The incredible journey begins

The first part of a series about a family with snowmobiles, ATVs and dirt bikes who have given up electricity and other creature comforts to live off the grid in the remote backcountry of B.C.

by Trish Drinkle

Photo of a young brown haired girl throwing a piece of wood up to a person in a black shirt and ball cap who is standing on the back of a truck.
The family will rely on firewood to heat their home. photo courtesy Brook Evans

You’re nuts—that was a common first reaction when we initially told friends and family of our move. We are a pretty normal family with four kids, my husband and I. We have a few dogs, cats and horses and we all share a common bond: our love for the outdoors. Dirt biking, fishing, ATVing and sledding fill our recreational agenda. And it looks like we get to enjoy it more, a lot more.

Here is where the “nuts” part comes in. We have moved our family up a mountain, off the grid. Yup, completely without conventional power. Visions of a little shanty shack, lit by mere candlelight as we shiver in the corner, immediately fill the minds of the people we tell. They fear for our safety and for our survival—how can we possibly do this to our kids? Living out in the middle of nowhere, how will we survive? 

How it all came about

This opportunity kind of fell into our laps. Caught in limbo, between affording a mortgage and renting, our options were quite limited. We had some options, but the homes we looked at weren’t even remotely close to what our family wanted. The thought of living smack dab in the middle of a populated area left us feeling claustrophobic and frustrated. The kids actually had tears of sadness at the thought of leaving our beloved Ymir area.

Ymir is a small community about 20 minutes from Nelson, B.C. It is the most unique community and it has so much to offer. So much to offer if you treasure children, family and the outdoors. It’s not for everyone, though. Slightly off-centre, its eccentric population welcomed us as one of their own. We simply fit. 

We felt the walls closing in. The home we were living in was on the market to be sold. The season was changing. Should we simply try to make do with one of the properties we had already viewed? Sure, it wouldn’t be what we wanted, but what else were we to do? I was at a loss, and had no idea what to do. Sleepless nights left me feeling drained and confused. It was then that my husband, Kevan, took the bull by the horns and told me to relax. He would find us something and there was no way he was moving into a city, or even into a town.

An unusual twist

Now you’re going to think I am exaggerating the timeline, but honest to God this is how it transpired. I had begun to cook supper, and within minutes, Kev told me to turn the stove off. 

“We’re going for a ride,” he said.

“Where?” I asked. 

“Don’t worry about it,” he responded.

Those who know me can guess how that statement went over. After he calmed me down he said, “Honey, I have a surprise for you. Will you please come for a ride?”

So off we went. A surprise—what could it be? We started to venture up the Wildhorse Canyon above Ymir.

“What would you think about living on 100 acres?” Kevan asked me. 

My eyes lit up and I thought, "What?" He got his little “look-what-I-can-do” face on. It’s a cross between cocky and happy. At that point, I knew something awesome was about to happen. 

“What would you think about living off the grid?” he said.

A dream come true

In all honesty, remote living off the grid had been a vision that filled most of my daydreams. As a young child, my favourite television show was Grizzly Adams. How I wished for a cabin in the woods, free from traffic and society. As I matured, the dream stayed with me. My father used to call me Ayla, a character from Jean Auel’s series of novels, starting with The Clan of the Cave Bear.

Even at a young age, I seemed to be more comfortable in nature than in the city of Calgary in Alberta where I grew up. I could pluck a grouse off with a slingshot and catch fish with my fly rod with so much confidence—my dad won many wagers as he bet my skill against grown men.  I have always made home remedies with ingredients from nature, and passed this skill on to my children. They are like little walking encyclopedias regarding the plant and animal life here in the Kootenays.

A hideaway on Huckleberry Pass

We neared our destination. How my husband found the location, we have no idea. The landowner, Ryan, basically told Kev the general location but with only his spidey senses Kev drove right to the remote home location. Not creepy at all . . .

This was not a cabin that Grizzly Adams resided in—not by a long shot. It was a home. My stomach filled with excitement. Gazing over at my husband, I noticed his reaction was the same. Except for the lack of overhead power and phone lines, there was no indication that this home was a home unlike any other.

We arrived at this remote home on Huckleberry Pass up the Wildhorse Canyon and Ryan met us in the driveway. This was not an easy situation from his perspective. This had been Ryan and his partner, Sara’s, home for 14 years. Trial and error created a home, off the grid, that they were incredibly proud of.

They are both amazing people in their own right—musicians, songwriters and crafty carpenters—but it was time for them to move on. They had an unexpected opportunity to fulfil their dreams, which meant leaving this hideaway. But they would only leave it in the hands of the “right” people.

Ryan had interviewed several people as potential occupants of this property, but within minutes he could tell that they were not the individuals who could make it on Huckleberry Pass. Loving nature was simply not enough to live and survive on this property. Winter is cold and harsh up the Wildhorse. Record snowfalls could crush not only structures, but the spirit of people who were unprepared. This home has its own micro-climate, which brings huge amounts of snowfall, much earlier than other locations in the Kootenays. Loving nature does little to save you once the snow starts to fall.

Feeling right at home

“Do you have a snowmobile?” Ryan had asked my husband on the telephone before we arrived. 

“Yes. Yes we do,” my husband laughed.

He didn’t tell Ryan that not only do we have snowmobiles but we are two people who were brought together because of our love for snowmobiles and winter. We said our marriage nuptials up on top of the Salmo-Creston Pass in the middle of winter two years ago. As riders for Raw Mettle Films, we spend our winters gathering footage for videos and web edits.

I am a director for the Betties Powersports Network—which is a network dedicated to women in powersports. My day job? I’m in sales and marketing for Main Jet Motorsports in Nelson, B.C.  I sell snowmobiles, ATVs, generators and chainsaws for a living.

Ryan noticed my necklace—a small snowmobile hung down off my neck—and said, “You are the first people I’ve talked to who understand winter and actually have snowmobiles.”

Then he invited us in. 

Pleasant surprises

The home was in mid-renovation, but even at that, it was quite a surprise—surprise in a good way. Italian tile, beautiful woodwork and a cello resting in the corner. It was simply amazing.

Ryan had a no-bull-about-it kind of way of approaching life. He is very straightforward and full of light-hearted humour. Stories of buildings caving in and cars being crushed beneath the winter’s snow load were first on his list of “need-to-know” information. Wolverines, wolves, grizzly bears—the list went on. He wanted us to know exactly what would be in store. The more we talked, the more determined Kev and I were. It sounded perfect.
In mid-conversation, Ryan said to us, “I think this could work. I was going to board this place up, but I think this could actually work.”

The next day, we took the kids to see the location. We weren’t sure what their take on it would be.

My 12-year-old daughter, Tatum, looked me in the eyes and said, "You know, a place is home when you can feel it in here," as she rubbed her heart. The kids were in.

Losing hope

Our family finally had a sense of hope. A hope for our future. But the days passed without confirmation from Ryan. Perhaps he had changed his mind? Maybe he found someone better suited to the property?

With a sinking feeling in my stomach, I renewed my search for a family home. My options were depressing. The most ironic one was a riverfront home, with seven and a half acres, no pets allowed or use of an ATV to access the waterfront—all with an astronomical monthly rent attached to it. We all wanted the home up the Wildhorse. We had it all figured out in our minds. Plans of how to get the kids to school in the morning became more concrete. All it took was a little bit of planning to co-ordinate leaving for work and the school bus. We could do it if given the chance. 

Good news finally arrives

On August 14, 2012, the telephone rang. Shortly after that, my husband came down to talk to me and the kids. His face was solemn like stone. 

“I have some bad news,” he said.

Here it comes, I thought. Our hearts dropped.  

“We’re moving up the Wildhorse!” he announced.

Cheers, hugs and tears flowed from the kids and myself. We were going to do it! No. 1 Huckleberry Pass Road, here we come.

Getting settled in the neighbourhood

And so begins our journey of life off the grid. We spent a week of packing, and spending time with Ryan and Sara as they filled us in about all the tricks and suggestions to make our life better.

The home is powered by a mini hydro plant with the option of a huge, expensive-to-run diesel generator. Firewood is the first on our list of priorities. The home will be sled-in access only in the winter, so planning ahead is crucial. I’m getting the garden ready for a fall planting of garlic, with a warning about pocket gophers who enjoy stealing the young bulbs.

Pack rats—oh yeah—are another creature we have to manage. Apparently they love spark plugs, wallets, spoons and pretty much anything shiny. If someone’s socks are missing, it’s not the dryer, which we will seldom use—it will be the pack rat. 

The neighbourhood raccoon is a happy little guy and we don’t need to worry too much about him, and there are a few bears that den around our soon-to-be home, so we will just have to keep an eye open in the fall. It’s good that we have dogs, as they will deter the cougars and the wolves—well, we don’t really have to worry too much about them. If anything, the wolves bring a sense of excitement as they howl into the dark night air.
Winter will bring wolverines frolicking in the yard. We will be able to watch them from our bedroom window—and, apparently a lynx has a regular through route on the property. Seriously, who needs TV?

Active snow management is necessary as our little micro-zone can and will receive almost double the amount of snow than at lower elevations.

Let the journey begin

The community of Ymir is excited about our journey. When we popped into the local hotel recently, residents were discussing our plans. Everyone is offering help and support, especially with the kids. It truly does take a village—the wonderful village of Ymir. 

I will be updating everyone regularly on our adventures. Off the Beaten Track will be dedicated to the trials and tribulations of one family’s journey of living off the grid.  

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