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Off the Grid

You could say that Zachary Fowler has just won half a million dollars for his unsurpassed skill at living off the grid.

Wait. Make that way off the grid.

Fowler, 37, took home the prize for History Channel’s survival show “Alone” after he survived 87 days in the Patagonia wilderness. The boatbuilder and family man kept his spirits and mental acumen up during the long, cold, solitary days in South America by whittling wooden toys for his kids, inventing creative fish and bird traps and building a cozy shelter. And when he finally got home to Maine to settle back into his small yurt in the Knox County town of Appleton, he may have set himself apart from the show’s other contestants once again.

“I got a tweet the other day, saying ‘You’re probably the only person who went home to harder conditions,’” he laughed. “The shelter in Patagonia was super secure and super comfortable, and warmer than our yurt.”

Fowler, who exudes an air of friendly competence, looks the part of a woodsman, with his bushy red beard and his ever-present wooden wizard’s rod that he carved during the filming of the show. He carried it with him on a tour of his homestead, situated on a two-and-a-half-acre parcel of land set a mile and a half back from the main road. He purchased the land 10 years ago, after he had come to Maine from Vermont to build boats and then fell in love with the area.

“I’m kind of hacking my life out of the woods,” Fowler said. “At first, I lived off the grid because I wanted to save money. It seemed an efficient way to do things. The less money I spent on living the more I could play outdoors, and that’s how I lived my life.”

Initially, he hung his hat in a small, basic camper that he parked on a wooded knoll, and lugged in just five gallons of water a week for his own use. But a few years ago, he got a little lonely, and placed a personal ad on Craigslist.

“Woodsy woman wanted,” he wrote.

When Jami, now his wife, responded, he thought she seemed so nice and so pretty that she might have been his buddy messing with him. But she was for real, and it didn’t take long for her to move in to his homestead with her toddler daughter. That meant they needed more space, and so they found a 12-foot diameter yurt that they attached to the camper, which Zachary Fowler later tricked out with a cap of shrink-wrapped hay for extra insulation.

It’s just another way that the Fowlers have used more creativity and love than money to build their unique, off-grid homestead, which increased in population two years ago when their daughter was born at home in the yurt.

“Jami built such a beautiful home for us out of what we had,” he said.

Still, in the waning months of winter, the land doesn’t look its best, Zachary Fowler apologized. And it’s true that the property doesn’t have the kind of glossy, photogenic charm that leads to documentation in trendy shelter magazines. Yet it is clearly the family’s home, and the bitter cold and bright sunshine of a blustery early March day allowed some of their innovations to shine.

There’s the workshop that he built out of wooden strapping and heavy plastic that is primarily heated through passive solar gain, and which was warm even though the simple wood stove was unlit. Another large plastic and wood structure—this one looking a little like a circus tent—has served as the barn for meat animals such as goats and pigs, although they haven’t done a lot with animals since Fowler went off to shoot the TV show last summer (which was winter in Patagonia). They grow a lot of the vegetables they eat in raised beds, and use a large kiddie pool as a gardening reservoir, pumping water out of it to water the garden, the blueberries and the apple trees. For their own use, they have a homemade water tower made of a reinforced tank atop stacked pallets that functions well when it’s not freezing outside and which is connected to the camper with a hose.

“The rest of the time we say we have running water. You just have to run and get it,” Fowler said. “It’s a little more work.”

There’s an outdoor kitchen, and a solar panel that is just strong enough to run some lights and charge some devices. At night, they fire up a gasoline-powered generator, so they can watch movies and “have all the lights we want.” This lets Zachary Fowler create and share videos to his YouTube channel, Fowler’s Makery and Mischief, dedicated to the innovations and inventions that have helped him both live off the grid and survive on his own in Patagonia. Neither thing is exactly easy, he said. Living off the grid demands both ingenuity and a lot of labor, but it’s been worth it to him and his family.

“It’s a lot of work, living so off-griddy,” he said. “My dad says it’s funny, because I don’t like to work, and yet I chose this lifestyle that’s more work than anything. But it’s also so rewarding, t o get out there and make your own life. I love being outdoors and gardening. Everything about living off the grid is rewarding.”

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