I’m raising my baby in an off-grid cabin in the Northwest Territories

It’s harder—and more wonderful—than I ever imagined
Charlotte Morritt-Jacobs

I met my partner, Alex, in July of 2019 in Yellowknife. Both of us had recently arrived in the Northwest Territories from Ontario, newly sober and ready to embrace the pristine land and water surrounding us. Soon we were inseparable. He works as an environmental technician at a diamond mine, and I’m a video news journalist.

When we met, Alex had recently purchased a 384-square-foot log cabin on a local buy-and-sell website. The place was built in the early 1970s and in serious need of repair. It resembled a Boy Scout cabin, with its chestnut-brown paint and cheesy knickknacks cluttering the walls. Over the next few years, Alex overhauled the place with tender loving care. When we first moved in, we were using an old wood stove; we’d have to get up in the middle of the night to stoke the fire. We’ve replaced it with a new stove that burns longer, hotter and cleaner. It’s our sole source of heat—and an investment in our mental wellbeing when the temperatures sink to minus-40 at night. We pump our water directly from the lake and store it in a 250-gallon indoor water cistern. Our electricity comes from a simple 12-volt 400-amp-hour solar battery bank charged by 800 watts of solar panels on the cabin’s roof. During the depths of winter and wildfire smoke season, we supplement our power needs with a Honda generator. 

Our home is nestled in the midst of dense black spruce and birch trees, located on the quiet shores of Walsh Lake, a 40-minute commute north of Yellowknife, or Somba K’e. There’s no year-round road access. The closest place we can park our car is at a boat launch approximately seven kilometres and two lakes away. In the summer, we boat home from there. When the ice is thick enough, we take our snowmobile. And when the ice thickens to nine inches, we plow an ice road and drive to our home. 

READ: I evacuated from Yellowknife this summer. Coming home was the hardest part.

In August of 2022, I found out I was pregnant. We were ready to have a child, equipped with sage advice from other parents: “Keep doing what you’re doing and bring your kid along.” We already had our lifestyle sorted, and a baby was just part of that equation. I planned to give birth at Stanton Territorial Hospital in Yellowknife. I was lucky to have that option—it’s a different story for people who don’t live near the capital. In NWT, roughly 40 per cent of parents have to leave their communities and travel by plane to Yellowknife  to deliver their babies.

Our son was due in the middle of spring—his first cries would harmonize with the sounds of free-flowing water. The week before I gave birth, in late April, I watched the landscape come alive as it emerged from its snowy slumber, transitioning from thin, chilly air to soft warmth filled with the fragrant smell of Labrador tea and juniper and the distant sound of loons returning to the lake. The trees coaxed tender buds and once again created a protective canopy overhead.

This shoulder period came with its own unique set of challenges that tested my patience. Most of the year, we could travel comfortably on an ice road or cruise across the water in an old 16-foot aluminum Lund boat. But during this transitional season,  the trek was either by skidoo, by canoe, on foot or any combination. On April 22, my contractions kicked into high gear. We managed to drive to the hospital across the lake on an ice road, but I knew our trek back would be more challenging. Our son, Arlo, was born on Earth Day—a date well-suited for a baby born into the rhythm of his adaptive natural environment.

After two exhausting days in the hospital and countless locum doctors and nurses making their rounds to check on us, we were discharged. Like any new parent, I anticipated the precarious trip home from the hospital to be both thrilling and anxiety-inducing. We had driven on the lake to the hospital but, after roughly 48 hours, we knew the landscape had likely changed. The ice had weakened under 16 hours of daylight. That season we dealt with low-quality ice, an early freeze and record-setting snowfall, the weight of which caused the ice to sink and allowed water to seep through the cracks. Picture two feet of icing sugar, and that’s the kind of overflow we were dealing with once the snow had melted. 

In the car we headed north on Ingraham Trail, a picturesque highway that extends from Yellowknife. After 10 minutes, we turned left and followed a narrow, winding gravel road until we reached the boat launch on the first lake we needed to pass. Just as we’d expected, the frozen water had thawed significantly. The ever-thinning edges of the lake where the ice road began and ended resembled a thick layer of soup. I crawled into the backseat to make sure our sleepy newborn was content and held my breath. We slowly drove the car across the lake, dodging deep ruts, white-knuckling our way onto what was left of the soft packed snow. We moved slowly enough to keep Arlo from fussing, but fast enough to avoid getting stuck. 

Once we crossed the lake, I nervously unbuckled our delicate newborn from his car seat, carefully carried him to solid ground and walked around the creek as Alex drove through the muddy terrain, a scene that resembled a Jeep Grand Cherokee commercial. We made it and began the exhausting final leg of our journey to the cabin on foot. What normally would take eight minutes by car had taken us a gruelling 45 minutes. It was a challenge, but nothing compared to what Dene, Métis, and Inuvialuit families have experienced on the land for generations. Historically, midwives had travelled by dog team to reach labouring women. Their initiative to stay safe and warm on the land was beyond anything we had ever experienced. Surely, what we were doing was northern-lite.

A photo of a man towing a canoe via a rope attached to his backpack

Public health called the next morning and insisted on a home visit. We clearly explained that it was not easy for them to maneuver across the lake, so we would travel to them. A few days later, while our newborn napped, we used an auger to drill holes and measure the ice’s thickness. We took Arlo outside and flew our drone to see where and how the ice was thinning. In the past, we would have travelled across the ice using skidoos and jumped over short sections of open water closest to the shore. This time, with a baby in tow, our every move was highly calculated.

We set off for Yellowknife. Arlo, bundled in snowsuits, receiving blankets and sound-cancelling headphones, lay between us on the skidoo. We lugged our 18-foot cargo canoe behind us, which we would use in the event of open water and in areas of thin ice that couldn’t support our weight on foot. 

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Soon, we reached a section of islands where the water abruptly became shallower. We noticed that the ice had started to candle, which drastically weakened it. We hopped off the snowmobile, grabbed our life jackets and placed our swaddled baby into a cushioned laundry basket inside the canoe. We left the snowmobile where it was and made the rest of the journey without it. Arlo gazed at the frost-covered gunwale, but he didn’t make a peep. 

We each placed one foot inside the canoe and used the other to push off as fast as possible, a method similar to skateboarding. The ice depreciated under us with every step; nonetheless, we pressed onward, quietly relieved that we had made it a little more than halfway. When we reached a channel where the ice was too weak to hold our weight, we knelt in the canoe and propelled ourselves across the ice using our wooden paddles. We listened for the sound of broken glass as the ice cracked and revealed frigid turquoise water. And just like that we floated. The remainder of our journey was smooth sailing as we followed the shoreline. After this trip, we would be able to stay at the cabin until the lake fully melted, happily marooned and disconnected from the outside world.

A photo of a house in the middle of the woods

Spring came early, along with forest fires in other parts of the territory. The farmers’ almanac predicted a long, dry summer, so Alex installed a sprinkler system. It consisted of a dozen sprinklers set up on homemade stands mounted in nearby trees and on rooftops, supplying water using 700 feet of hose and two pumps. The setup wouldn’t necessarily prevent the fire from spreading, but it aimed to create a humidity bubble that would prevent spot fires around valuable assets, such as our cabin and possessions. The precautionary measure paid off; by midsummer, retailers couldn’t keep hoses, hardware and pumps in stock.  

For months, the smoke was relentless. Most days we couldn’t see across the lake, and a thick layer of ash blanketed the ground. There were days when the air’s particulate matter (PM2.5) was 1000 ug/m3. To put that in context, any exposure to anything over 300 is considered hazardous. Still, we tried to make the most of our time together as a family. Whenever the air-quality health index was downgraded, we took Arlo outside for brief stints to fish for our dinner. By the shade of a beach umbrella he enjoyed tummy time on a blanket on the bow of the boat. We grew accustomed to changing him in this exact spot, diaper in one hand and fishing rod secured in its holder, waiting for the next bite.

We hiked with Arlo through dense old-growth taiga forest broken up by ancient granite. Along the way to rocky outcrops, we stopped to check our trail cameras and see what animals were on the move. The wildfires had not only forced people from their homes but wildlife as well. It was common enough to see bears, wolverines, porcupines, wolves and birds of prey on the trail cameras. We even saw fresh moose tracks and the occasional lynx.

Every morning before the afternoon heat I strapped Arlo to my chest and picked wild chamomile and fireweed that I’d turn into teas for the winter.  In the evening, we set up a portable crib fitted with bug netting. When Arlo wasn’t napping, he took his rightful spot as an observant site supervisor and oversaw our construction of new garden beds and soil harvesting. 

Hooked up to our Starlink satellite internet, we spent every evening at 6 p.m. glued to the daily briefing, which updated NWT residents on the latest on the wildfire situation. We knew we couldn’t expect emergency crews to be at our beck and call. By midsummer, Alex and I were keeping a close eye on two fires northeast of the cabin that had crept a little too close for comfort. To the west, the Behchoko fire led to sudden closures of the only highway to and from Yellowknife. There was a fire within proximity in almost every direction around us, the closest one 10 kilometres away—in the right wind conditions, it could reach us within a day.  

We fire-smarted the cabin, removing fuel—deadfall, woodpiles, combustible trees and bushes—from within 10 meters of any structures. We trimmed the bottoms of trees to help reduce fire risk and felled hundreds if not thousands of trees in the forest to create a 100-foot fire break. Suddenly, we had years and years worth of firewood, to be bucked up and loaded into toboggans in the winter.

As the fires got worse, we saw videos of cabin owners on fly-in lakes—people like us—fighting the fires themselves with no help from strained territorial resources. With only chainsaws, water pumps and hoses, these cabin owners were able to fend off the flames. It became abundantly clear that as physically exhausting as clearing trees in smoke may be, it was a necessary operation.

By mid-August, Arlo was able to roll from his back to his front, and 11 communities in the Northwest Territories were evacuated due to wildfires. This included Yellowknife, the nearby Dene communities of N’Dilo and Dettah, and cabin owners along the Ingraham Trail. 

After much deliberation, we decided to part ways for the time being. Alex would shelter in place and maintain structural protection for the cabin, running sprinklers multiple times a day. Arlo, our dog and I boarded the last commercial flight to Whitehorse to give our lungs a rest and stay with friends. Once the immediate threat of wildfires passed, Alex would join us in the Yukon. We thought evacuation would only last a week or so. 

READ: Fires will get bigger, faster and hotter—and communities need to prepare

When I wasn’t constantly watching the news about the situation back home, Arlo and I made the most of our time. We hiked the historic Sam McGee trails in the backcountry, and even got our baby’s first passport for a day trip to Skagway, Alaska. We also visited the place where Jack London wrote The Call of the Wild.

And yet I wished I was doing something to help. As fate would have it, I was about to be in the right place at the right time. A week into the evacuation, I heard a radio ad for a 10-day wildfire training certification offered by the Yukon First Nations Wildfire Department.  With no sign of when we would have the green light to return home, and no plausible route allowing Alex to join us, I signed up and boarded a bus. Arlo, snuggled up to my chest, was once again along for the ride—this time a seven-hour journey north to the goldfields of Dawson City.  

Every day I eagerly absorbed lectures on fire behaviour and suppression tactics. I also participated in the field by cutting fireguards and gridding swaths of burnt forest to extinguish hot spots. As the climate crisis disproportionately affects northern communities, opportunities like this to learn about the fundamentals of managing wildfires with finite resources become paramount. The training was empowering and invaluable for a mom living off the grid. I dream one day of putting my skills to the test during wildfire season in the wilderness.

By September, the last remaining fireweed petals fell, and mountain summits became speckled with fresh snow. After three weeks away it was safe to return home and to be reunited as a family back at the cabin.

A photo of a mother looking down at her infant child as the sun rises over a grassy outcropping

It has been nine months since we had Arlo, but years of fostering a relationship with ice at the cabin.  It’s a love affair of sorts every season. I listen, feel, look, and become familiar with its formation, using this knowledge to create a safe path for myself. Alex and I have been the first ones on the frozen lake and the last ones out. And every year by the light of a headlamp, we bundled up in ski gear while pulling toboggans behind us. 

Parenting off-grid is rewarding, with opportunities to grow from small discomforts. Raising a baby without permanent road access is a whole different ball game. Our lives are governed by the northern lakes, and our access to and from the outside world dictated by the state of the water, open, frozen or somewhere inbetween.  Out here, weather is boss, but also a teacher, and if you pay attention, you will become intimately acquainted with the pace of the seasons. 

I’m looking forward to setting snares for rabbits on the frozen lake, watching the celestial dance of lady aurora as I sip tea in front of my wood stove. It’s not a life completely free from modern chaos—we still work, and we will eventually introduce screens to our baby.  But is a life that fulfills a purpose: to try to live without excess, and to pass along those same values to my son.