Caroline Palmer has appeared on hit TV shows such as Mr. D, Workin’ Moms, Suits, and even the 2019 DC Comics’ blockbuster, Shazam! She must live in Hollywood or Toronto, right?
As it turns out, most of this star’s days are spent in a location a tad more rural: Burnt River, Kawartha Lakes. Not only do she and her husband, Mike Palmer (and their dog, Tobias), live in Burnt River, though — they’re also doing so off-grid, with no electricity or running water.
Depending on the time of year, you might find Caroline and Mike chopping wood, picking cucumbers or clearing brush.
On four remote acres, under soaring red pines that seem to scrape dull November skies, this is not the life you’d expect an actor to be living.
But Kawartha Lakes holds a special place in her heart for Toronto-raised Caroline because she remembers spending “almost every summer” at Wychwood Resort in Fenelon Falls, and sometimes at camp in Haliburton on Lake Kashagawigamog.
“My dad instilled his love of the outdoors in us,” she says.
She also happened to marry someone who has family in Bethany.
Mike’s parents have a “country retreat” there and so the family was familiar with life north of Toronto.
Polish-born, Caroline spent a couple of early years in Berlin, Germany, before moving to Toronto with her family at a young age.
Although well-known as an actor now, she says her path to that career “was anything but linear.”
“When high school ended, I went to Western University to study business and get ‘a real job,’” she says.
And she did. She worked in advertising and later as the marketing director of Toronto Life magazine, while also completing her MBA at Rotman School of Business at the University of Toronto in the evenings.
The Acting Bug
“All the while what I really missed was acting,” Caroline Palmer tells the Advocate, so she took an evening class at Armstrong Acting Studios. This led to her finding an agent and, shortly after, booking a lead in a 2014 thriller, The Drownsman.
“That helped me decide to leave my corporate track and leap into the unknown to pursue my original dream of being a professional actor,” she says.
Since then it’s been a steady stream of work on shows like Murdoch Mysteries, Private Eyes, a recurring role on Heartland, and, recently, as Marilyn Batson — Billy Batson’s mom in the movie Shazam!.
“It’s a totally different lifestyle with work coming in intense waves rather than a steady pace,” she says, explaining how it’s possible to have such a career and live in Burnt River. With Mike being a photographer and director, “It makes it easier because we both understand and appreciate each others’ schedules.”
It was while they were spending some time at Mike’s family’s retreat in Bethany that they realized buying a house in “super-expensive Toronto” did not seem like the right move, considering they love to travel and get out of the city whenever possible.
They started looking at properties around Bethany just for fun in January 2019. That’s when they saw the ad for the Burnt River location on Kijiji.
“The privacy, the beach and swimmable pond got our imaginations turning right away,” she says.
As Mike wrote on his blog, the “previous owners showed us around the 4 acres (and) it had everything we were looking for — space, privacy, a large pond, and even an old cabin.”
But it was what the place didn’t have that was surprising — electricity.
“Being off the grid wasn’t on our list of things we were looking for,” he wrote, “but the idea of living disconnected from modern conveniences was super exciting.”
Within a week they put in an offer and had it accepted. As it turns out the previous owner wanted younger people to buy the land so that someone could put in the care and time it needed to be useful. The thirty-something Palmers fit the bill.
Suddenly they were landowners with none of the modern conveniences one would normally have.
“It seemed crazy at the time,” Caroline admits, but when the global pandemic hit suddenly their secluded land purchase seemed like especially good timing. We were so fortunate, she says, to “have our remote cabin in the woods to work on in isolation.”
“Spending time isolated among the trees was very therapeutic at a time when the world was so uncertain — we could shield ourselves from it, in some ways, for which we’re incredibly grateful.”
While they have kept their apartment in Toronto and must travel back for auditions and shoots occasionally, they aim to spend 60 to 70 per cent of their time at their off-grid cabin.
One of their investments was a solar panel and a battery pack that can be charged from either from solar energy or by plugging into an outlet elsewhere , allowing them to stay connected to the world even without electricity.
The Cabin and the Outhouse
When they first took over the property last year there was a small cabin “in bad shape,” she says, on the property already.
They were happy to have something that was already there to improve upon and set about to fixing it up to their liking.
We did a “total overhaul of the interior of the cabin,” Caroline says, including new floor joists, new insulation, new walls, solar lighting and three-season plumbing for a kitchen sink. They also eventually called Highland Propane in Fenelon Falls and splurged on a propane fridge and stove.
Now, they’re focused on finishing the exterior of the cabin. And when winter comes, they’ll close their kitchen pipe to avoid freezing and bring in pond water in a jug for non-potable use. A water cooler will suffice for drinking and cooking water.
No off-grid lifestyle would be complete without also giving serious consideration to bathroom time – in this case, how to create a “glorious outhouse,” as Caroline calls it.
Mike dedicated a full blog post to this topic, knowing that “creating a clean, comfortable, and environmentally friendly option was necessary to enjoy our time on the property,” as he wrote.
“I knew that if I could build an outhouse that was ‘classy’ then I could convince anyone (mostly Caroline) that living off grid didn’t have to be as terrible or as rough as one might expect,” he wrote.
The Palmers were able to construct a compostable system that allowed them to turn waste into plant food/manure/compost without using any water or electricity.
Challenging Year for Film and Television
When the pandemic hit, the entertainment industry was one of the first sectors to shut down.
The Palmers focused on their cabin and property, putting their energy into their new acquisition.
On the side Mike started a production company, Roaming Focus, which Caroline also now helps run.
It’s a photography and videography production company that does mostly digital commercials and editorial stills for a wide range of clients, including beverage, automotive, healthcare and fashion, among others.
They also create original films and series.
Caroline used to have to be in the city for auditions, but since the pandemic the industry has shifted to allow actors to film their own auditions and send them into casting.
In the meantime, the Palmers are looking forward to connecting more deeply with their community on a local level.
“What I love about the location is we are so close to so many great towns,” Caroline says, rhyming off Kinmount, Bobcaygeon, Fenelon Falls, Minden and Coboconk as examples.
In a non-pandemic year, she believes they’ll be able to “really explore and get to know our community more.”
“We missed the Victoria County Studio Tour this year but can’t wait to attend next year — there are so many amazing artists and entrepreneurs in the area that we cannot wait to support.”
They would also like to see Mike’s photography work get into some local galleries, partly to find more work locally, “and not always drive into the city for that.”
Less Than You Think
In the meantime, she says it’s amazing how time passes so quickly in isolation because there’s always something to do.
“The days here fly by and are always satisfying. We go to sleep easily and wake readily. There’s less time to worry about the future or stress about other things, because there is wood to chop before it gets cold.”
She describes their off-grid rural home as “very grounding” and says it has been great for their creative juices, too, helping them to come up with some new film ideas.
“I think we’ve learned that you need way less than you think. There is a multi-billion-dollar consumer culture out there that is always telling us we need the latest — well, everything — and it’s easy to get caught up in that.
“But challenging yourself to make do with less can actually be far more satisfying,” she says, given that ‘stuff’ can’t really make people happy.
“But having time in nature definitely does.”
“Working through challenges … learning new skills … having to work to get water — all of that has been so satisfying and a nice reset from the instant gratification culture” they see in Toronto, Caroline adds. They’ve also realized they were more capable than they first realized.
These days, with the bleakness of November promising ever colder days, the Palmers are looking forward to having friends up for a game of pond hockey in the heart of winter.
They also hope to start cross-country skiing and checking out more of the “amazing trails” in the area.
Of course, there’s always a cozy wood stove to enjoy (for humans and dog alike), especially after a long day of work outdoors.
They’ve also learned, says Caroline in a parting thought, that “humans aren’t programmed to want an easy life, but rather a meaningful one.”