Eighteen years ago, I stayed in my first yurt. I was visiting New Hampshire on a backcountry ski trip to the now-defunct Phillips Brook Backcountry Recreation Area, a system of 11 yurts, 75 miles of trails, and 24,000 acres of used up timber harvesting land. The system was erected by visionary Bill Altenburg, but he lost his land lease to operate the area when a windfarm was erected on the ridgeline adjacent his yurts. Altenburg and I have become friends. He’s since studied hard and become a philosopher, a good fit for a nomadic wanderer who still skis deep into the woods at the age of 77.
Yurts aren’t new. The portable circular structures have been used for thousands of years by Mongolian nomads who reside on the steppe. However, in the last 30 years they’ve become increasingly popular backcountry shelters for skiers and adventurers, mostly in the American West. Like the nomads that utilize them, yurts have also migrated east into New England, where a few operations use them to offer a genuine backcountry recreation experience, complete with warm, well-appointed accommodations. One such operation is Frost Mountain Yurts, located in Brownfield, Maine.
Frost Mountain was the brainchild of Patrick and Erika Fagan. The Fagans were inspired by Altenburg’s model and moved to Brownfield 13 years ago with a vision: build a system of yurts with manicured trails, short approaches and all the amenities that would make groups or families comfortable. It’s a form of glorified camping in a sense, where you’re only a short distance into the woods, but in character feels like you’re a world away.
I’ve taken my wife and four young kids to Frost Mountain a number of times, each visit in the thick of winter, each time experiencing a marvelous, but different experience. The Fagans keep the trails clear and shuttle in all the firewood, fresh drinking water, and propane you’d need for a weekend of relaxing in the wilderness. There’s a woodstove in each of the three yurts, bunks and futons for eight guests, and all the cookware and supplies you’d need to create your own backcountry epicurean treat.
Our children adore Frost Mountain. They take pride in dragging their own equipment in sleds to the yurt, and once unpacked those sleds are used deep into the evening to sled around the local trails. The trails are packed by Fagans’ snow machine and turn into a child’s dreamlike luge sledding run, sliding on which is a pastime that my kids coined “Sledbobbing.’’ While they schuss or sled or build forts in the snow by headlamp, my wife and I typically enjoy a glass of wine while we cook an elaborate meal.
Cooking for winter yurting is not only easy, it’s part of the fun. You can stash Ben and Jerry’s in the snowbank for one night, make homemade Tang-flavored “Snowcream’’ the next. We usually stir up a Thanksgiving meal for dinner, warm breakfast burritos atop a blazing woodstove the next morning and take a lunch break to nosh on a platter of fruit, hummus, and pita. When night falls, we typically huddle around a well-kept outdoor fire pit, barbecue on the gas grill or swing in the hammock. And when nature calls there’s an outhouse that’s cleaner than every gas station restroom north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Granted, a winter visit to the yurt requires some preparation. You’ll need warm layers, a cooler of food, and some lightweight sleeping bags. But that’s about all you need, as the Fagans have stocked the lattice-framed structures with everything else. Frost Mountain is open year-round, so summer visits to fish or swim in local waters can be arranged, followed by a warm solar shower back at the yurt. We’ve only visited in winter, when the tracks of snowshoe hares and the hoof prints of moose pepper the forest. It’s a special time to be outside, sending me back to work on Monday morning fresh and full of appreciation for nature.
The Fagans’ model is quite successful and worth emulating. Again, the wand of inspiration was passed, most recently to Bob and Peggy Crowley, a couple who, in 2012, built the Maine Forest Yurts in Durham, Maine, near Freeport. Maine Forest Yurts owns three appointed yurts on 100 acres of land. They plan on opening a fourth yurt this fall. It’s a similar model to Frost Mountain, where snowshoeing, skiing, or hiking are all options for guests. Yurting is comfortable, not akin to wilderness survival. Bob Crowley, the oldest winner of the television reality show “Survivor,’’ can attest to that.
Alas, it seems that like the nomads who brought us the yurt, operators of yurts often roam. The Fagans have Frost Mountain on the market, where they hope to pass it to a new guard, an owner who can continue to offer this magical experience and perhaps even expand the number of available yurts. They plan to relocate to Breckenridge, Colo., where their twin sons compete in freestyle skiing.
We recently visited Frost Mountain for the last time under the Fagans’ ownership. With a fire crackling in the pit and embers burning in the stove, we sipped French press coffee and ate dessert while snow quietly fell onto the yurt’s skylight. A tremendous snowball fight had just subsided outside the yurt, along with the squeals and giggles of our four happy children.
If you go . . .
Gear: Frost Mountain Yurts provides nearly everything you need. An equipment list can be found at www.frostmountainyurts.com. It’s helpful to have skis or snowshoes to access the yurts in winter. Frost Mountain rents these, as well as provides gratis gear sled use to shuttle your kit. Distance to the yurts varies from a tenth to a half of a mile.
Rates: Winter rates from $125 a night, for two people. For more information call 207-935-3243.
Activities: Frost Mountain rests on 60 acres with trails that extend for hours to the top of Peary Mountain, which boasts spectacular views. Snowshoe, ski, or simply relax. Off property there are farmstands, the Stone Mountain Arts Center, biking trails, lakes, and more.