Early on a cold Saturday morning in late January I unlocked the front door of the factory and stepped inside. I fired up the large ammonia light panels, turned on the compressors, and returned to my office and turned on my computer. It was one of the old Dell computers and the “blue screen of death” slowly glowed as it booted up. I had repeated this routine for years, but this morning was different, this morning I was going to miss yet another event that my daughter had because I had to work on Saturday. As I stared at the screen, my chest tightened and my pulse started to race and I thought to myself “this is what I do, this is my life, and once again, I miss these small moments in life…” I remember asking myself if I could see myself here in ten years, five years, one year….? In that instant, in that small fraction of time, I knew the answer. That moment would change the course of history for me and my family. After working for twenty years in the machine shop, which I began at the early age of fourteen, it was time to start over…from the very beginning.
My wife Deirdre and I met right after high school, we fell in love and soon started a family. We had four children, Autumn, Skye, Gunner, and Orion. We lived in southern New Hampshire in a small town and started a hobby farm and life was good. Life was busy, I worked tons of hours, and we had money. I was making a very good living and we had just completed a large addition on our home; vaulted ceilings, a hot tub and fireplace in our bedroom, and many other amenities. Our house was full of kid’s toys, and we had everything we wanted, including two nice vehicles in the driveway. We were caught up in what seemed like the “normal” life of hard working parents, yet, something was missing and it took a while to figure out what it was. The feeling was there for a while, but it took a long time for things to get to the breaking point. For me, the breaking point was this blue computer screen staring back at me, and the overwhelming sense of a lost connection to the outdoors and limited quality time spent with my family in nature.
I was done. I was walking away from the security of a good paying job, sound health insurance, and a very comfortable home, to a place where we had to start from scratch. It was a briefly terrifying moment followed by the realization that I knew we could do this. Things moved quickly from there and we sold our home and most of our possessions. We liquidated many of the trappings that at one time we thought brought us happiness and we packed up a few things and headed north. Our destination was a piece of land we bought years earlier in Mason Township, population: 59 residents. We built a little cabin (12’x16’) with a loft that would have made Charles Ingalls proud and it was from this point that we started over.
Our youngest son, Orion, was 3 years old and he slept in a wooden crib below while the older kids slept in the loft above. We had a woodstove for heat and cooking and a traditional “one holer” outhouse nearby. Kerosene lanterns lit the cabin at night and we drew water from the stream that trickled down Tyler Mountain. We washed up in the brook, and in the colder months we had to shower outside using a 3-sided wooden enclosure with gravity fed water that we’d warm on the woodstove. The showers were quick to say the least! The kids would strip down and put on a bathrobe and I’d carry them over to the shower and then quickly back to the cabin. I distinctly remember one evening my daughter Skye took a shower and quickly threw her bathrobe back on. As I carried her back to the cabin over my shoulder, I slipped on some ice and in an instant, she was airborne and landed facedown, scantily clad, into the freshly fallen snow. It was moments such as this that helped to build character, grit, and a sense of adventure. Hardships provide obstacles that you have to work to overcome and we were not about to take an easy path.
Each day the kids would scramble through the forest barefoot, climbing trees, catching frogs and all sorts of critters, and they were always busy exploring. One day while I was busy working on the cabin I could hear the kids cheering and getting all excited about something. I came down off the ladder to find them huddled over a piece of cardboard with lines on it. They were having a slug race! When you have nothing but time on your hands and a sense of adventure, you can make the time to have slug race I guess.
As a family, we began to build our home; a modest and rustic house that had everything we needed, and little that we didn’t. We still did not have power, or refrigeration and the only running water was running down the side of the hill. We cooked and ate most of our meals outdoors, fully immersed in nature and an active part of the seasonal cycles. When berries or foraged foods were abundant, we’d pick, and when it was hunting season we’d hunt. We also fished almost all year and we attempted to raise a small garden despite the lack of fertile soils and over-abundance of rocks. These are the same rocks that caused earlier settlers to move on and abandon their farms as evidenced by the numerous rock walls and stone foundations found on our property. I often think about how hard their lives where and what they faced for challenges. I think of how much they had to rely on each other and about their dependence on nature to help provide sustenance for their survival. I sought to understand the role that they played in this relationship as a part of their ecosystem and link in the food chain.
I began to realize that the hardships added to the adventure I was seeking. Nothing was easy, everything required determination and we relied on each other to push through the times that could break us. We were challenged by the weather, by wildlife, and by the inconveniences of life in western Maine, especially in the winter. We had to hike our long driveway with snowshoes on and kids on our backs or in a sled through several feet of snow more times than I can recall. The weather has always posed a challenge whether it was the heavy snows, high winds, or wet and muddy springs. This provided an ever-changing component that we embraced, yet sometimes with gritted teeth and cold hands. Cutting firewood was always a priority for without it, you find yourself struggling to keep warm, especially in the depths of winter. When you manage your own woodlot you soon become very much connected to this renewable resource and you think very differently about each and every tree and how, when, and where you should cut. Fortunate for us we had many hands so stacking was a chore we shared. A favorite highlight each year was our annual search for the perfect Christmas tree. Most of our balsam firs are tall so we’d have to assess from the ground what the tree may look like once we chop the tree down. Most times, the end result was a misshaped, lopsided, gnarly looking specimen, and each was special in its own way.
When living in the middle of the forest, wildlife isn’t something you simply see, it’s something that you experience and interact with. Raccoons, porcupines, deer, moose and other critters are our neighbors. One night years ago, a bear got into the house. I was away guiding a trip and Dee was home with the four kids. We were living in the basement at the time as the house was framed and we were in the process of finishing it so there was wood and tools scattered above. The bear entered the first floor searching for food and continued to knock over just about everything until he found a hole in the floor that went to the lower level, directly above where Dee and the kids were. With little more than a headlamp she saw the bears muzzle pressed into the hole sniffing wildly. With a shotgun in one hand and the light in the other, she held the fort down and finally spooked the bear off, yet not without leaving a vivid imprint on them of the new life we were now living.
Bears have been a big part of our life here and we’ve come to live with them comfortably. As a Registered Maine Guide, guiding bear hunters has been an important part of our lives, yet we have the utmost respect and admiration for them. One of our goals was to be an active part of the food chain and all of our kids have grown up on wild game meat. Moose, deer, bear, birds, and fish have all been staples at our table and we appreciate every opportunity to provide for ourselves. We also enjoy sharing this bounty with others.
In addition to wild game, we’ve raised pigs added a pair of Holsteins to our single Jersey bull, “Tuff.” One cow will be bred and milked, while the other will supplement our game meat supply. Tuff’s role is simple, eat hay, and make manure, and he takes this very seriously! Our lack of fertile soil is slowly changing and we’re starting to see things growing much better now that we’ve got a steady supply of composted organic matter. We also have a flock of laying hens that have outwitted every fox, weasel, and owl to date. The chickens have a habit of trying to sneak into the house and if successful, they’ll lay their eggs in just about anything they can find; a pile of laundry, a bath towel, and even a sneaker. We added a handful of turkeys to the mix and we’ve got a roving, bug eating, fertilizing troop of birds that mostly rely on eating what they find.
Now that our children are grown, we are fortunate to have grandchildren to share these experiences with. This has added to the excitement of having new adventures and is a testament to the importance of the life lessons our children learned at an early age. Each has a deep appreciation for the environment, and a strong connection to nature and to each other. They gained resilience and strength from the hurdles and difficulties faced.
Over the years, we have slowly added things back that we once did without. Each decision is planned and considered beforehand. Regardless of “re-evolving” it is the story that we always consider first because in the end, it’s all about the story. The story of your life; of how you lived and how you treated people and how you raised your kids, and how you faced conflicts and the challenges is what makes up a life. Our story continues to unfold and with that new adventures lie ahead. Never be afraid of changing the direction you’re heading, and expect it will be hard at times. If you believe in yourself, all is possible.