I moved into the cabin in late March, the temperature a little more than 20 degrees below zero.
The winding road to my new home chopped through the evergreens that fill the landscapes of northern Canada. In their shade, the night was deep, dark, and still—but stars filled the open bits of sky with light, like a threadbare sheet had been stretched over the sun.
In a borrowed SUV, my friend Max and I rattled and bumped down the gutted road. A glorified goat path, he called it.
Our destination: a cabin—heated by a wood stove, with no electricity or running water—out in an area of Whitehorse, Yukon, called Squatter’s Row, an unmaintained, unincorporated cabin neighborhood, on the outskirts of the city.
I wanted the isolation, the solitude, and to chase down a childhood fantasy of living alone, out in the bush. I was hoping to find fulfillment in self-reliance.
I thought of it as the Real Yukon Experience. An idealism shaped by the nature-fed, mountain-framed words of Robert Service and Jack London. There are plenty of Yukoners in shiny condos and downtown apartments, with all the amenities you’d find in any other city, who would disagree—but the opportunity was there, stamped in the “for rent” section of the local classifieds, so I took it.
"Get inside. There’s a bear on my property, and I think he’s heading your way."
We drove the car in as far as it could go, the headlights shooting streaks of gleam into crystal snow. When the wheels couldn’t go any farther, we hopped out, and trekked the last mile or so in.
I pulled a plastic sled behind me, filled with swaying water jugs, tools, and clothes. Max pushed a mountain bike, my only mode of transportation, while balancing a laundry basket filled with books and camping gear. We made a few trips to the car and back to the cabin, each time sinking deeper into the snow that eventually pushed up past our shins and fell into our boots.
For the next six months I called the cabin home. Biking 45 minutes into town every day for work, lugging groceries home in my backpack. Some nights I’d return and it would be 15-below inside. Other nights a squirrel, which had burrowed its way through some forgotten baseboard, would be waiting to greet me. Some nights a squirrel and bird.
I’d sought out solitude and found it, but in that space I also learned that self-reliance, as I understood it, wasn’t possible without the help of others.
MY CLOSEST NEIGHBOR, MARY, lived a few miles away and was my lone source of human contact back at the cabin. Middle-aged, quiet, and contemplative, she lived alone and worked for herself as a landscaper during the summer.
The first time I visited her cabin, I knocked on the door and heard a surprised “Oh, shit—what’s that!” on the other side.
It’d been a while since anyone had come around.
We had tea that afternoon and in the coming months she would take me into town regularly to fill up my water jugs or to take garbage to the landfill. A task that would have been nearly impossible on a bicycle alone.
Inside the cabin. (Photo: Sam Riches)
She called me one Sunday afternoon in late April, frantic.
“Where are you?” she asked.
I was outside, bucking up wood.
“Get inside. There’s a bear on my property, and I think he’s heading your way.”
Shortly after that phone call, a black bear smashed through her kitchen window.
It had been a bad summer for bears. They woke up early, and the berries came late. Their hunger pushed them into town, where they’d leave a trail of upturned garbage cans and crooked dumpsters in their hunt for scraps.
Mary had left a bowl of berries on her kitchen table. That’s all it took. The bear ate those, and ripped through her walls, barreling through wood logs like they were wet cardboard, and scampering off before Mary, on the back of her property when she heard the crash, returned home to inspect the damage.
Local conservation officers, in tan uniforms and green cotton caps, drove out that night to check in. The bear came around again and when it charged an officer he had no choice but to bury two slugs in its chest.
The next trip into town with Mary was a somber one.
“I just wish they hadn't killed it,” she said, the wind pushing back her silver hair, her eyes staring down the road.
BEING OUTSIDE IS GOOD for you. Research demonstrates that time spent outdoors increases vitality and our energy for social relationships, and that it also fosters greater resistance to physical illness. Even the simple recollection of outdoor experiences has been linked to happiness.
A mental health research team in the U.K. discovered that when people move from urban areas to a greener setting, they not only became happier, but they were able to sustain that happiness long after the move.
When I moved to the cabin, my time outdoors was plentiful, but my socializing took a dip. It didn’t seem to matter, though. Living in the bush, I felt like I’d emerged from a windowless basement (disclaimer: I had), suddenly thrown out into the world.
Part of cabin’s appeal was the break it offered from the routine. Old habits dissolved, but others emerged in their place: gathering and chopping wood, washing laundry in the creek, cooking on the fire, never leaving home without bear spray. I would sit, eat, and read next to the wood stove, the monolith of the cabin. A small square of glass, carved into its cast iron door, would let the red-orange glow of flames spill into the room.
Other nights, friends would visit. They would observe the quirks, the cabin routines, and we’d share the laugh. Through their eyes, I would see the cabin again, and appreciate it once more. In the presence of others, my desire for solitude often drifted out of the room.
In late August, I moved out of the cabin. The original owner, who used it as a weekend getaway, was coming back to town as the summer sun started to retreat. Evening darkness was creeping back, arriving earlier each night as the wind howled and bit through the walls. My time was up.
My friend Sarah helped me move. We loaded her SUV with my bags and they pressed up against the back window, squeezed in so tightly that they didn't rattle as she inched down the driveway.
With no room left for my bike, I rode it out, under the light of the moon, the clouds hanging low and gray. I pedaled away from the cabin, down the road, and back into the community I call home.