The simple life isn't an easy one

February 12, 2014 12:00 AM

Simple life 1 - cabin After parking our car where the Forest Service road is no longer plowed, I step outside to be greeted by the howling of a nearby wolf pack. We load up our gear, put on our skis, and glide into the woods under the illumination of the Milky Way. An hour later the moon is peaking over the pines, outshining the stars and pouring light into the Northwoods, which I have grown to love. Approaching the glowing cabin window in the distance I am greeted by my friend Thistle, a massive polar husky retired sled dog. I open the cabin door, wipe the fog off my glasses, and warm up next to the wood burning stove. It’s good to be back.

Last summer I worked as a field technician for Rayma Cooley studying the Pagami Creek fire in Northeast Minnesota. I thank her for introducing me to two of the most inspirational people I have ever met: Bert and Johnnie Hyde. This couple lives completely off the grid deep in Superior National Forest just south of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Their lifestyle is unconventional, but it along with their vast knowledge of the land in which they live is truly humbling and something we could all learn a great deal from. Here are some of the lessons I have learned.

The simple life is not an easy one. Bert built their cabin and sauna with the red pine and white cedar he cut himself from their land in the 1980’s. They have propane gas for lamps and cooking, but there is no electricity. Heat comes from the firewood you split for the winter, and bathroom trips often mean braving -30 degree temperatures in the latrine. Your weekly shower can be accomplished by rinsing off in the lake (weather permitting) or sitting in the sauna. If you want drinking water for the next day, you have to boil some lake water before you go to bed. The year’s refrigeration comes from ice blocks cut from the lake during winter, which is what brought us to the Northwoods in late January.

Simple life 2- iceRayma, I, and two friends traveled north to help Bert and Johnnie with their annual ice harvest. We cut long slabs out of the lake, chopped them into manageable chunks, shuttled them to the icehouse via snowmobile, stacked them up, and tucked them in with sawdust and snow for insulation. The following day we split firewood to insure there would be enough fuel to last the winter. During breaks we warmed up inside the cabin watching gray jays, hairy woodpeckers, goldfinches, pine and evening grosbeaks through the kitchen window (a fine replacement for television). When we ran out of daylight we soothed our sore muscles in the comfort of the cedar sauna. At the end of the weekend and after a good night’s rest, we pack our bags, said our goodbyes, and skied out; stopping along the way to marvel at the massive wolf tracks imprinted in fresh snow.

Returning home on I-35, the pines and birch eventually turned back into barren corn fields. I romanticized about someday having my own cabin in the woods, living a simple life. Is it that farfetched I wonder? I turned my phone back on and got bombarded with messages and notifications which made me about my own resource use…

It’s amazing how the majority of the world looks up to the American economic growth model. America, the ‘land of opportunity’, but the American dream is an unsatisfying journey. We excel at production, consumption, and wastefulness at the expense of our natural resources. People working jobs they don’t like for years and years in order to earn money they can spend on material things they don’t need under the impression that they will be happy because of it, or to fill a void. We, as a nation, have lost our connection to the land we are a part of. No wonder so many people want to get their hands in the soil and start a farm.

Simple life 3 - Uganda While an undergraduate I was fortunate to participate in two international service learning trips, one in Uganda and one in Ecuador. These were invaluable experiences. Seeing people’s resilience to what most would regard as poor quality of life makes real the principal that quality of life is measured by things within, not by possessions or monetary wealth. Despite extreme poverty, malnutrition, disease, and government corruption the people of Uganda have a genuine happiness about daily life unmatched anywhere else I have visited. In Ecuador, I was amazed by the deep connection that the local people have with their land. Ecuadorian farmers recognize the important role forested land plays in the water cycle. They may not understand the biophysical processes, but they realize the importance of conserving their forest resources to store and deliver water consistently throughout the year. On service learning trips like these we are often considered “experts” since we have college educations, but in fact we often learn much more from the local communities we visit from the way they have been living for generations.

The transition back to my home is always a difficult one. I remember staring at my faucet feeling guilty I could access clean drinking water with the turn of a knob. In Uganda getting water means walking miles to a well and hauling heavy jugs back to your home every day. After returning from Ecuador I was in disbelief you can buy bananas at Kwik Star for 39 cents a pound.  It is at the expense of local Ecuadorian workers enduring long hours, poor wages, lack of unions, and heavy chemical exposure that we have the ability to access these tropical fruits at our convenience. It’s easy to take things for granted when you don’t see how the majority of the world lives or the repercussions of your choices.

Simple life 4- Bert Bert and Johnnie offer a similar learning opportunity to the service learning trips I participated in, but closer to home. They display the satisfaction of simple living. It may not be feasible for everyone to live off the land like they do, but what a difference it would make if we all sacrificed a few daily luxuries for minor inconveniences. Whether deciding what business to support or opting to bike to the grocery store instead of driving, the decisions we make every day have a real impact regardless of whether we see the results first hand.

Simple life 5 - Johnnie Bert and Johnnie remind me to live an examined life and aim for simplicity. Do what you love, start a garden, ride your bike, eat produce in season, learn an instrument, support local agriculture and businesses, get outside. The simple life is not an easy one, its hard work; that’s the point.


Louis Hilgemann completed his undergraduate degree in Forestry at Iowa State University last spring. After an informative field season last summer, he began pursuing his master's degree in Forestry with Dr. Peter Wolter. For his project, he is working with The Nature Conservancy to develop strategies for using remote sensing data for adaptive management and landscape monitoring in the North Shore Highlands of Minnesota.