By ROSALYN ROY
MILLVILLE – Living off the grid is a lifestyle choice that isn’t for everyone, but for Megan Samms and Ashley Hall, it’s one that suits them perfectly. The couple met just over 10 years ago on Vancouver island. They’ve lived and worked in wildfire lookouts for over a decade.
“They’re off grid too. They’re all remote,” says Samms. “I read about them when I was 18 or 19, I think in a Jack Kerouac book. I didn’t think they existed in Canada.”
When she was around 19, Samms moved out west and a chance meeting with one of her massage therapy clients led to a career change. Hall had become a wildfire lookout thanks to an ex-girlfriend’s father.
“The tech that they’re developing just can’t seem to tell the difference between pollen plumes and smoke and fog wisps,” says Samms. “They’re reporting all of it and it turns out to still be more expensive to send a helicopter to look at it than it is to pay a person to sit and know what they’re looking at.”
Living in a remote tower staring at the scenery through binoculars all day seems to be right up their alley. After 13 and 11 years, respectively, spent as lookouts the pair decided it was time for a change.
“We did separate fire lookouts, and so that’s like 13 years is six and a half years by yourself just for all summer. There’s some pretty incredible experiences to be had out there, but then there’s also a lot of sacrifice.”
During her tenure as a lookout, Samms kept bees, chickens and a huge garden. She’s also a weaver and even operated her business from her tower.
“I did all my dye work and wove all my cloth,” she says. “We just reached a point where we wanted to do all of those big projects at home, at our own place.”
Samms hails originally from the Codroy Valley area, and in May 2020 she and Hall relocated to the area permanently. The couple even chose to build their new eco-friendly home practically across the street from where she grew up.
The couple still keep bees, heritage chickens and a garden. Samms continues to dye and weave her own cloth. The couple offer a small apothecary line featuring herbal remedies and body care, sourced from the flowers and plants on their property or from their garden and using fresh spring or sea water.
“It’s basically the exact same thing we did in the summer, except without the fire lookout part,” notes Hall.
Her online textile shop featuring her line of woven towels, blankets and sometimes even clothing is called Live Textiles (livetextiles.online).
People do buy directly from the couple, but to date they have also organized two markets to feature their products.
“We’re planning to have them quarterly, so a spring, summer, autumn and winter market every year. So that’s kind of a major selling point for everything that we make,” says Samms.
The timing of the markets means different products are offered at each market, as the ingredients available to be sourced change with the weather. In the summer, they can offer teas and and freshly cut flowers and herbs. By winter the herbs are dried and there are woven juniper wreaths along with some textiles.
These markets have allowed other area crafters and artists an opportunity to feature their products. They also use the opportunity to support local non-profits, usually through a door prize draw fundraiser.
“I think we had eight or ten vendors at each market,” offers Samms.
The first market was held outside, across the street from E. W. (Hockey) Gale’s store in September. There was live music and a pop-up coffee shop.
“It was astounding how many people came out,” says Hall.
The second was held inside at the Wetlands Centre in mid-December. Not as many attended thanks to some foul weather, but there was a steady flow of buyers anyway.
“We’re going to keep doing them. They’re super fun, because of the live music and the pop-up coffee shop, they end up being more of a community event,” promises Samms.
The couple hope to move the market to different locations around the valley and even possibly down the coast towards the Port aux Basques area.
“We really see with the markets that there’s a lot of people making stuff or growing stuff in the Valley, and really all that’s needed is an organized venue to sell that stuff,” says Hall. “There’s also an interest in purchasing stuff locally.”
The couple’s efforts has received local support. Samms has a mentor, a former beekeeping partner, who taught her how to breed honeybees.
“He’s been keeping bees organically for over 50 years,” she says. “We bred our bees off of honeybees from the Valley.”
Next year they’re hoping to breed from elsewhere in the province to bring in different genetics. They also keep a variety of heritage chickens.
“Probably next year we’ll think about raising a couple of pigs as well,” says Samms.
The two still have bigger plans for their new home beyond livestock. They are hoping to build a summer kitchen and a studio for the textile business that will also double as an artist’s retreat.
Cooking on a woodstove in the summer is actually hotter than the two find comfortable, and Samms could use more space for her textile business. They are also eager to support fellow artists, so offering a natural retreat is in keeping with their lifestyle.
And a natural retreat is exactly what they will offer. Everything they build and do is completely off grid.
Samms’ father did some excavation and neighbours donated and helped install some old windows in the home they designed and built.
The house is about 20 x 24 with a 20 x 16 loft sleeping area and 18 ft. ceilings. This is no rough wood log cabin but a toasty, inviting retreat with a custom designed pantry and polished kitchen that looks like something showcased in an architectural magazine.
It took them most of the summer to build it. They moved in sometime around the end of October.
“Our house is currently running on a 1240-watt, 4-panel solar system that’s stored in 4 deep cycle batteries and gives us the option of running things on 24 volt or plug-in power,” says Hall.
During a recent power outage, the couple remained unaware until they tried to listen to the radio and couldn’t tune in to the station.
“We were just gloating,” laughs Hall.
“Being off grid, it’s a bigger thing than just not being tied in,” says Samms. “We use a wood cookstove, so we don’t have an electric or propane stove or heating, so our wood cookstove heats the house and we cook on it every meal.”
They also don’t have a washing machine, a dishwasher, or even running water in their custom designed house. Things are done the old way, by hand, but with a modern twist.
For example, the couple uses large water bags they haul around in wagons to keep water in the house so they don’t have to dash out in the freezing cold in the mornings.
Water heats quickly on their wood cookstove, and Samms says it doesn’t take long to even fill a large galvanized tub for bathing. If that sounds like too much work for some, it doesn’t appear to be for Samms and Hall.
“Going off grid means you take a hard look at what your power consumption might be, and you cut out some of the excesses, which turns out to not really be a sacrifice,” says Hall.
The two made a deliberate choice not to install modern appliances in their solar powered home.
“You can expand your solar setup to include all of those amenities, but we didn’t want to,” notes Samms. “The larger the system, the more maintenance it will require eventually, and it’s still a lot of power consumption.”
“Heating water is one of the greatest consumers of power,” notes Hall, who installed their home’s solar system. “There’s certain things that just become too cost prohibitive with a solar system.”
Back when they were working in the towers, heating water to bathe or showering outside using a rain bag was just another part of the routine.
Although the farm is not certified organic, their practices are certainly keeping in line with long-term sustainability, which Samms says is very important to them both. That means being environmentally responsible, right down to not tossing a washer in a landfill when it no longer works.
“You have to reassess a lot of aspects of how you live your life with convenience – convenience being power,” says Hall. “Letting go of all of those things opens up a huge realm of opportunity for creative thinking and just how to do things differently because you’ve completely thrown the rule book out the window.”
You can find them on Facebook at Katalisk Sipu Gardens.