living in the Alaskan wilderness

This man’s cabin and porch view proves why our Earth rules

Words: Josh Rakic
Photo: Getty Images/ Patrick Endres

There’s living off the grid and then there’s living off the map entirely

Ignorant bliss or otherwise, most people’s image of living off the grid rarely includes a 1.3 mile trek to get to the front door, let alone a man-made shack in the Alaskan snow devoid of running water and a toilet.

Then there’s the bears that Todd Patten has to evade on said trek just to make it to his cabin alive in the summer with enough food to last the week. Because living off the grid in deep Alaskan forest is no Airbnb yoga retreat, it’s a daily challenge.

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In the summer, the sun effectively sets and rises between 2 and 4 in the morning, but it rarely gives way for anything more than a short twilight. In the winter, there are four hours of light on a good day, and in this time Todd has to find and cut wood, melt snow for water and complete any other chores for the day before darkness descends at 3 pm. But they’re challenges the former restaurant manager says are well worth it.

And it’s the winter time Todd enjoys most, a chance to pull out his camera and bask in the glory of the Northern Lights on a nightly basis, and share his pics with his loyal following of more than 100,000 dedicated followers on Instagram. And, of course, there’s no bears, which means he can eat like a king and roast ribs on his fire stove without fear of an uninvited guest.

The Matanuska Valley.

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THE RED BULLETIN: You’ve lived the cabin life for four years now. Are bears a legitimate danger?

TODD PATTEN: The truth is, everytime you open up your door to go outside there’s a small chance you might not come back. Bears do generally try to avoid humans. We’re not a part of their natural diet. But a friend of mine who has a cabin about three quarters of a mile away from mine has a wild game camera on non-stop and every week he sends me pictures of bears. I had one on my porch a couple of summers ago who was curious but didn’t try to force his way in. But yeah, my biggest fears are forest fires and bears. So when winter comes, it’s really a sigh of relief because the bears all go into hibernation and fire threat is over - we get more forest fires here than the rest of the country combined.

From the outside, the winter looks like it’d be the worst time to be in a cabin. But that’s not the case?

The winter is actually the best time. The bears are hibernating and I can use the snowmobile to haul up supplies from my van. So that first snowfall each year is a welcome relief. It means I don’t have to make that long walk several times a day. Your front porch is a freezer and because you don’t have to worry about bears, you can keep steaks, and chicken and ribs. But in the summertime, that’s a different story.  There is no refrigeration here. So I switch to other things like potatoes and rice, and tinned foods that don’t go bad and also that don’t have a smell that will attract bears. So there’s a quite a diet change. The benefit of summer and no snow mobile is I get a lot of exercise. I walk five miles up and down that trail every day.

You raised a family in the Detroit area then chose the remote cabin life four years ago. Why Alaska?

I lived up here for a year once when I was 18. My girlfriend at the time and I discovered there was a road that went all the way up to Alaska and we thought it was crazy that you could drive all the way up there. So we did. And I’ve had a soft spot for Alaska ever since. I wanted to go to Alaska for a long time and I didn’t know exactly why. Eventually I realised cabin life was something I was very interested in and after two years or so living and working in Anchorage, I started looking for a cabin. I saved up enough for a down payment on a cabin and haven’t looked back. And housing is cheap in my area because of the extremely cold temperatures, the darkness in the winter and the lack of jobs. But it’s beautiful.

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Rising moon over Mt. Sanford from last spring. -- in GLENNALLEN, ALASKA.

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What are your expenses, and what do you do for an income?

My expenses are very low. My overhead is very low. We don’t have any taxes out in this part of Alaska. I don’t have a cable bill, a gas bill, an electric bill or a trash bill. So I don’t need that much money and only work as much as I have to. I have a job at a bar not far from here. I sleep in my camper on the nights I work. So when I’m not in the cabin I enjoy driving around and experiencing the small communities within the state, and taking pictures and videos while I’m there. You can’t stay in the cabin seven days a week because you’ll get cabin fever and get a little weird [laughs]. So I spend half of the week in the cabin and half the week in the camper, going from town to town and exploring - the lifestyle of a gypsy.

And you spend almost all of your time taking photos of your adventures…

I love this place, it’s my own little paradise and I like to share it with as many people as I can. And during this time of year, most of my day is scheduled around the Northern Lights and the stars, which is my hobby and passion. If the Northern Lights are going to be out, I’ll try and get all my chores and work done. It’s really hard for me to sleep that time of year because I don’t want to miss it. They’re so vibrant, vast and eternal that they trivialize our daily problems here. They make them seem like nothing. And that makes every day feel a little special because you know that no matter how bad your day is for whatever reason, that at the end of it something magical could happen and there’s a damn good chance of it.

“…And if you live that lifestyle, it’s as close to being stress-free as you can be. Less is more.”

Are you happier now then you were living the life of a muggle?

I’m much happier now. I live a very stress-free life. There’s no TV or radio so I don’t get bombarded with the 24-hour news cycle. And when you take all that out of your life, it’s amazing how much simpler it is. I believe the smaller your home is, the less stress you’re going to have in life. You don’t have room for stuff. And if you don’t have room for stuff, you don’t buy it. If you don’t buy it, you don’t need money. And if you don’t need money, you don’t have to work. So I’m a minimalist and believe in owning as few belongings as possible. And if you live that lifestyle, it’s as close to being stress-free as you can be. Less is more.

What about having no toilet, shower or running water - that doesn’t stress you?

[laughs] In the winter time getting water is easy! I like to joke that I do have running water though - first you run outside with a pan and fill it with some snow, then you run back inside - running water. And then I melt it on the stove to use. In the summer it’s a little more difficult - I have to carry it up the hill from the lake by hand. And it’s about a 1.3 mile walk, and I carry up almost 27 litres of water each time. But that’s another benefit, you stay healthy. But it does take some getting used to having no toilet. I go to the bathroom outside. I just run in the snow and go. And there’s no shower, just a sponge bath.

What does the average winter day look like for you?

The sun is really only out between 11 and 3, and that’s when you get stuff done. If you’ve got to find wood, chop wood or pick up anything, that’s when you get it done. But I really don’t have a set schedule. And when I’m not at the cabin, I’m out in the campervan. Either way, I’m up all night catching the Northern Lights and maybe not going to sleep until 8am. Then I’m up at 1pm. When I wake up, the first thing I do is fire up the wood stove and cook breakfast - ham, eggs, potatoes. Then I’ll bring in some snow for water, find and or chop some wood - I go through a cord a month - then try not to do much of anything but relax in nature, take photos, read, cook and listen to music.

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