“I don’t know if you still have your trail cam up,” Pam, my nearest neighbor, began, “but you might get a few photos of Eric running by and shooting his gun into the air.”
Welcome to the mountains, Denise!
It seems that Pam and her grandchildren had been outside playing, when their little blue-heeler, Ranger, went bananas. “You know how dogs have different barks for things,” Pam said. “Ranger wasn’t just barking at some squirrel. It was his serious bark.” Just as Pam turned around to see what the ruckus was about, a bear ambled up and made for a nearby tree. She calmly herded her granddaughters inside and called her husband, Eric, who was already on his way home from work. When he arrived, the bear and Ranger were having serious words, and it was everything Eric could do to call the dog off before chasing the (disturbingly unafraid) 350-lb bruin through my woods with his gun.
the realities of mountain life
When I dreamed of country life, I envisioned mountain views and little laughing streams and breezes whispering in the trees. Wildlife, of course, would be part of the picture, but over the years I spent living in the city, my experience with wild creatures became more…abstract. Squirrels and raccoons, well-fed from local trash cans, were neighborhood thugs, stealing from bird feeders, teasing my dogs from the trees, and occasionally knocking on my door demanding protection money. (“Pay up, or your tomatoes get it!”) Wide-eyed, confused deer occasionally found themselves a little farther from the river than they’d meant to come, and a rare red fox could be spied frantically sprinting down the side of the road, cursing the traffic blocking his crossing to the better hunting he was sure awaited him on the other side.
It was all reasonably tame, controllable, like a pretty postcard (or humorous Hallmark card, if we’re talking about the squirrels). Sure, the chipmunks and I occasionally competed for the strawberries I grew outside my dining room door, but by and large, humans and the few forest critters who popped in and out of the scenery got along pretty well. By which I mean, it was our world, and the critters lived in it if they behaved themselves.
In the mountains, it’s not “our” world — the critters often run the show. “Cute” little raccoons and “pretty” coyotes can carry rabies (or, in the case of coyotes, surround and eat your dog). Rats no longer live in the storm sewers but in the wood pile or the barn. Squirrels and mice can chew through wiring for solar systems, leaving you without power, or through propane lines, potentially causing a fire. Deer can ruin an expensive crop, putting a big dent in your food supply or your income.
Bears can get into your living space and mess you up.
Rural living isn’t simply a variation of urban living in a prettier setting, and as I said in a previous post, you have to know your neighbors, including the furry ones. I had to come to terms with creating different strategies for dealing with competition — and potential threats to my health and well-being — from the wildlife.
the hard and the soft
Strolls around the woods confirmed Pam’s concerns about the young bear. I found several piles of bear scat, loaded with late summer berries. (Yes, my featured image is a picture of poo. You’re welcome.) And a tree in the northeast corner — and, later, one near the home site Sam excavated for me — bore claw marks. The height and length of them, according to Sam, indicated the bear wasn’t simply digging in dead wood for grubs; he was marking territory. “He’s tellin’ all them other bears the food and women in these woods are his.”
Suddenly, a soft-sided structure felt vulnerable. Since I’ve already committed to a yurt, I reached back into the policy guiding my backpacking days: No food in the tent, ever. That meant I needed another, hard-sided structure for cooking and eating: a kitchen cabin.
My new approach differs only slightly from the original permaculture plan the previous owner had made for the land. In that plan, the living quarters for the caretakers and interns were separate from a kitchen building. The size of the clearing they needed was much larger than the one I asked Sam to excavate, but it occupies the same general location.
the pros and cons of multiple structures
My updated home site plan currently includes three structures: a yurt, a carport with tool storage, and a cabin. The yurt will be my living room, bedroom, and office. The cabin will combine kitchen and bathroom.
The most obvious advantage of separating kitchen and living space is that it will provide at least some semblance of bear security. I’ve heard stories of bears bursting into cabins while its occupants are cooking — often, the stories involve bacon — and while I can’t prevent that from happening, I can at least ensure multiple escape routes. My yurt has only one door, and the windows are screens sewn into the sides, with lattice obstructing entry or exit. In a cabin with multiple doors and functioning windows, I’m at least stacking the odds of a quick retreat more in my favor should I receive unwanted visitors as I’m cooking or eating.
The additional building will also give me more storage space, more food processing space, and a sleeping loft for guests. It’s a little bit of a cheat in the “tiny living” scheme of things, but a 12′ x 20′ cabin won’t quite double the square footage of my yurt, which still leaves my footprint plenty small. And the metal roof will provide me with a way to collect rainwater for showering and other uses until I get a well installed — and to reduce the strain on the water I pump from the well.
Another advantage of moving both the kitchen and the bathroom to their own building is that I can consolidate all of my plumbing. I’d initially thought I’d put the kitchen in the yurt and use the cabin as a bath house and storage facility, which would mean running plumbing to both buildings. If I decide to retire the yurt at any point — or move it to a different place on the property to use as a guest bedroom — it will be easier to do so without the plumbing to think about.
I’m guessing many of you are wondering: Won’t you have to go outside to get to the bathroom in the middle of the night? Although I only rarely wake up in the middle of the night to relieve myself, I’m getting older, so that might change. If I position the cabin and yurt so it’s easy to build a walkway between them, it’ll make trips to the loo in the rain a little less uncomfortable. But leaving the yurt to use the toilet will definitely be a drawback and will undoubtedly suck in the middle of winter, when I’ll actually have to put on a coat and shoes to make the trip.
Winter poses another challenge: heating two spaces. It’ll mean separate indoor wood stoves for a while, until I can afford an outdoor wood boiler, which can theoretically heat multiple buildings using zone valves. I’m also looking into other alternatives, such as solar and propane. Still, the idea of tending two fires — not to mention the extra effort of budgeting the wood I burn — doesn’t sound like much fun.
Nonetheless, I’ll feel a bit more secure from large wildlife scavenging for snacks and, despite the potential inconvenience, the cabin will still be a step up from the outhouses that many off-grid adventurers find themselves using.
I’m open to suggestions, so if you’re reading this and have some, I’d love to hear them. Despite about a bazillion hours of watching YouTube videos of people living in all manner of alternative shelters, from yurts to shipping containers to tiny homes on wheels, I still feel like my limited imagination is the only thing preventing me from finding a more optimal solution.
But, for now, this one seems to fit best.