Author of The Blackout Book and the online course Bloom Where You’re Planted
Since the beginning of the Covid pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, a lot of folks have decided that city life is no longer for them. There’s been a whole new demand for rural homes as people discover it’s not so fun to live in a tiny apartment with no yard, 3 children, and two parents all working from and learning from home.
However, an essay on Medium pointed out that a lot of these former urbanites may not have thought things through. Courtney Maum wrote of a scenario that many of us who have lived in the boonies can clearly imagine:
The other night, I left my house to find our cat before the coyotes did and found my brand new neighbor standing in our driveway, instead. Without any preamble, she gestured to the three cords of wood we had meticulously split, seasoned, and stacked throughout the summer. Could she have some wood?
I blinked dumbly at my neighbor, waiting for thepunchline. It is an unspoken pact in these here hills: eggs, milk, and sugar’s for the taking, but you don’t touch someone’s wood. The kind of firewood you order in the country, when you order it, how you stack it, how you keep it dry, it’s a form of parenting; it is holy ground. (source)
The piece continues with several other examples of people who moved to the country to discover they were completely unprepared.
Boy, that brought back some memories.
I remember when I moved straight from the big city to a cabin in the Algonquin Forest.
Eight years ago, I took a leap of faith (or ignorance, depending on who you ask) and relocated myself, my youngest daughter, two cats, and two dogs from a cute little house in the greater Toronto area to dirt cheap cabin in the Algonquin Forest on the shores of a spectacularly beautiful lake. (My eldest was in school in another city but visited often.)
To clarify the situation we were, in based on some of the comments that seem to be making this a story about men being irrelevant, my children’s father had recently died quite suddenly and shockingly. We had to make a dramatic change, both financially and so that everything around us was not a painful memory.
The cabin was heated only by wood, it had decent internet when the electricity was working, and – oh – the electricity? It went out a lot, and along with it, so did the running water.
But I was fueled by dreams of resilience, prepper nirvana, and actually being able to afford my rent while starting a business as a freelance writer as we slung everything we owned into a 24-foot U-haul, something I’d never driven before. I’d also never towed anything in my entire life, but I hooked up a trailer to the back of the Uhaul with my cash-purchased, rusty Dodge Durango on it, and away we went, heading toward what was sure to be an epic adventure in an idyllic location.
Bless my heart.
I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into.
This probably isn’t what you want to read from the person you take prepping advice from but it’s probably something a lot of people should read before making a giant leap into the unknown.
By the time we arrived, seven hours later, my neck was pinging in agony from the tension and my hands were cramping from gripping the steering wheel so hard. I nearly took out a gas pump with my truck when I filled up. I couldn’t figure out how to move the van without hitting said pump and I ugly cried right there at the gas station staring at it until a kindly trucker took over, got into the moving van, maneuvered it for me, and pointed it back toward the road. I was so grateful I hugged him. I may or may not have gotten a little snot on his shirt because of how hard I was sobbing.
Anyway, I got ahold of myself, vowed to pay whatever exorbitant fee Uhaul wanted to charge me to NOT have to refuel before returning the van and trailer, and made it the rest of the way to our new forest home with no more unfortunate incidents. We were delighted to see deer frolicking and a mama and baby bear as we got closer to our destination and declared these to be signs that boded well for our future.
Little did I know how little I knew.
When my daughter and I moved there, we had the prepping mindset, but we were city girls. Our wilderness experiences were based on day hikes and Youtube videos. We’d made the occasional backyard bonfire with wood purchased at a local grocery store and one of those fancy fire-starting logs. We dealt with a power outage due to bad weather perhaps once a year. We lived in a place where anything we might need was within walking distance and where you could stretch a skipping rope in the distance from our house to the neighbor’s house.
We arrived in the summer, and life in the boondocks is always easier in a temperate climate. We located all sorts of wild fruit in the 23 acres of forest behind the cabin and put up jars of it for the winter ahead. We hiked, explored, and set out in a canoe on pretty much a daily basis. I sat there on my deck every morning, overlooking the lake and working on the laptop. Life had become a coffee commercial. My daughter and our younger dog spent more time in the lake than on dry land.
Nothing did I know about country living, 5-foot snowfalls, and heating with wood. I didn’t know diddly about living with bears as neighbors. Nobody warned me about the absolutely gigantic spiders that live in your woodpile. We were not warmly welcomed by most of the locals. We were seen as outsiders the entire year we were there, aside from a handful of kind-hearted neighbors who realized we really intended to last through the winter.
As the weather began to cool off, I realized that I was in so far over my head I couldn’t see the daylight. Yes, I had wood. Yes, I was a prepper so we had lots of food and gear and filters and stuff. But I had no experience at all.
I learned very quickly that prepping and rural living are not at all the same things, although the same skills and personal qualities cross over.
I am not writing this to discourage you from taking leaps – this was the first of many giant leaps for me and it changed my life forever.
I owe a lot to the year I spent living in that little cabin. I learned that I am stubborn enough to grit my teeth and keep trying to do the same thing for hours even when I’m failing. I learned that I can adapt to difficult situations. I learned real skills in that little cabin. And that’s how I started this website – writing about our experiences there. Some of you guys have been with me since this was a little free WordPress blog and you know I did not wake up like this, to cop a term from Covergirl. It has been a long road to resilience.
Rural living is a lot of physical work.
As fall approached, we ordered a load of wood, and that’s when the real work began. As a newbie, I got the load already split, and it’s a good thing, because there’s no way I would have gotten enough wood for the winter ready otherwise. Six loads of wood the size of the picture were unceremoniously dumped in my driveway. This, of course, had to be stacked immediately and covered with a tarp to keep it dry. A city-style gym workout does not compare to stacking six cords of wood. Also they dumped it behind my truck for added motivation.
My body was aching but it was pretty satisfying to see all that neatly stacked wood against the house.
By October, the spectacular surroundings became even more breathtaking. Everywhere you looked was ablaze with color. Almost overnight, it went from summer to autumn, with shorter, chillier days. I finally got all the wood stacked, and got some brought inside. I had the wood stove chimney cleaned and did lots of canning. There was a small, expensive grocery store there in town, 20 minutes away. To go to the larger grocery stores or department stores, the drive was an hour and a half to the nearest town of about 10,000 people. Obviously, that wasn’t a trip to be undertaken frequently when the weather is bad, so a bit of stockpiling was a way of life for everyone around there.
Starting a fire is easy. Keeping it going is harder.
It finally got cold enough that a fire was needed to take the chill off in the evening. I had made some backyard fires for roasting marshmallows, but building a fire in the woodstove that lasted was a whole different story. That’s when I began to realize how green I really was. The first major lesson I learned was that starting a fire is easy – keeping it going is another matter. I emailed back and forth with friends who had more experience than I, and began to really get worried.
It took me a solid month before I was able to consistently build a blazing fire and keep it going. There were more tears and snot bubbles as I thought about how I had made the biggest mistake of my life while trying to keep that stupid fire going. A few readers scoffed at my ineptitude, but I don’t want to be misleading and make people think that all this homesteading-in-the-wilderness stuff comes easily. Perhaps it does for some people, but for me, it took making a lot of mistakes to learn to do things properly. Luckily I had a couple of months before actual deadly freezing weather arrived during which I could master this skill – but if your plan is to bug out and heat with wood or live in a house that is heated by wood, my suggestion is to practice now, as often as possible, because it isn’t as easy as throwing a match on a pile of logs.
If it wasn’t for a kindly neighbor who patiently came down every other day to make sure I was able to get my fire lit, my stubborn nature, and well honestly – the fact that I was too broke to go back to the city with my tail between my legs, we would have either left or died. That may sound like an exaggeration but when you are reliant on wood heat in a place that gets down to -50 degrees, death is indeed a very possible outcome.
Building and maintaining a fire every day for an entire winter offers the benefit of ingraining this skill. I haven’t lived in a place reliant only on wood heat since, and always fear I may have lost my touch when called upon to build a fire. But I guess it’s like riding a bicycle because 8 years later I can still get a good fire going lickety-split.
The well ran dry.
Our next challenge was dealing with a low well. A dry summer had caused the water table to be extremely low, and thus we had very little water to draw from our well for household usage. This also meant that the water coming from the taps was dirty and silty.
This was definitely a culture shock for a couple of city girls. Living without clean running water was not something we’d even considered when we moved to a house with a well. Wasn’t that every prepper’s dream set-up?
The thing about living with these situations that initially seemed like catastrophes on a regular basis is that you learn to manage them easily. It becomes second nature to go into no-running-water mode.
We bought big jugs of spring water for cooking and drinking. I rigged up a little filter to put under the tap in the kitchen in order to wash dishes and clean, with a coffee filter and a mesh colander. Because of the high water usage of a washing machine, we had to do our laundry by hand for a couple of months – also a tremendous amount of work.
My best advice for off-grid laundry is to invest in an industrial style mop bucket with a wringer – it will save you lots of effort and help your clothes to dry much faster then just wringing the clothing out by hand. If you have a place to attach it, this metal wringer is very sturdy and effective.
As it turned out, this was also practice for the fact that any time the power went out, so too did the running water because our well pump was electric. We set up systems with basins for dishwashing, got a pretty pitcher and bowl for bathroom hand washing, and used our dirty dishwater for flushing the toilet. Here are some of my tips for cleaning without running water.
There were power outages – oh-so-many power outages.
Then there was the shaky grasp on electricity.
Throughout our time here we had no less than one power outage per month, and sometimes more. After the first couple of outages, we learned some ways to streamline our power-outage process.
- At the first sign of high winds, we immediately filled the bathtub to provide us with water for flushing.
- We organized a box of power outage entertainment, complete with card games, dominoes, puzzle books, and craft supplies.
- We located candles decoratively around the house, and kept matches near them.
- We kept a “display” of solar lights in a decorative planter on the deck. When the power went out, we could just go grab the fully charged lights and place them in vases for extra lighting.
- We got a cast-iron Dutch oven for cooking on top of the woodstove.
- I canned more “meals” so that the only requirement was heating up the food on top of the woodstove
- I got a lockable storage bench for the deck to use as a back-up fridge/freezer depending on the outdoor temperature.
Pretty soon, power outages were no big deal at all. The longest one was three days. We were cozy, entertained, and well-fed. The biggest inconvenience for me was being unable to work or communicate since my internet was dependent on electricity and we had no phone service of any kind at the cabin.
Winter in the boondocks is different from snow in the city.
Our first snow was really exciting. Of course, living in Canada, we’d had snow before, the magical glorious snow coating the forest and the lakeshore made it seem like we were living in a Christmas card. When you live in the country, the snow plows don’t promptly arrive at 3 am so the roads will be clear for your morning commute. You might wait three or four days for your road to be plowed or salted if it is cleared for you at all. Plan to be snowed in for at least a week with the supplies you’ll need to stay fed, hydrated, warm, and healthy.
Our winter hobby was learning to identify tracks in the snow. It was interesting that during our walks through the woods we rarely saw any animals aside from chipmunks and birds. However, a fresh snowfall made for plenty of evidence that the forest was well-populated with many unseen neighbors.
The cabin was not well insulated, we discovered. We had to take numerous measures to stay warm when the temperature dipped down to seriously frigid temperatures like -50.
Let’s talk about weather that is -50. I walked for a few miles in the woods just aboutevery day while we were in the -30s. When it hit the -40s, I said, “nope” and stayed inside by the fire. The snot inside your nose freezes when it’s this cold. If you go out to grab some wood with your hair wet, it will freeze to your head in minutes. It’s so cold that any of your exposed skin hurts.
We learned then the valuable lesson of storing a snow shovel inside. I had thought putting it outside right beside the door so I could shovel my way out to the truck was a grand idea until we had a snowfall of over five feet. The howling wind blew so much snow against our door that we had to climb out the bedroom window and dig our way back into the house. We had to dig our way to the snow shovel using various improvised household substitutes like cooking pots. While I was mouthing “WhereTF did all this snow come from?” my daughter was having a great time clambering through the snow that was as deep as she was tall to get implements that might be more suitable for snow removal. It took 4 hours to get to the snow shovel.
The snow lasted from November until April. By January the lake was frozen over solidly and we could walk the entire length of it. Bringing in wood during the winter is not the most fun activity in the world. Your boots make the floor wet and slippery, and you WILL fall on your rear with an armload of wood at least once. The loads seem a lot heavier when you have to trudge through the snow to carry them in.
We had the whitest Christmas we’ve ever had, and actually ended up snowed in for 4 days around the holiday. Luckily my older daughter arrived before the snowstorm did, so we had a lovely holiday together, cozily ensconced in our lakeside cabin.
A friend pointed out to me that it was important that I teach my daughter the ins-and-outs of keeping the fire going. Initially, I was worried that she’d get burned and I wouldn’t let her add wood to the stove, much less light the fire. But he made the excellent point that if something happened to me, with our isolation, her life could depend on her ability to make a fire and keep it going. By the end of winter, my little 12-year-old girl could build a blazing fire and cook a meal on top of the woodstove with an ease that would make most adults jealous.
From this, I learned that despite some risk, it’s also important to let your kids make mistakes – and possibly even get hurt – so that they can learn self-sufficiency too – you can’t protect them from life.
Eventually, spring will arrive.
Winters like that seem so incredibly long. When things begin to thaw, life is all about freedom. Oh, and mud. There is mud everywhere as the snow melts.
After mud season comes bug season. Where we lived, mosquitoes and blackflies will eat you alive if you stand still when you are outdoors. Natural solutions like lavender oil or Avon’s Skin So Soft work well to defend you against mosquitoes but nothing seems to work against the blackflies.
There was a two-week period where these horrifying tiny little bugs would swarm you when you were walking outdoors, meeting their death as you inhaled them or swallowed them to open your mouth to say “What the heck are these little bugs…*gulp*” Disgusting, but true.
Bears don’t like us up close and personal any more than we like them. We kept sets of “bear bells” by the door, which were simply clearance-sale large jingle bells strong on some cord and attached to a carabiner you could clip onto your belt loop. The dogs also wore bells. Bears, if they hear you coming, will generally go the other way as long as you don’t live in a place where some idiot thinks it’s “cute” to feed them. Then, they lose their fear of humans and it can lead to deadly encounters.
I also got lost in the woods that spring when out on a walk with my dog. I went off the trail to check something out and got turned around. I wandered for four hours, getting increasingly panicked when I found a logging road. There were only two directions and I knew I’d either end up deeper in the woods or at the main road. Luckily, I chose correctly and got home minutes before my daughter was due to step off the school bus. I was so worried about her coming home to find me missing.
I met some older Polish ladies who didn’t speak a word of English when they parked on my road one day armed with baskets and bonnets. Through gestures, sign language, and a couple of words in common, I learned they were there to forage for mushrooms in the forest. They were delighted that I was interested and took me out with them several times. I’m not confident enough to identify a wide variety of mushrooms by myself but the ones we brought home were absolutely delicious, even to my mushroom-hating kid. This was when I learned how much value there is in the experiences of those who have always lived this way.
So would I advise city dwellers to move to the country?
This short article turned into a rambling mini-novel as I thought about all the things I learned during my year of living in the Algonquin Forest.
There is nothing that is so great a learning experience as living the lifestyle. No amount of books, websites, Youtube videos, or classroom-imparted information can prepare you like actually getting out there and immersing yourself in a self-sufficient or survival lifestyle. If you’re anything like me, you’ll make newbie mistakes, and that’s okay. Most of us have not lived a life that prepares us for survival and the only way to get prepared is to actually perform these tasks. I know that my experiences were mirrored by Joanna, as she wrote when talking about starting her homestead.
Grow your food, chop your wood, and practice your off-grid skills.
But don’t expect that moving to the boondocks will be just like city living surrounded by trees instead of other houses.
You will find yourself tested to the breaking point if you go in completely unprepared like I did. The rewards of making radical changes can be amazing but they can also be risky. You need to know if you have the right temperament to stick with it when you’ve been trying fruitlessly for hours to light a fire that will freaking stay lit dang it as the weather gets colder and your daughter is sitting on the couch in a parka.
Right now, you have back-ups as close as the switch of your thermostat or the nearest grocery store. Make your mistakes now, while these things aren’t a matter of life and death. Not only will the practicing of these skills make you adept at them, but the accomplishments will give you the confidence required to overcome fear and thrive during challenging times.
I mopped up a lot of tears, sweat, and blood, literally, over my year in the forest. I lived through some terrifying situations by luck alone.
But I learned so much. I changed so much, and no poverty, lockdowns, or pandemics can ever take that away. Never think that I’m fearless – I scare the daylights out of myself all the time. But I’m willing to experience fear and that is the reason that I have become so much more resilient than that woman crying while hugging an uncomfortable truck driver in a gas station.
I am probably the wrong person to ask if you should make a radical change. I’m not the one to whom you should say, “Do you think I should I just do it?”
For me, the answer is always going to be yes.
But don’t expect it to be easy and know that everyone who does this will not succeed. Only you can decide if you are the resilient type. And yes, I do mean decide. I chose every single day of the year I was there to keep plugging away at the challenges.
Sometimes it was deliberate, and sometimes it was because I was out of options, but I didn’t stop learning and we didn’t get eaten by bears or freeze to death, as some of our less optimistic friends and family members originally feared. Your mileage may vary.
Have you ever made a dramatic lifestyle change?
Have you ever just up and changed everything about the way you were living? Did you run into challenges that made you question your wisdom and possibly your sanity? Share your stories in the comments.