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. The God damned bears! The grizzlies that former Detroit area native Todd Patten has to evade on said trek just to make it to his cabin alive in the summer, and with enough canned groceries in tow to last the week. Because living off the grid in deep Alaskan forest is no Airbnb Big Sur yoga retreat, it’s a daily challenge.

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In the summer, the sun effectively sets and rises between 2 and 4 a.m., though rarely gives way for anything more than a short twilight. In the winter, there’s four hours of light on a good day, in which 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 p.m. But they’re challenges the Michigan restaurant manager of 14 years says are worth it, and then some.

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 until his heart’s content, without fear of an uninvited guest short on manners.

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 chance you might not come back. It’s a small chance. Bears 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’s sending me pictures of bears. I had one on my porch a couple summers back 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 goods from my van - laundry, groceries, gasoline. Supplies in general. 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 canned good 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 side benefit of summer and no snow mobile is I get a lot of exercise. I walk up and down that trail five miles a day, usually carrying a bunch of stuff.

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 and I at the time 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 spot in my heart for Alaska ever since. I wanted to go to Alaska for a long time and I didn’t know exactly why. Eventually I realized 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 a little while away. The nights I work I’ll stay in my campervan. 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 half a week in the cabin and half a 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 cable 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’m carrying up seven gallon jugs of water. 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 steak, 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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