Survival skills raise cash for South Portland 'Survivor' winner's Durham camp
DURHAM — Staying at Bob and Peggy Crowley's place in the woods won't always be this demanding.
But the arduous weekend Crowley and friends put together as the "Durham Warriors Survival Challenge" will make it much easier for active and retired military personnel to enjoy Crowley's Maine Forest Yurts on Auburn-Pownal Road.
Crowley, a South Portland resident and former Gorham High School teacher, opened Maine Forest Yurts on land he bought with some of his $1.1 million in winnings from "Survivor: Gabon," the 2010 reality TV show that pitted scheming contestants against each other in physical and mental challenges.
To raise money for veterans to stay at Maine Forest Yurts, Crowley and at least 50 volunteers pulled together their own reality game.
“This is actually going better than I envisioned. It has been such a complicated process” Crowley said Friday as 18 contestants from 12 states swam, climbed, ran and camped on 100 acres. Each paid $250 to participate.
Ultimately, Russell O'Cain, 51, of Orangeburg, S.C., won the contest and the prized idol named Crusty the Lobster, adorned with a $1 bill tied into one of Crowley's signature bow ties.
O'Cain faced stiff competition from a strong local field, including South Portland residents Mike Friedland, a carpenter, and Dianne Kazilionis, who teaches phys ed at Dyer and Kaler elementary schools, and Topsham resident Kevin Thurber.
Friedland, 41, just missed a spot in the finals; he was aced out when O'Cain was able to balance on a beam as Friedland toppled.
"Even though I have great balance, I missed it by half a second," said Friedland, who lives across the street from Crowley.
Kazilionis, 54, finished fourth after fearing she would be the first person voted out by other contestants.
"The highlight was actually meeting some great people and being able to strategically plan how to play the game out," she said. "I didn't think I'd like that part, but it was actually fun."
Thurber, 64, raised $335 from friends beyond his participation fee.
"They were betting I wouldn't last two hours, that's why I raised so much,” he joked.
He was the third participant voted out Saturday afternoon, but not before he showed endurance and resourcefulness.
"I could outrun 80 percent of those guys," Thurber said. "I was the only one to steal food for my tribe. I found a nice loaf of bread and threw it right into my duffel bag."
But after suffering a cracked rib and injured feet, he asked his tribe to vote him out.
"I didn't want to drop out like a loser," he said.
The contestants were divided into three tribes: Mic-Mac, Penobscot and Maliseet. Days of rain left the grounds muddy, but the weather cleared and turned cold as the challenges began on Sept. 5.
"The first night alone in the woods with only a plastic tarp, blanket, bug spray and a jacket was the worst," Kazilionis said. "I had no idea where I was and I couldn't even see the stars because the trees were so thick."
Teams competed through the next day, compressing challenges that fill days on the TV show to hours, with a few breaks in between. On Saturday, Sept. 7, the ringers arrived: former "Survivor" contestants Terry Dietz, Erik Reichenbach and Kenward "Boo" Bernis.
Friedland said Dietz gave his lagging Penobscot team an immediate boost.
“He came in and made a huge difference physically and with morale, he propelled us,” Friedland said.
At times, it seemed the woods were as full of "Survivor" fanatics as competitors, including Scottsdale, Ariz., resident John Vataha, who played the emcee role of "Survivor" host Jeff Probst.
"I have a whole new appreciation for his skills," Vataha said of Probst." When (the contestants) showed up and talked about the alliances, I had no idea what was going on. It was a struggle and it was uncomfortable."
Vataha has applied to appear on "Survivor," calling it his "quest."
"You should see his office," said his wife, Linda Vataha. "There is nothing in there not 'Survivor'-related, except his (computer)."
Michael Allbright, a Wilmington, Ohio, resident who said he has met 363 cast members from the show that premiered in the summer of 2000, became a technical adviser and "general go-fer," he said.
Allbright helped devise the trivia questions used in a Friday morning challenge, and helped conduct tribal council interviews as the weekend progressed.
Jane Hammett Bright of Jackson Springs, N.C., was on hand to watch her daughter, 21-year-old Ashley Hammett compete.
"She's a chip off the old block," Bright said, and she should know. In 2010, Bright was named fan favorite in the competition filmed in Nicaragua; she survived to the 37th of 39 days.
Bright said it was hard to sit on the sidelines as her daughter competed.
"I'm so competitive, I wanted to try the challenges," she said. "It's frustrating when you know you might be better at it."
On Monday, Vataha said he was eager to watch videos of the competition, often shot by South Portland attorney Dan Mooers.
"The fan in me now is starting to trigger," he said. "I can take off the executive producer hat now. It was amazing how much like the real show this became in three days."
Win, lose or thawed, Thurber, Friedland and Kazilionis had high praise for the weekend.
"My overall impression it was it was phenomenal," Friedland said. "I think the effort the organizers and volunteers put in was unfathomable, I can't imagine the work that went into creating this event."
Thurber predicted big things for the future fundraisers.
"I think this going to be a big thing for Maine," he said.
As he cleaned up the site Monday, Vataha said there was one more thing he was eager to do.
"I'm looking forward to throwing the sneakers I am wearing into the trash,” he said.
Crowley, meanwhile, is planning for the next competition, right down to creating a new idol for the eventual winner.
“We had such a great weekend, (and) everybody survived. I wouldn't have wanted to change a thing,” he said Monday.