I’m one who prefers to get the most difficult and challenging tasks out of the way early, so the first thing I did Thursday when I arrived at Willey’s Dam Camp for my winter visit was to use the ladies room — otherwise known as the 5-gallon bucket behind the curtain.
Thoughts of the bucket had plagued me a bit since I first learned of it during my fall visit to the off-the-grid home of Paul and Lori-Ann Willey — it tormented me a little, to be honest — but then there were those images of chickadees sitting on my fingertips and eating sunflower seeds from the palm of my hand, and Cyril the red squirrel standing on his hind legs at the glass door waiting for me to feed him a peanut, and the utter and complete solitude, and the food.
And so I returned to the Willeys’ camouflage-sided camp located 8 miles from the pavement outside Millinocket.
Paul and Lori-Ann, who are both from Palmyra and graduates of Nokomis High School in Newport, purchased the camp on leased land on the edge of Millinocket Lake in 2004 and eventually chose to turn it into their year-round home. They have expanded it to about 760 square feet, dug a well and installed 10 solar panels which provide power.
While living remotely off the grid brings challenges for anyone, it may be even more daunting for the Willeys because Paul has multiple sclerosis and all of the many, often unpredictable medical problems the disease brings with it.
When I visited last fall he was mostly confined to his power wheelchair. Since then a new series of medications has improved his mobility, and when I arrived Thursday he met me at the front door holding onto his cane.
Good days are still followed by bad ones — bedridden ones — but overall his mobility has improved and the constant burning sensation he felt on his skin, like rug burns, has diminished.
The only access to camp in the winter is by snowmobile. I had parked my car at the Northern Timber Cruisers Snowmobile Club where Lori-Ann met me on her sled. We threw all my stuff into a large plastic tote hitched to the back and set off along the well-groomed trails.
Fifteen minutes later we were at camp and Paul was ready to go ice fishing.
Thirty minutes later we pointed the sleds toward Mount Katahdin and took off across the lake where the Willeys’ ice shack sits, about 3 miles from camp.
Under a cloudless sky and brilliant sunshine, at the base of the snow-capped mountain, we set 10 traps and enjoyed an afternoon of 15 degrees and no wind.
Lori-Ann drilled an extra hole and we filled 10 five-gallon buckets with water which we towed back to camp. The lake is the only water source during the winter and the Willeys use it for everything, including drinking.
They go through about 7 gallons a day.
During the winter they also have to keep their dooryard plowed like we all do so they can access their woodpile and storage sheds. They have their own plow that they hook up to their Polaris Ranger.
A perfectly respectable compost toilet is available from spring through fall, but the drain tube will freeze during the winter limiting its use, hence the pee bucket, which Lori-Ann empties and sanitizes each day.
I was pleasantly surprised to find the bucket equipped with a Luggable Loo, a compact toilet seat that snaps neatly on the top.
When we returned in the darkness Thursday night, Paul stoked the wood stove and within minutes the fire was raging. Paul began preparing dinner. Lori-Ann had gutted and filleted the three cusks that were caught out on the ice and Paul began cooking them — poached in a creamy wine sauce, thank you very much — and we feasted.
Out on the deck the stars were brilliant and the quiet was broken only by the low rumbling and occasional bang as the ice shifted in the cove.
The temperature dropped to 9 below zero overnight and the camp cooled down. It is not the place for slinky lingerie, but is comfortable when dressed appropriately.
In the morning the mountain appeared purple as the sun began to rise.
Cyril the red squirrel was already at the glass door, up on his hind legs waiting for his first peanut of the day. As soon as the door was opened chickadees appeared in a nearby tree.
I stood on the deck with a handful of sunflower seeds and they quickly hopped onto my fingertips to snatch them.
Lori-Ann started the coffee percolating, yes they percolate their coffee, and Paul took care of the woodstove.
That was a relatively easy day. The water buckets were full, the wood was in, there was no snow to plow. But there are always projects, things to be repaired, jerry-rigged if you will.
But there will be time for Paul and Lori-Ann to enjoy the quiet, the solitude and their hobbies, Paul’s technical interests and Lori-Ann’s passion for photography. They will update their Facebook page “Willey’s Dam Camp” and their website damcamp.com and keep the wildlife outside their door happy.
It’s a physically challenging, yet restful and peaceful life. As difficult as winter can be when living off the grid, both are quick to say it is their favorite time.
The work is hard, but the rewards are great.
While the life is not for everyone, they are happy living as they’ve chosen and plan to do so as long as they can.
There are pros and cons for sure, but the cons?
Well, simply a drop in the bucket.
You can reach Renee Ordway at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: A previous version of this story referenced the Northern Timberland Cruisers Snowmobile Club. It is the Northern Timber Cruisers Snowmobile Club.