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Living off the Grid in BC: Clayoquot Sound


John Conor and Christie's house floating free in Clayoquot Sound. Photo: Bren MacKenzie

Wayne unplugged: He and Catherine inhabit their own piecemeal puzzle. Photo: Phillip Vannini.

The key to a well-built fence is in the positioning of the posts. About one third of their length should be buried underground. After digging and driving in a post it is crucial to pack holes with gravel or cement as to allow the fence to endure pressure from winds and from its own weight.

None of this is of particular interest to me.

I am a miserable handyman. I marvel at those endowed with those skills, but personally I am the type of academic who is more interested in dissecting the symbolic significance of a fence than in assembling one. Take for example the very idea of a fence's stability; not only does it represent and ensure the long-term validity of a property claim, but it also affirms the idea that a dwelling and the life it encases is built on solid, unmoving ground.

But what's it like for float-house residents? Would an anchor do the same job?

'This house is self-sustained: you move it wherever you want.'

It's a frosty but comfortably sunny winter day in Tofino. The old planks of Trilogy Dock are surfaced in a slimy sheen of ice and seagull shit. I pace back and forth, anxiously peeking into every boat in search of John. I am here to interview him and a handful of other float-house dwellers for a fieldwork research project on life off the grid in Canada.

Clayoquot Sound is a stop on a two-year-long journey to every province and territory. Dwelling off the grid is a quest for a freer way of life, unconcerned with the mood swings of utility companies. It is a lifestyle assembled with bits of self-sufficiency, tranquility, love of place, sustainability (for some), resilience and the ability to assemble a magazine cover-ready house faster than people like me can assemble a Kinder Surprise toy.

John, it turns out, is not by his dinghy. You'd expect a float-house resident to come pick you up on his boat and take you for a cruise to some secret inlet, but that's not necessarily the case during storm season. His house is tied up right here, at the shore-end of the dock, until April. I realize this thanks to the friendliness of his two kids — who interrupt a solar-powered PlayStation game to answer my bedeviled door knock and let me know he's around.

The small two-storey home is kept comfortably warm by a wood stove and conveniently powered by photovoltaic energy. A generator stands by. Propane fuels appliances. An advanced composting toilet system ensures bowel movements do not alter the local fish's diet.