The In Between

With February now upon us, our first official White Mountains cabin winter is in full swing. Though it was slow to begin, the bitter cold, winds, snow and ice have definitely set in and billow down on us frequently. From inside the heated cabin, we enjoy watching our weather station swaying atop a tall maple sapling, allowing us to monitor wind speeds, barometric pressure and fluctuating temperatures. Loosely, our original anticipated move-in time frame was early to mid-January. By this time, we had hoped to have completed all of the heating, hot water plumbing, have electrical and solar fully installed, insulation, and had the appliances installed so we could fully transition out of the old house and into the cabin. Currently we are still plugging along with finishing walls and ceilings, the bathroom, and cabinetry. Projects we assumed would take one weekend, sometimes spread out over a month or more, with seemingly endless steps. We often jump from project to project, which can be disorienting and sometimes discouraging, too, because it seems you can never quite complete one thing. Weather is impactful and limiting at times, especially when you are relying primarily on solar power for running your power tools. Prior to our solar system being completed, many projects were continued into the dark evenings by headlamp. It may sound glamorous, but it’s really not as sexy as it sounds. The good thing is we both have reliable Petzel rechargeable headlamps, which have proved to be essential throughout many dark nights.

Not all of us aspiring off-gridders or homesteaders begin our transitions into this lifestyle smoothly. As I have come to realize while we continue to move forward on our hand-built cabin, the process can be both exciting and painful, and equally burdensome and thrilling. It becomes increasingly apparent as you progress through the many stages, that patience, persistence and confidence in what you are trying to accomplish can really help pull you through all the challenges, both anticipated and surprising. Having a supportive and communicative partnership is crucial during both the frustrating and triumphant times, and can also be a huge motivator as you stumble through the failures and the progress together. It is absolutely essential you work as a team. It is also important to find ways to remind yourselves why you are doing it all in the first place. For us, the increased access to our natural environment, and a desire for a more peaceful and sustainable existence are at the core of our reasoning, and we are quickly reminded of this with a quiet walk down our snowy road.

The newly insulated and heated cabin. Covered piles to the right are stacks of wood and solar panels awaiting installation.

The newly insulated and heated cabin. Covered piles to the right are stacks of wood and solar panels awaiting installation.

Despite our continued push to finish the interior of the cabin, we are still in what I call the “in between”. Jamie is continuously plugging along on multiple projects simultaneously during the week, while guiding for North Ridge Mountain Guides on the weekends and sleeping on a pad on the floor underneath the scaffolding we rented a while back. He was also just hired on by the town as a Firefighter/First Responder, to add to his growing repertoire of talents and jobs. I have begun the painstaking process of looking for suitable work in northern New Hampshire, and I continue to scoot back and forth from the cabin to Massachusetts every few days to finish up packing and clearing out the house.

Although we may be a bit behind on our anticipated “timeline”, I think we are still in fantastic shape, and our excitement grows as we make strides toward completion each day. Our recent encouraging progress on the bathroom is that we now have a working Nature’s Head composting toilet! We purchased our gently-used unit on Craigslist for about half of what we would have paid new. It is a relatively sleek-looking unit which was pretty simple to install. After a few tweaks with various compost aiding substances, we landed on coconut coir, which comes in somewhat expensive compressed bricks. After puzzling over it a little, we discovered you simply add moisture to it to create an odorless, soil-type substance. Mixing it by hand it almost feels like soil, which is a nice reminder of the many promises of spring ahead. So far it seems remarkably compostable in comparison with the cedar shakes and pinewood shavings we tried previously. We also replaced the 12 volt fan to help vent the very mild smell involved with a composting toilet, and are now happily adapting to using it.

It is amazing how much you appreciate being able to use your own toilet when you live without one for a while. The same appreciation applies also to running water, a sink and a shower. Jamie milled the sink vanity using a Granburg chainsaw mill out of a large pine tree on our property that had to be cut. A smaller piece of a pine slab was cut to a size for the vanity, then both sides were planed and sanded smooth. He drilled holes for the plumbing and attached the sink and faucet with traditional PVC piping. After some serious aggravation, multiple attempts to stop persisting leaks, and purchasing a replacement drain from Lowe's, the sink was finally fully installed. We plan on using the remaining pine planks for counter tops and shelving, possibly even stairs. Stay tuned for more on how these are incorporated into other interior features and for pictures of our soon to be finished bathroom!

Another huge milestone was the completion of insulation and our heating installment. Thanks to Jamie’s brother Steve, we installed the Vogulzang Defender wood stove he gave us before winter hit. The stove, in tandem with the (not free) natural mineral wool Roxul insulation in the ceilings, walls and floor, is proving to heat the cabin tremendously well even into the sub-zero winter temperatures. Requiring only a little paint, new lever and a few replacement fire bricks, it runs like new. I like to think of the stove as the heart of our cabin. Thanks also to our efficient on-demand Marey Power water heater and SHURflo water pump, our bathroom sink and mostly plumbed in shower both have on-demand hot water. Now we happily shift from melting snow and heating dishwater on the wood stove to using a gas cook stove and sink faucet! We are getting used to using our battery spark ignition stove and chest freezer-turned-electric refrigerator. How all of these implements were installed is thanks to Jamie’s uncanny ability to learn and acquire the knowledge and skills to do so. He continues to amaze me with each clever new accomplishment.

As you can imagine, a tremendous amount of research and engineering is required to create an off-grid solar system. Depending on where you live, there is also some permitting required, and although solar has gone somewhat mainstream with the increase in companies installing grid-tied systems, the requirements for off-grid systems are not necessarily as easily understood or enforced. Over many months of saving money, and years, really, of Jamie researching possible configurations, we were able to acquire and connect the components for an off-grid solar power system, including, but not limited to:  8 marine batteries, switches, cables, wires, MidNite Solar combiner box and charge controller, electrical box, AIMS 2000 watt 24V power inverter charger and 10 solar panels. As Jamie continued to piece the puzzle together, we were getting closer and closer to having a functional and independent power source. Successfully finishing this project would not only be monumental, but would prove to be a pivotal juncture propelling us more rapidly forward.

Possibly the most memorable moment of the cabin project for me so far, was when Jamie asked me to come into the “la-bor-a-tory" to see something; this is what he likes to call the utility room, or cabin control room if you will. After countless months concocting a viable plan for our solar setup, it was finally time to test the system. It was as if the dreams of our lives paused in one defining moment. I think I was holding my breath as Jamie flipped on the breakers and one by one, the lights in each room lit up the dark cabin. A wave of joy, admiration and appreciation for Jamie and this accomplishment swept over me. It is a moment I will never forget. So much of our efforts, joy, tears, frustrations, hope, persistence, money, ingenuity and time had led to this. For me, this was affirmation of our purpose. I knew that from this point on, our dream was materializing in a big way. As we turned off our headlamps, we turned a new corner.

The solar panel rig outsizes the tiny guest house.

The solar panel rig outsizes the tiny guest house.