On Ernest Justinen’s slice of paradise, everybody has a job.
Their two horses provide manure for fertilizer, the sheep keep the grass to a manageable level, their turkeys and chickens provide meat and eggs and their mama goat gives them fresh milk. His wife Ruth, meanwhile, provides them with fresh pumpkins, carrots, turnips and potatoes and they can fill their buckets with berries from the Crown land surrounding their remote property off Bradley Creek Road.
It’s all they need for self-sufficient off-grid living.
“A lot of people come up here and go ‘oh you’re so isolated, this must be hell,’ and I say ‘you’re actually in the middle of paradise,’” said Justinen. “I could honestly not go back to living in a town or city. I would rather put up with the four-legged wolves out here than the two-legged wolves in the city.”
A former BC Hydro worker, Justinen retired from full-time work early at 55 due to his bad back, which he broke in his 30s. After being told he would be confined to a wheelchair as he grew older, he wanted to try living in the bush while he could. Money was tight but the Cariboo offered a perfect compromise due to the proximity to Ruth’s family and the low price of property.
When they first moved to their 30-acre property, there was only a log home, hay shed and storage shed. Over the past 16 years, the couple turned the land into their sanctuary. They planted a garden, cleared and fenced 10 acres of land, built a feed shed, woodshed, solar panels, root cellar, horse paddock, sheep pen, chicken coops and aquifer.
To power their home, Justinen uses a mix of generators and solar panels. They have 60 2.3-volt station batteries, which he got from BC Hydro years ago. To charge them he uses two 1,500-watt solar panels and has purchased new panels that can collect up to 2,100 watts of solar power. Setting up an off-grid solar system has never been easier, Justinen said.
“New technology is coming along every year. This year I put in the Starlink internet system because it’s actually cheaper than my old system. It’s smaller, more powerful and we can stream movies off the internet now if we feel like it,” Justinen said. “Things have come a long way, especially from when we first got here when we had a small TV and VCR and could only run it for two hours.”
When solar power isn’t available, Justinen uses generators powered by bio-diesel, which he also uses to fuel up his truck and tractor. He produces the fuel himself from used cooking oil collected from local restaurants and the 100 Mile District General Hospital.
Justinen lets the bio-diesel sit and settle before straining it and pouring it all into a 1,500-litre storage tank. Once it has settled again, he puts it into a 150-litre oil drum where he heats the oil and mixes it with some sodium methoxide. After cooling it overnight he drains off the impurities that separate, a liquid known as glycerine. From there he combines the biodiesel with water and hand stirs it to remove the remaining impurities.
“It’s a multi-step process but what you get is a biodiesel you can use year-round,” Justinen said. “This stuff here is so fine and has so little fatty acids, it actually cleans and lubricates my engines.”
Typically, he said it takes him three days to make a useable 100-litre batch of biodiesel. Justinen said it only costs him 30 cents a litre to make and he uses about 2,500 litres a year.
The excess glycerine produced by the process doesn’t go to waste and is used to make lye soap. During the hand sanitiser shortage early in the pandemic, Justinen sold several 10-pound bars of his soap to neighbours and donated the proceeds to the 100 Mile House Food Bank Society.
“I donated the money to the Food Bank. We don’t have a lot of money but this was found money so it made a perfect donation.”
Even before Justinen started living off-grid he was a jack of all trades, having held jobs as an autobody mechanic and bartender at the Farrier Pub, besides his stint at BC Hydro. As a result, he said he can do his own plumbing, electrical and mechanical work – key to living off-grid.
“Since I came up here because of the work I’ve had to do I’ve actually built my back up,” Justinen said. “It’s actually better than when I left Hydro. I think sitting behind a desk all day wasn’t doing my back a whole lot of good. Now I hardly sit. I’m running and working all the time.”
Justinen said it can take a lot of hard work and planning to live off-grid, noting he and Ruth spent two years thinking about it before making the leap. However, while he loves the off-grid lifestyle, he said they’re both getting to the age where they’re starting to feel the work and thinking of selling the place.
“A lot of people say ‘I’ll never leave, I’ll be on that land ‘til I die.’ Well to me that’s kind of foolish. I love the place and I’d love to stay here and die at 140, that’d be nice,” Justinen said. “It’s just a wonderful lifestyle. The only thing I would have done differently is retired 10 years earlier.”