DURHAM — His commute is so short, he measures it in telephone poles – seven in all.
He built a house out of junk washed up on the beach, just to prove he could.
He once won a small fortune on national TV, but still digs through dumpsters looking for treasure – and finds it.
He is Bob Crowley, and he is the most interesting Mainer in the world.
“I spent my life trying to get paid to do fun things,” said Crowley, who won the CBS reality show “Survivor” in 2008. “I’ve been a lucky, lucky person. I keep my nose to the grindstone.”
And, at nearly 63 years old, Crowley shows few signs of slowing down.
He and his wife, Peggy, are now in the midst of a new phase as the proprietors of Maine Forest Yurts, where customers camp glamorously in updated versions of traditional nomadic homes.
Nestled in 105 acres of wooded land in Durham that the Crowleys spent 20 years acquiring, the business is a family affair that absorbs almost all of Crowley’s time, and in many ways is a natural extension of the pluck and hardiness that won him $1 million on national television.
On a rare afternoon spent indoors – snow was streaming through the trees, not exactly prime wood-cutting weather, he explained – Crowley ran through the litany of detours, diversions and schemes he’s chased over the years.
His stories wind and wend like the trails he cuts through the Durham woods, changing direction and camber, occasionally going in circles, only to come back to where he began.
Lean, bearded and affable, Crowley has had a varied career that has taken him onto boats and into the backcountry; on a federally sponsored hike from Old Orchard Beach to Bath looking for moths; into a 3,000-acre estate as a forest manager; and into the classroom as a physics teacher at Gorham High School.
There was the year he spent working at a plastic factory in Malden, Mass., making swizzle sticks and coffee stirrers to put himself through college. Or the time he almost ran booze between dry islands in Casco Bay but was hired to hunt for Eskimo graves in Labrador instead.
But his grandest pursuit yet began in August 2013 when Crowley stumbled on a foreclosed horse farm on Auburn Pownal Road in Durham.
The property’s previous owners, deeply in debt and with their mortgage under water, abandoned the compound of buildings, leaving it to be ravaged by vandals and copper thieves. Crowley discovered it, moved in without telling the bank that owned it, and began steps to buy the property.
The unauthorized habitation, and the fear that someone would discover his find and outbid him, worried Crowley more than his experience on “Survivor,” he said.
So did he get a good deal?
“No,” he said, smiling. “I got a disgusting deal.”
A mere seven telephone poles away – about a quarter-mile – from the 105 acres he had been buying in chunks since the 1980s, the farm is the last purchase that was made possible by Crowley’s “Survivor” winnings.
And although he had always planned to start the yurt campground on the land he owns nearby, he had no inkling that he would ever live so close.
The first yurt opened a year ago, and Crowley plans to clear space for as many as five more, he said. Different than traditional cabin rentals, the yurts mix the rustic with the luxurious, offering comfort and simplicity in one circular room.
The collapsible structures originated in present-day Central Asia, Mongolia and Russia as far back as the eighth century B.C., although no one knows for sure. The first written account of a yurt appeared in a Chinese poem written between 829 and 846 A.D., by Po Chu-I.
“The fine fleece from a thousand sheep is brought together;/Hundreds of arcs are fitted together;/The round skeleton and the willow staves of the sides are strong,” the poet wrote.
The yurts of today are still made by hand, but sheep’s fleece is replaced by heavy-duty vinyl, and finely hewn wood lattices take the place of willow staves. The design, however, remains essentially unchanged. The walls are 7 feet high and a plastic dome covers the central oculus, letting in natural light about 15 feet above.
The homes are built atop planked decks of hardwood. A chemical toilet and a gravity-fed shower stand nearby. Inside, the yurts are clean and bright, warmed by a wood stove, lighted largely by the sun. Two sets of handmade bunk beds line one side of the room. On the other stand a gas stove, sink, countertop and futon. There is no electricity.
Two chairs that rest around a central table exemplify how Crowley lives. One day at a power company yard where he was looking for discarded telephone poles, Crowley noticed the yellow cloth-covered seats, made by Knoll, a famed German manufacturer with roots that date to the German Bauhaus and the emergence of modernist design.
“A woman came in, looked at the chairs, flipped one over (to look at the label) and said, ‘These are $250 chairs, where did you get these?’ ” Crowley recalled. “I said, ‘In a dumpster.’ ”
Few things are wasted on the property. A wood cabin that serves as the business’ front office was cut apart into pieces small enough for two people to carry, towed in on a trailer, and reassembled.
Everything except the yurt is built by Crowley and his son John, 31, who lives on the farm with them.
Together with his two other children, David and Page, who live in California and Georgia, the family divides the work of expanding the business. David, who has a business degree, helps plan future growth. Page, their 26-year-old daughter, handles marketing and social media. John and Bob do the heaviest labor on the property, and Peggy, Bob’s wife, helps with planning and reservations.
With two degrees in forestry from the University of Maine, Crowley said he is eager to put his knowledge back to good use. He hasn’t worked in the woods since he stopped managing a 3,000-acre estate in Cape Elizabeth in the early 1980s, the last in a series of adventurous jobs he held after college.
“I ran out of trees,” he said.
Other career detours after college included the stint hunting for Eskimo graves in Labrador aboard a Smithsonian-backed research vessel, and the federally funded hike from Old Orchard Beach to Bath, looking for a harmful species of moth. He has and continues to maintain a commercial lobstering license.
One time, after a major winter storm, Crowley was with a friend marveling at the debris from homes that was floating in the ocean.
“I said, if you pick this stuff up you could build a house,” Crowley said. His friend bet him that he couldn’t.
Crowley won, and the structure still stands as Crowley’s camp on an island in Casco Bay, he said.
His outlook and work ethic have carried him a long way, Crowley said, and will likely carry him even farther.
While his horse farm is currently horseless, Crowley has big agricultural plans for the property.
In the spring, the family will plant hops, an easy-to-grow plant in high demand by local beer brewers. With a massive arena, barn and fields, the Crowleys are working to turn their homestead into a wedding and event venue, offering accommodations by yurt. In a nearby two-mile-long pond, the family is exploring raising tilapia, a type of fish.
So what would he be doing if he had never won “Survivor”?
“I’d probably be doing the yurt project. I’d still be lobstering in the summertime. I’d still be doing tree work. I’d be doing probably the same thing I’m doing right now,” he said. “The only thing I wouldn’t have is this farm.”
Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at: