Completely alone for 11 months of the year: Life in the world’s most isolated family.

romey Atchley

As a 21-year-old university student being shuffled toward a career in Environmental Engineering, I felt like the story of my life had already been written. With one year left before I graduated into the servitude of a job, I wondered if perhaps there was another way to exist on this planet outside of the system mankind had created.

As a nature lover looking for adventure, I took a job as a waitress in Alaska for the summer. The beauty of the wild North was mesmerizing, and I not only fell in love with the land, but also with a man who had the same dreams I had.

Together, we wanted to live alone in the wilderness, surviving off the land, and learn the lessons such a life would teach us. Two years later we heard about a cabin for sale in the heart of the Alaskan bush and sold everything we had to buy it.

In 1999 at the age of 26, I moved to this remote cabin in the Nowitna National Wildlife Refuge with my husband, David, and six-year-old stepson, Zach. Setting out downriver by boat, we travelled over 560km beyond the road system, leaving behind the security of stores and doctors, and the support of friends and family. Our closest neighbour was over 150km away.

romey Atchley
Romey, David, Sky and one of their dogs. Image: Supplied/SBS

Alone in the wild with no communication to the outside world, we headed into our first winter anxious about how we would survive a year alone in isolation, having only ourselves to depend on. Our cabin was tiny — three people, three dogs, and a cat living in a 3m by 4m space — quite confining when by mid-winter we saw only four hours of daylight and temperatures as low as -50C.

Some of the lessons our first year were hard ones — a grizzly bear broke into our food supply, forcing us to depended heavily on the land and extreme rationing. All our food was made from scratch, which I cooked atop a woodstove made from a fuel drum. We learned much about living off the land, including how to trap animals, tan hides and make fur clothing. We spent the short winter days towing logs home to build onto our cabin and passed the long, dark hours reading books aloud.

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Since then, we have gone into 19 such winters, spending 11 straight months each year as a family in isolation, and have learned to love it deeply. During our one month a year in town buying supplies and visiting family, we are often asked about many aspects of our life, the most frequent being, “How do you deal with the isolation?”

While the isolation has presented some challenges over the years, it has taught me a great deal. I have come to know myself intimately, to relate openly and honestly with the people I live with, and to find joy in simple things that don’t cost money.

romey Atchley
The family cabin during winter. Image: Supplied/SBS.

Minus the physical and mental noise of humanity, the natural world around me became apparent and my connection to life took away the feeling of separation and isolation. I realised how much more isolated I had felt growing up in modern society. Uninterrupted, my mind has had the freedom to explore life directly, to look beyond how the world was defined to me and see it truly for the miracle it is.

Eventually, the idea of raising a child with this kind of freedom and space took hold of me. What greater gift could I offer someone than the chance to grow up in the peace and beauty of such a place. Spending my entire pregnancy in the wilderness, I gave birth to Sky in 2003 in Fairbanks and brought him back out to the cabin when he was only two weeks old. He has since spent every one of his 15 years growing up in the solitude.

For David and I, raising a child in isolation has meant being more than just a parent. We have been Sky’s friend and playmate as well as teacher and guide. The years I have spent exploring life with my child have taught me to see the world anew.

Through Sky’s fresh perspective, I have been able to rediscover the joy and wonder of existence that had been hammered out of me in school each day. We keep that natural wonder alive in him as he begins to investigate the world beyond the isolation of our family.

Now, as Sky journeys into adulthood and develops a curiosity for life outside of our bubble, we explore this new realm of humanity and the Internet along with him, feeling comforted in knowing that, as he walks toward the world of mankind, the memories of his life here will be his guiding compass.

Romey Atchley shared her family's story on this week's Insight on SBS. You can catch up on the episode, named 'Isolated', on SBS OnDemand. Insight airs every Tuesday at 8.30pm.

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