Life in the Woods: Three families go ‘Off the Grid’ in Northern Minnesota

Ashley Bredemus’ remote cabin in Northern Minnesota // Photo via Ashley Bredemus

Driving north toward the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, you’ll see towering evergreens, pristine lakes, and bountiful wildlife. What you might miss at first glance are the remote cabins and yurts where a few Minnesotans spend not just weeks or summers, but entire lives amongst the trees.

Living off the grid means different things to different people. For some, it means literally living disconnected from a power line grid and depending on individual sources like solar panels for power. It’s estimated that by 2030, 71 percent of new electric connections will be off-grid or via mini-grid solutions. To others, particularly younger generations, it might simply mean deleting Instagram or Facebook to “live in the moment” and not exist on a social grid.

But to some near Ely and the Boundary Waters choosing to live remotely, it means balancing simple amenities needed for survival, such as Wi-Fi (all interviewed had Wi-Fi in their homes and mentioned it as a necessary aspect of life in today’s world) and being completely connected to the wilderness around them.

A simpler life: back to the basics

Cassidy Bechtold was finishing up her last semester at the University of Minnesota Duluth when her husband, Matt Ritter, decided he wanted to do something counter to the norm. Matt had been working at Voyageur Canoe Outfitters on the Gunflint Trail for the two summers leading up to graduation and, upon hearing of a management position there in September of 2015, he left his full-time job and moved up to Cook County full time.

“The idea seemed crazy at the time to everyone but us,” Cassidy says, mentioning that Matt only mulled over the decision for about three days. She joined him in December of 2015 and the couple has been managing the outfitting company together ever since.

Remembering the first time she ever drove up the Gunflint Trail, Cassidy says “it felt like you were entering into a different world, a world where there was no cell phone service and more wildlife than there were people.”

While Matt’s first small cabin at Voyageur had no running water or bathroom—similar to the rest of the staff cabins, which contain just a bed and a desk—Cassidy admits they do have running water and electric in their current cabin. Attached to the main lodge and heated with a gas fireplace, their home contains just a bedroom and “tiny little” kitchen and living room area. The owners of Voyageur Canoe Outfitters, Mike and Sue Prom, also have a cabin attached to the lodge.

“A lot of our friends who have cabins with no running water and wood stove heating still have Wi-Fi, so there are things you pick and choose to live life here,” Cassidy explains. She describes their living situation as having the amenities they need inside, but the second they step outside their door, they’re “off the grid.”

Cassidy and Matt Bechtold in the BWCA // Photo via Cassidy Bechtold

This is especially true during the winter, when she describes having to pack emergency radios, extra clothes, and sleeping bags when leaving their home in case of ending up in a ditch and not being able to reach help right away. “Minnesota winters can be tough, and up here they’re even tougher,” she says.

They make a grocery trip about every two weeks in the winter and buy in bulk. In the summer, Voyageurs orders food from a company called Upper Lakes Foods, and sometimes Cassidy and Matt go a month without leaving their lodge. If they forget something? “If you forget it, you go without it!” Cassidy says. The nearest town—Grand Marais—is 55 miles away.

A safe haven that leaves a small ecological footprint

A nursing student at Hibbing Community College and a mental health practitioner, Elizabeth Graves and her husband Matt rely on similar practices at the yurt they built outside the city limits of Ely. “We have always been most comfortable in a tent and thought we should live in a yurt for that same reason,” she explains, mentioning environmental consciousness as another factor.

Elizabeth and Matt have had a variety of jobs in different states, including guiding dog sled excursions and working as field staff at wilderness therapy programs. They’ve lived in everything from a tepee to a camper, so the yurt lifestyle was less an adaptation for them and more a continuation of what they’d already been doing, Elizabeth says.

Big challenges they’ve come across so far in the process include hauling water 20 miles one way for nine years at their current 400-square-foot yurt, and choosing whether to spend money to hire someone or take an abundance of time to build things themselves. The bathroom addition, which has hot running water, a shower, sink, and composting toilet, was something they built on their own.

Ideally, being truly off the grid would mean no electric or fossil fuel input—being totally self-contained, says Elizabeth. “We’ve realized that isn’t quite possible,” she comments. “It’s not realistic to make your own clothes or hunt and grow all food, for example.”

They’re pretty close, though: they only heat their home with propane when they’re gone for the weekend—primarily they use a wood stove—and use rain barrels to catch water for chores. Running water, taken from their well, is used conservatively for drinking, showering, and cooking.

“Off-grid to us seems to mean producing our own electricity, limiting consumerism, [being] self-reliant, and being thoughtful in our choices,” Elizabeth says.

Out of the city and into a cabin

Living in a cabin near the Canadian border that’s only accessible by crossing the Sea Gull River and 55 miles from the nearest town, Ashley Bredemus calls her living situation “remote.” Her 200-square-foot living space has just a day bed that folds into a couch, kitchen counter and sink basin, wood stove, “tiny desk crammed in a corner,” and a small bookshelf and rack for clothing.

“[It’s] more primitive than some people that do live completely off-grid,” Ashley says of her cabin at Camp Birchwood for Boys, located at the northernmost end of the Gunflint Trail on two shared property lines with the Boundary Waters. Her extended family runs the camp, for which she’ll be marketing director this summer.

The only way she and her father, who lives at the camp year-round in a completely off-grid cabin just up the hill from Ashley’s, are “on the grid” is by using electricity in some of the cabins in the area—the rest of the bunkhouses for campers and staff have no running water or electricity, just bunk beds.

Formerly an engineer in Florida and Alabama for the past five years, Ashley moved back up to camp after spending last summer with her father. “It felt like the right place to be,” she says of the decision to make the wilderness her home.

Ashley Bredemus heats her cabin at Camp Birchwood for Boys by wood stove // Photo via Ashley Bredemus

“It became very clear to me when I moved back [up here] just how distracting living in a city was for me,” she says. The textbook challenges of living remotely—walking to the outhouse 50 meters from the cabin, keeping the wood stove going constantly to avoid it freezing up in the winter, not having running water—might seem like hardships to some, but for Ashley, they’ve been beneficial.

“Most people would think this was an inconvenience, but it became my lifestyle,” she says, explaining that these objectives are positive compared to the mundane tasks she found herself burdened with in large cities. “There’s a penalty for too much ease,” she continues, mentioning complacency and a lack of connection to one’s surroundings. Now, she’s “forced to be present” and embraces her more simplistic way of life. “You get up when the sun comes up, and go to bed when the sun goes down,” she says. “It’s a more natural schedule; it feels right.”

Ashley and her father make weekly trips to Grand Marais to maintain connections and enforce a sense of normal socialization. Otherwise, you can become a person that’s not contributing to society or cut out to interact with others, she explains.

Cassidy and Matt agree, describing themselves as very social people; the lack of social interaction is one of the hardest parts of this lifestyle for them. “You have to make sure that you are nurturing your friendships and not just moving to the woods never to be heard from again,” Cassidy says.

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Sept. 20, 2019 | 5:30–9pm
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