Life off the grid is something that a few people have gravitated to over the years; they desire more solitary existences on far-off hilltops or in canyons where few neighbors are nearby. Life on a lonely mountaintop may be beautiful, but it comes with tradeoffs that must be examined and perhaps mitigated. How much water is available on the property? Does a lot of wind blow across the land? Are there clearings for solar panels?
Primarily, the off-the-grid life is one disconnected from public power lines, but most who craft lives in the “outskirts” of our modern conveniences have to build their own water systems, too, perhaps collecting rainwater or drilling wells. Many who chose the off-the-grid lifestyle want to disconnect from the “modern” world’s services and utilities to create their own versions of utopia. It can be a hardscrabble life, but a rewarding one, too.
Building codes and requirements must be followed, regardless of where a hardy soul might want to build a cabin, but because of the ruggedness of the Sierra, power lines may not reach to that beautiful plot with a breathtaking view. The upper reaches of most foothill counties have residents who live apart from the power grid, and are happy to do so.
Generating electricity is probably the top chore in life off the gird. Photovoltaic solar panels are much less expensive today than they were just 20 years ago, and wind-powered generators frequently add to the charge when the sun’s rays are clouded. Those who live this life often have fewer gadgets plugged into sockets to drain their power reserves, but others add more solar cells to ramp up their generation capacity when more power is needed on the home front.
Some countries don’t allow people to build homes that are not connected to power grids, and in the U.S., regulations vary by city, county and state codes. Those eager to move to remote parcels are encouraged to do their homework before they embark on the purchase of a piece of property. Thankfully, there is a plethora of information available online to steer would-be off-the-grid residents to good ideas and time-tested practices. Those who have already lived off the grid are happy to share their tricks with others interested in this unique lifestyle.
People who want to live off the grid in Tuolumne County generally head to one of three places: Eagle Meadow and Long Valley in the high country; South Fork, a 500-acre forested area downstream from Lyons Reservoir above the Stanislaus River; or Jupiter, a remote area 40 minutes by car beyond Twain Harte. Of course, there are other, smaller outlying spots like Mount Knight, Mount Provo and the Tuolumne River Canyon, to which folks retreat for this particular lifestyle.
Ross Carkeet, a retired Columbia College forestry instructor, has homes in Long Valley and South Fork. I arranged to meet him on a trip into Sonora from his South Fork cabin in February, when snow accumulation in the region six miles above Twain Harte was over two feet. During the winter, Carkeet strategically plans most every venture into town so that he can accomplish as much as possible on every trip back to civilization.
The handsome, gray-haired Carkeet – who looked every bit the forester in a flannel shirt, Carhart pants and sturdy work boots – launched into his story with little prompting.
“There is public power to our area now, but I’ve never hooked in,” he admitted, establishing his credentials as one who lives off the grid, that is, one who does not rely on public utilities, especially for electricity.
“I built a small cabin in South Fork in 1975. We were the first full-time residents in the area of approximately 50 private parcels. A church camp has been out there since the 1950s. Today, there are probably 25 full-time residents.”
“We had no power or telephone, and we heated with firewood. I installed a hydraulic ram for water. It’s a primitive device; water from the spring box runs downhill to the ram, which lifts the water with a hammer effect.”
At this point, Carkeet gave a detailed explanation of the hydrology of the ram, including a tangential story about acquiring one of the apparatus that had been used by the Barlupi brothers, who had a ranch in Sonora when he was a kid. I admit I struggled to understand the mechanics, but Carkeet later offered a written description with a photo of the Barlupis’ ram, which today sits on his deck because he installed a different one to serve his home.
“Using the ram required getting a lot of permits,” Carkeet said. “It doesn’t work anymore, but I used it for 10 years. Then we sunk a well. We use a generator to work the pump.”
Carkeet spoke of his dream to have a pump that works on solar energy.
“I’ll get one when my ship comes in,” quips the naturalist. “Until then, I’m still burning dinosaurs to get water.”
“I got my first solar panel in 1977 for $1,000,” Carkeet said. “I hoped to use it as a demo for my Alternative Energy class at the college, but it wasn’t practical.”
In 1980, Carkeet replaced that original solar panel with some made by a company called Arco Solar. “I’m still using them today.”
“You don’t go solar and walk away. Bird droppings, rain, snow, all kinds of stuff can interfere,” he explained, mentioning only one aspect of the regular maintenance required for this method of generating electricity.
Carkeet also installed a Sencenbaugh 500-Watt wind-powered generator on a tower.
“When it’s not sunny, the wind is usually blowing,” said the septuagenarian. “Of all the projects I worked on, I was most moved by this one. I had no training; learned just by doing. I got 10 years out of that system. The bearings kept going out. Wind and sleet damaged the wooden propellers. I could do it again, but solar is lower maintenance.”
“The weak link for these energy sources is the batteries. Science hasn’t been able to crack the technology for long-term batteries. They last six or seven years, fading in a slow decline, just like us,” Carkeet said, grinning widely. He uses deep-cycle golf cart batteries that weigh 100 pounds each to store power for his property. “The control panel has to be monitored. Like I said, you really have to participate” in this kind of life.
Hot water is another necessity that requires ingenuity for those who live off the grid. Carkeet installed a copper coil system in the firebox of his Yotul (Norwegian) woodstove.
“I’ve had the system since 1977. Hot water from the stove goes into a 50-gallon preheat water tank that supplies my on-demand propane hot water heater. Quite often in winter, the on-demand water heater doesn’t need to go on because the supply water is hot enough.”
Carkeet raised a family off the grid. When asked how that was for the kids, he talked of rigging an electric train for one son and making sure the teenagers could play music. Judging from my own family, I’m confident that a youngster could derive much pleasure from being surrounded by national forest, but a parent nevertheless has to deal with desires encountered via peer influences. It seems Carkeet figured out what to do.
Over the years, he has added to the original cabin he built, to the point that he describes his current home as a “Winchester Mystery House.” He has certainly had plenty of years to tinker with all kinds of things related to living off the grid.
Recently, he and a neighbor each converted four-wheel-drive pickups into makeshift fire trucks, complete with 100-foot hoses and 100-gallon water storage tanks. The trucks help the homeowners attack flames until California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and U.S. Forest Service crews can respond, since it can take up to 30 minutes for firefighters to reach their properties.
According to Carkeet, “The water tanks can be refilled from creeks, ponds, swimming pools and neighbors’ water storage tanks. The project was a bit of a plumber’s nightmare, with a total investment of $1,200, but well worth it, considering the potential benefit to my neighborhood. We are also working with our neighbors to encourage fuel reduction on their parcels, and we plan to be available for backup support to assist with their burn piles.”
Despite being reachable only by dusty dirt roads that curve through forests of pines, oaks and cedars, a strong sense of neighborliness arises in these isolated communities. While many residents admit to preferring their own company and that of their animals to the company of other people, they nevertheless realize that having good relations with neighbors can be crucial in the event of an emergency.
That’s what a woman I’ll call Ann told me. She and husband Mark (also a pseudonym) moved from the Central Valley to Jupiter a year ago. In the spirit of neighborliness, Ann suggested I not use their names, “Because we like others to respect our privacy, I want to do the same for my neighbors by not identifying exactly who we are or where we live.”
Ann and Mark do not have Carkeet’s long-term experience living off the grid, but they certainly share his enthusiasm.
“We have had to learn on the fly. I’ve always had a willingness to do handy stuff,” she added, and then discussed learning the basics of the electric system and how to keep the generator in working order, and maintaining a pathway through the snow to the generator hut during the winter.
“The key to self-sufficiency is dealing with a lot of issues,” Ann said.
Winter brings a passel of such issues. Ann drives into Sonora a couple of times a week.
“It didn’t take long for me to realize I needed to carry a chain saw in the back of my car. I’ve had to cut through trees quite a few times to clear the road on the way home. One night, my chain saw blade got stuck in the trunk of a tree I was cutting.” Luckily, a neighbor happened along to help her out of that jam.
Keith Burrows, whose home is off the grid on Mount Provo, had to cut through seven trees that had fallen across his access road during the early February storms this year.
“We have a couple of snowmobiles,” Burrows explained, “so we park our cars at the base of the Forest Service Road during these big storms.”
“Our friends say they can’t believe we drive this road every day,” exclaimed Melissa Raby, who shares the home with Burrows. Raby leaves daily to go to work at Columbia College, where she is vice president of student services. “I couldn’t live here in the winter without Keith and James (a friend who also lives on the property). They take care of things like clearing the road of downed trees and shoveling snow off the roof.”
“I keep the pantry stocked,” Raby said, acknowledging her role in living off the grid. “I plan ahead when I know a storm is coming.”
Raby described the snow that quietly fell outside while we talked on the phone, and when she said she had baked bread earlier in the day, I could almost smell the yeasty aroma. Because the weather prevented me from getting to these off-the-grid homes, I had to rely on the descriptions provided by the people who live in them.
Ann and Raby said they moved to the remote locales they both call “God’s country” for the beauty and peace they encounter. Ann appreciates the “leafless dancing trees swaying in the wind, the bear sightings and the solitude. There’s something about the silence – no traffic – and the dark – no lights, except the moon.”
The biggest reason for living off the grid seems to be a willingness to give up the ease of public utilities in order to gain serenity and simplicity in beautiful natural settings. Yes, these homes have no public power, water, sewer or phone lines, but Burrows was quick to point out that during the big snowstorm when the power was out all over the county, he and Raby were comfy and cozy with heat and light.
Off-the-grid living isn’t for everyone, but it’s not hard to imagine the appeal of the beauty and the ruggedness of a life away from power lines. With some technology, a simpler life may emerge, one that leaves those who live this way happy to enjoy life in our most rural climes.
Ross Carkeet has employed several unique machines to make life easier at his off-the-grid homes.
Carkeet solar panels:
Twelve-volt direct-current Arco Solar photovoltaic panels from the 1980s are coupled to a large 12-volt direct-current battery pack and a 500-watt inverter to convert 12-volt DC to 120-volt alternating current at Ross Carkeet’s remote residence at South Fork in Tuolumne County. He uses the panels to generate electricity to power lights, a laptop computer for music, a TV, power tools, a vacuum cleaner and other small household appliances.
Carkeet Wind Electric System:
The Sencenbaugh 500-Watt 12-volt direct current wind-powered generator at Ross Carkeet’s place is seen with the propellers in the “feathered” position, when they do not catch a breeze. This system generated extra power at the home for a decade.
Carkeet Fire System:
Carkeet uses a gravity-fed system with 115 feet of 1-inch hose and a nozzle linked to a 500-gallon water tank to assist in protecting his off-the-grid home from wildfires. The system is also linked to a 300-gallon swimming pool with a 5-horsepower water pump to provide high pressure and high volume to the hose reel. Similar hose reel systems are often used in the outback of Australia for wildland fire protection. Carkeet and his neighbors are now working together on a fire fuel-abatement and protection plan for the area.
Carkeet Hydrolic Ram:
This 1930s water-lifting ram sits on Ross Carkeet’s deck. It was used for decades by the Barlupi brothers to pump water from Powerhouse Creek up to their cabin on the historic Old Potato Ranch property now occupied by Indigeny Reserve outside Sonora. The ram worked on a water hammer impulse using two flapper valves, an air chamber, large supply pipe, left, with a required vertical drop and a smaller delivery pipe opening. Small rams can deliver up to 300 gallons of water per day. The water enters the air chamber quickly through the supply pipe and flows out the waste valve, on the right, after the valve in the air chamber closed, which resulted in water being pushed out of the air chamber into the delivery pipe. Hydraulic rams date back to the late 1800s and are still available through the Rife Hydraulic Ram Co. in New Jersey. Carkeet used another hydraulic ram on his property for 10 years before he dug a well.
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