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Off-the-grid living in Three Rivers
In a remote area of the high desert, sits the Three Rivers Subdivision, one of the largest off-the-grid communities in the U.S.
The 4,000-acre Three Rivers Subdivision is a gated community with 600 rustic properties and some 85 full-time residents. But that can swell to 5,000-6,000 people on weekends in the summer, when those with vacation homes arrive, and the permanent residents invite their friends and relatives. The subdivision does not allow rentals or Airbnbs.
"It started out as a vacation spot for the working man, and the fact that it was off the grid helped maintain that," said resident Meg Cummings. "I'd been coming here since 1970, and have lived here for 25 years. My youngest was in diapers when we first came up here."
"Our first 10 years, we just had a generator. Until 15 or 20 years ago, there was no solar up here," she said, adding, "For many years, people did things without permits," because there was no zoning back then.
Cummings is a broker with Sotheby's Realty and 90 percent of her property listings are in Three Rivers. Her husband, Kent Crook, assists in the business and helps with subdivision maintenance, including running the snowplow in the winter.
Three Rivers history
How did a 600-lot subdivision come to be located on a high desert plateau, surrounded by nothing but sagebrush and juniper trees?
Guy Swanson, of Portland, who has a summer home there, is writing a book about the history of the area and shared some of his research.
During the pioneer homesteading land rush in 1907, Central Oregon was experiencing a boom. One of the farm communities that developed was Grandview, along the Metolius River some 22 miles from Madras. Aptly named, the views were grand, with snowcapped mountains, forests, and the Metolius and Deschutes rivers bordering it on the north and east.
In need of water to grow crops, settlers voted and passed a $680,000 bond for a "Suttle Lake Irrigation District of Grandview," which would build a canal to bring water from Suttle Lake. In preparation for irrigation, homesteaders built barns, houses, corrals and fences and cleared rocks.
However, the plan to bring water was a false promise. A contract was awarded, but the construction company failed to produce the required earnest money, and the contract was severed. Then, the bank wouldn't certify the bonds, and by 1923, the Suttle Lake project's water rights were lost. One by one, the homesteaders started moving away.
In 1930, Harry Heising married Vesta Blake and they moved to a canyon ranch in that area. The old ranch now lies underwater below the present-day Three Rivers Marina.
"It was next to the Metolius River. He was a cattle rancher and raised wheat, and they had fruit trees," Swanson said.
By then, almost all the homesteaders had moved away and Grandview ceased to exist. As people left, Nick Lambert bought their property, accumulating 13,000 acres. The Heisings purchased a 4,500-acre "River Ranch" from Lambert, but later, needed more income and moved to Boring, Oregon, and worked in the shipyards.
When World War II was over, they returned to Grandview and bought the rest of Lambert's property. Since it was located on a point between the Metolius and Deschutes rivers, with the Crooked River on the south, the property was known as the Three Rivers Ranch. In 1951, the Heisings sold the ranch to Red Braly for $50,000.
The property passed through a couple different owners until Doug and Dee Stills bought 3,800 acres in 1968. The Stills had a business in Bend, and Doug Stills enjoyed fishing and camping in that area.
"He was intending to put in a hunting lodge, but his partners backed out, and he was left with property he was buying on a contract," Swanson said.
Round Butte Dam had been completed in 1965, and flooded the canyons to create Lake Billy Chinook and Cove Palisades State Park.
"When the park sites filled up, people started coming by looking for campsites, and that gave him the idea to make it into a recreation area," Swanson said, noting there was no zoning back then. "The main feature was access to the lake (the Metolius arm of Lake Billy Chinook)."
The Stills' son, Loren Stills, of Madras, recalled, "He started renting campsites up on top. There was only a Jeep trail to the lake until dad built a road."
Doug Stills turned his property into a closed community, put in roads and started selling lots in 1970, with a first addition of half-acre lots, then second and third additions, with 2 1/2- and 5-acre lots, respectively. "It took a lot of blood and sweat to do it," Loren Stills said.
"The third addition is when I bought from him," Swanson said, "And we started building our summer house in 1972. The area was zoned around 1973 and our place was grandfathered in. Just four of us had houses and the others had trailers or motorhomes," Swanson said.
Loren Stills added, "Dad started selling in 1970 and by 1979, all the original lots had been sold. My mother still owns the marina and leases the store, and I have a 40-acre chunk on top." Doug Stills has since passed away.
It was always a gated community, and in the beginning, Cummings said, the gatekeeper stayed in a manufactured trailer and would walk out and open the gate for residents. Nothing was paved, but there was a marina.
"The No. 1 reason people purchase property here is the lake, and the No. 2 reason is the gate, because there is no crime here," Cummings said.
Today, Three Rivers has 26 miles of mostly paved roads. On Lakeview Road, the distance from the gate to the lake is 5 1/2 miles, and Cummings noted, "The closer to the lake, the more expensive the property. Across the lake is Warm Springs Reservation land."
Homeowner association dues are $400 a year, which pay for the now automated gate operation, office, and maintenance of the roads and marina.
Amenities include a 2,500-foot paved airstrip, gun range, 18-hole golf course, 18-hole disc golf course, a private beach with a 1,000-foot shoreline and swimming area, a four-lane boat launch, marina store, and community recreation building.
Even though residents are a 36-minute drive from Madras, up a steep canyon road, they still get service from the U.S. Postal Service, UPS, FedEx, propane, oil, and other companies.
All homes, from singlewide trailers to luxury homes, are off the grid and generate their own power. "Two have wind power and the rest are solar. "The fact that solar is in the public eye now has brought us to a whole new level, but we're still behind Europe, which has been techno savvy for 10 years," said Cummings, reflecting many residents' environmental concerns.
The community got some notoriety around 2007, when Ed Begley, of the "Living With Ed" HGTV eco reality show spent four days filming in Three Rivers. "He said we were the biggest off-the-grid community in the U.S.," Cummings recalled.
Cummings/Crook go solar
When they first moved to the community, Cummings said they lived in a cabin while building their house above a scenic canyon. The cabin later became a "grandma house" for Meg's mother, who lived there enjoying the views until she was 92.
"Our house has a 48-volt solar system with 4,800 watts of power and 24 batteries. Our solar system was built in two phases; one is 16 years old and the other is 3 years old," Cummings said.
The original 12 panels generated 1,800 watts, while the newer free-standing 12 panels produce nearly twice the energy at 3,200 watts. Kent, who has a large shop and is a metal fabricator, built the stand for the newer panels.
Showing their mechanical room in a section of the garage, she explained that most solar homes have an inverter, and charge controller, batteries, a generator, and photovoltaic solar panels.
The solar panels convert sunlight to direct current, and the inverter converts DC to alternating current, which can be used in the home. The batteries store electricity until it is needed. Batteries last 8 to 12 years, and Cummings said they have replaced theirs three times. They also have a 10K diesel generator.
"A big trick is to set the system up so there is a balance of PV panels with what the battery system can hold. Equipment is improving all the time and today, it's better and more efficient than it was 15-20 years ago," she said.
Most people in Three Rivers rely on Dean Abney, who owns Abney Solar Electrics, to set up and balance their systems.
Solar is expensive to install, she admitted, noting, "What you save is your (carbon) footprint on the earth, so things will be better off for the next generation. Living off the grid isn't for everybody, but Kent and I are conservative with energy."
"Oregon offers solar tax credits, and so does the federal government," she mentioned.
Solar power runs their electric lights, refrigerator, washing machine, computer, and things like a hair dryer, while their stove, dryer, water heater and furnace are run by propane.
Cummings and Crook have their own well, and the generator is used to pump water from the well into a cistern and pressurize it to go into the house. They also have an additional 1,100-gallon cistern they can fill with the generator to fight wildfire, if needed.
"One of Kent's jobs at Three Rivers is generator maintenance, because they have to be maintained just like a car motor," she said.
Wells are expensive to drill, since the water is 600-700 feet down. Their well cost $16,000, which is about half of what it would cost now.
Instead of drilling wells, most residents get their water from Jeff's Water Service in Three Rivers, which has two commercial wells. The business delivers water for 7 cents a gallon, and the average user gets 1,000 gallons a week.
On their property, there is a deer-fenced vegetable garden they water by hand. "There's all kinds of wildlife here; turkeys are abundant, deer, elk, eagles and their nests, and sometimes a cougar," she said.
For fireproofing, they have a metal roof, hardy plank siding on the house, and have limbed up their trees, and removed 50 trees on the hillside below their house.
Two serious wildfires have swept through the subdivision. The Eyerly Fire in 2002 burned 23,000 acres and destroyed 18 homes, while the lightning-caused Graham Fire in June 2018, burned 2,100 acres and destroyed three homes and eight outbuildings.
A swath of orange fire retardant dropped from an airplane can be seen in Big Canyon, where fuel reduction had been done and helped them control the fire.
The subdivision had a small fire hall before, but in 2008, it became a state-registered rural fire protection district and a new six-bay fire hall was built just outside the subdivision's gates to serve Three Rivers and others, who live in the Grandview Plateau area.
Both Cummings and her husband served as volunteer firefighters for more than 10 years, and were also emergency medical responders. Along with Fire Chief Don Colfels of Lake Chinook Fire and Rescue, they have been encouraging residents to do fire mitigation to protect their homes.
"The fire department offers grants to fireproof property, but not everyone takes advantage of it," Cummings said, shaking her head and pointing to one lot with trees trimmed up and another next to it with brush and untrimmed trees.
In preparation, Three Rivers has a fire-pumping station at the lake for water trucks, and at the fire hall 30,000 gallons of water is stored in tanks, and 20,000 gallons in trucks.
The fire station also helps with medical emergencies, and Colfels is a certified emergency medical technician. The area is served by Airlink and Life Flight, and Jefferson County ground ambulance, and people can purchase annual memberships to each organization.
By air ambulance, Cummings said, "Redmond is here in seven minutes, and Bend is here in 10 minutes. This area has a lot of landing zones for helicopters."
In the winter, the county plows the road to the fire station, and Kent Crook plows inside the subdivision. "Everybody helps everybody else, like an old-fashioned community. If somebody is going into town, they will pick up prescriptions, etc., for others," Cummings said.
Winter events include Christmas caroling, where residents decorate their trucks with lights, sing to their neighbors, and then enjoy a chili feed, and the annual "Gifto" Christmas buffet party.
In warm weather, there is a community recreation hall by the beach, which hosts bingo games, an Easter egg hunt, and Labor Day Games, and can be rented for weddings, memorials, birthdays and dances. For 17 years, the High Rim Renegades car club has cruised into the subdivision for a car show.
Cummings explained why she loves living in Three Rivers. "Life is less hectic and more peaceful, and you're more in touch with nature. You can look at the stars and Milky Way and it's absolutely gorgeous. You hear frogs and crickets, and can hear the wind coming through the canyons before you feel it," she said.
Gary and Marlene Sweet vacationed in the area before settling there. "We first came here in 1976 and loved the place. In 1981, we bought an A-frame cabin and came here on weekends," said Gary Sweet, a semiretired insurance broker, who was part owner in a business that had seven offices in Portland.
After deciding to become permanent residents, they bought a lot in 1999 and worked on weekends to build their home.
"It had a small, singlewide mobile home on it and we tore it down and built our own. It took us five years to do it," he said. With all the add-ons, most people would never guess that their beautiful home, with a huge deck overlooking the lake, Mount Jefferson and Mount Hood, was a manufactured home.
While Cummings sells real estate at Three Rivers, Sweet has a part-time business, Three Rivers Insurance Group, to sell property owners insurance for their homes, cars, boats and other recreational equipment.
While touring the subdivision in his 1965 Mustang, with dog Kelli in the back, he pointed out the many different kinds of dwellings, from trailers to mansions to ranches.
The first thing you notice is that the properties are very rocky. There are rock fences, rock walls, rock-lined driveways, and rock landmarks – like the boat set in a sea of lava rock, bearing a sign that says "Pet Rock Ranch," marking Jim Patereau's place.
Residents are environmentally conscious and pride themselves on recycling. By the front gate sit some collection bins. "We made $18,000 this year on recycled cans and bottles. That's how we fund projects," Sweet said.
Roads branching off from Lakeview Drive have strange names, like "This Way" and "That Way." Residents have also nailed their own signs to intersection posts saying things like "Warf Rat" and "Animal House" to direct friends to their houses.
At one place, equipment is drilling a well, and several sites have construction going on. "Animal House," a small cabin owned by Randy Panek, president of the Three Rivers Homeowners Association, was built in 1984, and Panek is now building a new house next door.
A sign saying "Sweet's Retreat" marks the entrance to Gary and Marlene Sweet's place. Parked in a shed on the way is a 1969 American LaFrance fire truck with a six-man hot tub on top. Sweet said the comical vehicle is used for parades, and decorated at Christmas for caroling.
The view off their deck is breathtaking, but Sweet said they spend most of their time on their glassed-in cement patio on the side of the house.
"I built that deck on the house, but it's too hot in the summer and too windy all the time. So, we live on the patio from April 1 to Oct. 31," he said.
The patio also has a sweeping view of the lake and mountains, and is equipped with a pond, juniper table with fire pit, TV, barbecue grill, icemaker, smoker, microwave, and pizza oven. Sweet made the stylish bar from juniper wood salvaged from the Eyerly Fire. Built on wheels, it can be moved to double as a food counter.
Nearby is a large shop, where Sweet keeps equipment and works on projects. The shop also has space dedicated to a music room, a yoga room, and their power room.
The Sweets have three different sets of solar panels that feed controllers, and $7,500 worth of batteries, which they replace every six to eight years.
"The inverter is a magic box that takes DC power and turns it into clean, usable AC electricity," he explained, adding, "We generate 4,300 watts of total solar power."
In addition, they have three propane tanks: a 1,000-gallon tank for the house, 125-gallon one to heat the music room, and a 250-gallon one to run the patio appliances.
Their well is 850 feet deep. A pump pressurizes it and twice a month, water is pumped into a 2,500-gallon cistern for them to use.
Next door, a Bend dentist is remodeling a singlewide trailer for a vacation home, and shares the well with the Sweets. "You can go up to five homes on a shared well without having to become a regulated public utility," Sweet said.
Marlene Sweet said the attraction of Three Rivers for her is "the quiet, the lack of traffic, the community comradery and feeding the deer."
Asked if she misses the conveniences of living in town, she said they have learned to plan. "We go to Costco twice a month, and have been ordering three meals a week from 'Hello Fresh,' which comes in a box and is delivered to the front gate. You get vegetables, herbs, meat and the directions. We love it and we don't have to drive in to town," she said.
The Sweets are active in the community, and they put on a fundraising dance to benefit the Three Rivers Humane Society in Madras. (The two are not connected.) In the summer they spend quite a lot of time on the lake.
"A group of us that all had patio boats used to go out, hook our boats together and have a dinner. We'd start at the Upper Metolius and drift down while eating and dancing," Marlene Sweet said.
They help at bingo games, and play bunco, and she is part of the Bears and Quilts sewing group that meets every Wednesday to make blankets and teddy bears to donate to groups helping children.
In the winter, residents have been snowed in with 4 feet of snow, but that doesn't worry her. "You just stock up on more food in the winter, and check on the older people, and most of us up here have hobbies. We have a Thanksgiving and Christmas potluck dinner at our house for those who don't have relatives or are unable to go into town," she said.
For Gary Sweet, one of the things that attracts him to Three Rivers is all the variety. "I like the diversity of having singlewide, and other kinds of homes. It makes it interesting," he said.
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