By Lorene Keitch
The Columbia Valley is losing arguably one of its most unique families with the departure of Bob and MaryAnn Fenimore.
The Fenimores have a long and interesting history here. Many may know Bob from his years as veterinarian in the valley. Perhaps others know MaryAnn from her time as a substitute teacher at the high school, alternate school and college.
But what drew most peoples attention was the couples unusual way of living. The Fenimores live in an off-grid cabin, planted in middle of their idyllic six-acre property complete with creek, off Windermere Loop Road.
The Fenimores live in the 200 square foot (18 square metre) cabin with their two Chihuahuas, Juan and Juanita. They have lived on the property seasonally for the last 12 years, coming from their house in Victoria when the weather starts to warm and leaving when it drops, usually when the thermometer hits -10 degrees Celsius.
The Fenimores bought the property in 1990, thinking they would come to play on the land, following a move to Victoria for further career opportunities. When they realized they were not using it as they expected, they decided to sell.
I thought it would sell better ifwe should have a cute little cabin on it, and Bob thought it would sell better if we put some trails in by the creek, recalled MaryAnn.
So they built a sweet little 100 square foot (nine square metre), one-room cabin out of construction leftovers found at the Windermere dump. They have since doubled the cabin to include a kitchen (two burner propane stove and a small table with enough space for two chairs). They also cleared some trails by the creek that runs through their property. They added a summer kitchen with an ancient wood-fired stove, a shed and fenced gardens.
By then, we were having so much fun, we didnt want to sell, MaryAnn recalled.
That was 12 years ago. The Fenimores have been coming back every spring since then, enjoying the off-grid living. For them, the best thing about their home in the valley is the proximity to nature and removal from modern distractions.
We stay off the grid because it keeps us closer to nature, shared MaryAnn. Its like a step up from camping.
For recreation, they watch the animals that pass through. Over the years, they have seen elk, deer, bears, cougars, coyotes, and countless birds. While this reporter was at the Fenimores home, three coyotes appeared out of the tree line. They came close to the Fenimores lawn, leaping to catch voles in the tall grass. With bushy tails and patchy fur, the coyotes stayed alert as they hunted and, with small encouragement from Bob, disappeared from sight as quick as they came.
The Fenimores have worked hard to maintain the off-grid lifestyle. Using a woodstove to heat the un-insulated cabin means a lot of labour. Water is a nonstop needed commodity. They collect water from springs by the creek for laundry, washing and so on. They heat up water in the sun for bathing, and sometimes use it for small hand washed laundry loads.
And since youre wondering yes they use an outhouse. No inside option, even at -10.
Theres been so much creativity in trying to make life easy for us and how to take care of ourselves when we dont have some of the conveniences, shared MaryAnn.
For some of lifes necessities, the Fenimores go the more practical route. While they will do small loads of laundry by hand, they often take their clothes to the laundromat in town. They charge their cell phone and computer in the car, and have a generator on site for running power tools, mostly used when they were building their cabin and accompanying buildings. Their drinking water comes from friends taps.
Bob and MaryAnn are 74 now and admit that the off-grid lifestyle has become more of a challenge. This spring, they decided it was time to sell the property. They recently put it up for sale and within hours they had an interested buyer. Within five days, it was sold.
So, how do they lock the door and drive away from this home and community?
Its sad on one side because it’s such a wonderful lifestyle, to be so nurtured by nature. We really are just so completely nurtured by nature here, so that will be sad to give up. said MaryAnn. But we are also seeing it as a season in our life when our bodies could handle it.
MaryAnn laughs when asked if they ever imagined themselves living this life, and says they are very fortunate that their interests have developed on the same path over the years. The Fenimores, who have been married for 54 years, met when they were 18 years old in the United States, where they were both born and raised.
Bob and MaryAnn spent a couple years in the Peace Corps, working in Colombia. For two years, the Fenimores lived in an isolated First Nations village. MaryAnn taught children in the one-room school who did not even know English. Their family was the only pale faces in the village and their two children, aged 5 and 7 at the time, grew to believe they were First Nations by the time they left.
We moved to Nanaimo. It was very difficult for both of them talk about culture shock, recalled Bob. We wound up driving about 10,000 kilometres all around B.C., northern Washington, Idaho, Montana, Alberta, looking for a new home.
The Fenimores took great care into choosing where to set up their lives. Before landing in the valley in 1976, they visited dozens of communities, searching for the right place. When they made it to Invermere, it felt like home.
We wanted to raise the kids in a nice community, we wanted recreation, wanted to have our own veterinary clinic and not starve to death, so a community that had enough animals, said MaryAnn.
A veterinarian was selling his practice and the Fenimores took it on willingly. Bob practiced here until 1992, servicing ranchers and farmers from here to Golden, Donald and Field.
Long-time residents may recall the flock of llamas the Fenimores raised, starting with two and building it up to about 80 llamas, kept and sold for pets and to be used as pack animals.
But now, its time to move on for good.
We have been so appreciative of the kindness and caring of friends and acquaintances in the last 40 years in the valley, said MaryAnn. Its truly been wonderful and were just so deeply appreciative of it.
The Fenimores did say this will not be the last valley residents will see of them.
We will be coming back to visit, MaryAnn promises.