From a Cockpit, to a Cancer Ward, to a Cabin in the Woods
Flying at 10,000 ft as a decorated military pilot then suddenly laying bedridden and motionless in a cancer ward bed soaked with tears. Here is the story of how a small cabin in the woods helped bring me back to life.
I overcame some truly embarrassing setbacks as a teen to become one of the top serving Military Naval Weapons Technicians (NWTs) in my 20s. I sailed through the ranks and took on an epic career change in my 30s when I decided to re-muster and become an Air Force pilot. Following a 9-month deployment in the Gulf I came home 56 pounds lighter and was immediately diagnosed with cancer. My flying career was over. My military career was over. But my real life… it was only just beginning.
Here’s the story of how I left behind an ambitious military flying career as a decorated officer to become a self-made, off grid blogger reaching millions.
My goal right now is to let you know exactly who I am.
Most people’s “about me page” seems to always read like a brag sheet. As if it was there to show off their accomplishments and what kind of business milestones they’ve achieved and never what it took to get there.
Personally, I’ve sacrificed and achieved my own fair share of milestones. My family and friends have been there through the epic highs of seeing me come home a decorated soldier all the way to laying disabled in a cancer ward in a bed soaked with tears.
This is my story, and I hope it gives you an idea of the person I really am…
1973 – Born into the World
I was a crystal blue eyed, wide smiling baby boy. Born in St Mary’s Ontario, February 23rd. I was an only child and always have been. Mom said, she did it right the first time and that always make me feel special. The house, my folks and the entire world always seemed to be all mine.
My biological father was a “rough around the edges” kind of guy. Played in a band. He wore jeans that were rolled up on the bottom, a leather jackets and black pointed boots. He drove a motorcycle and I remember him in dark sunglasses and some smell of old cologne. Every once in a while I’ll get a sniff of something at it sends me back. But, that’s all I remember of him.
My mother on the other hand was completely different bird. She was tall, slender, and more gentle than a lamb. Anyone who’s met my mother will walk away feeling happier and more appreciated. She has a way like that. She would always smile at me from the front window whenever I left or came home from anywhere. She would go to any length for me. So much so that my biological father was out of the picture by the time I was 4 years old. We had a new life to build her and I.
1977 – My Dad was Real
When I was 4 my mother and I lived in a small apartment alone. The man that came to change the light-bulbs that mom would “accidentally” break became my Dad. I proudly told my friends “That’s my new Dad.” He was right then, and more so today, the most amazing man in the world. Every positive quality I have I can thank him for instilling into me.
1986 – Making Money Cleaning Parking Lots and Mopping Hallways
The three of us had moved to Elliot Lake Ontario when I was five so that my Dad could work in the Uranium mines. I started working young at around thirteen years old. Dad taught me right off the bat that half my money was mine to spend how I saw fit and the other half went into a savings account for investing purposes. My first job was sweeping a parking lot that was in front of the local drug store and then afterwards mopping up the hallway of the apartments above the store.
1989 – Beaten Toothless & Determined to Win at All Costs
About the worst thing I remember, more embarrassing and humiliating than anything before, happened when I was in grade eleven. I had always been a “skinny kid” and ranked about second to last on the social scale in school. I was a quiet, had a few friends and no real hobbies other than Sea Cadets and sailing on my parent’s small sailboat.
I now worked at the Foodland inside the mall stocking shelves, bagging groceries and carrying them out to people’s cars. The parking lot was on the roof of the mall and late one cold winter night, long after the mall was closed and the parking lot was empty, I walked to my Dad’s car. Another car was coming around the corner, heading for me. It stopped and four guys jumped out. I knew who they were. I knew what was about to happen. Three of them held onto me while the fourth wrapped a dog chain around his right hand and began to put his fist to my face.
I was more humiliated than hurt but still lost my front tooth and the lower part of my bottom lip in the ambush. As I stood there hot and heart beating they issued me a warning about not telling a soul. I sped home and was beyond seething with enraged. I had been defeated for a reason that later turned out to be a matter of mistaken identity. I swore right there I would not live my life as a second rate punching bag and end up a toothless thug that people avoided like a diseased kiss.
In the end, that single encounter became what I refer to as my first dip in the forge. I’ve only gotten stronger and more determined ever since that moment. However, determined doesn’t necessarily mean smarter.
1991 – You Can’t Truly Appreciate Winning Big Without First Failing Hard
The second most embarrassing moment of my life was when I opened the final report card from high-school. I learned right in that moment that I would not be graduating with all my friends and classmates. I was short one single credit in English. I can imagine my grade twelve English teacher Mr. Young would be shuddering in disbelief today if he only knew my life would one day revolved around writing.
I would go on to complete my grade twelve credit at the adult education center and finally earn my high school diploma. From there I decided that if I was going to make it I’d need better more advanced grades. I decide to take a grade 12 advanced math course. That single course opened the doors for me to apply for a career that would eventually span twenty-four years, take me to war and home again but also be the career that bore the blame for my diagnosis.
1993 – The Longest Hug Goodbye
October thirteenth 1993 I hugged my mother the longest hug goodbye in the whole world. I fell numb into the car with my Dad and we drove in silence for two hours to the Sudbury airport. I boarded a plane and flew to Nova Scotia. I was headed to Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Cornwallis to begin my career as a Naval Weapons Technician, whatever the heck that was. If you’ve served in Canada before 1995, you’ve either been to Cornwallis or heard of it. And you’d avoid it at all costs if you had the choice.
I practically sailed through boot camp. In fact, I’d been there and done that quite literally. I had not only excelled in Sea Cadets, but I had also become the top cadet in the corps. In fact, I had even already been to Cornwallis when I was only fourteen for band camp. I still have my trumpet today. So polishing boots, ironing uniforms, spotless perfection, attention to detail and following commands barked out by total strangers… that’s my kind of thing. And I found for the first time that I was in a leadership position despite being the youngest man in the room. The platoon Sargent took notice of my expertise and put me in charge on night number one.
1994 – The Ocean is a Big Scary Place
With boot camp completed I then moved on to my NWT training for the next few months in Halifax, Nova Scotia. This Is where that advanced math course came in quite handy. An NWT maintains and repairs all the weapon systems on the ship. Everything from the missile launchers and torpedoes to the ship’s main gun and close in weapon system (CIWS: six barrel Gatling gun. I absolutely loved it. This was leagues better than working with Lego or Meccano, which I completely lived off of as a young boy.
My first time at sea was seven bone chilling, foggy days and nights off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland aboard the HMCS Fraser. One of the upper deck nightly watch positions I had to stand was called the “fog dodger”. This is where you are literally strapped to the very tip of the ship (like where Jack and Rose stood in the movie Titanic) with a leather belt around your waist listening for any other ship’s fog horn.
Trying to brace yourself with every rise and fall of the ship against the ocean’s swell in the inky black of night and becoming encrusted in salt spray was never my favorite place. In fact, it was downright scary but served the purpose of not running into other ship. Its unfortunately happened before.
The only time I’ve ever been motion sick in my life was when I got off the ship in St. Johns NFLD to take the garbage ashore. I threw up right beside the bin while trying to get my land legs back. I’ve never felt the earth move so much in all my life.
2001 – September 11 Changed Everything
I was on a three month long weapons training course in British Columbia and had just woken up when I heard the sounds of people shouting and sprinting down the hallway of our barracks. I followed them to the end of the hall where we had a large TV room. We stood there in anger and watched September 11 unfold before us. The more senior sailors spoke and muttered how we were all going to war and that we would all get the word in just a few hours. The base went on full lock down and sure enough I got the orders that very day that I was heading back to Halifax to deploy with HMCS Iroquois. We would be one of the three Canadian ships that would help make up OP Apollo ROTO Zero.
It was Christmas eve 2002 and I was sitting alone in a tiny compartment at the stern of the ship called the variable depth solar (VDS) compartment. My mother had sent me a box with dozens of individually wrapped Christmas gifts. She wrote in a note attached that there was one gift for every day Bin Laden had stolen her boy away from her. I even remember one of her gifts she made me was a knitted fisherman’s toque. Mind you it was 38 degrees Celsius outside, but I wore it on the cooler nights.
As I sat there alone on Christmas eve, I thought about everyone else that was away from their family because of what had happened. I asked myself what was it that I was really doing there that was making a difference. What role was I personally playing to help make a change in the overall picture of this war. I had already reached the peak of my academic training. I was one of 300+ sailors on a mission to support military operations against Afghanistan. Sure it all sounded great on paper but to me it wasn’t enough.
I silently said to myself “I’m done”.
I had climbed the ranks to become a senior Leading Seaman. I had taken every trade related course the Navy offered me and then even some specialty courses. I had reached the pinnacle of my academic career and was about to hand in my tools and be issued a “desk job” at the next promotion. Me… I’m a “hands and feet” kind of guy.
2002 – Be Careful What You Ask for in Life, You Just Might Get It
Like a story out of a book I woke up on New Year’s day 2003 and made the decision right then and there that I was going to change my career and play a more direct role as a military member. I was going to trade in my promotion for a chance to become an officer. Just what kind well, I didn’t know quite yet. Not to drag this out too long I actually wrote and published a Military article explaining how I chose to become a Sea King Helicopter Pilot. It even made the front page of the Trident.
CLICK THE PHOTO BELOW TO READ IT
So in order to become a pilot, I first had to become an officer. That meant getting a degree. Me, the guy that didn’t finish high school, going to University? To get a degree? Talk about your long shot. At least that’s what my initial thoughts were. What I found as an adult, far from being the stiff minded kid that I was in high school, was that I had actually enjoyed the nine years of academics as an NWT. I now had the equivalence of a four-year engineering degree with all the training I’d been through to this point.
2006 – Bachelor of Science with Three Minors
Remember when I said most people’s “about me” page is full of achievements and never the struggles? Well, let me just say that while I struggled in University I found it a thousand times easier than high school. And remember when I said that I already had the equivalency of an engineering degree? Well, Mount Saint Vincent University seemed to think that same thing and waved nearly a third of my course requirements in order to attain a Bachelor of Science Degree. So, I spent the next three years attending MSVU full-time earning a BSc with a minor in child psychology, a minor in organic and inorganic chemistry and another minor in computer programming. All this to become an officer. In fact, all this to become a pilot.
2006 – Flight School and a Partially Detached Retina
I first flew the Slings-by in Portage La Prairie, Manitoba in the summer of 2005. This let the military know I had the hands and feet to move forward with the “big boy’s toys”, the CT-156 Harvard II in 2 CFFTS Moose Jaw Saskatchewan. Once I finished up my degree at MSVU I moved to 2 CFFTS 15 Wing Moose Jaw to commence the bulk of my military flying training on the Harvard.
This is a $6 million dollar fully pressurized, ejection seat, agile turbo prop trainer. She’ll pull 7 G and -3.5 G which is what lead to me partially detaching my left retina. When I came down from my seventh flight I knew right away something was not right. I was seeing x-rays of worms and random balloon letters that looked like grey alphabet soup in my left eye. Because it was the middle of winter in Saskatchewan it was all I could see on the snow covered ground.
I struggled to make it through a few more flights seeing all this minutia everywhere. I thought it would go away on its own. It didn’t I was not until I was about to take my first solo flight that I finally swallowed my pride and pulled the pin on my flying. I had always had the back up of an instructor right there in the cockpit behind me. This time however, I knew that without someone there to save my soul I’d better fess up and let someone know that I was having a vision issue.
I now know that it was not only the smart thing to do but the responsible things as well. At the time when you’re a thirty-year-old man at a military flight school filled with kids right out of school who all walk and talk like Pete “Maverick” Mitchell it’s hard to put your ego on the line and say you’re unfit to fly. But I did. And it ended up getting me sent me all the way back to Halifax for a year and a half.
2008 – Moose Jaw Part Deux
After being cleared to fly again by a multitude of military ophthalmologists and eye ball specialists I was sent right back to Moose Jaw to start phase II flying all over again from scratch. That also meant a new class full of people I’d never met. This class was different though. I guess the nearly two years I had been gone from 15 Wing things had matured and so did the students. These guys and gals were more methodical, mature and my kind of crew. We all gelled and supported one another through the next eight months of flight training.
I wanted to be selected for helicopters so bad. It’s all I would talk about inside the cockpit and out. I figured if I told my story of how I came from the Navy, where the Sea King fly’s off the back of the ship, that I would be put back in my rightful element. Of course, this time as a pilot and not an NWT. I guess my subliminal efforts worked because come graduation day I was selected to go rotary wing and it was then back to 2 CFFTS Portage La Prairie for helicopter school.
2009 – If You Think Flying is Hard, Try Hovering
People often ask me what it’s like to hover a helicopter. Well, imagine you’re standing on a 2×4 and that 2×4 is placed on top of a beach ball that’s stacked on top of another beach ball. You’re standing on top and every thought about shifting your weight causes everything to move about multiple axis. That… is what it’s like to hover.
If you can believe what I’m about to tell you then you’re far more open minded than I was. They tell us that after just nine short flights with an instructor we’ll be expected to taking the helicopter solo. I remember thinking right there, I had pulled six G’s inverted in the Harvard and flown at nearly Mach one with the jet stream, completed some of the most advanced formation flying with only six feet between aircraft flying at 300 kms and when they said we were going to fly solo after just nine flights… I had a helmet fire.
Let me tell you that when we talk about having a helmet fire we’re talking about your head literally going into an uncontrollable overload. Your nearly paralyzed and have only basic motor skills functioning. The first day in the helicopter was as indescribable as your best dream and worst nightmare all combined. To hover at four feet and see the earth slip past you and under your butt is a complete mind blow the first time.
I tackled the smaller Bell 206 Jet Ranger and then quickly moved on to the larger Bell 412 Outlaw helicopter. That’s where I spent the next six months and finally earned my military pilot wings. A day I will never, ever forget. Since carrying on about wanting helicopters so badly worked in Moose Jaw I played the same game in Portage and talked about the Sea King all day, every flight. It worked!
2011 – Desperately Sea King my Home
My career had come full circle. I was back in Halifax Nova Scotia where I had lived for sixteen years. I already knew the role of the Sea King helicopter, what it was like to sail on board a Navy ship and even what the food and bunking was like. Better as an officer but still no better than a barn yard animal. And I mean that. The legal housing and space guidelines for livestock are larger than what we get per person on-board a ship.
I began the final phase of training at 406 Squadron CFB Shearwater. This six-month course would get me ready to deploy as a Sea King co-pilot. The smells of the JP5 jet fuel, the whine of the turbines, even the shade of aircraft grey was all home to me. I would come to class every day from my own house. I’d lived out of barracks for year. I finally would go home at the end of a flight to a home. My home. It’s a simple thing to think about but I hadn’t had my own home… ever. And now I did.
It was at this time that my life long sweetheart Mireille was also moving out on her own. We had been close friends for nearly ten years now but she had a boyfriend and eventually a daughter Clara as well. Clara was only six and she’d know me her whole life as “Uncle Steve”. I used to buy her toy planes and helicopters for Christmas when she was a baby. She still has them today. Mireille and I began dating officially and it was like we’d already been together for a decade. Both her and Clara moved into my house and I never felt so happy in all my life.
2011 – Deployed, Married, Meet the Family, Deployed Again
I graduated from 406 Squadron as a brand new co-pilot on November 29th 2011 and deployed two days later on-board HMCS Charlottetown for a three-week long sail. Listen, if you thought hovering and landing on the rock steady earth was a feat, try hovering a 20,500 lbs helicopter over the back of a tiny ship pitching in the North Atlantic… at night… wearing night vision goggles… during a snow storm.
I came home after three weeks of what felt like drinking from a fire hose and learned that we would be deploying again on January 8. Just a few short weeks away and this time for nine months. The benefits of being a married couple during a long deployment like that, and the support for Mireille, would be incredibly beneficial. So, we decided to get married over the Christmas holidays. Besides, being her husband would be an incredibly unique way to meet her entire family… for the very first time. Yeah, that happened.
So on December 21st 2011 I married the love of my life and in the process gained a daughter. She is every much my own daughter as I was a son to my Dad. I survived meeting her family in Quebec, barely. And within just a few days afterwards I was gone. Leaving my wife and daughter were indescribably tough. I held them both so tightly outside the doors of the hangar where my helicopter was being prepped for the deployment. I had such a hard time trying to tell an eight-year-old little girl that I had to leave her so soon after we had just became a family.
2011 – Something Isn’t Right
During my deployment on OP Metric and OP Artemis I was excelling at becoming a Sea King pilot. I passed every exam, completes all the upgrade requirements and qualified as a Landing Signals Officer. We flew some incredible missions. One of the most memorable was hovering the helicopter alongside a dhow (med size boat) while holding them in place with our machine gun at the ready. We caught them handing off suspicious packages to a skiff (small fast boat) which we later chased down and discovered had 600 lbs of hashish on board. All in all, we helped capture over $50 million dollars in narcotics during that deployment.
I ate great and kept fit. It was hot in the helicopter and I was flying 4+ hour missions every day and often twice a day. My flight suits got more loose. Thankfully I had a Velcro belt that could keep up. By month six I had lost nearly 25 lbs. By month sever another 20 lbs. My wife would get a glimpse of me on our iPhone every once in a while when I was in a foreign port and able to find Wi-Fi. She didn’t like what she was seeing. Neither was I.
By the time I came home in early September I had lost a total of 56 lbs. Something wasn’t right.
2012 – Diagnosed by a Dentist
In November 2011, I was at the dentist for a routine cleaning. She was starting her check-up by examining my neck and made a remark that I had a small lump on the right side. It was a swollen lymph node (most likely) but I needed to get it looked at by my flight surgeon. It could have something to do with my weight loss. She also wanted me to follow up with her afterwards. I saw my flight surgeon and was placed on antibiotics for a two weeks. I returned to the dentist for my follow up in December and she noted that the lump was still there and larger.
I immediately saw the flight surgeon who sent me to get an ultrasound done at the local hospital and wanted me to see an ENT. A very uncomfortable Christmas came and went. I didn’t get into see the ENT until January. When I did finally see him he did a rather uncomfortable nasal endoscopy, took a needle biopsy of the lump in my neck and ran some blood-work. The results… shocked me and everyone around me.
At 9:30am January 30th 2012, the ENT explained to my wife and I that I had papillary thyroid cancer. We sat in his office just a few blocks from our home quietly as he explained what that meant for me. I would need a full thyroidectomy (removal of my thyroid gland) and the removal of the tumor pressing on it and possibly some lymph nodes. My life was about to completely change forever and it needed to change asap. My wife and I left the office emotionally intact but quickly fell apart once we walked through the front door. As you could imagine. I can remember exactly what tiles I was standing on in the kitchen when we held one another but not the drive home from the ENT. I can’t remember the weather outside that day but I can remember the song that was playing on the radio when we started to cry. It still haunts us both today when it comes on.
I was rushed through a flurry of blood tests, cat scans, appointment with surgeons, endocrinologists, oncologists and of course the impossible need to put my brand new flying career on hold. I went into surgery on February 20th and spent my fortieth birthday (February 23rd) laying in a hospital bed recovering from surgery. Along with losing my thyroid they also had to remove 40 lymph nodes as well as a parathyroid gland and the tumor. Things were a mess. My life was a mess. I was mess. But my wife and daughter were right there and that was all I wanted in life at that moment.
2012 – Literally Radioactive Man
It took me four months to recover from my surgery to where I could comfortably sleep, sit, walk and talk. I felt like I had a tensor bandage wrapped around my throat all day and night. It was tough to breathe and I found myself winded just walking to the mail box. I went from super hero to super PITA. There were a lot of depressed sleepless nights.
Part of the process to ensure the thyroid was completely eliminated was to undergo radioactive iodine therapy. Which when I did I had to be put into a week long isolation away from people including from my wife and daughter. I couldn’t be near anything alive or I would radiate them and possibly kill their thyroid as well!
I had to flush twice, wipe down the shower with special wipes, wear only one set of clothes for the week and then bag them up and dispose of them according to radioactive bio hazard rules. I had one utensil to eat, put my iPhone in a zip lock bag and wore surgical gloves all day. I had to suck lemons all day long just to keep my salivary glands from being permanently destroyed.
2013 – My Biggest Downfall, Was The Biggest Blessing
I figured out pretty quickly that this cancer thing wasn’t going to be won over night and certainly not within a year. I had been thought the surgery, plus the radiation treatments and all the protocols. But the news a year later still wasn’t good news. I had thyroglobulin showing up in my blood work and that meant the thyroid cells weren’t all gone yet. That’s what was causing my cancer.
I underwent more radiation, more treatments, more full body scans and blood work every six weeks for three more years. Finally, the military said “Captain Barnes, the positive diagnosis we’re all waiting for just isn’t going to happen in the time-frame we been it to.” I knew it was coming. It was just impossible to believe that I had re-mustered fourteen years earlier, went through three years of university, five years of flight training, a partially detached retina, learned to fly five different aircraft and when it was all over and I was finally fully qualified, I deployed… only once.
20014 – Taking Cancer Off Grid
I’m all for the good folks at the cancer treatment center. They are some of the best people in the world. But man, I needed to get the heck out of there! I was so sick and tired of sitting around the house, getting stuck with needles every few weeks and nothing on my mind but losing my career.
I was in the hospital every six weeks for over three years. I took so many pictures of myself sitting alone at the CFB Shearwater Hospital the staff thought about officially naming the waiting room after me!
I was down. Really down and I needed a place to get away from it all. I wanted my freedom back, I wanted my hands and feet busy and I wanted to be back in learning mode.
Oh wow, did I ever find it in the most unexpected way.
My wife and I started to look for a small piece of land where we could simply go camping with our daughter and get away from the city, the cancer treatment center and away from the hustle and bustle of live living right beside an Air Force base where I’d never fly again. We looked for somewhere close to home, within 30-60 mins drive time so that we could still stay there on a week night but have time for Mireille to drive to work and Clara to get to school.
We found it. We found “the perfect” piece of property.
You can read all about it in every detail in the cabin build section of our blog. It was better than we had hoped and our little camping property suddenly turned into nights of us talking about building something we could use year round. That turned into a call to my Dad and a request for his endless skills to help design and build something “bigger”.
The story unfolds to become our cabin as it is today. We began on a journey to build the perfect family get away and it turned into The Off Grid Cabin. I started to share some posts on Facebook about building our cabin.
One person said you really should start a blog and share this with everyone.
And so we did…
2015 – The Off Grid Cabin Reaches Millions of People
That little Facebook page I started now has over 150K followers and some of our posts have been seen over 56 million times! Our Pinterest page has 943K monthly viewers!
People all around the world have begun to share our blog here and we have thousands of people visiting us, coming back every week and it’s growing all the time. Thousands of people have followed the journey of our complete cabin build. you can too in our Building The Cabin section.
2016 – Having Found Success Off The Grid
I am now retired from the military and work full time on The Off Grid Cabin blog. It’s become my own entrepreneurial business dream come true. Plus, we have the built the cabin of our dreams. We actually have spent more time there together as a family then we’ve spent together during my entire military career. I was gone 80% of the time. Now I never miss a second with the two most important women in my life.
I literally cannot wait to wake up every morning and and plan out what we’re going to do next at the cabin. I love to design, build and and share everything with my visitors every day.
I am here today only part way through this adventure we call life. I am beating the odds against cancer and I will continue my fight until I win this battle. I look forward to when I can update this “about me” page and write the worlds “cancer free” across the top! More than anything, I am grateful for my family, for their never ending support and the belief they have in me. They’ve held me up over two decades of military deployments, through character building training, and during life changing cancer. They have helped me to build the off grid cabin and I love that I am sharing it with you today.
The adventure of The Off Grid Cabin is only just beginning and I want to personally thank you for taking the time to read my story. If you have an interest in what I’ve done with our cabin and our business, then feel free to go here and send me a message.
Proudly in your service,