BY PAUL BOREHAM
Being a reporter for Spoke has led me to places I would never have gone otherwise. One of these places is down by the river just east of Guelph where a family of four have been living in a yurt for several years. They live off society’s grid – no indoor toilet, electricity or running water. An inquiry at their neighbour’s home led to a meeting with one of the occupants, Chris Green, who also runs the Guelph Outdoor School across the road from the family’s rustic home. He invited me for a visit, first to check out the school followed by a tour of the yurt.
It’s so close to home I choose to walk – it just seems the appropriate thing to do. With a small backpack on, I travel along the road to the edge of the hill, where there is a panoramic view of Guelph in the distance. Two successive hills lead deep into the Eramosa Valley, where the melting glaciers of 10,000 years past roared through and formed the valley. At the bottom the river is just a small watercourse now, with a bridge over it. The area, including a dozen or more homes, is known as Cook’s Mill, but there is no sign. Instead of continuing toward the city limit of Guelph, where a line of street lights can be seen ahead, I turn left down Cook’s Mill Road.
Past a few more homes and a barn I come to the river again, where it has made a curve, and stand on a smaller bridge, meant for one car. The chunky buttresses of the old dam stand on the south side of the river. Water was once dammed and diverted to run a saw mill here. Later it became a much-loved swimming hole. The river, flowing freely despite it still being winter, rushes toward Guelph, where it joins with the Speed River and later the Grand.
Across the bridge a couple of homes stand near the road, like secluded riverside cottages. A recently paved road gives way to gravel and a relative wilderness of cedar trees and swamp takes hold. A small yellow sign on the left states, “Guelph Outdoor School,” where a blue porta-potty hides behind cedar branches.
I enter the woods and 35-year-old Chris Green appears before an inviting fire, sitting on one of many cut logs that circle around. With his long carrot-coloured hair spun into dreadlocks, and sporting a healthy beard, he looks very much the gothic warrior. “You made it,” he says. “Have a seat.” He was stirring a big pot on the fire, an orangey broth that he says is squash. I’ve arrived just in time for lunch.
Groups of young boys and girls start trickling in from paths that lead into the snow-laden bush, followed by their older “mentors” or teachers. All make me, the guest, feel welcome as I try to make myself at home around the fire.
After lunch groups of kids split up and go back off on their adventures – some go on a long hike to explore some cliffs. Green invites me to go for a walk during which I can ask him any questions. We start strolling down the road, back toward the one-lane bridge.
“My partner (Arlene Slocombe) moved here nine years ago on her own and spent the summer in a large, durable tent,” said Green, walking along. Slocombe and her partner at the time then built a small 10×10-foot cabin, hoping that would suffice for the two of them.
“She got pregnant with Meadow, my stepdaughter, the following year,” said Green. “(The cabin) was not spacious enough so they ordered a yurt from Pacific Yurts, on the West Coast.” A foundation had to be carefully prepared and once the yurt arrived it took only a weekend to erect, with the help of some friends. The yurt is 24 feet in diameter.
Green moved in six years ago and the couple have a child, Ivry, who is four years old. Meadow is seven.
All that time the family’s energy needs have been supplied by one 80-watt solar panel (worth $400), which powers a 12 volt deep cycle nautical battery (a special type of battery that can charge right down without damaging it).
A laptop, an LED light, drill batteries, a small blender and cellphones are just some of the things they power up with the battery.
“It’s good livin’. It goes well,” he says. However, pointing out the negatives, “We don’t have a bathroom inside, so (especially in the middle of the night) it can be cold. But you’re forced to look up and see the stars.” Keeping the fire stoked in winter takes some effort as well, he said.
Standing on the bridge, a white pick-up truck rumbles up and stops. I’m introduced to James, the owner of the land Green’s family calls home. “Just telling him about yurt life,” Green says. James lives right beside the river: “The last house on the river before Guelph,” he says from the pick-up. The conversation twists and turns. I later learn he instigated the whole deal with the family.
Walking back, Green says he grew up on a horse farm near Hillsburgh, a 20-minute drive north. “I was just let to go free,” he said, roaming the fields and forests. Learning about nature came a little later in life. It’s been a process and he is still learning.
“Kids pick up on the fact that I’m excited about new discoveries. I try to stay one step ahead of them,” he says.
Green is a certified primary teacher and taught for two years in the city before starting the outdoor school in 2013. They have a variety of programs throughout the year, catering to specific age groups. Classes take place most days of the week.
“When I was a teacher, I was seeing a lot of young boys who were really struggling. Not for lack of smarts, but, because they just weren’t designed for the classroom. The classroom wasn’t designed for them,” he says. Green came across a copy of Coyotes Guide to Connecting with Nature, and now uses it as the manual for teaching at the school. “I knew that there was nothing like it around here, I knew that kids needed it, and I think I can do it with the help of that manual.”
A car pulls up from behind and it’s his wife and two young daughters returning from the city. (Yes, they do own a vehicle.) After introductions and talk the trio head home to their yurt while Green and I head back to the fire.
There’s been a bit of an incident. A boy stepped into a swampy quagmire and got a soaker. He’s sitting by the fire in bare feet, trying to get warm. A small group of boys are gathered round, working on a braided wrist lanyard made out of parachute cord. Jason Bennett, a volunteer, has brought the cord and is teaching them. Elliot, one of the boys, has already learned and starts showing me how it’s done.
Smoke from the fire is billowing around. Snowflakes are drifting down ever so slowly in the calm afternoon. Green comes and goes. The boys have learned various animal calls and these echo in the cedar bush.
“This gives children a new perspective on the world around them outside the confines of urban civilization,” says Bennett, adding electronic devices are not allowed. It’s a chance to leave these behind and reconnect with the natural world, he says.
Everyone arrives back at four o’clock and passes around a gnarled stick and says what today has meant to them. Everyone listens intently and then a final word from Green, their captain. Their homework is to find a good “sit spot” at home – a place where they can just spend time looking around and be present. Parents arrive, the teachers debrief each other and then it’s just me and Green, heading over to the yurt.
Green has pulled the dishes and other things from the school day across the road in a sled and asks me to take it while he fills up another with blocks of wood from the woodpile. Then he directs me along a snowy path that leads through a grove of young cedars. It winds and winds – farther back than I expect. “Are you sure we’re on the right path,” I shout back. He laughs. I see small animal tracks in the snow and point them out to him. “Looks like a cat,” I say. He looks. “Very perceptive,” he says. They are Kitty’s, their cat. His day at work is over and we head to his abode.
The clearing comes. We pull our sleds into a ramshackle arrangement of aerie structures and buildings amidst low shrubbery. It’s backed by a tall curtain of green cedar. Passing under an overhanging roof, we drop off the sleds at what must be the front door of the yurt. He’ll show me around before going inside, he says.
An outdoor kitchen is set up under the overhang, complete with pipe-less sinks. It’s used in summer, he says. We peek into the cabin for a quick look. At the front of the cabin is a completely visible toilet. The seat has a large bucket beneath. When you’re through your business, a few handfuls of wood shavings are tossed in and it composts. He dumps it in the bush when it’s full, he says. We walk past the small solar panel attached to a long pole and enter the root cellar. It keeps vegetables at an even temperature, winter and summer. It’s shallow because solid rock lies not far below the surface. Now, it’s yurt time.
Inside a small vestibule, the wooden door to their home is sticky. He gives it a good push and it opens stubbornly. I’m to take my boots off and bring them inside to keep them warm. I obey and shuffle into the warm room. Slocombe is washing dishes. The sound of kids jumping about fill the air as I enter their world.
My first time in a yurt is eye-opening, a feast for the senses. The roundish room is filled with too many things: the kitchen area at the far end; the kitchen table on the right; bunk beds toward the left and a large black stove on the far left. In the middle is the common area, with low, legless couches. A wall of books shield the beds. A few baskets hang from the curved ceiling. A couple of animal skins are stretched out on the wall, along with some guitars and other instruments. Bottles filled with various shapes and colours line shelves. A few windows let light in, but at the very top of the yurt a big skylight shines down from above, like an eye to the heavens.
I try to unthaw on the couch after being outside all afternoon. Slocombe realizes she left her phone at the library and heads out after some discussion. She works for Wellington Water Watchers, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the area’s water resources. I had read a story in the local paper that morning detailing their efforts in a current campaign. That leaves me with
Green and the girls. Tea is poured and slices of salami are set out.
He shows me the pipe-less kitchen sink, with buckets set where pipes would normally be. In the floor, he lifts up a wooden panel and, voila, various foods appear – a refrigerator under the floor.
Drinking water is retrieved from a nearby spring, they said, and rain gutters catch water for washing dishes. There is no tub or shower. All personal washing is done by the “splash method,” I am told.
“I fell in love with Arlene and Arlene was living here,” he said, explaining the situation. A lot of it has to do with economy. “The rent is free because our landlord is just letting us be here.
“It’s fun making decisions on how you’re going to use your power. You have to choose whether to charge the drill or the laptop. Sometimes you can do both. There is a satisfaction in not having unlimited power.”
They start getting supper ready, chopping up some potatoes for the wood stove. Ivry washes them with a brush while Green cuts them on a wooden board. Meadow gets the baking sheet ready. The subject gets around to television.
“We love Little House on the Prairie,” says Meadow, jumping up. In fact, they had picked up a DVD filled with several episodes that afternoon. She shows me the cover. They’re excited about watching it on the laptop. It seemed the perfect place to watch such a show.
When the subject of animals comes up the girls remember the time someone had gone out to use the washroom one evening. Meadow says, “One time Mama, or somebody, almost tripped over a skunk.”
“Mama did!” Ivry shouted, making the situation clear.
This brings memories of an actual skunk spraying, with Green being the recipient. The skunk had been hiding in the vestibule and stank up the place and everyone for days.
“The next day Mama had a meeting with the mayor,” says Meadow, adding to the drama.
“We get to hear the animals around us because the walls are so thin,” says Green. We hear the bird language and the peepers down by the swamp and the redwing blackbirds …” The howling of coyotes and the hooting of owls are also common, he says.
They paint an interesting picture of life off the grid. Both girls have lived in the yurt their entire lives. Meadow and Ivry currently attend the outdoor school rather than a public school. Slocombe returns and I ask her about them as she returns to the dishes.
“It’s not like we’re in the middle of nowhere. We have kids at the outdoor school all the time. They’ve got friends. We’re so close to the city – I can bike downtown in 20 minutes. They’re not in an isolated, sheltered little world. They’re familiar with all the stuff that goes on out there,” she says, in spurts. At one point Meadow gets a finger nipped by the hot pan and Slocombe rushes outside to get a cup of snow to dip it in. It’s not bad.
“They know how to navigate a computer screen,” she says, adding “even though we try not to do that. You can’t avoid it in this culture.”
The kids are listening. “Papa’s phone, you can colour on Papa’s phone,” says Meadow, interested in our conversation.
Asked why she moved here, the primary reason, she says, is to reduce her ecological footprint. There was so much waste in previous homes she has lived in. But there’s more to it.
“My friend (James), who owns this property, he’s been a friend of mine since we were young. We did a lot of outback camping together, and he would always hear me say, ‘oh I wanna live like this,’ whenever we were camping. I would say I wanted a wood stove, get my water and … The day he put an offer in on this property, he said, ‘If you want to live here in the back, you’re welcome to.’
Which was just awesome. And that was almost nine years ago.
“It was never intended to be permanent – we are going to be moving along. But he’s been very generous about it and not worried about our timing. So we’re looking for the right next place to be able to do this,” says Slocombe – a place of their own, where the school can flourish and grow and they can live a similar lifestyle.
With the potatoes cooking, a meat dish on the go, and plenty of thank yous, I take my leave.
Walking back out of the valley, stinking like wood smoke, the mystery of the yurt was no more. It got me thinking about Conestoga College students. What kind of lives do they want to live? Are they satisfied with a cookie-cutter type life? Am I?