Living off the grid: An interview with Masa Takei

Have you ever dreamed of trading in the daily grind of city living for a simpler, more rustic lifestyle somewhere in God’s Country? Anyone who has been on the 9-to-5 treadmill long enough can probably relate to this brand of fantasy.

Masa Takei, a freelance writer from Vancouver, had that dream too. But here’s the difference between Masa and the rest of us: he decided to act on it. In Spring 2011, Masa left his busy life in Vancouver with a single-minded purpose. He would travel to Haida Gwaii, a remote archipelago on the North Coast of British Columbia, to build a small cabin and live off-the-grid for a whole year. What started as a one year experiment turned into two-and-a-half years of living.

Now back in Vancouver, Masa is currently writing about his journey building a cabin, and a new life, on Haida Gwaii. I recently had the chance to ask Masa about living off-the-grid, as well as his career and life-long love of the outdoors.

Masa, I’ve got to ask, what compelled you to trade your life in the city for one in the remote shores of Haida Gwaii?

MT: At some point, I had this realization that I’d managed to live almost four decades without ever physically building anything, let alone the shelter that I lived in. I’d never grown, gathered or otherwise harvested the food that I ate, beyond the odd fish and handful of berries. I hadn’t done anything to keep myself warm, dry, and fed other than pay someone, or rather some complex system of supply chains, to do it for me. What other animal can reach maturity and still be completely incapable of directly securing the basics of life? A house cat? Have we essentially domesticated ourselves? I’d still give the cat an edge over your average urbanite, if you were to drop both into the middle of the Great Bear Rainforest, or whatever tract of wilderness there may be left out there.

The whole thing seemed, I don’t know, unfortunate, to me. I wanted to know what if felt like to build my own home. To understand, not just intellectually, that if I’m eating meat, that it’s the flesh of another living creature.  And to go through the physical labour of hunting and processing the animal to get it onto my plate. That direct effort and involvement, I have found helps in truly valuing and appreciating my food. Getting out, you also can’t help but observe the natural connections and interdependencies within the world beyond what we’ve paved or boxed in.

If that line of thinking seems abstract, conceptual, I’d say that up to that point, my life had been all about dealing in abstractions, shuffling symbols across the page or screen.  I didn’t work with anything concrete, that you could touch.  Quite simply my plan was to build a cabin and live in it.  I started with peeling the price tags off my tools.  I grew a huge ‘Jafro.’ The year turned into two and a half. If it wasn’t for certain personal circumstances I would probably still be up there.

Masa's cabin on the shores of Haida Gwai (Photo by Masa Takei)
Masa’s cabin on the shores of Haida Gwai (Photo by Masa Takei)

 

What does it mean exactly to live “off the grid”? Did you impose any rules or restrictions on yourself?

MT:  The one thing that I didn’t want it to be was some sort of stunt, like a Year of Living Biblically (a fine book nonetheless). I had no rules per se, since I wasn’t out to prove anything.  I just wanted to satisfy my own curiosity. The “off grid” expression has become popular as shorthand for those disconnecting themselves from society, temporarily or otherwise.  In the literal sense it means not being connected to the electricity grid, and I suppose other utilities such as water and sewage. Symbolically, it’s about severing dependence on the infrastructure and tethers of modern society. In reality, we will always be dependent on the world at large, no matter what kind of bubble we build for ourselves. My desire was to live in a particular spot, among a particular community of people, and be able to build without worrying about code. The fact that I used a generator for my power, captured rain for my water, and dug a hole for an outhouse was almost beside the point.

Now for some levity. What was your most foolish “city slicker living in the wilderness” moment?

MT:  The cabin was from the school of ‘bush building’ or ‘chainsaw carpentry.’ Rough and rustic. Even so, the trifecta of plumb, level, and square still has relevance. The first week of work, I was so concerned with dragging materials up to the site and getting wood up quickly, that I buried the 16-foot raw poles that were the backbone of my cabin a few inches off here and there. Those inches rippled throughout the building process and probably added hundreds of hours of extra labour throughout the rest of my first year.

It must have been a truly life-altering experience. What were some of the big life lessons you learned along the way?

MT: That question could fill a book. The short answer is that I thought that the experience would be about learning self-sufficiency, instead I learned the real importance of community.

I held myself back by trying to get things right but the most valuable lessons came from making mistakes. Lots of mistakes. I wished that I’d just made mine more quickly.

There’s a lot of talk about gratitude these days. I suspect though, that human nature is such that true appreciation only comes when loss or scarcity has a deep impact on our everyday lives. That last thought fills me with dread.

What is it about being outdoors and in the wild that you love so much?

MT: A friend, Charles Montgomery, who has written a very successful book (Happy City) about how specific aspects of urban living affects our well-being, introduced me to the term, “biophilia” meaning roughly, “the love of living things.” The idea is that we’re evolutionarily hardwired to like nature. Just being in nature makes us feel good. That sounds about right to me.

Although, I sincerely do enjoy spending time exploring cities like New York or Paris, I feel safe in saying that I would prefer to be in any truly natural setting than any random city block on earth. In the same vein, I can’t think of a single manmade structure that I would rather see in place of a stand of old-growth trees.  As amazing as the iPhone 6 is (and iPhone 26 will undoubtedly be) I couldn’t imagine any piece of consumer electronics being as beautifully designed — for form and function — as say, a wild salmon. When a guide I had on a trip up the BC coast, explained to me that the salmon we watched spawning in the rivers fed not only the bears and eagles and a myriad of other life in the ecosystem but that their decomposing bodies also fertilized the thousand-year-old cedars (even ones far inland, the salmon being transported as bear shit), I realized how little I really understood or truly gave thought to how ‘nature’ actually works.

This despite professing to being a great lover of nature and all the time I’d spent pedalling, paddling, planting, hiking, climbing, skiing etc. in the outdoors.  Much like how little I know about how the human body works, despite being an owner and regular user of one.  I still abuse mine with blissful half-ignorance, such as by not letting it move and work as it was designed to and sticking it in a chair for hours at a time, staring at a glowing screen.  All of which will come back to haunt me, I’m sure. As they say, sitting will be the new smoking.

I’ve lived in Vancouver, a coastal city, for over thirty years. Until I got back from living on the beach on Haida Gwaii, I was completely unaware that tides had any pattern or changed on a daily basis. If this is from someone who actively pursues opportunities to get out in nature what can be expected from someone who has never had any contact with the natural world beyond a city park and what’s more has no desire to have any more? They will know more and care more about the iPhone 7.

You’re now working on a book based on your time in Haida Gwaii. Can you tell us a little about it?

MT: Technically, I’m still working on the book proposal.  If there’s any more painful process than actually writing something slated for publication, it’s continually writing about what you’re going to write about. Anyway, it is for me.  My agent has been very patient. Roughly, the idea is to use my journey as your average, urban guy, who transplants into a tiny community on a remote island and attempts to build a simple cabin and lead a simpler life. The narrative is an excuse to explore everything around that time-honoured fantasy of retreating to a cabin in the woods, or what’s referred to these days as going ‘off-grid.’  What does this mean in the context of a modern world defined by ever-increasing connection and convenience, yet with diminishing depth to our relationships and quality of our lives? Is going ‘back to basics’ even a viable option anymore? Can one still actually ‘live off the land’?  I’ve found the appropriate tone for a book like this, to be elusive. I have no desire to be a big bummer, yet it’s impossible not to sail these waters and not bump up against some large rocks below. I’m staying away from straight memoir (like a guy’s journey to man-up: Build, Hunt, Surf).  Right now, I have several members of my imaginary editorial board: Bill McKibben, Bill Bryson, and Bill Murray as the Chair.

Masa, you write primarily about travel and adventure in the outdoors. Many would consider this a dream job. When did you know this is what you wanted to do for a living, and how did you make it happen?

MT: I wish that I had a sexy ‘origin story’ with a dramatic moment of clarity.  It was more of a tortuous stretch of time in my early-30s when I questioned everything that I had been pursuing up to that point. Business casual, cubicles, PowerPoint packs. I was just not excited by any of it. I’d written my first magazine piece in Japan, years before I’d come back to do an MBA but it never occurred to me that people could do that for a living. (Some would argue that you can’t.) I believe that it was around the time that I was doing some particularly soulless work for a client, in a windowless office, surrounded by boxes of spreadsheets that I began to think seriously about doing something that I could be stoked about.

Like a good consultant, I then conducted “informational interviews” with working writers, informal “benchmarking” and “best practices” surveys, ‘pros and cons’-type exercises. But your gut is way smarter than your brain for knowing what it is that you really want. Although, I also went on a ‘vision quest’ of sorts, sat alone for three days on a mountaintop with nothing but water and a sleeping bag, waiting for a clear sign to guide me in what I should do. My spirit animal never did come with an engraved message. Eventually, I had a supportive partner who got tired of my fence-sitting and told me to either put up or shut up. I got an internship at a magazine and sat in a cubicle next to interns a decade younger. It got me started. Then it was a matter of writing, hustling, and ignoring the pathetic whimperings of my ego.

Setting out on a stand up paddle expedition through the Great Bear Rainforest (Photo by Taylor Kennedy)
Setting out on a stand up paddle expedition through the Great Bear Rainforest (Photo by Taylor Kennedy)

 

It’s inspiring how you you’ve developed your writing career around something you deeply care about. Would you say you’ve found your true calling?

MT: I’d always said that the one thing that I wanted to do is work outside.  My education and career choices seem to have run counter to that one desire. (I switched from studying geography to economics before consulting and the MBA.)  Even now, I probably spend more time at a keyboard than outside.  All I can say is that I still enjoy what it is that I’m doing, even if I find the writing process generally painful. My dirty secret, is that my motivation to write seems to come not from a pure love of the written word or even ‘the outdoors,’ but from being able to go places that I want to go, do things that I want to do, and spend time with the people I find fascinating. Very often there is no other reasonable excuse besides writing about the experience to do any of that.  If I find a better one, I may switch.

You spent seven years working for international consulting firms. Then you made, what many people would consider, a risky decision to leave a lucrative career path to become a freelance writer. What compelled you to take this leap of faith?

MT: I realize now that there would have been nothing that I’d regret more than not having at least given it a solid shot. And it would have just become harder to make the change the longer I waited.  Money is a renewable resource, time is not.  Besides, I was regularly having what one colleague called ‘Suicide Sundays.’  You know, where your guts start churning Sunday afternoon and thinking about Monday morning’s status meeting.  Having said that, I’ve had a churning gut doing what I do now. Like when I’m facing a hard deadline and the writing or reporting is going terribly. Or perhaps someone has acted badly (and perhaps that person was me). Every line of work is going to have some ‘shit bits.’  Even if you make the leap it’s not all rainbows and clouds of butterflies.  But if you’re willing to accept the shit to do what you want to do, it’s more palatable than dealing with crap to do something you don’t.  I’m probably oversimplifying here.

Masa working hard on his last magazine assignment. There are the odd rainbows. (Photo by Jeff Topham)
Masa working hard on his last magazine assignment. There are the odd rainbows. (Photo by Jeff Topham)

 

Finally, what advice do you have for others who want to make a big career change to focus on their own passion?

MT: Money is a major concern for many and it is important. I dropped my income by 90% from one year to the next. I ‘made’ more money never working a single day for one consulting firm (from a signing bonus and severance pay during the dot-com crash) than I did during my first three years of writing full-time. Moonlighting and making a gradual transition may be a better option for some. Needing less by keeping overhead low is also a good strategy. The many, petty humiliations that can come from being an adult without making an adult income is good for developing humility. You may find though that at some point, you feel like you’ve developed enough humility.

All that said, the best acid-test that I’ve heard of is to ask yourself, ‘if money wasn’t a concern what would I roll out of bed each day and do?’  If you can figure out how to eventually make a living doing just that, then that sounds like a clear win to me.

Masa Takei writes primarily about being outside and the people you find there. Publications he’s written for include Canadian Geographic, Explore Magazine, The Walrus, and The Globe and Mail. Visit www.takei.ca for more information.

3 thoughts on “Living off the grid: An interview with Masa Takei

  1. MT: “There’s a lot of talk about gratitude these days. I suspect though, that human nature is such that true appreciation only comes when loss or scarcity has a deep impact on our everyday lives. That last thought fills me with dread.”

    – You are not alone in your dread. We are fucked.

    MT: “A friend, Charles Montgomery, who has written a very successful book (Happy City) about how specific aspects of urban living affects our well-being, introduced me to the term, “biophilia” meaning roughly, “the love of living things.” The idea is that we’re evolutionarily hardwired to like nature. Just being in nature makes us feel good. That sounds about right to me.”

    – The word, biophilia, is new to me and I like it. We are all biophiles, it’s just a matter of whether you’re confused, in the closet, or out.

    Increases in ADHD, depression, and anxiety in the urban Western World, especially amongst our children and youth, are directly linked to the urban shite, the amount of time we are in front of our monitors, and in turn the vast majority of our living lives now as sedentary Jabba the Hutts.

    MT: Sitting will be the new smoking.

    – I like this idea so much that I am stealing this quote. Maybe I’ll use it for something modern, meaningful, and active, like as a Facebook update.

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