Skip to content

North of Town: Pulp and paper mill expert leads worldwide team from off-grid cabin near Powell River

Manager works remotely in Desolation Sound

In North of Town, Peak contributor, author and CBC journalist Grant Lawrence profiles the lives and livelihoods of those who have chosen life at or beyond the end of Highway 101.

If I’ve learned one thing from my many years of poking about the inlets and saltwater channels of Desolation Sound, it’s that you never know who may be nestled into that little bay around the corner, and what they might be doing. With the advent of modern technology, almost anything is possible from any nook or cranny, including working remotely – really remotely – and engaging with others from around the world at the touch of your fingertips.

Guy Normandeau is one of those people who has figured it out. Originally from Manitoba, the friendly, burly husband and father of four boys now spends about half of his year living and working at his hand-built cabin in Salubrious Bay. That’s near the confluence of Okeover and Lancelot inlets on the edge of the sprawling Desolation Sound Marine Provincial Park.

The Normandeau cabin is boat-access-only and completely off grid, but Guy – who was previously an Alberta bison rancher – has managed to create a workable system in which to communicate with his global team in the pulp and paper industry. He can still clearly remember when he first discovered the magical area 17 years ago.

“During the summer of 2004, I came up here for a two-week vacation with my wife Karen and our boys,” recalled Guy. “We stayed at the Desolation Sound Resort and had a really memorable stay. I brought a boat with us, so we got to explore the area a little.”

After the vacation, the Normandeaus returned to their Northern Twilight bison ranch in Peace River, Alberta, but Guy found himself constantly dreaming of Okeover Inlet and the Desolation Sound area.

“Seeing my boys fishing, kayaking, boating and, most of all, swimming every day, made me realize there was no better place for young kids to spend their summers,” explained Guy. “It hit me that, in the video game generation, this place was the answer to getting our boys outside.”

Guy soon found himself searching real estate websites, eventually finding three properties for sale in the area. He made the trek back on his own.

“I returned that same summer on Labour Day weekend and fell for a lovely property on the shores of Salubrious Bay,” extolled Guy.

The Normandeau family bought a two-acre lot complete with a tiny, 25-year-old cabin that was originally built as part of my dad’s Malaspina Estates development, which began in the late 1970s. Stuffing two adults, four growing boys and a rambunctious dog into the cabin proved to be a bit of a hot mess during the family’s first summer in 2005.

“We started with just 400 square feet inside, and it was stifling that year,” said Guy. “Our first discovery was that none of the cabin windows opened, so the initial upgrades began right away with windows that could actually open.”

These days, over many years of reno projects, the Normandeaus now have 1,500 comfortable square feet inside, a sprawling wraparound deck, a handcrafted hot tub, and lots of other cabin perks, but the building wasn’t the only thing expanding.

Family footprint

The four now-towering Normandeau boys – Nathaniel, Thomas, Marc, and Joseph - are 26, 24, 16 and 15, respectively.

Of his two adult kids, Nathaniel Normandeau is a chemical engineer who has followed his father’s formidable footsteps into the pulp and paper industry. Thomas Normandeau was born without his left hand, but it has never slowed him down. To the great pride of his family, friends and neighbours far and wide in Desolation Sound, Thomas is a sprinter with Team Canada, bound for the Paralympic Summer Games in Tokyo. He has already competed as a finalist in the Parapan American Games in Peru and the World ParaAthletics Championships in Dubai. He has won the ambulatory 400-metre Canadian National Championship every year since 2017.

“Thomas is pushing his training boundaries in preparation for Tokyo right now,” stated his dad proudly. “He is running his fastest times to date so this is quite exciting, but Tokyo looks like it is going to be an athletes-and-coaches-only Olympics. There are some formalities to take care of first, like running some sanctioned races and Canadian nationals.”

When Thomas is at the cabin with his brothers, he is a full-throttle energy machine, hiking, swimming, fishing and performing acrobatic feats of strength on the local zunga. Guy has proven himself to be able to build and fix just about anything and has continued to modify their various systems alongside his gregarious and kind wife Karen.

“We reached a new comfort level with our solar system,” Guy pointed out. “That changed everything. It allowed me to power my office, computers, monitor and printer, satellite internet and WiFi router. But the sad part is that phone service was better in 2004 than it is in 2021.

“The cellular upgrades in the area may provide more data to rural areas but the 4G cell signal does not travel far. Everyone seems to have a cell booster out here that barely works.”

Weak signals aside, solar power enables Guy to work full time off grid as an industry expert in the automation of pulp and paper mills when he’s at the cabin. He spends the other six months of the year working from the family home in Phoenix, Arizona.

“I’m the pulp global solutions manager for the company that I work for, where I lead a worldwide team of engineers that automates processes in mills,” explained Guy. “Our projects reduce chemical usage and energy, improve product quality, and very often have a positive environmental impact. I can install automated solutions for mills around the world from my quiet little retreat in Okeover Inlet. Ironically, though, I have never worked for the Power River mill.”

Location, location

In these COVID-19 days of physical distancing and working from home, Guy finds himself appreciating the cabin and its environs more than ever before.

“I’ve worked and travelled around the world for various projects, and I’ve seen some exceptional places, but none of them give me the feeling that I get when I am out on the waters of Desolation Sound,” he said. “And after being in some of the most crowded cities in the world, I have to say that I have been lonelier in those places than when I am alone at the cabin. I have always found comfort in nature with the animals and birds around. I suppose it is a sense of knowing where I belong.”

Grant Lawrence is an award-winning author, columnist and radio personality who considers Powell River and Desolation Sound his second home.