More and more people over the last decade have built homes at the edge of civilization, what they call out west the wildland interface. Until recent times, very few lived out here in the midst of the woods and critters. With people building homes, some of them off grid, the dangers of conflict with wild animals and the risks of wildfire multiply. Into this environment, we chose to move when we put down roots in the mountains of Colorado.
It has been a truly incredible experience. We have learned tremendous lessons living in an off-grid home at the end of a long road through the woods. Genie is an environmental educator, so living off grid had some attraction to us. Everyone who visits gets a lesson in sustainable living, hauling every bit of waste out, recycling everything.
We bought our first place in the Front Range of Colorado in 1999. We were about to close on the sale of our business, and our son and daughter-in-law were both out here going to UC Boulder. So we bought a place in Nederland, about 20 miles west of Boulder. The house was in a subdivision, with beautiful views looking down over the reservoir and at the Continental Divide.
The kids lived in the basement, we had an upstairs apartment, and we shared the main floor living and eating areas. When the world did not end on New Years 2000 (remember all the hype?), we decided to move forward towards our dream of a cabin in the woods. So, we started looking for some property on which to build a log cabin.
Early Lessons about Mountain Living
From our first experience of mountain living, we learned several valuable lessons. We looked at one cabin that was on a north-facing slope before we bought our place in Ned. It was early spring, and that north-facing slope held snow all winter, and the cabin hardly got any sun. Later, we bought a rental house similarly located on a north-facing slope.
You could not keep the place warm in winter, snows drifted into huge piles, and it was overall a very unpleasant location. Also, we noticed the north-facing driveways were extremely difficult to keep clear of snow during the winter. So, we knew we wanted eastern and southern exposure for the land we bought.
It’s the Wind That Drives People from the Mountains
Our real estate agent told us early on about the wind up here. “It’s not the snow that drives people out of these mountains, and it’s not the cold. It’s the wind that drives people crazy." Indeed, once my son Andy and his wife Alissa had kids, they had a hard time living up in Ned. You could hardly get the babies out in the wind on many days. We get well over 300 days of sun in Boulder, but in the winter, you can get several days of clouds and snow with extreme winds.
We also realized we would want some room to wander around in the house, because cabin fever is a real thing in the winter. You can go stir-crazy just looking at the walls. We recorded winds over 90 miles an hour at our Ned house, and everything shook.
So, we realized that as incredible as a view of the divide is, the northwest winds are brutal coming across the divide. There is a mountain research station up here that has recorded over 200 mile an hour winds at 11,000 feet. So, we wanted some protection from the wind when we built our cabin. Here is a shot of wind-whipped snow. First the snow falls, then the wind comes and moves the snow into drifts, bare in some spots, three feet deep in others.
Armed with this new found wisdom, we set about looking for property. Our agent took us to see a piece of land that had been for sale for some time. We were blown away. It had views of Indian Peaks Wilderness, the Continental Divide and Rocky Mountain National Park. We walked the property in the snow for 45 minutes and said, “This is it!!!”
The building site had a peak between it and the vicious northwest winds. Perched on the side of a mountain, the slope flattened just enough to build a house then dropped 500 feet to a lower meadow. Here is a view of the place as we found it with foundations in place.
The land was three miles down a forest service road with a three-quarter mile access road that is not maintained. After some negotiations, we bought the place. The previous owners had run into trouble with the county because they cut in the driveway, put in a well, and poured foundations without worrying about a building permit. They had been in a years-long legal battle which resulted in them being given a permit, but drained financially to the extent that they could not go forward with building.
The Value of a Building Permit
Our agent told us of the problems building in Boulder County, so we were pleased that this place already had a building permit in place. I have a friend who developed over 100 Applebee’s restaurants, and he says the one he built in Boulder was the most difficult one he built. They passed a zero growth ordinance in Boulder in 1980 and control growth by the building permit process. Even though they had reluctantly issued a building permit for our place, the inspectors told us right along that they did not want a home built here, cluttering the ridge views from the city, and creating more light pollution.
We spent a year revising plans, since we could proceed under the existing permit if we built on the existing foundations. For 20 years, we had dreamed of living in a log cabin. The plans we got with the place were for a manufactured log home. What that means is that the home is built in a factory, and every log is milled to be the same size, so they can be used interchangeably in the construction.
Building a Log Home
Instead, we settled on a hand-crafted log home. In these homes, each log is scribed to fit one place, and the home is built log by log on the yard of the builder. When the log structure was complete, I flew up to Edmonton, Alberta to inspect and approve the work. The logs were Engleman spruce, cut 100 miles north of Edmonton.
His craftsmen worked with chainsaws and long knives to shape each log and joint. It is incredible the fit they can create. They don’t even use any chalking between the logs, the fit was so snug.
Keeping the Road Open
I began to understand in a deeper way the challenges of keeping our ¾ mile drive open in the winter when I met the grading contractor on the site to look at preparing the road for the big log trucks to come . As we rode down the driveway talking about the work to be done, the contractor said, “We haven’t had a good snow around here in quite some time. In a good winter, you’d have seven feet of snow on this road.” I gulped. Indeed, the very next spring, we got a blizzard that dumped 63” of snow in three days. We were stranded for days. It took a backhoe six hours to dig us out and open up the drive.
My sister arrived in Boulder with her two teenage daughters the day the storm hit. I told her to get a room in Boulder. She caught the last shuttle out before they closed the airport for two days. She stayed two nights in Boulder, and then our friend Beverly agreed to drive her up. As the snow fell, we began to set a snowshoe trail to the end of the drive. The snow was so wet and deep, we could get about two hundred yards down the road, sinking in three feet in snow shoes, and pulling a foot of snow out of the hole with every step. We would trek out, get exhausted and return to the cabin. A couple of hours later, we went out again, trekked to the end of our trail, and went another couple hundred yards. By the time Beverly came up on the third day, one lane had been plowed on the forest service road and she got to the end of our drive.
By then, we had created a trail up the road to the cabin. We met her with sleds and worked like Sherpas to drag their bags up the drive to the house on the sleds. We got to thinking about what would happen if we had a medical problem during a snow like this. We simply could not get to help, nor could an ambulance get to us. Thank goodness for the Life Flight helicopter we see rescuing people hurt in the wilderness. We also resolved to learn how to cross country ski, so we could get out. We learned that you can go twice as far, twice as fast on skis versus snow shoes. Since then, we have marked miles of trails in the forest around the cabin, hiking them in the summer and skiing them all winter. Now, we can get out regardless of the conditions.
Snow and wind combine to keep the road iffy during the winter. In the last week, we’ve had nearly two feet of snow. Then, the wind starts blowing, and the snow moves. So, once we plow the road, it naturally wants to fill back in when the drifts come. I’ve driven out through a foot of snow, and found drifts across the driveway that would come up over the hood when the car goes through. Sketchy.
Stacking the Logs
The most fun part of the process of building our cabin was watching the crew erect the log structure on the foundation. The logs came in on three tractor-trailers. They unstack the cabin log by log at the builder’s yard in Canada. They number each log as it comes off and is stacked on the truck. When they got the walls halfway down, they had to drill holes for electrical, phone and TV cables, since there are no interior sheetrock walls to run the utilities through. So, the logs are stacked on the truck in just the order they are needed when they get to the job.
Our son Andy worked on the cabin the summer before graduating college. Here you see him sitting atop the logs. When he started working with the carpenters, they watched him trying to sink a nail with his new hammer and one of the guys said, “Hit it with your purse, Alice.” He soon learned to swing a hammer.
It took only three days to stack all the logs on the foundation. Then it took almost three weeks to build a roof and dry in the house.
They tell you in all the log home magazines to expect to spend 25% more than you would for conventional construction. I think in reality it is closer to 50% more. Because logs shrink for a year or so after construction, you have to create the ability for all vertical beams and all sheetrock interior walls to shrink as well. For two years, the builder came back and lowered the vertical posts on screws to adjust the height and keep everything level. When you add that complication to all the odd angles you have to trim molding and sheetrock to fit the logs, everything takes more time.
Heating with Hot Water
The engineering of our heating, cooling and power systems seemed to get a little out of hand. We installed a thermal heat system, warming the floors with hot water. Using a system like this, you have no forced air heat, so the air in the house gets stale. So, we also installed a device to change the air in the house every three hours, capturing the heat from the old air to warm the new. To fuel the two Viessman boilers, we put two 1000 gallon propane tanks in the ground. Here you see the tubing laid out before the concrete basement slab was poured. Warm water circulates in the slab, warming the space. Each room has a thermostat to control temp.
Photovoltaic Solar Power
We are three miles from the closest power lines. In the old regulated days, the power company had to run lines to everyone without cost. Not anymore. They estimated that it would cost $80K to bring power into our site. For that money, we could install a solar system and a backup generator, so we decided to go off grid. The generator is also propane powered. Look for a separate piece detailing what we have learned by living with these systems for a decade. Here is the solar array on the garage roof.
It is a 5KW array and can produce 30+ KWH in a day. Our daily consumption is 25-30 KWH. So, all summer long, with the long days, we rarely see the generator run.
Batteries store the electricity we generate so we have power at night and when the panels are covered by snow. Here you see my battery room.
The two inverters on the wall control everything.
Moss Rock for the Foundation & Chimney
I bought a Kawasaki Mule, a 4WD utility tractor, and made a deal with my son to collect rock off the property for use in our construction. That little tractor will haul a 10,000-pound load up a steep hill. Here Genie rides the mule through the wildflowers in our lower meadow.
Andy gathered a few school friends into a work crew and did all our landscaping as well as gathering rock for walls and walkways, the foundation and chimney work. They call it moss rock because it is covered by lichen. When the mason saw someone stepping on his rocks, he said, “Stay off my rocks, don’t you know it takes 50 years for that stuff to grow?” We are 10 years in the house, and the lichen is still growing. We mist the rock on the fireplace about once a month, and it thrives. Go figure. It worked out well to tie the building into the surrounding landscape by using the rock that matched the surroundings.
We had a well that had been in place for a decade when we bought the place. Because of the date of the permit, we are allowed to water up to two acres around the house. Today, if you get a well permit, you can do no outside watering. Out here we get 18 inches of rain a year, most of it coming as snow. Water law is very well established. Unless you have over 40 acres, you have no possible claim to water crossing your property. You can’t tap into a stream or build a pond to gather water without quite a fight. Last year, they passed a new law that allows people to collect water off your roof into cisterns and rain barrels. Until then, it was illegal to capture rain coming off your roof.
We had a landscape architect design a xeriscape plan for our place, using native plants adapted to the dry, high altitude conditions. We are in the montane zone at 9000 feet. We put in beds of wildflowers and planted bushes and aspen trees. Over the next couple of years, some plants flourished, and many did not. Some didn't like where we planted them, but came up in different spots that suited them better the next season. We watered in the plants the first summer and have not watered at all since. Several of the aspens died. One fell over in the winter wind. We stood it back up, tied it into place, and it now has several new trees coming out of its roots. Here is one of my favorite wildflowers, the Indian paintbrush.
Another shot of penstemones.
Here are blue flax in front of penstemones.
Here is the state flower, the Colorado columbine.
And a closeup of columbine.
Every fall, when the first snows hit, I go out and scatter wildflower seed. I put out my favorites-- columbine, Indian paintbrush, blue flax and scarlet gilia. We had no blue flax on our property when we moved in, although it is common around here. Last summer, we hiked down to the meadow, 500 feet below us, and blue flax has migrated all the way down the hill and is now in the meadow. It is wonderful to be a partner in God’s Creation.
Creating a Defensible Space
When we got our papers at closing, we found a one-page letter from the local fire chief in the documents. He described our location as being in the “no hope zone.” With a ¾ mile-long access road through dense logdepole pine forest and only one way out, he said it would be risky for a fire crew to come in to try to protect our place from a forest fire.
So, we asked our landscape architect to design a plan to clear and thin the forest, creating a defensible space around our home. My son and a couple of his friends spent our first summer out here cutting trees and taking out limbs six feet high on the ones we kept. Because we have 40 acres, we qualified to join the Colorado State Forest Service’s Forest Ag Plan. Once we had a plan to create a healthy forest drawn up by a forester, we got approved, and rezoned agricultural. Each year, we must spend the $3000 we save in taxes to clear and thin the forest.
We are six years into that plan and have thinned around half our property. The risk of wildfire is tremendous these days. For a hundred years, the Forest Service has fought all fires, big and small, and as a result the forests are very unhealthy. Before man’s intervention, fires would come through every few decades. In a healthy forest, the fires stay on the ground, and burn at low enough temperatures to keep from doing too much damage. In these cases, the next years, the grasses and flowers would flourish, and a lot of fuel is removed from the forest. These days, the fires often become catastrophic, with trees exploding like roman candles, and the flames reach the crowns of the trees. A crown fire will burn at 1800 degrees, killing the trees and creating a crust on the soil that takes 20 years to break down.
Extreme Fire Danger
Our first summer out here, a lightning strike ignited a tree down at our lower meadow. Thankfully, we had painters here who were volunteer firefighters, and they raced down and put the fire out before it spread. The next year, we watched the Big Elk fire burn from our front porch. It burned a huge area near Estes Park, and three pilots lost their lives when a helicopter and a plane crashed fighting the fire. We still look across at the ridge and see the dead trees standing, with very little growing around. In this dry climate, it takes 20 years for a dead tree to fall over and rot.
Around Labor Day last year, Four Mile Canyon erupted in flames from a backyard fire pit. We watched it burn two miles from here for three days. It burned up around 170 homes and nearly took the old mining town of Gold Hill a few miles from here. The pictures below show the flames, the smoke, the helicopters filling up at Gold Lake, and the slurry tankers working the fire.
After the fire was out, we drove down into the canyon and found the devastation shocking. The slopes were so steep that even where they had done fire mitigation, the forest still burned in a crown fire. Here you can see the ridge exploding in flames. Gold Hill is just over that ridge.
Here in a telephoto shot, you can see the flames creeping up on a home on the next ridge.
It was late afternoon the first day when the winds died down enough to allow the slurry tankers to fly. Wildfires can generate 200 MPH winds. This is the most dangerous flying this side of war. Here a tanker flies behind our house, about 150 feet off the ground.
Between the spotter planes and the tankers, the air got crowded.
A helicopter brings a bucket to fill in the lake.
A moment later he's off again, water trailing from his bucket.
Now comes the big boy that fills its tank through a hose from the lake.
And, in half a minute, he's off again.
Now comes the big slurry bomber to drop retardant on the fire. You can see smoke on the ridge, and the city down below. This fire was so close that they evacuated part of Boulder.
Living with fire in these mountains had helped us to develop grateful hearts. We have no control when a fire might come through and destroy all the forests around our home. We installed an Intellagard Foam System to protect the house from fire. You trigger the system and spray the house and the close-by vegetation with the foam, and then leave. The foam will stay in place for three days and will stick to vertical glass. The owner of the business got caught in a forest fire one time and sprayed down his pickup truck and sat inside as the fire washed over him. With this system in place, the local fire chief is willing to come up here and make a stand, because he knows they can stay in the house once it is sprayed, if the fire closes off the road and they cannot leave.
So, we feel confident that we can save the house if fire comes. But, what about the view? After a crown fire, we would be looking at a moonscape for years. So, we have come to recognize that the Lord gives and the Lord takes away. We give thanks for each day in this beautiful wilderness, knowing it might be gone tomorrow. It is a helpful attitude to not hold these things too close and enjoy each moment.
Without fire, the forests grow too dense and the trees weaken when they don’t get enough sun, water and nutrients due to overcrowding. In these conditions, the pine beetles flourish. We are now enduring the worst outbreak of pine beetles in recorded history out in the Rockies. The beetles bore under the bark and lay eggs in the living layer just beneath the bark. In one season they will kill the tree, and in summer, the beetles will leave the dead tree and infect the six or eight closest trees, which will die the next year.
The only thing that kills off the beetles is a stretch of minus-zero weather that lasts for two weeks. In this decade we had a several-year-long drought, which weakened the trees. Then the beetles came, and we have not had a cold enough winter to kill them. Anyone who has traveled to the ski resorts in the high country west of the divide has seen the devastation. On the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park, probably 90% of the pines are infected and dead or dying. This fall, the east side of the park is showing places that are 40% infected. Here are a few photos taken in the winter of 2011 showing the spread to the east side.
These trees are dead now. The beetles will fly from these trees to those surrounding them next summer. The growth follows a geometric curve, and the effects are staggering.
The Forest Service estimates that unless we get a cold snap, we will lose 90% of our pines. When we visited British Columbia last spring, we heard estimates that the forests will be decimated over the next three years. The effects of climate warming are very evident out here.
When we were looking for our first house up here with our real estate agent, I noticed that several houses had pens for their dogs. The pens had fencing across the top, and I said, “Those must be some dogs if you have to put fence over the top of the pen.” The agent told me, “Those fences are not to keep the dogs in, but to keep the mountain lions and eagles out.” Andy had a professor who lived up here, and when she got home one day, she found her toy Doberman badly injured. The vet told her the wounds were either eagle or owl talons, and many a small dog or cat has been carried off by the raptors.
Here a Great Horned Owl sits atop one of our bluebird houses checking out our cat who was sitting out on the deck outside our bedroom window. The Jays were making a racket and chasing him, since Owls eat other birds.
Here a Cooper's Hawk sits on our fence looking for lunch at our bird feeder.
Our builder brought his 120-pound golden retriever to work each day. One day, he went missing all afternoon, and the builder started looking for him at quitting time. As he went down the driveway calling the dog, he saw a mountain lion sitting on a pile of rocks. He stopped the car, got out and took a couple of steps towards the lion. He later explained, “I thought he might have gotten the dog, but as I came around the hood of the truck, that cat did not move a muscle, he just stared me down.” He backed up and got into the truck.
That night, one of the carpenters saw the dog wandering through Nederland, on his way home. The dog had gone nine miles as the crow flies, through hill and dale, across streams and thickets to get home. The dog must have encountered the lion and gotten away. From that day forward, the dog would not get out of the truck up here.
Mountain lions are very secretive, and I have only seen a lion once running across the road at night. Our friend Beverly Gholson helped track, dart and tag lions in Idaho a few years ago. Here is one of Beverly's photos. See her story about lions with more photos here.
Our dogs have brought back obvious lion kill, like the bloody foreleg of a deer. We have not seen the cat, and you usually don’t know if a lion is around until he pounces on your back. Small children have been taken off hiking trails in the wilderness around here by lions and killed. During the drought, a lion kept coming into Gold Hill and taking away dogs and cats. We saw a lion one night as we drove home through the snow. He bounded across the road in our headlights a couple of miles from here. His size, color, distinct shape, and cat-like movements confirmed we’d seen a mountain lion. We see lion prints in the snow each winter. They primarily feed on mule deer, which are all around these woods. Here's a mule deer buck looking for danger just outside our back fence. We recently spooked a lion off a mule deer kill. See my story, photos and video here.
Coyotes are also a hazard to dogs and cats. We often hear families of coyotes frolicking in the woods, yipping and barking. Our neighbors tell us a favorite coyote trick is to send a female in heat down around some homes in the woods. When the male dogs come out to investigate, they follow her into a trap to be killed by the pack. Here a coyote looks over the back fence at our house.
Twice we’ve seen bobcats on the property. They love all the rabbits that live nearby. The first time, Genie saw a rabbit bolt like it was being stalked, and wondered what was after him. She quickly spotted a bobcat that wasn’t much bigger than our cat. We found out they run from 15 to 40 pounds, and are the most ill-tempered of all cats. As I studied them, I found out that they get as much as 25% of their food from mule deer. These small cats hide up in the branches and drop down on the back of a mule deer passing by, and will bite it around the neck and hope to hit an artery and cause the deer to bleed to death. Pound for pound, bobcats are the meanest cats in the west. They will tear up a 100-pound dog with ease.
Black bears are frequent visitors. We had a visit six times last summer. They are attracted to bird feeders and suet, and are said to remember for 20 years where they have found food. Two years ago, we saw a mother with a couple of cubs. She came back last year, with one of the grown cubs. We first moved our bird feeders up to the front porch, high off the ground. Then we came home one day to find dirty footprints on our front door, and the bird feeders all knocked down and punctured. Here the young bear runs off from the bird feeders as we clang pots and pans.
Bears are a nuisance, but I am much more worried about mountain lions. Bears eat everything, with meat being a small portion of the diet, and they won’t usually attack a person without reason. Mountain lions eat nothing but meat they have killed, and they are much stealthier in their approach.
A couple of years ago, we saw our first moose on the property, a mother with two young. They live down by the spring in the gulch. Moose were extirpated from Colorado by hunting in the early 1900s. They reintroduced them from Wyoming into the northern reaches of Rocky Mountain National Park. About five years ago, they started appearing on this side of the Continental Divide. While they seem much less harmful than bears or lions, in Alaska, they cause more human injuries than these two. Moose can be very aggressive and dangerous. Here's a shot of one we saw last summer in the Poudre Canyon.
These critters add a tingle as we walk the trails in the woods around here. It is an added risk that we don’t encounter back east, that keeps us ever vigilant. We don’t let dogs or small children out at dawn or dusk or at night, when these hunters are most active.
But, these dangers from fire, beast or beetle are just part of the natural order at the Wildland Interface. The benefits we get from living, as my brother called it, “wilderness, Ritz-Carlton style” are many. Every morning, we awaken to sunrise views of mountains, lakes and the eastern plains. We see bald and golden eagles soaring over our property along with a host of other raptors, hawks and falcons. (See these two photo-essays, Raptor Tour of Boulder County, and Birds of Prey, Hunters on the Wing).
We see animals that most people have only seen in pictures walking through our yard. We can be hiking, back-country skiing or fly fishing in the Indian Peaks Wilderness in 10 minutes. We can make it to the Continental Divide in a four-mile hike. Rocky Mountain National Park is 45 minutes by car and offers untold outdoor opportunities. And we are surrounded by many, many like-minded people who love to find peace, quiet and solace in the wilderness.
We are also only 45 minutes from Boulder, with all the cultural amenities and medical services we would need, and only an hour and a half from the Denver airport, with connections to the rest of the world. Living in the wilderness, but with civilization close by, has turned into the best of both worlds for us.
Let me leave you with a few of the wonderful views that make living off grid at the edge of the wilderness worthwhile. Fog rolls in ahead of a Front Range storm.
Long's Peak at sunset.
Sunset in big sky country.
Double rainbow over the valley. We often get thunderstorms blowing through in summer. They rarely last long, and after, we often see rainbows.
Full moon rises over the Eastern plains.
Fog shrouds the plains just before the sun rises to the east.
Morning sun on the cabin in the snow.
Genie and me on the front stairs.
I hope you enjoyed this article on living in the wilderness. Click on any photo to get to the several Flickr photosets featured in this piece, and see more pictures. Enjoy.