My wife and I own a 50 acre place in Northern Maine that was originally intended to be a home-building site. It is remote, quiet and off-grid. Along with an outbuilding/bathhouse I constructed, there is also a 40 foot shipping container I set up as a secure storage building/shelter. The land has plenty of water nearby and the entire property is wooded in White Cedar (weatherproof/rot-proof) Balsam Fir , Birch and Spruce. Unfortunately over the years the location has became less ideal for us. The political climate (until very recently) is unfavorable ( taxes, government regulation, overall policies). The economic situation was bad before the current recession, now parts of Maine remind me of what I saw in East Germany after the wall came down. Because of this, I abandoned the project about four years ago and moved most of our belongings to the Western United States.
Why We Went Back
I work as an independent contractor all over the US. This year I managed to get a short contract within a 2 hour drive of the Maine property. My wife and I were carrying minimal gear with us from Montana (See Survival Trip, a 10% Test, archived in Survival Blog). We planned to stay on the acreage part-time during the work assignment, then remain there afterward for at least a month.
We wanted to make no major purchases during our stay, so the big question was: would we be able to live there (essentially camping out) with what we brought with us as well as what was 'left behind' on the property? After a three to four year absence, I could not remember exactly what equipment and supplies were there. Considering this, I began thinking: what would happen if we had to return to this place to try to survive in an unplanned emergency? I knew I did not have a complete survival set-up in Maine. I also knew the high taxes and poor (anti-business) economy made it a bad retreat choice. However, if we were 'stuck' in the northeastern US during a crisis, returning to the 50 acre property seemed the logical solution. The land was paid-for, and it did have natural resources. We also had friends there we could trust. Plan A in a crisis would be to get back to Montana, Plan B called for returning to my home state of Missouri. Maine was plan C. With our travel lifestyle, maybe Plan C would be all we had to work with, someday.
My return to the property last Summer could not be defined as a 'Survival Emergency'. We had enough resources to return West. In Summer 2010 it was still relatively safe (but expensive) to travel across the US. I decided to think strategically and look at things as if I had to remain in Maine for an indefinite period of time. As per my previous article, we had already loaded our trailer with survival gear and attempted to travel from Montana to Texas during the blizzard of 2010. Now having left Texas to work in Maine, I saw re-occupying the land as another type of 'Test'. Anyway, despite the economy the fishing is pretty good in Maine, lobster was $4.50 per pound and we were technically on vacation. We also had good friends living there, or should I say trying to live there, suffering under the heavy taxation and oppressive government. There was one final practical reason: The property had not been occupied in four years. The road and existing structures needed maintenance.
Doing Business in Maine
Four years ago I moved to Montana. Returning to Maine, my first regret was that I had transported some of the heavy, easily replicable items out west four years ago. About 10% of the 'stuff' I moved at that time: pry bars, hammers, chains, shovels, and splitting wedges could have been left behind in Maine and duplicated in Montana for probably less cost in both time and money. Now I needed the tools that were over 2,000 miles away. I had other things I owned (and needed), but were impossible to carry around. For example: my 5000 watt generator, the clothes washer, the bench grinder, and the welder were all sitting idle in Montana. In Maine, it has been my experience that new (or even used) tools are relatively expensive compared to the Mid-west or West. .
When you try to buy used stuff, people in the Northeast don't tend to bargain at sales, often refusing to sell an item on a whim! For example, I saw a beat up circular saw at a garage sale for $20 (firm). In Missouri, one would have been embarrassed to put $5.00 on such an item. One person refused to sell me some of the scrap wood he had piled in his yard in preparation for burning. On the retail side, the nearest lumber store claimed to be out of chimney parts (even though the computer said they were well-stocked). They did not look very hard to find the items, or offer to order what I needed. The clerk at the lumber store told me that people don't buy stove parts 'during this time of the year'. 'When do they start thinking about heating with wood, when the first snow falls?' I thought. There were other such personal experiences occurring on an almost daily basis. My prior visits to the Northeast prepared me for such 'customer service' but, returning 4 years later, I could see things were getting worse.
Another war story: A friend of mine tried to pay cash in advance to get a large propane tank filled (he owned the tank). The company refused to fill it without my friend completing a credit application (social security number, Drivers License Number, etc.) for the cash-up-front fill! This and other experiences proved to us that it was expensive and troublesome enough to get what we needed in a non-emergency (on a 'good' day), what would have happened if I we were really stuck with no reliable transportation, and needed additional tools or supplies in a collapsed economy? We won't count on it in the Northeast!
To be fair, there are some bargains to be found in the Northeast. When I was in downtown Boston MA, I loaded my pickup with Craftsman hand tools a lady had put on the curb to throw away.. Apparently a relative died and she was cleaning out the basement. I had just been passing by at the right time
We found good, used furniture just by driving around an getting what was left at curbside. Watch out taking stuff from a dumpster, I was almost for arrested picking out a sheet of plywood that was being thrown away. I also almost cried at the sight of #2 2x6x8 lumber in another dumpster at a construction site (they would not give me permission to take these boards that were destined for the landfill).
What I Stored in Maine
Fortunately I did leave some basic things on the property. Here are some of the following items I was pleased to find 'left behind' . These were stored in the 40 foot shipping container. :
Along with the above list, we had left a gas stove/oven, a propane heater, and a hand washing device plus clothes wringer.
We did not arrive empty-handed. I use a four-wheel drive Toyota towing an insulated 5 x 8 foot cargo trailer (modified for camping use). We travel with firearms, carpentry tools, 700 watt generator, sleeping bags, cold weather gear, wet weather gear, auto mechanic tools, come-along, SW radios, first aid and medicines, propane heater, computers, weather radio, gloves, insect repellent, chain saw, electronic repair kit, head lamps, spot light (LED), Sure-fire light, mosquito net, extension cords.
Among the food items 'left behind' in the shipping container were the following:
The Olive Oil was in good shape, considering that it was 3 years old and had been exposed to extreme heat and cold. Based on this experience, I feel Olive Oil in metal cans store well. I plan to stock up with greater confidence.
Ramen Noodles did not store well in the open. They had a petroleum after-taste when cooked, the probably absorbed fuel smells from being stored in the closed shipping container. The lentils, etc seemed okay and even sprouted.
The salt turned into a solid cylinder after three years in the humid environment. In the future I will be more careful to store in three or four plastic bags with a roll of toilet paper in the outer bag.
I was very surprised at what I forgot I had. For the future, I took a detailed video of the interior to better plan what I need if I return.
First Priority: Reclaiming the Area
The Leaf Rake, Loping sheers (anvil loppers), mattock and Bow saw were necessary tools. Our first job was to get rid of the three-year accumulation of leaves and saplings efficiently. This work helped prevent fire damage, rodent infestation, and, most importantly clears the area where one can see (not to mention find lost items). It was a psychological boost getting the area cleaned up. I plan to always make sure these tools are in good working condition and may duplicate items in case of breakage. Anywhere we go, they will be high priority. Why use an Ax to cut brush into burnable pieces when one can use the anvil loppers? It's not 'mountain man' but I found it safer and more practical. Sure, I used the chain saw a lot to cut firewood, and brush but these hand tools worked just as well, especially close to places where one risked damage to structures or plastic drains.
A Note On Cutting Wood
The long, 30 inch bow saw was used extensively to cut standing dead firewood up to 4 inches into usable lengths about 50% of the time. Except for camping I never thought much about the routine use of a bow saw until observing the German Wood-Cutter. The German woodsmen are masters of the Bow Saw. Gas is expensive in Germany, over $8.00 per gallon and they can't run a chain saw during certain times of the day due to local noise ordinances. Thus, they plan their work and are careful to not waste fuel. During chain saw work I have observed a German step over marginal wood and say “Not worth the fuel.” I learned to use the technique of reversing the Bow Saw and holding the wood with two hands-working the wood over the saw instead of the normal method. You put one end of the saw on the ground and brace it with your foot, steeping on the inside of the saw so your knee projects through the opening between the blade and the handle. You can cut short pieces of wood without a saw horse using this technique. It seems to go faster since you are using both arms. It is more dangerous.
In Maine there were no noise restrictions (yet) but sound carries for miles around here. I could hear someone hammering at least two miles away. I don't like the idea of calling too much attention to my location even in a non-emergency. A local official investigated my operation when he heard my generator (I had to pay for a building permit after he showed up). The skills and tools necessary for a 'low key' means of cutting wood such as the bow saw could prove essential in the future, even if one owns a chain saw.
I had brought an 18 volt battery powered circular saw, drill and LED light (all using the same battery) as well as a car charger, three AC chargers, several 18volt batteries and a small (700 watt) generator. With the generator, I charged three batteries at once. The 18 volt circular saw for me was one of the most convenient off grid carpentry tools to have. A regular AC powered saw would have been okay, but it would require running the generator at the same time. I kept trying to buy a used A/C saw, but they proved too expensive. The saw, drill and work light batteries can be charged anytime one is running the generator for other uses, such as at night with the laptop computer or radio. I have used solar and wind in the past, but this was not practical in our situation, at that time.
Small Problems Add Up
I ended up buying a good chalk line and new chalk. My 25 foot tape failed and needed to be replaced. The hand saw (rusted after improper storage) was taken to a re-sharpening service about a two-hour drive away (they took forever to get the job done. What would have happened in a collapsed economy?) The lumber store told me they get few orders for re-sharpening. I thought: 'What are people doing, buying a new saw when the old one gets dull?' . Doing without measuring tools would have slowed things down too much. I plan to duplicate them. Sharpening saw blades was an unforeseen problem and must be addressed in the future.
After I built a couple of saw horses, The carpentry work went pretty smooth for the most part. I re-learned that protective eye wear and clothing are a must in a remote location after a few 'mistakes in judgment'. I could see how the use of protective equipment, including boots and gloves would be a strict rule in a collapsed economy with a lack of medical care and increased risk of infection, not to mention being unable to work due to injury (or worse). My chain-saw helmet, Kevlar chaps, and ear protection were critical.
We had barrels to catch the rain, but needed to be covered with screen wire. It was not pine needles or sticks that caused trouble it was the mice that my wife found floating at infrequent intervals. I don't think the wood mice will contaminate the water if removed in a timely manner. We don't drink the rain water. But, my wife is from South America where all rodents (and lack of sanitation/medical care) mean life-threatening disease.
What I Really Regret Not Having Left at the Maine Property
Moving 'stuff' is heavy, slow and expensive. Fuel was relatively cheap during this trip, but what if gas were to hit European prices of $8.00 per gal? What about No Gas Available? One has to weigh the risk/return of transporting 'stuff' vs. stocking in place and risking theft or vandalism on an unoccupied property. I now will adopt the strategy of stocking things that, if stolen, the loss would not be monetarily or psychologically devastating. Things such as a prized firearm, stored data, expensive short-wave radios are transported. Cooking and eating tools, gardening tools, even some guns are, to me worth the risk. I have to keep in mind the extensive snow fall, and the possibility of having to walk the 2 mile private road to the property. This list is both what I had mistakenly removed, as well as items that I wish that I had on the property that I would need to purchase.
What I Had to Buy or Have Shipped (What I Could Not Do Without)
I had a high quality (Montana Canvas) canvas wall tent (12' x 12') that I really missed not bringing.
A friend of mine did a huge favor boxing the canvas-only and shipping it to me from Montana. I built an exterior frame out of white cedar and spruce poles. I bought locally a plastic tarp for a rain fly and sewed-in a spare stove gasket. This allowed the 5 inch stove pipe to project through the existing stove gasket of the canvas (through the roof) , then out of the rain-fly forming two seals. It rains a lot more here in Maine than it does in Montana. The rain fly is a must. The stove was a cast-iron second-hand model bought for about $50.00 (one of the few good deals I found in Maine). I built a raised floor out of chip-board and shipping crates. This made a big difference in giving us a warm, sheltered living space.
Notes on wall tents: 1. get a good quality tent (montanacanvas.com). 2. Use a big stove and make sure you use sheet metal screws at each stove pipe section. Screw the pipe to the stove as well. The high wind will balloon the tent, and pull your stove pipe apart if you don't do this. If you stare at the stove pipe during the highest wind it will not come apart. When you leave, that's when it will come apart. Put an aluminum shield around the stove.
Another tool I bought was a 18 volt angle grinder. The property is three miles from the ocean and even that far one gets excessive rust corrosion. One day I was reading the fine print on some exterior grade wood screws that recommended rust-resistant screws within 5 miles of the ocean. That recommendation mirrored my experience. The angle grinder allowed me to wire brush corroded parts, saw blades and other metal tools. I used a lot of silicone spray and Liquid Wrench and rust resistant primer. These are stock-up items I will add to my list, as well as preventative measures.
I hate to admit this but I failed to bring a good carpenter's hammer. This was a serious error in judgment. The hammer I had left on site was probably 50 years old and the handle broke after a few weeks of heavy use. I bought an East-wing with the stainless handle during a trip to nearby (sales tax free) New Hampshire. I feel extra tool handles will be important in Maine, there are no hickory trees even to make one with. Even Oak is hard to find.
I also neglected to bring heavy work boots. I will always carry this essential item in the future. It was amazing how fast jogging shoes fell apart after a few weeks of work. I purchased a good pair of steel toe logging boots, but winced at the Maine sales tax (Montana has no sales tax). However: I also can't afford an injury (who can?). Again, I have no one to blame but myself for this oversight.
I ordered off eBay two propane lanterns (used-reconditioned) at a good price. I refilled the small propane cylinders myself.
On a lighter note, I did bring beer making supplies. The beer bottles mentioned earlier can be re-used forever. The replacement gaskets are re-used many times. One word of advice: making beer on an open fire requires a bit more planning. Be sure the wood is dry, or your final product will have too much of a 'smoky' flavor. If I stayed over the winter, a root cellar would be necessary to keep things from freezing. Come to think of it, staying over the winter would require insulating the container and installing a wood stove.
Good friends were our greatest asset. My best friend living close by is a master gardener who provided us with plenty of fresh vegetables. A propane powered refrigerator or freezer would have allowed us to take full advantage of the surplus, not to mention a root cellar, even if we did not start a garden. The other good friends we have cultivated over the years gave use moral support, great dinners (and dinner conversation), books and plenty of friendly advise. Our friends in Boston loaded a hard drive full of excellent home building and survival documentaries for our evening's entertainment.
Getting Cleaned Up
One of the structures I built on the place was a well insulated bath house. It is heated by propane and also has served as an emergency shelter. I know outside campfires are and inefficient use of wood, but we used the stainless steel basket out of a washing machine supported on rocks. With a large supply of dry brush, scrap wood or wood not 'worth' burning in the stove we heated 10 gallons of bath water much quicker than using the stove in the tent, especially on hot days. We used a separate fireplace for grilling steaks and outdoor cooking. Again, I cut small branches with the Anvil Loppers. You don't have small sticks flying up in your eye as with an ax or hatchet.
Lessons Learned About Retreating
How I Spent My Summer Vacation on the Maine Property
The shipping container had originally been placed on a foundation of crossed logs (cribbing). Over the 5-6 years since placement, it had sank about 8 inches on one end. I decided to level the container and place a more permanent treated post and beam foundation under the structure. I first hired a backhoe (a reliable neighbor who moved there from New Hampshire) to dig holes 4 feet deep on 4-foot centers under the container. I then rented a 20 ton jack. After two weeks of careful lifting and shimming, it was ½ inch above level (I had brought a survey instrument).
A Safety Tip: Don't try to jack up a shipping container all at once, to avoid a crush-injury (or worse) lift maximum 1-2 inches (3+ cm) per day and redundantly reinforce everything. Rope the jack so it won't fly toward you if it springs out unexpectedly. I know this from experience. This was my second shipping container project. Poor judgment lifting a 40 foot container in Missouri nearly cost me my leg.
When the container was completely lifted to spec, I then placed 6x6 treated posts in the holes and used rail road ties as cross-pieces. Again, this was all done off-grid with the available hand tools. The survey instrument was a restored model from the 1950s (no laser). The only thing that really bugged me about the project was that if the container fell on my arm or leg (or worse) it would be a long time before someone came to check on me in that remote part of the woods. Carry a cell phone or radio within reach if you try this alone.
Summary and Conclusion
There are a lot of problems in the Northeast. I don't want to have to retreat there long-term. But things changed, bringing me back due to work opportunity. My wife and I at least had a place to go to that was paid for, relatively secure and had a small network of friends. Most importantly, it was close to where we were working at the time. I did not go to the 'retreat' as well prepared as I wanted to be, and the retreat was not as well equipped as it should have been. However, I learned a lot about what I needed, and what I 'thought' I could do without . I can use this information no matter where I go. For me this experiment was a worthwhile set of lessons that I had to re-learn and reinforced what I already knew. It gave me the experience to set (or re-set) priorities. The project reminded me of how important it is to always be asking oneself the questions: how can I be more prepared? What obvious things am I missing in my preparedness program? I learn more from these real-world experiences than reading a ton of books after I make the mistakes then read the books it is much better understood for some reason). Anyway, will one ever have the perfect conditions to travel to one's refuge in an emergency? Conditions for finally moving to one's retreat are never ideal. We can only try to do our best, improve our condition and learn from our mistakes---while we have the time and resources to make them.