DURHAM, Maine — On a January day when the temperature barely reached double digits, 63-year-old Bob Crowley pulled the earflaps of his hat tightly to his head before steering his four-wheel Polaris Ranger through the woods of rural Durham to Fisher Ridge Yurt.
It was cold, but the 2008 winner of “Survivor: Gabon” showed no sign of the arctic conditions, except for an ever-reddening nose, as the temperature seemed to continue to drop.
After a five minute drive, Crowley led a group inside his insulated yurt, the heat from the wood stove beckoning, prompting Crowley, his wife, Peggy Crowley, and their guests to shed their coats and gloves.
Circular, portable tent-like yurts have been the traditional homes of nomadic people in Central Asia — particularly Mongolia — for thousands of years. The circular shape makes a yurt resistant to the region’s strong winds, and the structures are easy to erect and dismantle, making them particularly suitable to the roaming lifestyle.
Frequented by those in search of a getaway in the woods, the Crowleys’ yurt is surprisingly grand, boasting a bright, sunlit room with beds for six, hardwood floors, Internet and cellphone service and, just steps from the door, a separate adjacent bathroom with composting toilets, and an outdoor shower.
“People want to go ‘glamping’ – glamorous camping,” Peggy Crowley said. “One guy last weekend brought his laptop to watch the [Patriots] game.”
It’s been six years since Bob Crowley — better known to fans of the CBS reality show as “Survivor Bob” — outwitted, outlasted and outplayed 17 other castaways to take home the $1 million prize.
In the winter of 2013, he and his family opened Maine Forest Yurts, tucked away on tiny Runaround Pond but discovered by more and more visitors from as far away as Europe. They seek an idyllic outdoor setting — with modern amenities, of course — in which to snowshoe, cross-country ski, hike or simply absorb the “peaceful aura” of Fisher Ridge Yurt.
A retired Gorham High School physics teacher, Crowley sat at a wooden table as he sipped hot chocolate brewed by his wife on the yurt’s propane stove and explained their venture.
The family lived in South Portland for 30 years, and during that time acquired the land on which Maine Forest Yurts now sits. The family would visit and “hang out in the woods,” during winter months, cooking hot dogs and beans and enjoying the wildlife.
They acquired the last piece of the property just before Crowley’s moment of fame, and then decided that building and operating Maine Forest Yurts was “a nice thing to do in the next phase of our lives,” Peggy Crowley said.
Bob Crowley and his grown children cleared roads and trails in the 105 acres they now own, erected a Pacific Yurt, and last winter, Fisher Ridge Yurt — named for the two fishers Crowley stumbled upon one day — opened to guests. At $125 per night for two people and $15 per additional person (children and dogs are free), the yurt has been booked nearly every weekend since.
In addition, the success of people looking to “glamp” at Maine Forest Yurts has been enough to prompt the family to begin construction of a second structure.
“We were going to close in the summer, but there was such demand,” Crowley said, smiling. “We were the first ‘yurt-ers’ in Maine … We’re way cool.”
Crowley, who lives with his wife at a former horse farm almost across the street from Maine Forest Yurts, delights in sharing his outdoors with visitors, particularly those who may have not experienced the Maine woods before.
He recalled three fathers from Boston’s North End who brought their children, who stayed inside the first day and then stepped out into the night to discover “the lights were on,” Crowley said. “It was the moon, big as could be. They couldn’t believe there were no lights out there.”
Displayed on the center table in Fisher Ridge Yurt are guestbooks, in which Peggy Crowley asks those who visit to write a quick note about their stay.
Holly and Joel Stoneton, who said that they are the “No. 1 ‘Survivor’ fans,” wrote: “The snowstorm creates such wonderful sounds on the roof of the yurt — a symphony for sure … I’m not sure I can choose a favorite part of this experience — the hooting owl, the majestic woodpecker, the snow-frosted limbs, the sound of the brook running under the frozen blanket of snow, the radiant heat of the woodstove, the absence of television, the wine …”
Crowley is still recognized by fans of the show and still sees former contestants, including “Survivor: Nicaragua’s” Jimmy Tarantino from Gloucester, Mass., and Tina “Timber Tina” Scheer, a lumberjack from Trenton, Maine, who was voted out early on “Survivor: Panama.” Both have helped on the property and arrived one January weekend to help build a new trail.
“[Scheer] came with her chainsaw,” Crowley said.
Crowley’s grueling experience on “Survivor” didn’t influence his interest in yurts as much as it did his ability to fundraise. The Crowleys have established the Durham Warriors Project, a nonprofit that pays for military veterans and active-duty military personnel to stay with their families for free in the yurt.
Last September, the Crowleys hosted the Durham Warriors Project Survival Challenge, a three-day event that pitted 18 contestants from across the country in a series of “Survivor”-like contests, one of which involved players balancing on tree stumps until they fell off. Each challenge was followed by “tribal council” where players were eliminated.
Contestants pay $250 to participate, with the proceeds benefiting the Durham Warriors Project. Another challenge is planned for late August 2014, and the Crowleys have begun searching for 18 contestants to compete. To apply, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Again, contestants will have the chance to vie for a unique “immunity idol” — a small lobsterman figure crafted of a lobster tail and claw.
“They call it the Bobster,” Peggy Crowley said.