A couple of years ago in town, while I was waiting in the laundromat for some particularly filthy work clothes, which had resisted all handwashing efforts at home, a tourist had struck up a conversation with me.
He became all starry-eyed when I mentioned living in the bush and confessed that it had always been a dream of his too. Delighted at the opportunity to find out all the little details he’d been wondering about from a live bush person, he began buttonholing me with questions.
After a while, and preceded by some hemming and hawing, he asked if it weren’t a fairly cheap lifestyle and how much money a person would need for it.
My answer was pretty longwinded. I explained that there were huge variables, such as how to get in and out, how far it was to the closest town, the entire set-up in terms of off-grid living and self-sufficiency, personal preferences and priorities where comfort was concerned.
It all depended, I concluded.
He nodded, apparently none the wiser and disappointed with such a wishy-washy answer by someone who should know.
Again he asked how much money I thought would be needed to live on. Protesting that it was impossible to give a blanket statement, I finally said that $3,000 would be a very comfortable amount for a single person without pets, leading a basic lifestyle in a location that wasn’t too far-flung, excluding any outlay for building materials or purchase costs for machinery.
“Three-thousand dollars a month?” the tourist gasped. “I didn’t think it would be that much!”
“Not a month, $3,000 per year,” I clarified. If anything, that only created more confusion. That amount seemed way to low to him. “Per year? he asked. “But how?”
As I elabourated on the ins and outs of a simple lifestyle, frequenting dumps and second-hand shops, eating mostly basic foods, trading muscle power for expensive machinery and in general bidding mindless consumerism goodbye, his face fell. That was not how he had imagined things to be.
“Of course,” I added, “you can do it the fancy way too, with fresh food flown in, a huge solar power system and lots of appliances. Just then you’re stuck with all the bills and most likely without a secure source of income. Making money out there isn’t easy. Even if you’d just need a couple more thousand dollars a year, it’ll be very hard to come by.” When he eventually walked off, he was still chewing on the information, it seemed.
At least he hadn’t been one of the romantics who harbour fuzzy ideas of getting by completely without cash, “living off the land” and bartering for necessary items (a marten pelt for a tooth filling? A carving for ammunition? Berries for a new window pane?).
Without the umbilical cord of a road, employment opportunities shrink drastically. There are but two options: go out for longer periods of time to work, because a regular commute from a remote location is impractical and at times impossible, or else come up with a product that can be sold out in the boonies.
Handicrafts and anything that needs to make it to town at a certain time to be shipped to a buyer don’t work unless it is possible to restrict the shipment dates to those time periods when getting things out can be guaranteed.
Swamping the peace and isolation of the wilderness homestead with tourists is somewhat counterproductive when part of the allure of living in the bush is solitude. And of course, there is no guarantee that if you build it, they will come.
The advent of satellite internet has broadened the options of making a living at home in the backwoods quite a bit although for many jobs that can be done via the World Wide Web, regular access to a post office is still a necessity.
It sure is one of the trickier aspects of living in the bush, especially if one is loath to go out on contract jobs for weeks on end as Sam does. The ability to live frugally and be happy that way is a real bonus (and not just in the bush, I dare say).
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon
River south of Whitehorse.