DEER ISLE — The dinner gong sounds. I make my way along a path of wood chips to the lodge where my husband and I will enjoy supper with Deer Isle Hostel owner Dennis Carter, another guest, and farm apprentice Megan Thomann. Carter’s wife and business partner, Anneli Sundqvist, is visiting family in her native Sweden. One of the pigs in the pen near the door gives me a friendly grunt before I head inside.
There is no charge for our supper of vegetables from the garden served family style over quinoa, with cheese, avocado slices, and pickled beets made from last year’s harvest. And there is no requirement that guests partake of the evening meal, although if you do, you are asked to call ahead and bring something from the local market. We all sit at one table, enjoy a bottle of wine that we brought, and share stories as the libation begins to have a lightening effect. Everyone helps with the dishes.
Dinner dishes is about all that is asked of guests, although you can work in other ways, if you’d like — feed the chickens, pick chamomile blossoms for tea, for instance. There is no refrigerator, but you can put your breakfast items that need cooling in the root cellar. Yogurt and cheese keep well; milk not so much.
This whole enterprise — the secluded year-round cabin and seasonal eco-hostel on 17 acres — is completely off the grid. Carter and Sundqvist are homesteaders as well as hosts. Just last month Mother Earth News honored them as Homesteaders of the Year.
Here, the electricity is solar-generated, the water hand-pumped from a well. The outdoor toilet, two steps from the house, is a nifty composting arrangement and more pleasant than you might expect. Since our visit in June, Carter upgraded the shower by rigging a hot water delivery system using PCV pipe running through the steaming interior of a seaweed-and-fern compost pile. Guests now have an enclosed outdoor shower with hot and cold taps.
“My mission every June is to keep smoothing things out so that someone who comes in to this alternative lifestyle is comfortable right away,” said Carter. The hostel opened for business in 2009.
Contentment comes easily, if your expectations are in tune with the hostel’s purpose, which is to offer ecological, low-cost accommodations while fostering an understanding of the homesteading lifestyle.
The main lodge has a story all its own. Carter and a mostly volunteer crew built the entire 1,500-square-foot structure over three years using hand tools and local materials. That included laying the foundation manually, using a hand chisel to flatten the top. The edifice is built to resemble the 1687 Boardman House in Saugus .
At bedtime, we remove our shoes to go upstairs. We have a private room, but walk through a room with three beds to get to ours. The charge is $60, and that includes dinner for two. Bunking in the larger room is only $25 per person.
Sheets are unmatched, but the mattress is comfortable. For privacy and night breezes, reserve the sleeping porch, a free-standing building nestled among the spruce trees. The hostel sleeps 10, although Carter has plans to build another porch and finish off the third floor of the house.
Wherever you go on the grounds, you are surrounded by nature. Walk the immense garden thick with vegetables. Sit in the rough-hewn, roofless gazebo that’s entwined with vines — “It’s a Swedish tradition to have a room surrounded by vegetation,” said Carter — and enjoy night skies dark enough to see the Milky Way.
Because this is a working homestead and in the midst of improvement, here and there are piles of lumber, sawdust, rocks. Carter gathers much of his material for his improvements “from nature or neighbors” and refuses to go into debt. Thus, work on the hostel is slow and “deliberate.”
The garden produces enough to feed the couple year round and their guests all summer. Pigs and chickens provide meat and eggs. As a sideline business, the owners cultivate shiitake mushrooms for an excellent local Mexicali restaurant, El El Frijoles.
Guests at the hostel are usually young, on a budget, or similarly eco-minded. When we visited, two were attendees at nearby Haystack Mountain School of Crafts extending their stay. “It’s an opportunity for guests to try, for a short time, to live in a way that connects nature with actions and stewardship,” said Carter.
If requested ahead of time, he will provide “the grand tour” of the hostel’s sustainable operations. Most guests come to just enjoy its rural simplicity. At night visitors can read or play guitar by the solar-powered lights. By day walk, bike, or drive to sights nearby. The gorgeous, bridge-accessed island is known for its natural beauty, artistic community, fishermen, and summer residents.
The hostel abuts the Edgar M. Tennis Preserve, 145 acres with three miles of trails and open to the public, much of it scenic shoreline. You’ll find a small island of maritime boreal forest and rocky shoreline at dramatic Barred Island Preserve, a short drive away. To access the island, which you can circumnavigate by foot, cross the sandbar up to three hours either side of low tide.
You won’t want to miss Nervous Nellie’s, just up the road from the hostel. Here you can watch the crafting of small batches of jams and jellies, sample the goods with scones at the on-site cafe, and tour “Nellieville,” the near life-size village displaying the whimsical humanoid sculptures of Peter Beerits. Deer Isle is awash in artists and small galleries, and many welcome studio visits.
The region has been rich in homesteaders, too, from early settlers who had to be self-sufficient, to Scott and Helen Nearing, urban transplants who lived off the land and wrote many books about their practices. Visitors are welcome at their homestead, now a nonprofit called The Good Life Center, in nearby Harborside.
Wherever you wander on this splendid island, allow yourself to settle into the spirit of Maine’s only coastal hostel. Unwind, share supper with new acquaintances, and get a taste of the rhythms, simplicity, and challenges of homesteading life.
It’s impossible to depart without some new thinking about how to be gentler on the earth. Said Carter, “We want people to break free.”Nancy Heiser can be reached at www.nancyheiser.com.