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ON THE SCENE: Local food a staple at Bark Eater Inn breakfast

Bark Eater Inn owners Meghan Kirkpatrick and Tyler Nichols pose at their Keene bed and breakfast on Monday, Sept. 21. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

The Bark Eater Inn — founded by former winter Olympian, polo promoter and raconteur Joe Pete Wilson Sr. — is in good hands.

Like Wilson, current managers Meghan Kirkpatrick and Tyler Nichols love the land, serving good food and making their guests feel welcome. They also like to connect people with nature and locally grown food.

Kirkpatrick and Nichols promote the Bark Eater as a farm-to-table bed and breakfast. The produce comes from their garden, prominently located in front of the inn, or area farms, such as Sugar House Creamery, Blue Pepper Farm, North Country Creamery, Juniper Hill Farm, Fledging Crow Vegetables, Mace Chasm Farm and Wild Work Farm.

Breakfast options include savory items like sandwiches, quiches and hash or sweeter options like yogurt, granola, fruit or oatmeal with homemade maple syrup.

The inn also hosts weddings, workshops, retreats and community events. The property features miles of trails that wander across meadows and through the woods, perfect for a hike or cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in winter.

Bark Eater Inn from the garden view (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

“Our vision is pretty big and has many facets,” said Kirkpatrick. “Our initial focus was getting the bed and breakfast going, and then opening up the cabins. Food sustainability is vital to us. We grow our food and support local farmers. We can house twenty plus people. We still have two on the back property that we haven’t renovated yet, and once done, that will increase our numbers a bit.”

The goal of Kirkpatrick and Nichols is to have more group activities, which will be easier when the additional two cabins come online. The best for them is when they can rent all spaces out to one party or event. They had a growing number of large weddings in the past, but COVID-19 put a stop to that. To their surprise, they soon got requests for mini weddings where all or nearly all the participants stay at the Bark Eater, an experience that they’d like to continue.

“The weddings are outdoors,” said Kirkpatrick. “They set up a big event tent in the back yard. There are different ceremony sites that we have around on the property. That’s been wonderful, but it also has a heavy impact on the property in terms of the lawns and other aspects. There is also a lot of waste and excess in a large wedding. The mini weddings cut down on all that. We are thinking of putting together mini wedding eco packages where you are getting local food, aim for zero waste, and have a celebration that’s overall friendly to the environment.”

On the event side, Kirkpatrick organizes women empowerment events. She is an herbalist and passionate about educating others, wellness and yoga. As part of her vision, Kirkpatrick would like to host and facilitate more retreats and programming along her women’s event lines. Her approach includes participants as facilitators, as she believes that we all have skills and insights that can help others and strengthen our abilities through sharing.

“Group activities and group rentals are the best way to experience this place,” said Nichols. “Renting the whole inn or the cabins enables you to have the whole 200 acres as your playground, and that sets us apart from any other bed and breakfast. When the snow is good in the wintertime, you can have 200 acres to ski or snowshoe with your friends. Talk about social distancing; you can explore the whole place. I think having all this is an exceptional experience.”

The property is well placed, being just down the road from the start of the Jackrabbit Trail that now extends to Paul Smiths, a 50-plus mile backcountry ski route, and nearby is some of the best ice and rock climbing in the Adirondacks, plus fishing in the AuSable River.

Neither Kirkpatrick nor Nichols grew up on a family farm or in the lodging business. Instead, their taking on a bed and breakfast resulted from a chance meeting in the Hudson Valley, where they lived and worked.

“Being here is a culmination of a lot of my past experiences,” said Kirkpatrick. “I went to SUNY New Paltz for geography and environmental science, as I am very passionate about environmental issues and taking care of the environment. I got an internship with The Nature Conservancy and then worked for Scenic Hudson. Conservation and land management was a huge focus of that work. Then I met Tyler at an herb farm and quickly moved there. I learned to grow herbs, make and sell herbal products, often in New York City. Simultaneously, I was doing landscaping.”

Nichols grew up in the Hudson Valley, moved to Montana for skiing and snowboarding, a passion, and then returned — landing on that small herb farm. There he discovered local food.

“I could sit down at a meal with folks who could name every ingredient in a meal and where it came from,” said Nichols. “I hadn’t experienced anything like that before or even thought about where food came from. It just made so much sense, as did supporting local farmers and keeping the money in the community, which benefits the local economy. So I learned a lot about that at the farm, met Meg, and then we had a lot of side jobs landscaping where I came to understand the beauty and artistic element of growing plants.”

Neither had any experience managing a lodging facility, but when the owner of the Bark Eater (who had purchased it from Wilson) offered them the opportunity, they were “beyond stoked.” They saw that refurbishing the buildings, running an inn, growing and promoting locally produced organic food was an opportunity too good to miss. They also were excited about the chance to learn new skills together, and it’s worked. The buildings and grounds have never looked better, and their guest book is filled with glowing praise for their hospitality, cooking skills, the quality of the food and the setting.

“Thanks for the great food and conversation,” wrote one. “What a nice relaxing stay. How nice that you support the community.” “You live your passion,” wrote another. “What a magical setting for a wedding,” wrote a third.

A key element is their shared passion for herbs, and not just the herbs used for seasoning. Kirkpatrick said that, for the most part, they can get all their medicines from pharmaceutical companies. Yet, many herb-based remedies have proven to be highly effective, especially when combined with organic food, exercise and activities like yoga, meditation and creative self-expression. (There’s nothing like fly fishing for reducing the stress in one’s life.)

“You can’t tell from a bottle of medicine where what it’s made of or where it comes from,” said Kirkpatrick. “They often have all these side effects. I was attracted to learning the medicinal benefits of plants and using them to support our lifestyle, health and well-being. In many instances, our minor health incidences can be addressed with herbs, changes in lifestyle, rather than immediately jumping straight to a pharmaceutical.”

Nichols got into herbs through taking a class on solar panel installation, where a fellow student introduced him to a local herb garden. The other aspect that got his, and soon Kirkpatrick’s, attention was that none of the people working the farm, or the organic farms, grew up on a farm; they gained their experience by doing and learning from others. A lightbulb went off in their heads that’s now still burning brightly in Keene.