Round House Kicks | Culture | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Arts + Life » Culture

Round House Kicks

Huntington's Maple Wind Farm lures winter campers with yurts


Published October 20, 2010 at 10:19 a.m.

As I drive to the end of a high mountain road in Huntington, a contingent of curious canines appears seemingly from nowhere, surrounds my car and escorts me the last quarter mile to Maple Wind Farm. The pooches are a mix of regular pets and working dogs, I learn later. Maple Wind itself mixes leisure and labor activities. Part of the new trend of agricultural tourism, it attracts visitors who not only want to ski, snowshoe or hike, but also to observe a real farm in action.

And, weather permitting, stargaze from a yurt.

Beth Whiting, who owns the 140-acre farm with her husband, Bruce Hennessey, is busy with her chores when I arrive. In the meantime, one of her farmhands offers to show me the guest quarters: a pair of Mongolian-style yurts that Whiting and Hennessey rent out all year round.

Winter is their busiest season, when skiers, hikers and other cold-weather recreationists come from all over New England for this unique camping experience in the Green Mountains. If there are other places in Vermont to rent yurts, Whiting says she’s never heard of them.

The footpath to the yurts is a moderately strenuous walk about 10 minutes uphill through several tiered pastures. Towering above the nearby cow herd are two rapidly spinning wind turbines that lend the farm its name and provide it with about a third of its energy. Sustainability, in all its forms, is a major credo here.

I soon spot one of the yurts at the edge of the high pasture, nestled in a small clearing amid maples, white birch, spruce and evergreens. At an elevation of 1600 feet, the yurt overlooks a spectacular westerly view of the valley and Green Mountains that surround the sleepy hamlet of Huntington, 25 miles south of Burlington. To the east rises Camel’s Hump, Vermont’s tallest undeveloped peak.

The yurts, named Spruce and Maple, are spaced about 300 yards apart — close enough for large groups to rent both, but far enough apart so guests can enjoy them in privacy. Except for the occasional barking dog or mooing cow — the latter being unusually vociferous the day I visit, as the calves are being weaned — it’s easy to imagine you’re deep in the backcountry, far from civilization.

Inside, the yurts are round, rustic and cozy. Twenty-four feet in diameter, they have wood floors and walls made of crosshatched wooden supports and stretched canvas — no odorous yak skins here. Several mesh-screen windows can be opened in warmer weather or buttoned up when the mercury drops. Along one wall is a wood-burning stove with stacks of firewood, flanked by handmade wooden bunk beds that can sleep as many as 10. A table in the middle of the room is ideal for meals and other social activities.

Each yurt is well stocked with propane burners, pots, pans, utensils and other kitchen essentials. It’s not five-star lodging — there’s a composting outhouse nearby, no showers or running water — but true winter campers don’t expect such amenities.

What the yurts lack in creature comforts they make up for in ambience. Aside from the round shape, yurts are defined by their large, circular skylights in the center of each ceiling. Through them, campers can watch the snow fall or stargaze on clear nights. In the guest books, visitors frequently mention the skylights, as they do Izzy and Levy, two farm dogs that occasionally show up and spend an impromptu night on the floor — assuming the guests allow them, of course. (Guests can bring their own dogs, too, provided they request permission and instructions first.)

Soon after my arrival in the Spruce yurt, Whiting rumbles up outside in a rugged four-wheeler. It’s her farm rig, she emphasizes, not a taxi service for shuttling guests to and from their cars. Except for those who have legitimate mobility issues, guest are expected to haul their own water and supplies uphill. After all, this is a working farm.

But the work isn’t backbreaking. Since the yurts are already well provisioned with the heaviest and bulkiest of winter camping gear, visitors need only tote their own food, bedding and outdoor equipment. In the winter, the farm provides hauling sleds for that purpose.

Whiting and Hennessey know a thing or two about crafting memorable camping experiences for outdoor enthusiasts. Before they bought Maple Wind Farm in 1999, the couple ran On the Loose Expeditions, an adventure-travel company. Hennessey’s background was in education, both indoor and out; he still teaches skiing. Whiting’s was in experiential instruction of the wilderness variety; she’s also certified as a master gardener. The couple and their kids are avid outdoor recreationists.

Whiting and Hennessey originally met in Jackson Hole, Wyo., where they had yurt-dwelling friends. After spending many a cozy night as guests, Whiting says, they decided to introduce the idea to Vermont. The yurts, purchased from a West Coast outfit, were originally built on property the couple owned just down the road, and later were moved to the Maple Wind Farm land. True to their nomadic origins, the yurts took just four days to reassemble in their new home.

Comfortable as the yurts are, few visitors come just to crash there; much of their appeal is the quick and easy access they offer to many high-country hiking and skiing trails. As Whiting points out, the Camel’s Hump trailhead is just a 15-minute drive down the dirt road; Mount Abraham, 20 to 25 minutes.

Hardy visitors who don’t want to mar their wilderness experience with a car trip can take hiking and skiing trails right from the yurts, Whiting says. The Appalachian Gap, or “App Gap,” is just a 4.2-mile walk up through the woods.

Other trails on the property connect to the Catamount and Long trails; the Birch Glen shelter, one of the Long Trail’s oldest, is a half hour away by foot.

During ski season, downhill enthusiasts can commute to Mad River Glen 6.5 miles down the road, while nearby logging roads and snowmobile trails draw backcountry skiers and snowshoe enthusiasts who prefer ungroomed terrain.

But a walk or ski in the woods is only one side of the Maple Wind Farm experience. Whiting and Hennessey’s primary source of income is the family farm, which raises and sells 100 percent grass-fed beef and lamb, as well as pork, eggs, chickens and turkeys. Guests are free to wander the premises and watch the farmers doing their chores, feed the pigs or gather eggs from the henhouse.

“We love that,” says Whiting. “It makes the experience all the richer, because they see the animals and see how they’re raised.”

A short walk from the yurts stands the hog paddock, which houses the farm’s four breeding sows and a huge, black-and-white, spotted boar named Bigfoot. I soon discover that animals without names are likely to end up on someone’s breakfast plate — and carnivores can eat well here. Guests are invited to preorder bacon, sausages, eggs, lamb and beefsteaks for their stay, or even pick up an organic turkey for the holiday season.

Farther down the hill and closer to the farmhouse, visitors can check out the larger livestock, including cows, sheep and Percheron draft horses, Henry and Herbie, which Whiting and Hennessey use for plowing their gardens and occasional logging. Visitors who come equipped with their own mounts can use the farm’s boarding stalls.

Over the years, says Whiting, the yurts have attracted a wide variety of guests: Boy and Girl Scout troops, corporate team-building outings, fraternities and sororities, couples looking for a romantic getaway, even the sole traveler seeking a bit of rustic solitude.

While the yurts don’t typically have a waiting list, Whiting recommends that people who want to book one this winter call early. Most weekends fill up quickly, especially on holidays and in good skiing weather.

At $140 a night (plus Vermont’s 9 percent meals and lodging tax), the yurts are pretty affordable — especially for groups as large as 10. It’s a rare mountain getaway that’s more rugged than a resort yet requires minimal planning and provisions. Aside from the essentials, Whiting suggests bringing small items that make a retreat special: candles, a deck of cards, a bottle of wine or a six-pack of beer.

As she puts it, “In a yurt, what else do you need?”