Grizzly Bears and Shotguns: Off the Grid in Montana

Just over a year ago, Courthouse News reporter David Reese chucked the suburban life for a piece of land in the mountains — away from power lines, cable bills, gas bills and people — and embraced an off-grid lifestyle. But when he ventures back to society, he finds he appreciates people more.

View from the office, which runs a high-speed internet connection via a Verizon Jetpack device. (Courthouse News photo / David Reese)

The grizzly moved toward me from about 10 yards and only the thin walls of my yurt stood between me and the bear.

That’s one big bear, I thought to myself.

I cradled a shotgun in my arm while I watched the creature, under cover of night, lumber toward me through a meadow just outside my door. The bear had been at my place the night before, meticulously pulling the contents out of a cooler I had forgotten on the porch. Cheese, gone. Gallon of milk, gone. Fresh kale and broccoli, meh. I guess bears prefer dairy products over fresh vegetables.

The bear lifted its head, turned and ambled off into the darkness. 

Moments later I settled back to sleep.

Just over a year ago I chucked the suburban lifestyle, where I was living alongside a golf course in nearby Kalispell, Montana. I found a piece of property up in the mountains just 20 minutes out of town — away from power lines, cable bills, gas bills and people — and embraced an off-grid lifestyle. The property had everything I was looking for: southern aspect, perfect for solar power; close to town, so I could still enjoy my cultural activities; exceptional mountaintop cellular service; and, perhaps most importantly, a resident elk herd. I have a stunning 360-degree view into Glacier National Park and the Flathead Valley. 

With the structure built mainly out of wood from the property, this yurt serves as home for CNS Montana reporter David Reese. A solar panel system, in background, provides electricity. (Courthouse News photo / David Reese)

Using timbers that I harvested from my property I built a 650 square-foot yurt. I loaded it with a kitchen, office, bedroom and enormous wood stove, and leaned into the oncoming winter. I am entirely off grid; I haul water in a small tanker trailer and my electricity comes from solar power, although I do have a gasoline generator for backup. The science of wireless communications keeps me connected to my day job.

So, when the Covid-19 pandemic settled in around me in the valley far below, I was pretty much still living my life the way I already had been for the last 18 months: solitary on a mountaintop, with only elk, bears, wolves, hawks, eagles and coyotes as neighbors. A three-mile drive down a steep mountain road gets me to the highway and into town when I need supplies or sometimes, just to talk to a person.

There are some weeks, though, regardless of pandemic restrictions, when I make it off the mountain maybe only once for a church service or to visit my favorite aisles at The Home Depot.

The mantra ‘chop wood, haul water’ rings especially true for me. My chainsaw is my trusted companion, and we get together almost every day. There’s nothing like starting my day with the smell of two-cycle exhaust and the sight of orange sawdust flying in the air. Just me and my saw, and I like it that way.

The author with his trusty chainsaw. Gathering firewood is a year-long chore in off-grid living in Montana. (Photo courtesy Therese Pettibone)

Now, this lifestyle is not entirely new to me. My buddies and I have been building backcountry-skiing tipis since 1983, during our college days at the University of Montana. I have tipi sites scattered around Montana. So I know what this lifestyle entails. Still, as Matt Damon said in the film “The Martian,” I had to “science the shit out of this.”

The construction world abides in dimensions of 4-foot by 8-foot sheets of plywood. A yurt basically has none of those dimensions, except for portions of the floor. (I know I’ll never build another circular house again.) The ceiling and roof panels must all be custom cut.

In keeping with my 36 consecutive years of building a backcountry tipi, I threw together a tipi bath house near the yurt. I use a propane on-demand water heater for bathing and the bath house even has laundry facilities, along with a big wood stove to keep things comfy. A small greenhouse that gets some of its water from the bath house provides a modicum of veggies. 

The yurt during construction, October 2018. (Photo courtesy Therese Pettibone)

Even before the pandemic, I was tunneling down the rabbit hole of self-isolation. The farther I went, the more I liked it. I hope that during this time, aside from the sometimes-fatal aspects of Covid-19, we can learn to love being by ourselves.

I told myself when I decided to pioneer a mountaintop and scratch out a lifestyle from the dirt up, my attitude was going to be my best ally. If I were ever to falter in my attitude and approach, I knew I would not make it and would find myself back in town, connected to the grid and hating it. But that never happened. I mean, sometimes the mountains do ring with the sound of some very colorful curse words when I do something stupid, but being by myself I have to watch every step very carefully.

Now I just lean in and go.

Carry that water jug. Drag that sled of firewood. Do it all, and do it by yourself. It doesn’t hurt to chuckle at myself sometimes.

The pandemic did, however, cut me off from my cherished social activities. Being only about 30 minutes to Kalispell, I engage in a church family and the performing arts in our culturally rich valley of about 80,000 people, so when we lost those social activities I was disappointed, sure. But I knew what to expect.

Back to the mountain.

Back to solitude.

Back to nights where a grizzly bear might just show up on my doorstep.

The yurt looks out over the Flathead Valley of northwest Montana, near the town of Kalispell, and Glacier National Park. (Courthouse News photo / David Reese)

What I do find, though, when I engage with people back in society, my contact with other humans seems to really mean something.

A short chat at the checkout line at Home Depot reveals something beautiful about the person I’ve seen working there for years. A gentle comment from a person behind a mask at a takeout restaurant touches my core, and seeing a homeless person asking for help tells me the story of God. Somehow you just don’t get that in a Zoom meeting.

Now when I venture into town, it’s as if I’m seeing people for the very first time. I appreciate them more. Even the ones whose cars have a Trump sticker and yellow license plates touting “Don’t tread on me.”

And I do have the wildlife to enjoy. Last week I tried to get into town for my weekly round at the Flathead County courthouse, but I was stymied by a herd of elk that had decided to feed and bed down in my driveway. I hung out, drank coffee and waited two hours for them to move away on their own — about 10 cow elk and newborn calves eking out a living on a mountain.

Kinda like me.

And no, the bear hasn’t been back. Maybe he’s social distancing.

David Reese is a reporter for Courthouse News Service based in Kalispell, Montana.

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