September 29, 2009

Off the Grid

By Stephen Laliberte

The last week of May, 2009, I spent a week off the grid. I went on a fishing trip in Ontario, Canada to a very remote lake. There were no telephones, no cell service, no internet, and not much power.

I first began to feel the effects of being off the grid as we drove from St. Paul, MN to Ignace, Ontario. I decided to use my new Magellan. As I entered the destination city and I was surprised to see that Ignace was not in the system. After poking around my setup options I learned that I only had the lower 48 states. Not to worry, I set it for International Falls, Minnesota and we set out.

We were a few hours behind the rest of our group and Bob, our organizer was texting me their progress. I was returning the messages with our progress when I noticed that Bob went dark. I realized why when I tried to call my wife to let her know we made the 10 hour drive and I couldn't get a signal. I was surprised to see that I had no bars, especially as the Canadians were all talking on their cell phones. I guess AT&T did not make a deal for coverage.

The week passed with amazing calm. No beeps or jingles, no ring tones of any kind, and no TV or radio. We had a solar powered cabin but something was wrong with the charging system. We only received about one hour of power per day. We saved that for pumping water and then we went to bed when the sky got dark, which, in Ontario this time of year, is about 9:30pm. I was starting to like this.

The biggest challenge of being off the grid came when it was time to leave. We traveled over 40 kilometers of a logging road followed by 9 kilometers of a Jeep trail, and then one kilometer where only a four wheeler could navigate; luckily for us, we had one.

We had received 2" of rain the day before and the roads were wet and the puddles deep. We were nearly out when we encountered a yellow ribbon across the road and a hand drawn "Road Closed" sign. We drove up anyway and found the road washed out. A ditch 9 feet across and 6 feet deep was carved when a stream crossing the road became a river.

We needed another way out. Our hand drawn map only showed the roads we needed. Nothing was marked. We talked about our options and we all agreed that we had to get back. My son, David, was getting married in two days. I wanted to fire up my phone and check Google Earth to see if we could see these roads. I wanted to call someone for directions. No such luck. We began to make decisions without information. We ended up using an anti Robert Frost strategy: we stayed off "The Road Less Traveled." Whenever we had to make a decision we took the bigger road. When the options were equal, we took the one with tracks. After an hour of the logging road labyrinth, we popped out on the highway.

It would be another three hours before I was back on the grid.

I have seen the grid change the way we work and live dramatically over the last 15 years. I make a living out of helping publishers distribute information on the grid. My week off gave me a yearning to get back on. It also reminded me that the grid is not everywhere and there are still many people who do not use it. We need to be careful to consider the timing of our new product offerings to ensure that we are not addressing a need for a reader who is not on the grid.