Living the dream, off-grid
A couple in their forties leave behind urban comforts to build a wilderness home in a remote BC mountain valley.
March 13th, 2023
The Neads used solar power and internet communications to create a modern lifestyle while enduring long winters, wicked storms, forest fires and the ever-present dangers of wild animals.
Review by Jim Cooperman
Dave and Rosemary Neads were already in their 40s when they discovered the wilderness area of Precipice Valley in 1986, tucked between the coastal mountains and the Chilcotin Plateau. They fell in love with the area and decided to leave their comfortable urban lifestyles to homestead in their newly found paradise. There they stayed for almost three decades, overcoming the hardships, even thriving, as they recall in their memoir, The Power of Dreams: 27 Years Off-grid in a Wilderness Valley (Hancock House $24.95).
The book begins with a chronological telling of how the Neads arrived in the Chilcotin, happened upon the Precipice Valley property, built their “Firhome” and enjoyed an isolated and far-from-simple lifestyle in a near wilderness setting. They lived well despite enduring the cold, the snow, the bugs, the long winters, the wicked storms and the ever-present dangers from wild animals, forest fires, extreme temperatures, and the time-consuming and often-difficult travels in and out of their valley.
Fortunately, by the mid 1980s the couple was able to innovatively utilize modern technology to provide them a comfortable way of life, complete with power (solar panels), running water and eventually internet communications. Yet, to take advantage of modern-day conveniences, Dave had to develop skills as a carpenter, plumber, mechanic, electrician and all-around handyman in addition to being a hunter, fisherman and skilled horseman. With great patience, he often learned through trial and error and with the “sticktoitiveness” that his mother had taught him.
The Neads’ writing contains poetic descriptions of keen observations, peppered with almost spiritual-like, philosophic imagery, likely a result of their sharpened senses that had become attuned to the rhythms of nature in a setting devoid of the now too-normal trappings of modern civilization. Whether they were watching the weather, lighting the fire in their home, listening to the birds, or growing vegetables and flowers, they found inspiration and peacefulness.
Most enjoyable are the many stories, filled with humour, local colour and coincidences. We learn about their adventures, the characters who lived nearby or visited them, the wildlife they shared the valley with, the emergencies they had to deal with, the vehicles they had to maintain and repair, the fish they caught and the trips they took into remote lakes via floatplanes.
One particularly memorable experience was the time they were canoeing on Turner Lake above the 280-metre high Hunlen Falls. After paddling past a danger sign, they decided to stop for a break. “Not ten feet away, the lip of the falls disappeared into mist as the creek tumbled into oblivion. Dave stopped beside me, and we just stood there in silence, the realization sinking in that, had we not stopped when we did, we would have gone over the brink to sure death.”
An aspect of the book that many will appreciate, are the connections made to the history of the region from geological times to the lives of the Indigenous people who used the valley as a way point along their much-used grease trail from the coast to the interior, and to the early explorers and settlers who used the trail to transport goods from ships that docked in Bella Coola.
This ancient trail also became a communication corridor in 1912, when a telegraph line was strung through the valley, which was still in use as a phone line when Dave and Rosemary arrived. They had to go to great lengths to keep it operational, and when that was no longer possible, they found a legal route to force the telephone company to spend $250,000 for helicopter-delivered equipment to provide service.
Self-sufficiency was never an option in the Precipice Valley, given the financial resources required for building supplies, solar panels, transportation, batteries, food and especially the fuel needed for their chain saws, generators, snowmobiles, ATVs, trucks and vehicles. Thus, Dave had to work and fortunately he landed a dream job as a backcountry park ranger in nearby Tweedsmuir Park. He and his work partner traveled by floatplane, by horseback and on foot to clear ancient trails and create new ones, construct signage and structures and build countless cairns in this massive landscape.
Although Dave and Rosemary lived remotely, they were also part of a widely-spaced community of other homesteaders and environmentalist and thus became aware of the threats to the wild spaces they loved from resource extraction, particularly clearcut logging. After helping to create local organizations to fight for wilderness protection and sustainable practices, Dave’s leadership abilities became recognized by provincial conservation organizations and soon he was employed to work incessantly as an environmental activist. Thanks to his efforts, many parks were created, including the 112,000-hectare Itcha Ilgachuz Provincial Park.
The Power of Dreams was a difficult book to put down, as with each page I was transfixed into their amazing world and was able to vicariously experience their extraordinary lives through their compelling storytelling and magical imagery. This book deserves to become a British Columbia classic, in the same vein as Ralph Edwards of Lonesome Lake and The Curve of Time. 9780888397188
Jim Cooperman is a back-to-the-lander and worked with Dave Neads in the environmental movement in the 1990s. He is also a writer and his most recent book, Everything Shuswap (2017), was praised by David Suzuki.