Off the Beaten Path: The New Homesteaders of Hastings Highlands

 Claire and Scott

Claire and Scott

Published in Country Roads Magazine, Summer 2012 

There’s a peace that settles over you while driving the winding back-roads of Hastings Highlands. You can’t go too fast, partly because of the curves, partly because of the loose gravel, partly because of the magnificent views. Hills rise and fall in graceful waves. The expansive flatness of the lakes reflect whatever magic happens to be present in the sky on any given day, and in summer the foliage of the forest filters the sunlight so that it sprinkles down like golden confetti. It’s not hard to imagine why people choose to build their lives here.

“It’s a dream come true,” says Claire Tonack. We are sitting in the kitchen of her open-concept off-grid log home that overlooks Baptiste Lake. At each window seedlings stretch themselves up to meet the afternoon sun. Soon Claire will move them to the greenhouse that she and her husband Scott Laundry built, or outdoors to their expansive garden. “I feel very fortunate,” she says. “I feel a strong connection with nature. I feel like everything’s okay - like I’m taken care of.”

Claire and Scott tell me all the things you’d expect them to divulge: how many jars of cider they get from their wild apple trees; how Scott cut the logs for their house off his family’s land; how much energy they get from their windmill and solar panels. Claire speaks proudly about the ten varieties of tomatoes she is growing this year, and the orchard they are starting. Scott describes how on stormy nights when other families in the area lose their hydro, he and Claire listen to their windmill, spinning like crazy in the night sky, and fall asleep content, knowing their batteries will be full in the morning. But then they open up about personal things.

When I approached this story of young families choosing alternative homes - living off grid; off the land; building sustainable houses - I was curious about the people who do it. I wanted to know what they have in common. I expected to find determination, resilience and environmentalism. I did. But the other consistent trait I found, which was less predictable, was honesty.

Early on, all of them asked themselves, and each other, big questions. Deep down, what did they really value? What was their ideal lifestyle? How would they raise and what would they teach their children? And maybe most important: how hard were they willing to work to achieve their dreams, and what were they willing to give up? Perhaps in the asking and answering of such basic but often overlooked questions an overall honesty evolved. Maybe that’s why each couple welcomed me into their home, let me see the untidy imperfections of their lives, and talked so intimately about the struggles and triumphs of going their own way.

Claire tells me the most challenging part of building their own home, apart from the complex financial cha-cha they danced to get the project off the ground, was their relationship. They were still a relatively new couple, with a baby on the way, when they bought the land. While beginning the huge task of building their own home they were simultaneously figuring out the dynamics of their life together. Everything was happening in a whirlwind. Their first child was born the same week they put in the driveway. They refer to the next year as ‘the roughing it year.’ They built the basement and lived in it with the new baby, without electricity, while they worked on the rest of the house.

“It felt like a trial that could make or break us.” Claire says this matter-of-fact, with Scott looking on, quiet and thoughtful. There is no embarrassment or hushed-ness like she’s confessing a secret – just an open description of the sometimes bumpy path they’ve traveled together.

“It’s made us,” she adds.

“Synchronicity married Scott and I to this piece of earth – and to each other.”

Claire admits adjusting to being a new mom while living without modern conveniences was hard, but if anyone was up to the task it was her. She was raised in the bush. In the 1970’s, during the back-to-the-land movement, her parents moved from the city to Hastings Highlands. They found an affordable 100-acre piece of property well off the road and homesteaded there. They cleared land and built their own house, barns, and gardens. They had no electricity, no telephone and no running or hot water.

“I walked literally a mile to the main road every morning to go to school until grade 7. I think it took that long for the township to believe we were actually going to stay,” recounts Claire. The township then fixed their road so the school bus could travel it. Her childhood was different than most of her classmates. There were many things she and her siblings went without, but she’s thankful for it.

“I know how to make do.” She affirms. She pauses, contemplative. “I think it’s sort of a gift our parents gave us – not even just the skills, but the mindset – the vision to create a homestead for yourself.”

Now she and Scott are committed to gifting that same vision to their two boys, who come and go throughout the interview. Sometimes they pause to listen, and the eldest gives me a tour of the pantry - full of Claire’s homegrown spices and preserves - but mostly they run outside to ride their bikes around the property and play with their dog. They seem care-free. Unburdened.

“A good friend of mine once told me, when you have children it’s good to have a base that doesn’t change,” Scott says. A solid unchanging home base - it was something he’d grown up with and always had until recently. Like Claire, he speaks openly about things close to his heart. It is important to him that the logs to build the house came from his family’s land. He is grateful for his family’s help while they were building their home. His father, specifically, was a source of wisdom and support. But his father is gone now, and Scott speaks quietly about the grief he still carries a year after his father’s passing.

“I don’t go up and talk to someone else anymore. I don’t talk to my dad. It’s on my shoulders now. It’s different,” he says gently.

Scott is 4th generation Hastings Highlands. His family’s history runs deep through the region, and he knows the stories. He is proud that his sons - 5th generation - have the opportunity to grow up confident in the security and sustainability of their home. The boys run back into the house momentarily and then we all go outside and marvel at the garden.

A large area of land had to be cleared (and must remain clear of trees) to accommodate the windmill. Claire explains that there needs to be enough of a set-back that if the tallest tree were to fall it wouldn’t hit the windmill or the support cables.

“But it’s perfect,” she sings, explaining that the cleared land is ideal for their garden, which is well established. Their home is one of synchronicity and abundance.

“We don’t go without the things I didn’t have as a child. Although we use alternative energy we don’t go without power – we use power as we wish,” says Claire. Indeed they have all the usual appliances in their home.

Scott says when he and Claire first started talking about the life they wanted to create together it was easy to make plans because they were honest with each other about what they wanted, and it turned out they had a shared vision. And while there is more to do - for example, Scott wants to delve deeper into organic farming, running cattle like he used to with his dad - they’ve basically realized their homesteading dreams.

“We have a sense of pride and a sense of peace,” says Claire. “I think the next decade will be easier,” she adds. They meet each other’s eyes and both laugh. “I mean, it’s got to be easier,” Claire chuckles. “The hard part is done.”

Not far down the road is the home Abe Drennan and Lisa Keegan-Drennan share with their two boys. They are still in ‘the hard part’ of their homesteading dream but are enjoying the ride, despite it being - in Abe’s words - ‘crazy.’

Abe’s history is similar to Claire’s. His parents also left the city to homestead in Hastings Highlands in the ‘70’s.. “My parents say: you’re doing the same thing we did; are you crazy? Why would you put yourselves through that?” laughs Abe. He acknowledges there are some huge challenges. In addition to raising their boys, working on their home, and farming, he and Lisa both work full-time outside the home.

“I feel overwhelmed sometimes,” says Abe, “like I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.” Lisa nods her head. Even during our interview, on a Sunday, she gets a call from work.

“But there’s a peace we’re starting to feel as we get the systems in place,” says Abe.

He shows me the chicken house he made. It was the first thing he ever built.

“It’s not like chickens need a palace,” he says, laughing at the structure. He built it on the cheap, out of scrap materials donated by friends or salvaged at the dump. Considering the meager materials and his lack of building experience it’s very impressive. When I say as much, he confesses, grinning, that if he were to remove the trim around the door I’d see that nothing lines-up quite right. His next project, a gate for the goat’s area, shows increased skill.

“You master one thing just in time to move on to the next,” says Lisa.

Although Abe grew up on a small farm in the bush with a strong emphasis on hard work, he says he didn’t really have any specific skills that suited him to homesteading, and neither did Lisa, who grew up in the city. They have learned everything as they’ve gone along, doing things bit by bit, as they can afford to. Lisa says their dream is to eventually be self-sufficient, living off the land (preferably off-grid), and either not have to work or to have the freedom to choose the work they want. She and Abe agree that right now they are taking a series of small steps to achieve their dreams.

“It’s incremental,” says Abe, as one of the goats prances over to him and sniffs his hair. The goats have free range, and one of them - who is very interested in the boys’ skateboard - even sneaks into the house while we talk. Abe chases him back outside. “You can easily get overwhelmed, but I think, if I can just get that gate built then I can move onto clearing those trees, and then I can move on to the next thing. If you try and think of everything you become immobilized.”

Four years ago, just after their eldest son was born, Abe and Lisa bought their house at an affordable price knowing it was a major fixer-upper. Immediately they installed a more efficient heating system and put in a septic. Since then they’ve been plugging away at making the home more energy efficient while learning to farm.

“Shipping organic food from California is not sustainable,” says Lisa, pointing to the amount of fossil fuels used in the process. “And buying organic is a luxury most people can’t afford.”

So far they are having success with goats and chickens, but growing produce has been trickier. This year they’ve moved their garden for the third time. Finding a spot with the right kind of earth that gets enough sunlight has been problematic. They have cleared trees and moved outbuildings to accommodate the new layout.

“I want our kids to know where their food comes from,” says Lisa, as she and her eldest son gather eggs, “and to know how to live off the land if they ever want to or have to.” Of course in order to teach them, she has to learn it herself first.

“Right now we’re learning how to harvest our own chickens so we can kill them and process them ourselves and not have to rely on anyone else to do that for us,” she says. “But I do think there’s a really important value in needing to be interdependent with other people. If we’ve got eggs and cheese we can offer, then other people can offer us other things. That’s a big part of sustainability.”

“There’s a vibe going on in this area,” adds Abe. He talks about the sense of community and the surprising number of like-mined people he knows in Hastings Highlands and surrounding municipalities. “There’s this community of people who hold these values and have an intention around sharing and supporting each other. It’s not like we’re alone in it – we’re learning how to be independent, but we’re doing it together,” he explains.

This is something Claire and Scott touched on too, saying there are plenty of knowledgeable people in the area who are happy to share wisdom. If someone really wants to homestead, even if they have few skills, they can do it. They just have to ask for the help and take a leap of faith.

That’s exactly what McKenzie and Jami Neilson-Jolly did when they built their home. They chose stack wall design because the materials were readily available (they got the cedar logs from a neighbours) and the construction was simple enough to do themselves. To be fair, McKenzie had experience working with concrete and setting up sustainable greenhouses, but other than that, the couple embarked on the project with little more than a dream, a how-to book, and the help of friends.

“They didn’t know what they were doing,” says McKenzie of his crew of helpful friends, “and neither did I. I told them, this wall just has to be inconsistently consistent.”

The couple started their journey in a yurt that they bought as a kit. They lived in it while building the house, and then connected the two structures (the yurt is now their master bedroom). Jami was pregnant with their daughter at the time, and isn’t shy about talking about the inconveniences and challenges of being pregnant in the bush with no power. She was fresh from the city. She was only 20.

“It was hard,” she confesses to me, solemnly.

“But you did a great job,” says McKenzie from across the room.

“Thanks, Lover,” she answers.

The charmingly efficient house, warm in the winter and cool in the summer, certainly doesn’t look like it was built by first-time home builders. Outside there is still work to be done - grass and gardens to be planted, and more solar panels to be installed - but inside the home is complete and beautiful. McKenzie gives me a tour of the utility room, pointing out where the power from the solar panels comes in, and how it’s inverted and stored. While he may not have known much about building an off-grid home when he started, he is a fountain of wisdom now, and is happy to share his knowledge. He rattles off statistics about how much excess energy various appliances use (flat screen TV’s, conventional water-pumps, even toasters!) and explains how most homes gobble up energy. In contrast, their home only uses a fraction of the energy the average Canadian home uses – about 3%.

Unlike Claire and Scott, the Jolly-Neilson’s don’t have the freedom to use as much energy as they please, and they carefully monitor and plan their usage. Their location is not suited to a windmill and they don’t yet have enough solar panels to bring in that kind of wattage. They plan to install more panels eventually, but Jami says she’s happy using less and will likely never go back to consuming the amount of energy she used to. Using less makes her more conscious of what her lifestyle really costs, and how other people in the world live.

“I was really bad!” Jami says of her past energy consumption. She grew up in a typical suburban environment and never thought about how much energy she used.

“I was the worst for long hot baths – with the water right up to my chin.” Although she has changed her ways she’s anything but pious. “Oh I miss them,” she readily admits with a giggle. She says she still enjoys baths, but pumping and heating water takes a lot of energy so they tend to be shallower and not very hot. She doesn’t want to use more energy than she can produce.

“Living within your means is so important,” says McKenzie. The couple agrees this is something they want to instill in their two kids. The kids wander in and out of the house as we chat, climbing on this and that, playing pretend. They are muddy. Some kids are dirty from neglect – but these kids are dirty from a healthy relationship with the outdoors. Jami and McKenzie are intent on them having plenty of imagination and outside play.

“I want them to be balanced, independent thinkers,” says McKenzie. That’s his main goal, and his motivation for the life choices he’s made. He says he doesn’t want them to be afraid of life or of following their own paths. It’s a sentiment that echoes throughout the interviews. All three couples say any sacrifices they’ve made, or inconveniences they’ve lived through, have been worth it to lead more sustainable lives and to set an example for their children. They’ve all looked themselves in the mirror - asked the hard questions about how they want to live and what they want to teach their children - and stared back without flinching at their answers. They confess it hasn’t been easy. But they agree the rewards are great.

As I make my way back down those dreamy winding roads - now with a dozen eggs, and a jar of cider next to me - I hear Claire’s voice in my head.

“Intuitively, sustainable choices feel right,” she says. “There are opportunities every day, and they add up. Invariably they tend to be choices you can be proud of. My advice to those who want it is to choose it, then do it.”