‘Survivor’ campers compete in Durham

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DURHAM — The first contestants were arriving in six hours. Still written on the dry erase board to-do list on a rough cabin wall:

Eighteen stumps for tribal. Clean mud pit.

Bob Crowley walked the sprawling camp in thick rubber boots, eyeing the under-construction challenges, the newly flooded pond, the volunteers hurrying to make everything just right.

“There’s only one rule we’re going to have,” said Crowley, 62. “You can’t eat my chickens; you can’t eat my ducks. Chicken and duck are off the menu.”

Otherwise, game on.

Crowley, the plucky, endearing and normally bow-tied physics teacher who shot to fame winning “Survivor: Gabon” in 2008 — becoming the oldest winner in the popular game’s history — has created the Durham Warriors Survival Challenge on 100 acres. It’s a fundraiser for his Durham Warriors Project, a nonprofit that covers the costs for military families and veterans to stay at Maine Forest Yurts, his business on the same property.

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Eighteen contestants from all over the country, 15 men and three women, ages 24 to 64, were due to arrive at sunset Thursday. On that night’s agenda: a blindfolded walk to just outside the tribal council space, a greeting and game rules from him, then a trip into the deep woods, one by one, allowed the clothes on their backs, a blanket and a piece of plastic.

Oh, and no talking.

“It’s going to be 41 degrees tonight,” Crowley said, taking a little sly pleasure. “They’re alone in the woods. I’m looking for recordings of coyotes.”

Every contestant paid $250, plus their own travel, for the four-day experience. They include a computer programmer, a retired carpenter and a physical education teacher. Four hail from Maine.

“Probably at least a dozen of them are hand-picked, people like me who’ve tried out for the show 20 times,” said John Vataha of Arizona. “This is the closest they’ll get.”

Vataha and Steve Pickett of Oklahoma, two superfans of the TV show, have traveled to Crowley’s land at least four times in the past year to plot and organize challenges and to clear land.

The 17 challenges will include “Survivor”-style tile-breaking. Fire-starting. Puzzle-making. Scaling wooden walls.

Crowley had a volunteer team run the courses last weekend, flagging hazards and hiccups.

Pointing to the backside of one obstacle, Crowley said, “I forgot to shave off the knots on this side. When they slid down off it, they left a little skin here and there.”

Sanding the knots was also on his to-do list.

Crowley planned to divide the contestants into three teams Friday, with team colors and pomp, and to let the competition start. They’d be given limited access to amenities such as rice and pots, a 5-gallon bucket for bathroom facilities and a steady supply of Poland Spring water.

“There is no food and there is no lodging,” Crowley said. “We made a conscious decision that we’re not going to dehydrate them.”

On Saturday, contestants are due for a surprise: past “Survivor” game contestants will join each team.

After a series of tribal council eliminations, a winner will be crowned Sunday night. The winner gets bragging rights.

Crowley said he was grateful that Durham Rescue volunteered to be on hand for any errant challenge injuries.

He and his wife, Peggy, have owned the land for decades. He retired from teaching in 2009, months after winning the $1 million prize on “Survivor,” and opened Maine Forest Yurts last year. There is one yurt, with plans for more. They’ve hosted four veterans and their families so far.

Crowley said he’d like to see the survival challenge become an annual event. He may welcome the public next year to watch; this first time is more of a low-key trial run.

Four videographers will film the challenges. He planned to release clips on YouTube next week.

But first, there were more details, more plotting.

By Friday night, teams will have scored enough challenge points to be in first, second and third place. For that day’s winners: a barbecue.

“The No. 3 team gets to sleep directly across the cove from the No. 1 team cooking hamburgers,” Crowley said.

kskelton@sunjournal.com

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