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Off-Grid With Kids... And The Odd Bear

Off-Grid With Kids... And The Odd Bear

The many perks of childrearing in the bush, and why potty training is so much easier outside
By Katharine Sandiford
Jul 18
From the July 2016 Issue

When I found out I was pregnant with my first child five years ago, my partner and I were living in a one-room log cabin with no running water. It was a rental. It was an hour’s drive from town. It was on a steep slope infested with thorny wild rose bushes hungry for children’s blood. Everybody assumed we would move into Whitehorse to join the sensible people. What I have since discovered—by not heeding their advice—is that the best way to raise kids is in the bush. 

Let me be clear, we are not hippie homesteaders isolated from civilization. We live in a picturesque hamlet on the shores of Marsh Lake with a few hundred neighbours, a community centre, and a Facebook group for other Lake parents (10 other families with young kids). But we’re very much in the wilderness and people just do things differently out here.

When the Saskatoon bushes are so heavy with berries their limbs have dropped prostrate to the ground, the bears can frequent our yard on a daily basis. That’s when I equip Julia and Arthur with their bear whistles. Good quality clip-on plastic whistles they’re to blow if they see a furry foe. They’re only two and four, too young to operate bear bangers or pepper spray. I’m usually nearby, probably busy picking berries myself, but ready to respond.

After eight months of being cooped up indoors, bush kids take to the warm, fresh air with the same vigour and determination as our flora and fauna do, eager to make the most of it. Unburdened from 12-inches of winter wear, they emerge like butterflies from a cocoon. With instant disdain for all things indoors, including intricate train sets and toy kits, bush kids turn to more simple tools: the bucket, the shovel, the stick. Kids from the McPhee family in Tagish—all in their twenties now—were only ever given tools for toys: hammers, nails, string, scrap wood. Their property is a veritable amusement park of tree houses, ladders, ramps and forts. 

 "A large pot of water permanently simmering on the wood stove was our no-cost hot water tank."

Summer in the Northern bush is different than it is for city kids. Instead of cheap plastic pools, kids here splash around in black snowmobile skimmers. Instead of going to the U-Pick berry farm, children crawl around on stained hands and knees picking over wild forest slopes of low bush cranberry. The roads are gravel so nobody has a tricycle. Until they can pedal, everyone’s on a run bike, even if it means mom wrenched the pedals off an old bike found at the dump.

Until recently, we lived in a one-room, 500-square-foot cabin with no running water. I’d try my best to swab off the layers of dirt and popsicle brittle that masked Julia and Arthur’s identities. A large pot of water permanently simmering on the wood stove was our no-cost hot water tank. Luckily, we live on the waterfront and the best bath they could get was their daily frolic in the shallows. 

Cloth diapers were surprisingly easy. Terry would run them through the machine at the firehall where he’s a volunteer and then we’d hang them on the line to bleach in the sun. We even took them on our freighter canoe trip down Tagish Lake, washing them by the fire at night and hanging them off the gunnels to dry by day. And potty training, if timed with the summer months, is a breeze. Simply disrobe your child from the waist down, spend all day outside and voila!

We were faced with a decision. I was pregnant with our second and our landlord was offering to sell us the cabin. Against the advice of our friends we went ahead and purchased the lot and proceeded down the path of the ages-old Yukon bush-rite called the “cabin-conversion.” It was either that, or we do what one Mount Lorne family did when their teenager kids felt the one-room cabin was too stuffy. The parents supplied the lumber and the teens built themselves their own bunkhouses. 

We opted for the full conversion. Our warped, square-log cabin is now encased in a proper, level house with running water and windows that don’t frost over for six months of the year. Though our comforts are greater, the kids’ overall experience is not much different. In the summer, the lake is still the proper way to get clean—the bath is only an instrument for sand removal. Julia’s favourite way to nap is in the freighter canoe, the 20 horsepower humming her to sleep. And the bears out here aren’t stuffed and cuddly, but something to be feared and respected. I wouldn’t have it any other way.