No electricity, no problem

Off the grid is easing living for the residents of Three Rivers Recreation Area

Erin Foote Marlowe / The Bulletin /

LAKE BILLY CHINOOK -

A twisty road leading out of Lake Billy Chinook and into a ponderosa pine forest eventually takes you straight by the front gate of a very different kind of place.

Behind the manned gate of the Three Rivers Recreation Area lie 4,000 acres of property and 450 homes, but not a single phone or power line.

Residents in this subdivision of full- and part-time homeowners are entirely off the electrical and telephone grid, are proud of it and want it to stay that way. They rely on solar power to provide houses with electricity.

”You have no idea how bright the stars are,” said Mary Johnson, 69, who bought property at Three Rivers with her husband in 1975 and moved there permanently in 1999. ”No sirens, no trains. I would not live anywhere else.” Just an hour from Bend, this hodgepodge of upscale houses, mobile homes, outhouses and shacks has been defying the norms of life since the development began in the late 1960s.

Up until the advent of cell phones, the main mode of communication was CB radios. Some residents still have signs advertising their call names nailed to trees at the ends of their driveways.

”Hot lips. Bourbon 7,” one sign reads.

Three Rivers was one of the last places in Jefferson County to have named its streets. A quarter of the 40 miles of roads in the area still are covered in dusty gravel that billows into clouds behind cars.

But for the people who live here, the lack of utilities is a charm, not a drawback.

”The kids keep asking when we're gonna stop camping,” said Ralph Johnson, 69, Mary's husband. ”But we've traveled all over, and this is the still the place we want to be.”

No need for electric

Three Rivers is near Bureau of Land Management property, National Grasslands, nonbuildable rangeland and Lake Billy Chinook, according to residents.

It sports a large marina, an airstrip and the only beach on the lake, residents said.

For most of its history, the subdivision has been a vacation spot. But recently, many former vacationers have stayed and now, residents said, around 90 people live at the place full time.

The lack of electricity hasn't discouraged people from building large, elaborate homes. Some homes that real estate agents said are valued at over $2.5 million sit right next door to shacks.

”We always called this the poor man's Black Butte (Ranch),” said Bill Shay, who served at the president of Three Rivers homeowners association for many years. ”It's come a long ways in the 30 years I've been here.”

The inspiration for the area came from Doug Stills, who along with his wife and children built the all-solar neighborhood in phases over several decades.

Back when development first began, there was nothing but a bumpy dirt road running 5 miles from the gate to the lake, Shay said.

”The feeling I had when I first went there was who would want to buy in this desolate place,” said Shay, who purchased 7.6 acres of land in Three Rivers in 1975.

But it didn't take long for Shay and his family to fall in love with the peace and quiet.

The available amenities haven't changed much since the pioneers homesteaded on the land, Shay said.

There are only a few wells in the neighborhood because there is no electricity to pump them. Most people have to bring in all their own water or pay their neighbors who bring water around in trucks with holding tanks, he said.

Despite the rustic nature of Three Rivers, even the trailers have large solar panels on the roof and the insides of the outhouses have plush carpets on the floors.

”This is my little funky world,” said resident Elaine Budden, 61, as she drove her sports utility vehicle around the neighborhood on a recent sunny morning. ”It's not for everybody and that's OK.”

Budden moved to the area permanently 12 years ago from Portland with her husband, David, after the couple sold their businesses.

Once in Three Rivers, Budden made a career change and began selling real estate. Now most people in Three Rivers know her and wave as she passes.

The neighbors' friendliness is a major benefit to living in Three Rivers, Budden said.

”We have a common denominator of being happy to live off the grid,” she said.

When her parents heard she was moving to such a place, they asked her to assure them she wasn't turning into a hippie.

”I told them that my hair wasn't in braids,” Budden said. ”I still wear shoes.”

Solar sensibility

Three Rivers has views of Mount Jefferson, access to the lake and quiet. But for Howard Williams, the thrill of living in Three Rivers comes from the pride he takes in keeping his home self-sufficient.

”You actually provide,” said the 65-year-old, who formerly owned a chain of grocery stores in Portland and began living in Three Rivers in 1985.

Each day, Williams gets up, heads outside to the garage, turns on country music and checks his power system.

He carefully monitors the water level in his well, the amount of power stored in his large battery system and the amount of fuel he has to run his generator, which is used when his solar panel batteries get too low.

Before moving to his property, Williams and his wife, Betty, brought their children to Three Rivers for summers, he said.

One of his greatest joys was teaching his children about resource conservation through Three Rivers, he said.

”It was a way to teach them, 'Hey, this stuff has a limit.' I tried to teach them that everything they use is a privilege,” he said.

Williams isn't the only one who is proud of using resources carefully.

Matt Stone, 39, and his wife, Lynn, 45, of Gresham, usually spend many summer days vacationing down by the lake at Three Rivers. They typically read and watch boats come and go from the marina.

But in the evenings, they head back to a trailer powered by solar panels.

They use the power for lights or the television, but they try to limit their electricity usage to the bare minimum. It's part of the Three Rivers experience, Matt Stone said.

”We like it that way,” he said.

Dean Abney, a solar technician and system designer who works with about 80 percent of the homeowners in Three Rivers, said the systems he installs there are often quite large.

Most people in the neighborhood have all of the same kinds of appliances and devices people in an urban area would have, he said.

For instance, the Johnsons have mixers, blenders, bread machines, two TVs and a computer, Mary Johnson said.

”It's no different from what you'd have in Bend except we're totally disassociated with the grid,” said her husband, Ralph Johnson. ”We just have nothing to do with utilities.”

But even with the large systems, Abney's customers in Three Rivers do focus on conservation, he said.

”They really don't have a choice,” he said. ”When you go with a solar system, it's a different way of life.”

Real life

Though there are many benefits to having a home in Three Rivers, such as low crime and friendly neighbors, there are a few drawbacks, residents said.

”We are lacking in color control,” said Budden, as she looked at a large outhouse painted in stripes of bright orange, lime green and lilac.

Three Rivers codes, covenants and restrictions, which are rules that govern the neighborhood, are permissive when it comes to the look and landscaping of property.

For most of the year, the area is dry and brown and it can take some time to appreciate the landscape, residents said.

The dry nature of the area also makes it susceptible to fire. In 2002, the Eyerly Fire burned 23,000 acres in the region, including 400 acres at Three Rivers and 17 homes, Budden said.

”You have to know when you live in a rural area that that's an issue,” she said.

And as Shay said, the nature of the place is changing with more people coming to live in nicer homes. For some people that's a positive step, he said, but the ”old-timers” believe it's getting too ”yuppie,” he said. ”What's hard is for the people who have retired,” he said. ”They don't want dues increases or property tax increases - of course these newer ones coming in and building bigger, fancier homes want their roads paved.”

Residents said this culture clash sometimes causes disagreements, but the common pride among the residents means everyone usually gets along, Budden said.

She gets a kick out of ”city folks” who come to visit and tell her it's a little too rustic.

”They say, 'But you can't even send out for pizza!,'” she said. ”I'm like, 'That's the good news!'”

And as long as people like Budden, Shay and a few of the other pillars in the community are around, Three Rivers will probably retain its rural and primitive charms, he said.

”There are a lot of people that say I want electricity - I want this, I want that. Well then this place is probably not for you ... 'cause I don't see that happening in my lifetime,” he said.