A modern movement toward self-reliance has inspired people to unplug from society and to live more simply, removed from the trappings of modern life. But how off-grid are they really? How long could they last completely isolated? Time itself can reveal any weakness or flaw in a person’s self-reliance.
There is a tale from the other side of the world that illustrates the concept of true off-grid living. It includes all of the important concepts for a true off-grid experience: wilderness, isolation, material scarcity, wild abundance and time.
No Hollywood movie would have to change a thing in the story of a remote family – the Lykovs — who cut the bonds of society and lived truly off the grid.
The story of the Lykov family begins in post-Bolshevik revolution Russia. As many studious historians are aware, Vladimir Lenin and his bloody band of Bolsheviks took command of Russia in November of 1917. Looking to fulfill the “dream” of a communist state, the Bolsheviks implemented all aspects of a planned government in what became known as the Soviet Union. One aspect of communism the Bolsheviks energetically pursued was the spreading of their atheist beliefs across the new nation. Religions of all kinds were harassed and persecuted, and religious practitioners were even murdered.
It was in this setting a young man named Karp Lykov found himself. Karp was a member of the Old-Believers, a sect of Christianity that had been popular in Russia. Although Christians had a history of oppression in Russia, Karp had never experienced anything like Lenin’s reign of terror. One day while Karp was working on a government-controlled farm, a member of the new state’s armed police force executed his brother in front of his eyes. It was then that Karp committed himself to flee the oppressive government, at all costs.
Leaving would not be easy. For one thing, Karp had a young wife and two children under the age of ten. For another, the Lykovs would face serious punishment for an attempted escape if captured by authorities. Finally, the area Karp would take his family, the Taiga, was some of the wildest land in the world. As one of the largest forests in the world, the Taiga had been known to swallow up people whole. It was the type of place you sent someone you wanted to get rid of. This immense forest was home to numerous creatures, but the main opponent of the Lykovs would be something less foreboding: cold. For nine full months a year, much of the Taiga is at risk of frost. It would challenge them in their attempt to raise crops from year to year.
With the deck stacked against them, Karp and his young family dove headlong into their escape in 1936, fleeing to the forest to save their lives and religious beliefs. They were loaded down with what little they could carry: the clothes on their back, a handful of pots and pans, seeds for crops, a family Bible, and, strangely enough, the components of a spinning loom. Over time the family would build several shelters, each time pulling up roots and moving deeper into the reclusive wilderness. Eventually, they made their home in a remote mountaintop more than 150 miles from the nearest settlement.
As the family retreated ever deeper into the Taiga, they added more children to the mix. Soon, there would be two more Lykov kids — two who would not know the outside world until well into their lives. More children meant more mouths to feed, a problem constantly present.
The Lykovs survived mainly on the crops they raised which included rye, potatoes and seeds of hemp. The area proved to be a difficult place for cultivation, and one year the family lost all of their crops to a June frost. They then turned to the forest for their food. With an abundance of berries and nuts to gather, they were able to eat well during the summer and fall months, but as winter clenched the isolated family in its icy grip, things got bad — very bad.
Before the end of one particularly bad winter, the family was reduced to eating leather and bark to survive. This was the year Karp’s wife, Akulina, would choose to see her children fed rather than herself, and would die of starvation.
Of course, the Taiga did offer up countless varieties of creatures the Lykovs would have been able to eat. Reindeer, moose, beavers and a plethora of smaller creatures appeared to be ripe for the taking. But when they fled to the Taiga, the family had failed to take any sort of weapon with them. Not only had they not taken anything with them, but they also had never built weapons, such as a bow and arrow. Although the family did eat meat occasionally, their means of obtaining it were rather crude.
For most of their time living in isolation, the family would get meat by setting primitive traps — mainly pitfalls. Once their son Dmitry, who was born in the forest, reached maturity, he actually practiced an ancient hunting strategy called persistence hunting. When hunting, Dmitry would chase animals in the forest until they simply collapsed from exhaustion. Although not easy, this method has been proven to be a realistic way to obtain meat. However, meat would always be considered a luxury at the Lykov residence. In reality, their diet was a monotonous repetition of the same dishes.
Life continued much the same for the Lykov family each year they lived in isolation. They would do their best to store up food in the summer months, reach a point of near starvation in late winter, and, if they were lucky, they would repeat the process the next year. The family claimed to hold a meeting each year and vote to either eat up all the seed, or leave some for planting. In addition to their farming, the family would do their best to support their collapsing cabin, repair their tattered clothing with forest material, and try to find a way to replace their slowly deteriorating metal cookware.
Then, one day, life would forever change for the Lykov family. In 1978, a group of geologists employed by an oil company were scouting new lands by helicopter. As the group flew close over the treetops, they were astonished when they saw a settlement high on the mountainside. With no place to land the chopper, the team retreated back to the nearest town and prepared for an overland expedition. After days of walking through the thick brush, the team of geologists eventually relocated the site. They stumbled upon the Lykov family home and were greeted by the surprised Karp with a gruff: “Well, since you have come this far you might as well come in.” It had been 42 years since the family had fled into the forest.
Over the course of time, the geologists would come to learn the story of this isolated family. The two youngest family members, Dmitry and Agafia, would for the first time in their lives meet someone other than a family member. The Lykovs would hear of the world events they had missed, including World War II. Eventually, the Lykovs would learn of the technological advancements that had been made over the past four decades. As the family began their reconnection with the outside world, they struggled to incorporate new innovations into their strict religious beliefs. Many times they would marvel from a distance but not allow themselves the opportunity to partake fully in the conveniences.
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Today, all but the youngest family member, Agafia, have passed on. Well into her 70s, Agafia continues to live in her forest home. She has sporadic contact with the modern world and even ventures to town now and again. She prefers the clear water and clean air of the mountains, and spends much of her time as she was raised.
The story of the Lykov family is an amazing off-grid tale. Completely dependent only upon themselves, the family could not have been further from modernity. Their life was a mix of extreme hardship, self-reliance, and the freedom such a life affords. For someone looking to move off grid, it offers multiple lessons, and it can teach us much about living in isolation. Like so many people of the past, the Lykovs were able to pass the real test of self-reliance: the test of time.
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