Do you have enough grit to go off the grid?
Clarkston couple’s cabin a ‘reality’ check in ‘Unplugged Nation’
By JENNIFER K. BAUER
Many people dream of living off the grid.
Some are weary urbanites seeking refuge from the metropolitan rat race. Then there are the “preppers” who, predicting doom for America, squirrel away rations somewhere deemed safe from the coming calamity. Others simply want to unplug to a quieter way of life.
Off-the-grid homes are not uncommon in the Inland Northwest, and producers of a new reality TV show chose north central Idaho to film an attention-grabbing pilot for a new series about self-sufficient living. “Unplugged Nation,” scheduled to begin airing Wednesday on the FYI channel, follows couples and families who test out the unplugged lifestyle in remote locations across America. Trailers for the series show scenes from an Atlanta couple’s stay in a luxury cabin in Hells Canyon owned by Dale and Betsy McGreer of Clarkston. Cut to shots of a wooden outhouse, a rattlesnake and tears.
“It was a grand dream of theirs. I don’t think they realized the harshness of reality,” said Gary Bergen, a Realtor with Century 21 Price Right in Lewiston who helped producers arrange the visit and appears in the Idaho episode. It is not yet clear when the episode will air.
The British production company Blast Films contacted Bergen in 2013 in search of off-the-grid and self-sufficient homes. Couples in the series plan to buy such homes, and each episode features a new couple touring three homes and then choosing one for a four-day test run. At the end they decide to buy or not.
Bergen spent six months researching regional homes for sale that fit the description.
“Most people don’t see these types of properties around here because they don’t want to be seen,” said Bergen, who has toured remote and isolated homes with underground bunkers, secret caches for food and ammunition and hidden power generator systems. The area’s long growing season and relaxed hunting and fishing regulations make it possible for people to actually live off the land here, explained Bergen, who said he sells about three to five of these types of homes a year.
“Most owners are very secretive. They don’t even want to let you on the property,” he said.
The three area homes producers chose for the series’ pilot were a large modern residence in Potlatch that was not fully off the grid, a small cabin in Kamiah that came with acreage and the McGreer’s cabin. Listed at $425,000, it’s about four miles from Heller Bar and accessible only by boat.
“It was the most amazingly bizarre undertaking Dale and I have ever encountered in all our years on the river,” said Betsy McGreer, who participated in the filming last July.
The McGreers own two homes on the river. They built the one that is for sale in 1992. They later built another home next door, which is where they watched the action from their deck while sipping Coronas.
“The whole premise of the thing is that they were going to so carefully match this family that wanted to live off the grid that they would be thrilled and would buy our cabin,” McGreer said.
However, she learned that in reality TV nothing is as it seems, she said.
In each episode, an “off-the-grid expert” named Jay Gruen guides the chosen family through skills needed to transition into the new lifestyle — from harvesting their own food, to tending to livestock to generating power. The McGreer’s cabin has propane for cooking, wood for heat, a generator and fruit trees. The McGreers were asked to convert an outdoor rock shower into a chicken coop and build a goat pen under the deck. Garden boxes with vegetables and herbs were brought in by boat, along with a goat named Truffles and chickens.
“When the family finally showed up, it was just hilarious,” McGreer said.
Temperatures were in the low 100s. The family was not allowed to use the indoor bathroom and were instead directed to the outhouse. They had to milk the goat. The children feared the sound of coyotes at night. The wife had to kill a chicken for their dinner and cried for hours after. The family was to gather eggs for breakfast. Afraid the hens wouldn’t lay, a producer bought eggs and kept them in the McGreer’s refrigerator. He came in at 4 a.m. to warm them under his armpits and slip them into the coop, McGreer said.
“All the contrived experiences that they had to do for filming,” she said, laughing.
“There’s a dozen of those kinds of things, and they didn’t buy our cabin either, so it’s still for sale.”
While it was fun, McGreer said she doesn’t think she would do it again.
“We did an awful lot of work to help this thing come together. We developed lifetime friendships with the film crew. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything but would I do it again? Probably not.”
If you go
What: “Unplugged Nation”
When: Wednesday, July 29, check local listings for time
Where: The FYI channel