Modern off-the-grid living is alive and well in northern Michigan

Using a combination of modern technology and old-fashioned common sense, these Yoopers and northern Michiganders eke out an off-the-grid existence in a bounteous but occasionally hostile land.
In the U.P., one doesn't have to venture far to be reminded of humanity's insignificance. From majestic Tahquamenon Falls to the lofty Porcupine Mountains, this is one of the few remaining parts of the country where nature dictates the terms of human activity. And though selfies and social media are just as much a part of life for most Yoopers as for New Yorkers and Californians, one glance out at the big lake or into the woods lets us know where we stand.

For a hardy few, though, technology and nature actually go hand in hand. Recent advances in communications and energy production, in particular, have made it easier for those who choose to live off the grid to do so in relative comfort, without sacrificing the social contacts most people find essential. And though they're keen on protecting their privacy and living as close to the land as possible, these folks are happy to share their stories.

A Wilderness Dream Realized

"It's all I ever wanted to do," says John Jungwirth, a former Detroiter who lives in the bush of northwestern Marquette County with Victoria, his wife. "I couldn't wait to get out of high school so I could get out here and build a life."

That was more than three decades ago, and he hasn't looked back. He met Victoria, a native of the U.K., on a farm in downstate Michigan, then spent the next few years bouncing from organic farm to organic farm on both sides of the Atlantic. The pair's labor paid off: They saved up enough to get married and buy 40 acres of land in the rugged hills west of Marquette. (Don't ask exactly where--the Jungwirths won't tell you.)

But they had to make some compromises along the way. John and Victoria imagined they'd put their farming experience, particularly in the dairy business, to use in the wilderness. But "this isn't exactly a forgiving land," says John, and the pair doesn't keep any domestic animals. Instead, "we're trying to copy what was done here hundreds of years ago" when French voyageurs first encountered Native American tribes in the region around Lake Superior. 

What does that entail? For starters, the Jungwirths get the bulk of their protein the old fashioned way--hunting and fishing--and supplement their diets with fresh produce from the Marquette Food Co-op, where both work part-time. (Though they have a side business making birchbark canoes "in the traditional Iron Age style," according to their website.)

When practical, they use the animals they hunt to make their own clothing. "If you live out here all the time, you find it hard to buy stuff that holds up in the wilderness," says John. And during the long Huron Mountain winters, they rely mainly on skis and snowshoes to get around the vicinity of their property.

But that doesn't mean they don't have any use for internal combustion. The pair owns the "most rugged snowmobile available," claims John, a Canadian-made Ski-Doo Tundra. With a sled attachment, they can haul just about anything back from town--or at least from their truck, which, come winter, stays parked at the entrance to their trail, two miles from their front door.

The Jungwirths don't use much electricity, relying on a 12-volt solar panel setup for lights and music--"the two most important things," says John. Though solar panels are cheaper now than at any time in the past, the Jungwirths put their system together long before it was easy to find parts. "We were among the first, so there was some experimentation involved," says John.

Despite their rugged, isolated surroundings, the Jungwirths have a vibrant social network. A cell amplifier allows for decent, if patchy, phone service, which they rely on to maintain contact with on-the-grid family members. And their local friends range from "off the grid lite" folks to those who live with every modern convenience. John does draw one line, though: He prefers face-to-face contact to faceless online communication, so he has someone in Marquette run the birchbark canoe business's website.

For John and Victoria, life off the grid is all about humility. "Everyone is self-employed and humble out here," says John, referring to the abundant wildlife and fellow off-gridders in the surrounding woods. "Everybody takes what they need, and there's no such thing as greed."

Natural Rhythms

Jennifer Picard, partner Chris, and their four growing kids live a few miles south of Big Bay, just off County Road 550. Being isolated from civilization isn't their top priority. Jennifer actually looked at more remote homesites when the couple first caught the off-grid bug, nearly two decades ago, but knew isolation would be difficult on the kids they wanted to have. 

"We realized we didn't need to be connected to all the stuff that goes on in town," she says, but it was important to find a place "with potential for other families to come in." And it worked--they're now surrounded by like-minded families, bound by shared purpose but committed to doing things their own way.

A lot has changed over the years. The family now gets reliable cell service in almost any weather, a four-panel solar array keeps the 19-by-19 home powered throughout the year, and homebuilder Chris has more than enough work thanks to the nearby Huron Mountain Club, which has boomed since the early 2000s. 

One thing that hasn't changed: The 15-year old batteries that store solar energy during the darkest times of the year. "I don't know how those things are still working," says Jennifer. 

The Picards are committed to humble, human-scale living. They don't have running water, taking what they need from a friend's nearby property and using their sauna for cleaning. They use a wood stove to heat the place and cook during the cold months, turning to an outdoor kitchen powered by propane--a rare convenience for the down-to-earth family--in the summer. And they don't have many electric lights, just a few industrial bulbs from Menard's. 

"We get most of our light the old-fashioned way, from candles," says Jennifer. "And we're sensitive to the rhythms of the seasons, so we just go to bed earlier during the dark times."

"Winter is a very quiet, rejuvenating period for us," she adds. "It's a totally different energy." 

High-Tech Isolation

For Sam Wiltzius, living off the grid isn't just about humility and human-scale living--it's about rising to a challenge. The Marquette-area pharmacist has a place about an hour from the U.P.'s largest city, down a dirt track so long and rugged that "if you have a small car, you probably won't make it to the front gate"--even in the warm season.

But that doesn't stop him from experimenting and improvising like nobody's business. Among other things, his property boasts at least 810 watts of solar, a 3000-watt Honda EU3000 generator with a remote starter, a gas heater, a wood-burning stove and a liquid propane refrigerator, according to his blog. And he's continuously adding equipment, recently upgrading his long-serving, Victron battery motor system to a version about 20 percent larger.

He puts all this machinery and technology to good use, making maple syrup from the nearby trees and foraging for berries, mushrooms, and whatever else is in season. An avid woodcutter and craftsman, he's built several structures on the property to boot.

Wiltzius's off-grid cabin "is a function of location and practicality," he says. "What fun is having a remote cabin isolated from road noise, light pollution, and just about any other tie to modern society if you have to listen to an internal combustion engine just to turn a light on or run water?" 

Plus, he adds, "it's nice knowing the only annual expense is propane, just once a year... no electric, gas, water, or cable and Internet bills to worry about." The property generates most of what it needs from the sun and, thanks to the battery systems, has more than enough stored power during the warm season. 

But despite his prowess with mechanical technology and old-fashioned living off the land, he's not above using the power of the Internet to become a better off-gridder. "The Internet has probably been the most useful innovation in off-grid living," he says. "With the Internet it's easy to track down information on how to do something, as well as track down books, magazines, and publications with information on homesteading." 

That said, he'll admit to being predisposed to off-the-grid living--and committed to maintaining it as a way of life for the foreseeable future. "[My wife and I] are fairly self reliant, enjoy nature, and find a great deal of peace the farther from city light pollution we travel," he says, adding, "I'm skilled in woodworking, problem solving, and fixing just about anything, and my wife knows a good deal about foraging, canning, and food preparation."

Sounds like they've got a good thing going, no matter how much help they get from their technological toys.

Squatting Off the Grid?

As it turns out, not every off-the-grid living situation is idyllic. Over the past few years, Rolf and Mari von Walthausen have been engaged in a legal battle with Leelanau County, the jurisdiction just northwest of Traverse City. A longstanding county ordinance bans homes smaller than 800 square feet, ostensibly to protect property values and encourage safe dwellings, as well as dwellings that lack internal sewage lines and running water.

The von Walthausens are passionate advocates for sustainable living. When they purchased a rural property and built a 240-square-foot house in place of the dilapidated mobile home that previously stood there, they expected to be applauded--or, at worst, ignored. Instead, they were branded as squatters and threatened with eviction.

The home itself is your standard off-grid setup: a compostable toilet outside and a wood-burning stove in an inside corner. With so little space to heat and no modern appliances, the adjacent woodlands (complete with a babbling stream that provides fresh water) provide everything they need to survive. 

But it violates three separate county codes. So, pending a change in local zoning codes, they're living even more humbly, in large tent that needs to be moved every two months to avoid violating a fourth county code against squatting. They're lucky to be able to rely on a generous network of friends in the area, which helps during the cold months. 

And they haven't completely severed ties with the modern world--at least, not while their living situation isn't clear. Rolf and Mari both work part-time in the Traverse City area, he as a piano technician and she as a yoga instructor. But they clearly haven't given up on their dream of full independence. It's just that the ball is in Leelanau County's court right now.

Brian Martucci writes about business, finance, food, drink and anything else that catches his fancy. You can find him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci
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