Words and photos by Karly Siroky, Columnist
Standing at the kitchen sink, that’s when it hit me. I finally understood what it means to live off the land.
A year and a half ago, while driving back to the Lower 48 from Alaska, I passed through the Yukon Territory. An area roughly the size of California, its total population is 38,000.
Never in my life had I seen a place so wild, so unadulterated. Its rivers meander in sinuous squiggles, left to dictate their own design. The forest is home to a storybook of arctic wildlife—elk, bear, moose and rabbit. A cirque of mountains hold it all in gentle embrace.
For five years now, I have been living here and there, everywhere and nowhere. I am a nomad.
The Buddha says:
So I decided to migrate to the Yukon.
When I try to describe what drew me back—You’re going where? people ask—I can only say: creativity seeps out of the dirt. As soon as I step foot across the border, ideas flow like the mineral springs up the road from my cabin. My suspicion was corroborated after paging through a local magazine: the Yukon boasts twice the artists per capita of any Canadian province or territory.
I came here for creative restoration.
I found the cabin via Airbnb, and my hosts generously worked with me to arrange for a longer-term stay. No running water, only a blink of electricity and a wood stove, you say? I’ll take it.
My colleague called it unamenities.
It is everything I’d dreamt of, and more.
Snowflakes dance against creamy birch. The stars burn brighter than any I’ve seen. Red fox prowl the roadside, pouncing on prey hidden beneath the snow.
On my work breaks, I loop a private Nordic track around the 100-acre property. One night, while returning from the outhouse, I accidentally became audience to the Northern Lights.
Every night around 2am, I must get up to restart the fire. The daily high is about 20 degrees, and the nightly low hovers around zero. Anything left outside will freeze.
In the Far North, people have different priorities. Think of it this way: In my left hand, I am holding a pile of money. In my right hand, I am holding an ax. Which is more valuable?
I posed this question to my pal Lauren, a seasoned Yukoner, as we took a snowy walk through the woods. “The ax, of course.” She said. “And whatever you can buy to stay warm with the money.”
She explained that once there was a man who moved to town to see if he could tough it. He was quite abrasive, and rubbed a lot of community members the wrong way. Long story short, he didn’t last.
“You can’t be an a--hole up here,” Lauren explained. “It just doesn’t work. You can’t be mean to people, because you’re going to see them tomorrow.”
I told her I was grateful to know that there are still places where morality matters. This is no mere socialism, this is literal meritocracy.
Up here, there is a short list of essential commodities: meat, wood, fuel and water. If you have the necessary skills, you can get almost all of them without ever opening your wallet.
My hosts are husband and wife. The husband, an energetic Swiss, built the cabin in which I live. And I mean, from scratch. He felled the trees, milled the wood, and painstakingly notched every tongue and groove in the gabled ceiling, which I admire nightly from my bed in the loft.
As I stood at that kitchen window, I watched as he spent day after day hauling trailer upon trailer of logs, staging them in rows. When he’s ready to start a new project, he doesn’t buy the wood, he sources it. When you need water, you melt snow. When you are hungry, you hunt.
There is no money changing hands. This is living off the land.
Yet I would argue that there is a fifth element which is critical to surviving in a place like this.
When I was packing for my winter migration, I unearthed a silkscreen poster crafted by a design colleague. It features a grid of twelve hearts, variations on a theme. On the back is a handwritten note:
One day, I decided to bike to the coffee roastery a few miles up the road. Biking to a coffee shop is no big deal if you live in Seattle. Here, however, it means several miles of empty dirt road, unknown wilderness predators and donning every layer of clothing you own.
Getting there went okay, the knobby mountain bike tires easily finding traction on the snow. The return trip felt more like survival. Sweat trapped underneath my layers caused my body temperature to plummet quickly. My fingers were going numb, and each breath of frigid air felt as though it were freezing the alveoli inside my lungs.
To stay focused and keep my mental status in check, I recited the alphabet over and over. “A is for anaconda!” I yelled to the frozen river. “B is for beta-carotene!” I announced to the setting sun. “C is for courage,” I muttered to myself.
Finally, after five full recitations, I saw the sign for our property. The promise of warmth and shelter kickstarted me through the homestretch. Rounding the corner to our driveway, I noticed that in my absence my host had built a new woodshed for my cabin, and stockpiled it full of logs. I could have hugged him.
Money is a tool, love is an organ.
As essential to our bodily functions as fuel, water or oxygen, love is what keeps us alive. It is a friendly phone call, the kindness of strangers or a new woodshed.
I hung the poster by the door, so that every time I go, I remember that no matter what my bank account tells me, I am wealthy. I am lucky to be living in a place where kindness is currency.
Whether living off the land, or living off the grid, the greatest gift is living off love.
Karly Siroky is the founder of Karma, a brand incubator and basecamp for B-corps, entrepreneurs and visionary companies committed to doing good. She and her women-led team build, guide and launch brands for clients who place people and planet over profit. Karly also serves as Lucia's design advisor. Her column offers a heartfelt look into life as an entrepreneur and navigator of the creative wilderness.