FIRST there were the propane lamps. Then came wind turbines, followed by solar panels that powered William Shay’s off-the-grid vacation home overlooking Lake Billy Chinook.
And now, two decades after the first road was paved in Mr. Shay’s unusual central Oregon vacation community, sun-powered super homes hug the rimrock above his humble-by-comparison octagonal cabin.
“When I first came out here it was wild, wild West,” said Mr. Shay, who owns a vegetable oil distribution company in Portland, three hours to the northwest. “People walked around with six-shooters and you thought there was a snake under every rock.”
Now it seems more as if there is a Porsche Cayenne S.U.V. in every garage at the 3,800-acre Three Rivers Recreation Area, home to more than 500 off-the-grid vacation homes, from trailers too long in port to air-conditioned McMansions with solar arrays costing tens of thousands of dollars.
“The lifestyle here, you can get simple or you can be real extravagant,” said Lorne Stills, whose late father, Doug Stills, started Three Rivers roughly four decades ago. The history of Three Rivers has been a trend from the former to the latter.
At first, what today is perhaps the country’s only off-the-grid second-home subdivision was just juniper and bunch grass, grazing land for cattle and sheep across the Metolius River arm of Lake Billy Chinook from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Reservation.
Mr. Stills’s father originally envisioned building a hunting preserve, but his financial backers preferred the idea of selling lots to Portlanders and others looking to escape east of the Cascade Mountains on weekends, said Mr. Stills.
In the beginning people just pitched tents or parked their pickups on lots down beside the lake, said Mr. Stills’s widow, Delores. It was a place for working men to come and “let their hair down,” said her son.
“When the campgrounds were full or they got kicked out for being too noisy, they came up here,” said Ms. Stills. There was no marketing beyond word of mouth, but by 1979 all the lots were taken, she said.
Eventually rough cabins started replacing the tents and trailers, but one problem remained: no power, water or telephone service for miles around.
Most buyers were of modest means but significant ingenuity, so there was a period of experimentation in power sources, from windmills to simple generators to modified automotive parts.
Some tried lighting their homes with propane lamps, but “it was just about as dark inside as it was outside,” said Lorne Stills.
A hot shower was a coffee can with holes in the bottom hung from a peg out on the deck and filled with water heated on a propane stove. Or, if it was a hot enough day, a splash bath in the lake would suffice.
Three decades later, off-the-grid vacation homes have become practical for those not inclined to tinker and jury-rig car parts or shower under empty Folgers cans. And in today’s atmosphere of climbing energy costs and concerns about global warming, what once was obstacle is now amenity.
“Off the grid has huge appeal,” said Elaine Budden, a Three Rivers property owner for three decades and full-time resident for the last 12 years.
BUT because the “green” aspect of Three Rivers came about more by necessity than intention, the vibe is still more hemi than hybrid. At the Three Rivers office — no flat-screen TVs showing panning shots of Jack Nicklaus golf courses here — a whiteboard on the outside wall of the office lists phone numbers for firewood sales and raffle tickets for a quilt. Inside, residents jaw in chairs below Three Rivers Redneck Yacht Club T-shirts on the wall.
An asphalt road, which many old timers fought for years against paving, leads from the front gate down to the lake past posts where faded painted planks with family names point down roads called That Way Lane and Leisure Drive.
“Some people don’t even know their own house number,” said Chris Yonda, the office administrator. Before cellphone service most residents communicated using citizens band radio, and CBs can still be seen hanging under kitchen cabinets or on walls in many homes.
About 85 property owners live at Three Rivers full time, and roughly two dozen lots or homes are for sale currently, said Ms. Budden, a broker for Coldwell Banker Dick Dodson Realty in Madras who specializes in properties in Three Rivers. The cheapest is a five-acre lot for $125,000.
While pointing out the airstrip, A.T.V. trails and volunteer fire hall in her Boston accent, Ms. Budden reveals her tendency to divide the world into people who “get the deal” and those who “don’t get the deal.”
Among those who get the deal, in Ms. Budden’s view, are Shannon and Michael Neal, a Portland couple who bought a five-acre lot in Three Rivers last spring for $140,000.
For years the Neals had come to water-ski at Lake Billy Chinook, a reservoir at the confluence of the Crooked, Deschutes and Metolius Rivers also popular with house boaters and bait fishers.
In recent years they began looking around for a vacation home to take their four children, ages 6 to 14, and Malibu ski boat for weekends away. Their real estate agent pointed them toward Three Rivers.
“The things that scared us originally — the solar, the water, all that — they really started to grow on us and we thought, wow, that’s cool,” said Shannon Neal, 37.
THE Neals cleared two dilapidated trailers from their land and recently finished a 2,100-square-foot lodge-style home with a pine and juniper staircase and lava rock fireplace, beside which their children recently sat and watched Web video on a Mac notebook connected to their satellite-supplied wireless Internet network.
The couple have two Skype phones that run off the same connection, a tankless water heater and stainless steel appliances in the kitchen.
“We don’t lack anything,” said Mr. Neal.
Powering the home is a solar setup that cost around $25,000, which includes 12 190-volt solar panels, 16 forklift batteries, an inverter, a diesel generator and various other electronics. “It’s not cheap,” Mr. Neal said.
Once a system like the Neals’ is installed, they need only check the water level in the batteries every month or so and have the oil and filter changed on the generator regularly.
“A good system like that, you’ll need to replace the batteries every 10 to 12 years,” said Jeff Lugar, owner of All Season Solar in Bend, an hour south.
In addition, the Neals are paying about $20,000 to have a well put in, and they already have a roughly $12,000 septic system. (Most Three Rivers homeowners get their water delivered by a local service, which charges 5 cents a gallon, Ms. Budden said.)
The Neal home takes into consideration that a teenage girl might be using a hair dryer at the same time as the dishwasher runs in the kitchen, a far cry from the coffee can showers and outhouses still in use at some homes.
Besides being an education in amperage, volts and wattage for Mr. Neal, a business consultant, the home has provided the couple with a chance to school their children in energy and water conservation.
That sort of enthusiasm is registering with the country’s home builders, over a quarter of whom are heavily involved in green building, according to a survey this year by McGraw-Hill Construction.
That same survey estimates that today green homes, of which off-the-grid homes are a small segment, make up just 2 percent of new home starts. But by 2012 that figure is estimated to reach between 12 and 20 percent.
The Solar Energy Industries Association estimates that 190 megawatts’ worth of photovoltaic panels were installed in 2007, compared with 141 megawatts in 2006, a 34 percent increase. One megawatt is enough to power about 250 households, the association estimates.
“People are digging to see if they’re doing deeper-level green stuff than just putting bamboo doors in the entryway,” said Lynnae Hentzen, executive director and co-founder of the Center on Sustainable Communities, based in Des Moines.
The availability and ease of use of new solar technology make it possible for families like the Neals to enjoy largely worry-free weekends off the grid, and more buyers are certainly on the way.
That is of some concern to long-time residents, people like James Butterworth, a retired mechanic for Freightliner Trucks. Mr. Butterworth, 67, spends his time at Three Rivers in a 40-year-old Fleetwood travel trailer, with a single solar panel for his refrigerator and a small windmill to charge a battery for his television set.
He likes to hunt coyote in the nearby Deschutes National Forest in winter, and do some four-wheeling and fishing in the summer. Fearing the place might get a little too crowded and refined, he stopped at the office on a recent morning while ordering a delivery of water for his trailer to point out potential hardships for a possible home buyer: for starters, the risk of wildfire and the presence of cougars and of rattlesnakes.
“I killed one just down the road here a couple of years ago,” he said.