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Urban Planning + Architecture

Living off the Grid in BC: Clayoquot Sound

Visits with people who've unplugged from utilities, seeking self-sufficiency, tranquility, resilience. First in an occasional series.

Phillip Vannini 24 Jan

Phillip Vannini is Canada research chair in innovative learning and public ethnography, and professor of communication and culture at Royal Roads University. He will be filing more dispatches to The Tyee from off the grid in British Columbia, as he speaks with and learns from the people living there.

The key to a well-built fence is in the positioning of the posts. About one third of their length should be buried underground. After digging and driving in a post it is crucial to pack holes with gravel or cement as to allow the fence to endure pressure from winds and from its own weight.

None of this is of particular interest to me.

I am a miserable handyman. I marvel at those endowed with those skills, but personally I am the type of academic who is more interested in dissecting the symbolic significance of a fence than in assembling one. Take for example the very idea of a fence's stability; not only does it represent and ensure the long-term validity of a property claim, but it also affirms the idea that a dwelling and the life it encases is built on solid, unmoving ground.

But what's it like for float-house residents? Would an anchor do the same job?

'This house is self-sustained: you move it wherever you want'

It's a frosty but comfortably sunny winter day in Tofino. The old planks of Trilogy Dock are surfaced in a slimy sheen of ice and seagull shit. I pace back and forth, anxiously peeking into every boat in search of John. I am here to interview him and a handful of other float-house dwellers for a fieldwork research project on life off-the-grid in Canada.

Clayoquot Sound is a stop on a two-year long journey to every province and territory. Dwelling off-the-grid is a quest for a freer way of life, unconcerned with the mood swings of utility companies. It is a lifestyle assembled with bits of self-sufficiency, tranquility, love of place, sustainability (for some), resilience, and the ability to assemble a magazine cover-ready house faster than people like me can assemble a Kinder Surprise toy.

John, it turns out, is not by his dinghy. You'd expect a float-house resident to come pick you up on his boat and take you for a cruise to some secret inlet, but that’s not necessarily the case during storm season. His house is tied up right here, at the shore-end of the dock, until April. I realize this thanks to the friendliness of his two kids -- who interrupt a solar-powered PlayStation game to answer my bedeviled door knock and let me know he's around.

The small two-storey home is kept comfortably warm by a wood stove and conveniently powered by photovoltaic energy. A generator stands by. Propane fuels appliances. An advanced composting toilet system ensures bowel movements do not alter the local fish's diet.

Sitting in the living room facing Strawberry, Stone, and Amet Island, I ask John what he's got against "normal" houses -- the kinds with white picket fences. In his early thirties, John speaks in a self-assured and matter-of-fact tone. "It makes a great deal of sense financially," he explains. "Buying a house in Tofino isn't easy for most people. This is by far cheaper and more environmentally sustainable."

During spring and summer the short boat ride from their usual location behind Neilson Island is affected by weather no more than a Gulf Islands BC Ferries ride. But towing his house into town for the fall and winter ensures that he and his house-mates Christie and Connor can reliably get to work without trouble. Winter storms are less of an issue here at Trilogy Dock too. "It makes sleeping a little bit easier."

John is not the type of guy who itches to stake a claim on solid, unmoving ground. While his house-mates are about to bring a newborn to this world and move ashore, he is considering trading lifestyles with something less grounded, less anchored. "I am thinking of buying a boat and living aboard," he confides, "we'll see."

The legal status of a home floating above ground -- not buried under it -- "can get really complicated," John tells me, and it depends on the particular situation. But perhaps even more it depends on the moods of confused bureaucrats and their keenness on enforcing unclear laws and prepotent social norms on the stability of a dwelling. He pays his dues, but others I meet are less relaxed about floating in a limbo.

(Listen to some of my conversation with John here.)

Getting along with your neighbours

Eleanor and Alistair's neighbours are wild. A social butterfly of a blue heron, hyperactive oystercatchers, swimming deer, wolves hungry for those unwitting swimmers, and cute otters. "Cute," tells me Alistair, "until you realize that when you live on float house an otter is nothing but a 30-pound rat." I suppose I'll never complain again about my raccoons -- at least they don't gnaw away at my foundations.

Tucked behind Meares Island, up Lemmens Inlet, Eleanor and Alistair's solar and wind-powered float-house suddenly springs out of the water in a way that makes you wonder whether your mind is messing with you. Shadowed by massive red wood, its image mirrored in the still, shallow, crystalline water surrounding it, and dwarfed by the vertical walls of Vancouver Island's Bedingfield Range, its sight makes you pinch your skin. I realize I'm awake when I step off Alistair's water taxi and sense that the walkway to the front door oscillates with each of my uncertain steps. The wooden perimeter on the boat-docking side of the house is no more than three-and-a-half-feet wide.

Thanks to my odd job I have seen plenty of dream homes, but this is the dreamiest of all. In a way, like a dream, it almost makes no sense. For me, at least. I grew up in a flat, with noisy neighbours stacked above, under, and beside me. With earplugs on I often daydreamed of a place like this -- the kind of neighbourhood in which borrowing a cup of sugar requires a marine chart -- but I thought it was a figment of my perversely asocial imagination.

Far from asocial are Eleanor and Alistair. Friendly, warm, and open about their unusual but seemingly idyllic life neither views the land/water-scape around them as a protective fence. Born in Europe like me, Alistair knows not to take for granted the unimaginable beauty of his West Coast front yard. "It never gets old," he tells me, "and it really puts you in touch with its rhythms." There may be no human next-door neighbours, Alistair shows me, but the ecology of the place is fraught with its own needs, its own cycles, and its own unique expressions. "Living off the grid puts you in touch with a place in a way that people in the city never could."

Like me, Eleanor grew up fantasizing living in a float-house. Unlike me she tried it out too. She tells me that the ideal of being permanently mobile is simply irresistible. Sure the anchors and lines are unavoidable, but the dream does not get tangled up in them. "All I wanted was to look out the window from my kitchen and see water everywhere," Eleanor confesses.

Unlike my dream -- in which I never have to build or fix anything around the house -- Eleanor and Alistair's dwelling is imperfect. Alistair's own ingenious desalination system -- the kind of technological marvel that you'd expect Wiley the Coyote could put together from one of those legendary ACME kits -- is out of order. This morning one of their boat engines failed -- hardly a once-in-a-lifetime event. Though a fence is out of the question, it would be nice -- they admit -- if they found a way to keep nosy summer kayakers away.

And while living off-the-grid does not mean living without a cellular telephone, or the Internet, not even social media are intimate enough to replace regular face-to-face connections. "I go to town once a week or so," Eleanor admits, "but it's not enough to maintain strong rapport with people." No one can ever be an island unto themselves.

The art of flotsam and jetsam

"How do you choose where to put a float-house?" wonder aloud my boat companions. It is a hell of a good question. Most house-hunters select variables on and let the computer cull locations for them. But what float-house owners do is beyond me. Do they follow constellations of starfish? "Ask Wayne and Catherine how they did it," answers Mike, "they'll tell you their story."

Tofino-born Mike White has known Wayne and Catherine for some time now. Working this little-known tourist draw as an offshoot of Browning Pass Charters, Mike takes curious out-of-towners to the Freedom Cove Float House for a modest fee, which he shares with the two floating artists. As a regular Tofino tourist over the years I have seen my fair share of whales, hot springs, and large trees in Clayoquot Sound, but nothing like Wayne and Catherine's place.

Think of the cult-classic weirdo movie Waterworld minus the cantankerous survivors and the curmudgeon joie de vivre. Indeed, just keep the basic floatation devices but paint the whole thing over in hot pink and in swimming-pool tile blue. Add every plant you can grow on the West Coast this side of edible mushrooms, and adorn the mega-complex with dancing pads and water-pressure-operated wooden statues pretending to fish, and you get an idea. Sort of.

"I have no idea how I'm going to describe this place in writing," I whine to Catherine.

"Good! That means our job as artists has succeeded," she rejoices. "It's our art installation,” Wayne pipes in, "it's beyond words."

Like the best art, their house did not begin with a blueprint. Driftwood and other useful pieces -- including whole docks -- floating away from nearby forests and salmon farms started amassing at the end of Freedom Cove. Wayne and Catherine collected the flotsam and jetsam and inquired whom it belonged to. "We were told we bothered enough to tidy up the mess, so we might as well keep it," Catherine laughs while telling the story.

The rest emerged piecemeal. Indeed it still is mutating. Wayne likes to play around with the puzzle -- improvising new combinations for the entire structure to allow for a guest room, new sheds, new wood sculptures, extensions of the green house, a candle-sculpting studio, an extra dancing pad the size of a helicopter landing pad, or whatever else strikes their fancy. Solid ground and stable building structures freeze growth. Here, instead, you never know what is going to drift in and what you might end up doing with it.

Like John's and Eleanor and Alistair's place, Wayne and Catherine's paradise is no land of milk and honey. Slightly off the delivery map of the local propane truck, and not exactly a short drive to the grocery store, their off-grid life pivots on a careful balance of simplicity and complexity. There is the simplicity of the gravity-fed water supply. Simple if you know how to install that. And the complexity of having to ride a boat for miles to get fuel for the generator. There is the simple elegance of a year-round vegetable garden -- if you're a vegetarian with a miraculously green thumb like Catherine. And the complexity of needing to instantly devour store-bought meat before it spoils -- if you're a refrigerator-less omnivore like Wayne.

All in all, these are the typical trials and tribulations of off-grid living -- common to people like John, Eleanor, Alistair, Wayne, and Catherine all over Canada. Floating dwellings seem to add just another set of perks but also a host of additional challenges.

So how do you "cope" with the challenges? You can't quite "cope" with them -- I am told -- if you really want to taste off-grid freedom you can only "embrace" them and face them as they come.

I suppose you can get piece of mind without a fence. Liberty does not necessarily require stability. That's probably the lesson that Wayne and Catherine have figured out. That might explain not only the location of their float-house, but the name of their Cove too.

I just wonder how deep an anchor ought to be.  [Tyee]

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