Reflections on Bill Copperthwaite’s Passing

In a world that seems to always be moving as fast as it can, Bill Copperthwaite of Machiasport, ME and his simply run Yurt Foundation represented an oasis of calm. His passing in November 2013 was a significant loss for those who knew him, as well as for many people like me, who simply wrote back and forth once a year to buy his artfully designed yurt calendars and check out his annual simple living book list.

I had hoped to meet this quiet, intelligent man, a world traveler and lifelong student of indigenous hand made tools, an educator who earned a Doctorate from Harvard, an author, and probably one of the most broad thinking people I’ve ever encountered.

Bill’s book, A Handmade Life, is a beautifully written testament to simple living with photographs by Peter Forbes of the Center for Whole Communities.

We’ll now need to carry on with Bill in our thoughts, reminding us of the vital need for simplicity in today’s society of complexity.

Bill Copperthwaite photo by Kevin Bennett

Bill Copperthwaite photo by Kevin Bennett

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Michigan State Parks Attract Yurt Lovers

Michigan's Pinckney Yurt

Michigan’s Pinckney Yurt

I recently ran into a colleague while on a speaking gig for GP RED at the Michigan Parks & Recreation Association conference in Lansing. We go back a ways, and the first thing Ron said when we saw each other was, “Hey, are you talking about  yurts today?” Well no, Ron, but I wish – it’s a thought!

Ron Olson is the Chief of Parks & Recreation for the state, and told me one of their public yurts is booked over 250 days a year, a pleasant surprise for park administrators seeking new ways to recover from recession shortfalls. Our exchange prompted me to explore the Michigan Yurt scene from a virtual lens, and here’s what I found out – Michigan State Parks operates five yurts, strategically located in both remote (9 mile hike in) and easy-to-access areas (several yards from parking). A recent press release gives an excellent overview of the yurt system, its benefits, and pricing structure. If you care about land preservation and conservation and love to get outdoors, but like many of us in the Baby Boomer generation, have given up sleeping on the ground, yurts are definitely the way to go.

Michigan's Porkies Yurt

Michigan’s Porkies Yurt

Here’s a great article promoting Michigan’s yurts for winter excursions – I mean, why not? They’re in beautiful locations, cater to the nomad in all of us with their rich Mongolian history, and are efficient to heat.

Now if Ron can just arrange to add wood-fired hot tubs…

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Massage – Yurt Style

image source:

image source:

I recently began pursuing a certificate in Massage Therapy at the River Valley Community College in New Hampshire. It’s been wonderful matriculating as a ‘non-traditional’ student, learning an ancient healing modality. The benefits of massage are numerous, and I’m a lifelong proponent of the practice of therapeutic touch. I recall with a satisfied sigh the amazing massage and steam bath cleanse I had in Treasure Beach, Jamaica in a circular stone hut – somewhat like a yurt, in fact.

So the time has come to design my ideal practice – the space, location, types of massage to offer. I have a business plan. I have marketing materials. One area of focus will be health and wellness massage for active senior populations in local retirement communities. I figure, in a few years, I’m going to be an active senior, so I may as well learn from the best. And I’ve decided that I will also pursue offering massages in a yurt. I’m not sure where, or how, I’ll achieve this, but it’s definitely my sincere intention.

image source:

image source:

When I googled ‘massage in yurts’ to explore how other massage therapists might be implementing this idea, I came across a massage therapist in Pennsylvania who has achieved exactly what I’m hoping to. A yurt located in a lovely forest setting where clients receive a massage to the sounds of nature’s musical accompaniment. It turns out yurts are used for massage and other healing modalities as a matter of course around the country, and they’re often located in the most beautiful outdoor (four season) settings. Last summer I gave an outdoor massage to a friend, and it’s an entirely different experience from being indoors – one that I really love, and so did my friend.

We know that the circular shape of a yurt invites a calm and centered feeling, and has its roots in the ancient nomadic traveling experiences of the Mongolian people, who lived close to the land. Massage + Yurts. Two ancient practices, melded together for healing and connecting with nature. Sounds to me like a match made in heaven.

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Moonlight Yurting In Vermont

I recently entered my 55th year on the planet, lucky me! To celebrate, my partner Henry, our three dogs, and I stayed two nights in a friend’s yurt village in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. What a thrill – and my idea of a really good time.

Vermont Yurt Village

This property is located on a private pond, one of the cleanest in the state. In mid-September in northern Vermont, the foliage is just starting to turn on the trees, and the air is crisp. The weather was perfect for enjoying the first fires of the season, both in the wood stove and outside in the fire pit, complete with s’mores and loons calling on the pond!

The owners have worked for about six years to make the site a wonderful haven for themselves, family, and friends. They have gradually added small sleeping yurts to compliment the large central yurt where meals and group gatherings take place, so rustic family reunions are no problem. Hiking trails and old logging roads extend from the yurts in all directions of the compass, so we enjoyed both a glowing sunset and a brilliant moon rise during our stay.

Snoozing in the yurt

The small library in the main yurt has a copy of “Yurts: Living In The Round”, by Becky Kemery, an excellent account of yurt history both internationally and in the United States. Becky profiles Bill Copperthwaite, a pioneer in yurt design (I still need to get up to his place in Machiasport, Maine for the ultimate yurt adventure!). There’s nothing like a sitting by a cozy fire and reading a good yurt book. Bliss!

The pond access is down a steep trail to a sunny cove, so I got to swim across the pond (brrr!) while Henry paddled in a kayak alongside me. One of my favorite experiences in life is to swim in a clean, clear pond or lake and then dry off in the sun on a rock or a dock, which is exactly what I did – a perfect way to get outside and exercise.

It’s been a wonderful ride so far, being 54 years young, and an active baby boomer who loves yurts and all their charms. Looking ahead I see many more yurt adventures in my future – on to 100!

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The Yurt Foundation

Mongolian Yurt
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What a thoughtful idea. In the 1960’s Bill Coperthwaite, now living in rural Maine, read a National Geographic article that described Mongolian yurts, portable dwellings handmade of felt and other natural materials. Inspired, he set out to design and build a yurt adapted for our North American climate using only hand tools. Bill’s design worked, and since then, he has spent a lifetime sharing his knowledge of yurt building, studying folk wisdom world-wide, living simply, and teaching others to do the same through The Yurt Foundation.

A Handmade Life, 2004, Chelsea Green Publishing

In the tradition of Helen & Scott Nearing and other homesteading practitioners of a simple lifestyle, Bill Coperthwaite’s choice to live in the Maine woods and create everything he needs to live by hand is entirely by design. His 2004 book, “A Handmade Life” (photographs by Peter Forbes), is a chronicle of the ideals Bill has made a commitment to, and these ideals still resonate. His philosophy is illustrated in this poem:

“Borrow from cultures old and new
  And with our imaginations

Blend those borrowings
To Create new ways to live
That are simpler, gentler
More generous and beautiful.”

Yurt Foundation Guest Yurt

A number of years ago, I had the opportunity to meet Alan Bair, founder and President of Pacific Yurts. Alan told me he first met Bill in Oregon in the 70’s during a yurt building workshop. He was inspired to formalize yurt design in the U.S., and started his company in an Oregon dairy barn. Today, Pacific Yurts is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of yurts for every application, including public parks, bed & breakfasts and individual home owners.

So it’s possible to start a movement and have it go viral, even without a phone, computer or website. Thanks Bill, for doing your part.

For more on Bill’s work and life, read this interview by Rod MacIver, who coordinates a beautiful website called Heron Dance, featuring original art, poetry and interviews with writers, artists and other creative thinkers.

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Maple Wind Farm – VT Yurting At Its Best

One of my more memorable yurt trips has been to the Maple Wind Farm Yurts in Huntington, VT. I’d invited two local friends for an Easter weekend hike up 4000′ Camel’s Hump mountain, and reached out to a hiking group with the offer to share meals and expenses. I had one taker, whom I’d never met, but who sounded like a wonderful addition to our small band of intrepids.

Imagine a Nor’easter snowstorm in April, complete with blizzard conditions. Now imagine snowshoeing 1/2 mile with full packs after dark, searching for the night’s lodging in Nor’easter conditions. Then picture, if you can, walking into a yurt with a fire lit, beef stew, salad and bread on the table, prepared by a guy you’ve never met. Our first thought was, “He’s a keeper!” And so it was that Rob, Andrea, Lynn, Jean & I began our Easter adventure.

Photo Credit: Maple Wind Farm Yurts

The Maple Wind Farm Yurts are situated perfectly for outdoor adventure. Bordering Camel’s Hump State Park, you can hike, snowshoe or cross-country ski directly from the yurt. Two of Vermont’s finest long distance trails, the Long Trail and the Catamount Trail meander out from your backyard as well.

So snowshoe and cross country ski we did, in 3′ of fresh powder, but not without pining for our backcountry skis. We saw telemarkers all over the mountain as we ascended the trail. Of course there were no views from the top, but that didn’t matter. The perfect snow conditions made for a perfect Easter holiday, and we’ll always remember the gift of Rob’s elegant Nor’easter dinner at Maple Wind Farm Yurt.

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Earth, Wind & Fire And Yurting In The Berkshires

Getting to see Earth, Wind & Fire celebrate 4o years together live on stage at Tanglewood in the Berkshires last night was the highlight of the decade.  They have amazing energy and musicianship, and a groove that was way ahead of their time. A bit of rain did not dampen the enthusiasm of thousands in attendance at a rare East coast show, and we were happily reminded that great music stands the test of time.

Photo Credit: Campsite Photos

As if seeing one of my favorite bands from the 70’s wasn’t enough, I was delighted to learn that Massachusetts State Parks are yurt friendly.  We signed up to camp out at October Mountain State Forest, but forgot the tent.  Voila! Enter the yurt option, and we were saved from our own silly selves.  These Pacific Yurts sleep six and have just the basics – beds, table and chairs, so they ‘re just for three season use. The forest is over 10,000 acres with the Appalachian Trail running through the middle and miles of hiking trails.  The campground is small and intimate, nestled among hardwoods.

Dogs are welcome on a leash, and a campfire ring and outdoor picnic table complete the yurt experience, along with drive up convenience.  At $40/night, it’s a steal, and we happily snoozed away under the rain soaked skies.

There is no shortage of excellent restaurants in Lee, MA, just down the road.  We had dinner at Arizona Pizza – homemade crust and downtown atmosphere, and breakfast at Otto’s, a fabulous new diner in town. For desert, we journeyed across the street to a new bakery for chocolate croissants. Just the ticket for the drive home.

All in all a memorable evening that I would repeat in a heartbeat, especially the Earth, Wind & Fire part!

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Dog Friendly Yurts in Colorado

One of my ventures in ‘retirement’ is working as a Project Consultant for GreenPlay, LLC, a recreation & park master planning firm based in Lafayette, CO.  From time to time, I need to travel out there for meetings, and I usually add a few days onto the trip to play in the mountains and rivers in “Colorful Colorado”.

My wonderful hosts, Teresa and Kurt are great outdoor adventure enthusiasts – we usually find time to soak in a hot springs (or two), and go downhill skiing, bicycling or river rafting. And they have two wonderful dogs, Rio, the hyrbrid protector, and Lucky, the cutest blind Westie on the planet.

Photo Credit: CO State Parks

It recently occurred to me to check out the Colorado Yurt Situation in advance of my next GreenPlay trip.  Turns out there are yurts available in 6 state parks, and most of them are dog friendly! The fees are reasonable, $10/night extra for the privilege of bringing your canine pal along for the ride. In researching on the Colorado State parks website, I was also thrilled to learn about the yurts at Ridgeway State Park, in the same town as one of my favorite hot springs locales – Orvis Hot Springs.  There’s nothing like a restful soak in the healing mineral waters of a hot springs – that’s the one advantage Colorado has over my native New Hampshire.

So the next time I take a business trip out west, we have a new place to explore – I’ll keep you posted.

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5 Reasons To Choose A Yurt Adventure

Treasure Beach, Jamaica

1. Yurts remind us of our nomadic origins – we were all world travelers once.

2. Yurts inspire storytelling – let’s face it, staying in yurts is still pretty unusual here in the West.

3. Outdoor adventures with yurt lodging can take you to some exceedingly wild, hauntingly remote and stunningly beautiful landscapes.

4. Living for a few days in the close quarters of a yurt helps you get to know your friends (and yourself) a little better.

5. The word ‘yurt’ just sounds cool!

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Backcountry Idaho Yurt Adventures

It was 5:30 am. Half asleep and on my way to the outdoor privvy near the Elkhorn yurt in the central Idaho mountains, I did a double take at the outdoor thermometer. Sure enough, it DID say 5 degrees below zero. What was I thinking? Still, my German heritage inspired me to trek on to my chosen destination, as I reveled in the immense starlit Idaho sky. Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude I chanted. The day ahead promised pristine powder backcountry skiing in deeper snow than I had ever seen before.

photo credit: Owen Jones

The Elkhorn yurt is conveniently located off the Elkhorn Loop trail for use by Nordic skiers and snowshoers. This yurt is the most remote of all the Idaho City yurts, with direct access to over 27 miles of groomed and 50 miles of marked ski trails. The Idaho Parks & Recreation website notes: “…the 270° view to the east, south and west is spectacular, especially in the evening. The open, rolling terrain below the yurt provides off‐trail skiers a chance to polish their skills. The nearby ungroomed Cougar trail provides access to a prime intermediate level telemark area…”

I can vouch for the amazing powder skiing on groomed or ungroomed trails – bring your snowshoes, nordic or tele skis, some good food and wine, plenty of sunscreen and 10 or so of your closest winter loving buddies. This is the yurt trip of a lifetime.

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