. Last night, in fact, I was broiling while we watched movies in our new home and had to strip off the layers of clothing I was convinced would become my new second skin. The fire was still going this morning and kept the temperature of the house comfortable enough that I don’t even require layers. Shane didn’t even need to add wood right away- he just increased the temperature and the fire burst back into life. Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

There’s been no fumes, no leaks, no fighting down-drafts, no fighting air pressure, no swearing and threatening to leave the country for warmer climes (though I could use a vacation after all of our troubles)… Imagine that. Just warmth and comfort.

And before any rocket mass heater fans (I know you’re out there- and fanatical) write me about how we should have stuck it out, or tried a few more things- save it. The reason we embarked on this experiment was because- between a technologist and scientist- we’re game to try out just about any neat sounding idea. And we understand that no experiment goes right the first time, or the second time, and sometimes not the twelfth, or the twentieth time. We’re perfectly comfortable with reworking a project dozens of times to get the predicted results. We’re very accustomed to making adjustments, and careful measurements counting. The build was perfect but this idea does not deliver. Not in our climate and not, in my opinion, as a safe and effective indoor option. And no- I wouldn’t use it in a greenhouse either (as we at one time planned on doing) because I don’t expect to want to sit in a greenhouse long enough to get the mass up to the right temperature to be helpful.

I have a lot of cleaning to do now. Taking out a huge section of the mass heater made quite the mess and there’s dust everywhere. But I can comfortably do that now- in my underwear if I so choose. 🙂


*I’d be remiss if I didn’t say a special thanks to Chad at Fireplace Stove World, in Edmonton, who was immensely helpful and patient with me, even though the road conditions (and lack of heat in days, feelings of total hopelessness, etc) had me in a terrible state by the time I got there. Thank you.

I have never struggled with knowing the right thing to say. Quite the contrary, I believe I’d have been a wonderful speech writer or political strategist. Someone behind the curtain as it were. And that is because though I know what to say, how to spin something, I have terrible difficulty actually getting the words out of my mouth. I get much more credit for speaking plainly.

So. We moved into the new house this week. Three long, hard years of building and at last we’re in. This is where I should say that I am so grateful that all of our hard work has paid off and I absolutely love the new digs. Especially as compared to Mouse-House (named for the plentiful rodents that keep making their way indoors) where we’ve made due during the construction phase.

“I’m enjoying not only the fruits of our labour but the pioneering aspects of our new life, such as hauling wood and starting a fire in the morning to cut through the chilly air.” But that would remind me of the time a good fellow in Oregon told me that we would “fall in love with the healthy and abundant vegetarian fare served during the course of the weeklong workshop.” A special way of describing the pots of beige and of green mush served for every meal, all week long. I have (almost) never been so desperate for a steak or something- anything- that I could chew in my life.

The fact is- I am not happy, yet. I’m f*cking cold to be brutally honest. And I cannot stand to be cold. Many (many) years ago I spent a period of time on the streets, homeless. Not a lot of people know that about me and I don’t spend much time thinking about it, but I did make myself two promises all those years ago. That when I finally made my way out of that situation I would never go hungry or cold again. (I’ve since added I will never again live with rodents to the list.)

The rocket mass heater that worked so beautifully last year is completely useless at the moment. And it was our main source of heat for the living room, which borders our bedroom. It is brutal in there. My shoulders are sore by mid-morning from crunching them up to my ears. I’ve taken to warming bricks on the wood stove and packing them inside of rice sacks so that I can at least keep my feet warm in living room. But I hate it. Hate, hate, hate it.

Now I’m pretty rough and tumble as a general rule. I can work like nobody’s business, I’m fine with injuries, long hours, the sight of my blood has never bothered me- or slowed me down for that matter. I’m who you want around if there is a serious crisis, or if you’ve suffered a severe injury. Unless you’re looking for a nursemaid, or require coddling- then I’m definitely not your girl. But if it falls into the category of “hungry” or “cold” (and now “mouse-infested”) I am one of the most vocal, whiniest b*tches you ever want to meet.

I don’t know how many times a person can say, “I can’t live like this” in four days but I’m sure I’ve already hit a record and the day’s not done yet. This morning I actually said to Shane that, “I guess my new retirement plan is just to die young because I’m sure I’ll be completely crippled and useless by 50 at this rate.” It was a struggle to get the words out without my own mouth dropping open from the absurdity and overblown nature of the statement but I kept a straight face- because it’s important to me to look earnest when I’m in full-on whining mode.

You might wonder how Shane is holding up to all of this. Remarkably well, but he is the strongest person I have ever met- and I say that having very high standards of what rates. He has a higher tolerance for cold than I do, by a long shot. And he’s very easy going, so he’s sure that we will solve this problem. I’m probably wearing on him more quickly than any other hardship will. And if I’m being honest- I’m only partly bothered by that, because I need him to fix this and now. There’s not a lot that I need help with, or will admit to, but by the time I get to seeking Shane’s help it’s because I want it done yesterday.

It’s a lot of pressure to put on one guy. Before you send me comments, you should know that I’m aware of that. And I do- somewhat- feel badly about that. I have bursts of, “oh we can do this- we’ve handled tougher” and other sunshiney bullsh*t moments. And those are strictly for his benefit. So I’m trying as best as I can. There are some things that I’ve even enjoyed about the new house- and once I’m in better spirits I’ll share those with you. But in the meantime, I’m cold. (Well, not at this very moment because I’m back at Mouse House, with the heat cranked so high that I could easily walk around naked.)

So- not exactly a ringing endorsement for this pioneering lifestyle that we’ve embarked on. As I started with- I could tell a different, and still true, story that might make you want to join us on this quest for a more simple, environmentally friendly life. And I’m sure over time that I will. But it doesn’t happen to be what I’m feeling in this moment, so you’re left with the harsher side of reality for today.

It’s true. Or at least that’s how it feels. I work ungodly hours on a daily basis, ramping up- not down- on weekends, and yet it seems nothing ever reaches completion. The farmers around here laugh and quip, “welcome to the neighbourhood”. I don’t find that particularly funny so I can only assume they’re laughing at, and not with, me.

Well, today that came to an end. I actually completed a project, and what felt like a monumental one at that. I placed the last of the shingles on the roof today. I shingled the whole thing by myself, having had no experience going in. I have to admit a feeling of immense self-satisfaction.

The satisfaction is amplified by the amount of work it took to even get to shingling. We began with three round rooms of varying heights, sloped for drainage, and built two gable roofs that come together at the bedroom. No easy task. In fact, I can in all honesty say that blood, sweat and tears went into the building.

Some of you will note that this is no longer an entirely ‘green building’. True enough. While we continued to salvage and reuse what we could find at various transfer sites, those are indeed new shingles (made only in part of recycled materials) and we did of course need to purchase a certain amount of new wood. A lack of viable and timely options (and a mouse issue, which I may share at a later date but am entirely too happy to right now) necessitated deviating from the plan. I’m okay with it. There’s been next to zero waste which compares extremely well next to traditional construction and what few scraps I have left over are in the shop waiting to be used on other projects.

I have lots of other news that I’ll probably (maybe?) get to at a later date but I’m rewarding myself today with a partial day off. I think I’ll read a chapter or two of a book, or maybe just lie flat on my back on the living floor for an hour or so. Tomorrow we’ll be back to work again.