Winter Camp

Two frozen nights in a yurt in Durham.

Sometime after midnight, I raise my arm outside of the blankets to test the temperature. The chilled air is a cold contrast to the nest of warm flannel and down that I’’ve been tucked under. In the blackness, I pull on a sweater and get up to look for coals glowing in the old iron wood stove. It’s time to add another few logs and stoke the fire.

Yes, we’re camping, but this cabin-sized yurt is built with wood framing, coated canvas walls, and plank wood floors. A round domed window is at its peak, and I can see it has the functionality to open when needed, but we won’t be testing that tonight. Before dark, I could look up and see the bare branches quiver in the wind and the sky above. Essentially a permanent tent, this yurt is equipped with furniture, a gas range for cooking, and a wood stove for heat. The shape resembles a carousel. It’s a fanciful, get-away yurt in the deep-snow woods of Durham.

We need to keep that fire going. The overnight forecast is for a wind chill of 23 degrees below zero. Maine Forest Yurts allows dogs, so Sparky is here near the wood stove, too, along with my cohort for such adventures, photographer Peter Frank Edwards. We’re all wearing extra layers, including Sparky. The old hound doesn’t often wear sweaters, but is dressed in a fisherman-style sweater and sleeping on a rug topped with a bed of blankets.

FELLOW SURVIVOR

“Anything else to go on the sled? Would the dog like to ride?” asked Bob Crowley, when he arrived on a snowmobile earlier that day, wearing a fur hat with flaps over the ears, along with green wool pants and a jacket.

Even dressed in full winter gear, Crowley’s face is familiar. We got to know him as the outlier and the elder—the Maine physics teacher in the bow tie who competed on the reality television series Survivor several years ago. He was 57 when he outlasted other contestants for 39 days in the wilds of steamy Gabon in western Africa and was named the show’s 2008 winner. (So far, he’s the eldest winner in Survivor history.) And now the reality TV star is in front of us on a super-chilled February afternoon, ably carrying our luggage.

We’re here to stay a couple of nights on the Crowley family’s 110-acre property surrounding Runaround Pond in Durham, which is about nine miles north of Freeport. In these woods, the Crowleys are establishing Maine Forest Yurts, a destination for overnight camping stays year-round, and a venue for obstacle course competitions and other outdoorsy events.

A Registered Maine Guide, Crowley loads our cross-country skis and poles, bags of sleeping gear, and food onto the sled that he’s pulling behind his snowmobile. Meanwhile, we borrow snowshoes for the quarter-mile trek to the yurt, and we follow hand-painted signs posted on trees to get there. Sparky doesn’t hop on the sled for a ride, but rather walks along beside us into the white scenery.

In the rural hush and frigid air, each step makes squeaking and crunching sounds beneath our snowshoes. It’s the only sound along the way besides the thrumming of a woodpecker at work somewhere near, the chick-a-dee-dee-dee of chickadees, and Crowley passing by on his snowmobile with our gear. He’s at the yurt by the time we arrive and he opens the door to show us around. We start talking about snow acoustics and why the snow crunched. I get a glimpse of his science-teacher mind in action as Crowley’s eyes brighten and he explains that when the air temperature dips into the teens, the liquid water in the snow no longer melts when stepped upon. Therefore, the noises we hear are the squeak and creak of the snow’s ice crystals breaking.

We also talk with Crowley about the signature part of his wardrobe. Bow ties like the red one he’s sporting when we meet, he explains, are his preference, and a practical choice for someone who worked for 25 years in science lab classrooms. “Once you lean over a Bunsen burner with the other kind of tie, you realize that a bow tie is what you should wear to work.”

YURT STYLE

I was thinking more of a teepee when imagining a yurt, but inside, this space is much larger, and pleasantly warm, too. Compared to a tent, this is deluxe camping. Right away I notice clever features like the natural branches on pulleys that guests can pull down and use as coatracks for wet hats, gloves, and jackets, and then raise them to dry in the yurt’s high ceiling. As many as six people could comfortably sleep here, on the bunkbeds and futon bed. The cozy indoor temperature is because Crowley started a fire in the wood stove that morning, and there are plenty of split logs ready for our use stacked inside and on the connected porch. Outside, it’s getting closer to winter’s early sunset in the late afternoon, and the temperature is nearing five degrees, but inside the yurt, the thermometer on the wall shows it’s over 60 degrees. There are LED lamps for light, and a kitchen sink and jugs of water for washing dishes. We’ve got everything we need. That includes a cedar-shingled outhouse with windows and a composting toilet that’s located just down a walkway from the broad porch that connects to the yurt.

When Crowley departs, we immediately begin to settle in and unpack our food and bed linens. We’ve brought a chicken to roast, so we start pre-heating the full-size gas oven. I prep some carrots and potatoes to add to the pan. We hear a dog bark just outside the yurt door and open it to meet the very friendly and shaggy Lizzie, who lives on the property. She has come to greet us. Sparky is interested, and the two dogs run and play in the snow in the last minutes before nightfall.

Already, this is turning out to be a good getaway from TV and internet distractions (in a rare move, I didn’t even bring my laptop). Instead of paying attention to news or worries of the world, we hang around the wood stove’s campfire with good old-fashioned home cooking, conversation, books, and games. The roast chicken is delicious and goes well with a bottle of French red that we stopped to buy in Pownal at the busy sandwich shop and cafe, Edna and Lucy’s. (Terrific cinnamon doughnuts are made there, too.) While Sparky snoozes, we play Parcheesi and read an Edgar Allen Poe story from one of the books on the shelf. I also read aloud from a paperback, Making Waves: The Stories of Maine’s Bob Crowley (2009, David Ladd Press). Early chapters are about Crowley’s summertime days as a teenager, when he raked sea moss and worked on lobster boats and stayed days and weeks alone at his family’s cottage on an island in Casco Bay.

When I hear the wind pick up outside, I put a hand on the chilled canvas wall. “We might want to move the futon a little closer to the wood stove.” We do, and add firewood to the stove before we sleep. That first night, I wake several times, to check on Sparky, to tend that fire, and to look at the large indoor thermometer (it drops by 10 degrees, then 15, and then inches back up again). Our winter camping adventure is in full swing.

 

WINTER MIX

Early in the bright morning we brew coffee in the percolator on the wood stove. The gurgling of the hot coffee is a welcome sound on a subzero morning. Lizzie the dog shows up again at the door, ready for more snowy play. We bundle up, and while the canines get their romp we explore the near woods on cross-country skis. Runaround Pond doesn’t have a typical oval shape. Instead, its form is that of a shallow, branching swollen river. At least that’s how it looks on maps, but all is frozen over and snow-capped now. We can’t see the bogs and open water that inspired novelist Stephen King when he was a boy attending school in Durham at a one-room schoolhouse. Growing up, the author gained inspiration for stories from the rural area’s farmhouses, graveyards, and Runaround Pond itself. In our conversation with Crowley, he mentioned that the famous leeches scene in the movie Stand by Me has its roots here.

I like the pace of the day. For a while, we simply watch blue jays, bold bursts of color in the tree branches and snow. Page Crowley, who like her father wears a fur hat, stops by the yurt midday. At 27, she is the eldest of Bob and Peggy Crowley’s three children, and all have helped to establish Maine Forest Yurts since its opening in 2013. The family plans to add three more yurts for a total of six, she says, along with 12 campsites. Page also works 10 miles away at L.L.Bean and says, “It’s a dream job for me to hang out in the woods.”

More outdoor experiences are easy to find on the property and nearby. We drive a few miles to Bradbury Mountain State Park on Route 9 in Pownal and the parking lot is nearly full, even in the brisk weather. The multi-use trails for cross-country skiing and snowshoe treks are busy with people starting out or coming in to climb on the 485-foot-high peak, some with dogs at their sides. Even more bustling is the vast Pineland Farms in New Gloucester. Known for its dairy and creamery, the private farm also has a store and cafe, and the grounds are open to the public for recreation and education. The sunny day has brought the temperatures into the 20s, and the volume of skiers and well- mapped trails makes this place look like a Sunday River or Sugarloaf. Bicycle racks are loaded with the bikes with super-fat snow tires. Next to the creamery building is a groomed sledding hill that leads to a long open meadow. Children and adults line the hilltop holding nutshell sleds, toboggans, and inflated inner tubes ready to ride. Beyond the sliding action and laughter of the sledding hill, I see cows and barns not far away. It’s an entirely picturesque and wholesome winter scene.

In Making Waves, Crowley tells a story from his teenage years of motoring alone in a boat through the “dense, atmospheric cotton” of fog in Casco Bay. In a different way, we’ve been enveloped in white on this adventure at Maine Forest Yurts, the kind of white that’s so cold, crisp, and clear that your eyes and nose water when you step into it. Your mind isn’t foggy, but is sharp and open. And then you return to the warm shelter of a winter camp, feeling revived. I’ll not soon forget these overnights in a yurt, when Peter Frank, Sparky, and I not only survived, but jumped right into snowy winter—on some of the chilliest nights of the year.

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