Stephan & Allyce, the off-the-grid houseboating couple from “Ice Lake Rebels,” invite Yahoo Travel aboard their (thankfully!) unfrozen houseboat (Photo: Animal Planet)
As a fan of Animal Planet’s new docu-series “Ice Lake Rebels,” which follows a group of houseboat-dwelling survivalists as they brave a typically brutal winter 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle, I encountered two things I hadn’t expected when I visited a couple of the show’s cast members in Canada’s Northwest Territories. One was the sunny, postcard-ready 70-degree weather instead of the white, frozen landscape depicted on the show.
The other was a woman singing opera.
“That’s our neighbor,” Stephan Hervieux, one of the more colorful folks featured on “Ice Lake Rebels,” explains during our late-morning serenade. Stephan and I, along with his “Ice Lake” co-star and new wife, Allyce Rattray — they got married after wrapping the show’s first season — are enjoying beverages on a beautiful day atop their houseboat, one of the 30 or so moored on the gigantic Great Slave Lake (North America’s deepest lake and the world’s 10th largest). The music coming from the nearby houseboat shows the neighbors are also enjoying the beautiful day, even as they work. “She’s putting in a sauna,” Stephan says of the nearby opera lover.
Ironically, when the ice melts, Stephan and Allyce can finally chill out on their houseboat (Photo: Sid Lipsey)
Saunas are one thing you don’t often see on “Ice Lake Rebels.” The show, shot last winter, follows a group of “rebels” who, looking to escape the rules, structures, and excess of modern society, live on very spartan houseboats on Great Slave Lake. These “rebels” live off the grid, supplying their own power, heat and water. And they exist mostly out of the reach of local government and, as they like to point out, taxes.
Despite the fact that “Ice Lake Rebels” continually highlights the risks of living on a lake that spends three-fourths of the year frozen in minus-40-degree weather, Stephan and Allyce say they often hear from fans, as well as friends who live in the nearby town of Yellowknife, who dream of buying a houseboat and living the “Ice Lake” lifestyle. “There are people in town who think, ‘This is great. You don’t pay taxes. It’s cheap,’” Allyce says.
Across the bay from their houseboat, Stephan and Allyce can see the urban hell they’ve escaped: Yellowknife (Pop: 20,000) (Photo: Sid Lipsey)
Still, the couple issues strict, “don’t try this at home” advice to reality show fans who envy their naturalistic, anti-Kardashian existence. “Being off the grid seems all hunky-dory and fun,” Stephan says. “But no, it’s a ton of work. It’s a ton of responsibility. And it’s the biggest gamble you’ll ever make.”
Anyone who’s still thinking of taking that gamble should consider the serious perils of living the “Ice Lake” lifestyle.
The Danger to You
On “Ice Lake Rebels,” the bitter cold on Great Slave Lake has put Stephan in danger more than once (Photo: Animal Planet)
It almost goes without saying that living on a houseboat atop a gigantic, temperamental lake that turns into a 10,000-square-mile ice cube in the subzero winters comes with considerable risk. In the first episode of “Ice Lake Rebels,” a couple moved to a houseboat to try out lake life. By the end of the episode, they’d packed up their stuff to head back to the city, rattled by a terrifying incident when one of them slipped and fell into the freezing water. Stephan had his own frozen drama on the show when he and another cast member went missing overnight during a fishing trip in deadly subzero weather (spoiler alert: They’re both OK).
This is what Great Slave Lake looks like for a few months out of the year (Neal Jennings/Flickr)
… and this is what it looks like for 3/4 of the year. Yes, those are tire tracks on the lake; the ice gets so thick you can drive across it (Photo: Steve Goodyear/Flickr)
“I would caution anyone that’s going to do this because it’s dangerous,” Stephan says. “Off the grid on land? Go to it, have at ‘er! Off the grid on a houseboat? Very dangerous.”
The Danger to Your House
“Our life’s worth of investment is this house,” says Stephan of his and Allyce’s smallish one-bedroom, one-bathroom houseboat. “Sinking is not an option.”
Living off the grid on a houseboat on Great Slave Lake is the ultimate do-it-yourself job (Photo: Sid Lipsey)
Try telling the lake that. Due to the region’s brutal cold and Great Slave’s notoriously fickle 20- and 30-knot winds, Stephan and Allyce’s investment, and the investments of all the other houseboaters, are in constant danger. On one of the most dramatic moments in “Ice Lake Rebels,” Stephan and Allyce frantically struggled in way-below-freezing temperatures to keep their home afloat after finding a hole in one of its two aluminum pontoons. Stephan had to jump into the frigid water, risking hypothermia, to stop the leak.
“The lake froze the next day,” Stephan remembers. “If it had frozen with that water in the pontoon, we would have been screwed. The water would have expanded with ice, shattered the pontoon, and there would have been a sinking.”
And if the water doesn’t get you, the ice might. Wind-driven ice floes — gigantic floating pieces of ice up to two football fields in length (“an island of ice,” as Stephan describes them) — are the house hunters of Great Slave Lake, ominously lurking throughout the bay during “breakup” (the dangerous period near winter’s end when the ice starts to break apart), threatening to smash into the houseboats.
For houseboaters on Great Slave Lake, ice can be a real homewrecker (Photo: KyleWiTh/Flickr)
And if the ice gets your houseboat, it’s Game Over for your life’s investment; homeowners insurance is practically unheard of on the lake. “No one is going to insure these houseboats because they know how risky it is,” Stephan says. “This is the biggest crapshoot you’re ever going to play. Every year is a gamble.”
It’s a “Do-It-Yourself” Hell
Though Stephan and Allyce’s home is small, it takes a huge effort to keep the power, water and heat going (Photo: Sid Lipsey)
Sure, the houseboat dwellers on “Ice Lake Rebels” treasure their independence. But the potential downside is that they have to be 100% self-sufficient. “On a houseboat,” says Stephan, “you’re the electrician. You’re the water/power guy. You’re the sewage guy. You’re the contractor. You’re the plumber. You’re doing it all on your own.”
Our tour of Stephan and Allyce’s houseboat (see video below) shows that the most basic living amenities most of us take for granted (heat, power, running water) are major undertakings on an off-the-grid houseboat. The couple has invested more than $100,000 in their floating domicile, not including the $2,000 propane refrigerator, $700 for the “hot water-on-demand setup,” and another $2,000 on the special waterless toilet — all luxury items when you’re talking about houseboat living. “Just because I’m on a houseboat doesn’t mean I have to live ratty,” Stephan says. “You can live off the grid and you can be comfortable.” But it takes a lot of work and quite a bit of money.
But despite their myriad warnings about off-the-grid living up here near the Arctic Circle, Stephan and Allyce can’t deny how happy they are. “In the winter it’s a lot of work, but you feel good,” Allyce says, “like you’ve worked for everything you’ve gotten.”
Looking out over the sun-drenched lake, Stephan and Allyce are barely thinking about the fact that in just a few weeks they and their neighbors have to begin stocking up for the long and dangerous winter. Along with the sun, they’re now basking in the satisfaction of having survived another winter here on Great Slave Lake, and in eager anticipation of tackling the next one.
Stephan and Allyce enjoy the nearly `round-the-clock sunshine, while never forgetting that winter is coming (Photo: Sid Lipsey)
“There’s a sense of real accomplishment in living off the grid,” Stephan says. “It’s a sense of fulfillment in knowing that you conquered nature and her vicious winds and vicious waves. And you’ve conquered the ice and the minus 40 degrees. This is our nirvana. This is our oasis. This is peace.”