GRAY — After winning “Survivor: Gabon,” Bob Crowley wanted to give back to Mainers. What better way to do that than to hold a four-day Survivor-like challenge on his land in Durham to benefit veterans?
Visitors to the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray this weekend will get to learn all about the Durham Warrior Project and Crowley’s other venture, Maine Forest Yurts. The presentation will take place at 11 a.m. on Saturday at the park, 56 Game Farm Road, just off Route 26. Admission to the park is $7.50 for adults, children ages four to 12 and senior citizens are $5.50 and children three and younger are free.
Crowley said Monday he will also talk about “staycations,” where people enjoy a vacation locally and camp in yurts as there’s a number of opportunities to do so throughout the state.
He became the oldest “Survivor” in history when he won at 57 and is fondly referred to as “Survivor Bob” by fans.
But what matters to him now are his yurts. It made sense to head into that direction since the family owns 110 acres on Roundaround Pond in Durham and enjoyed visiting Frost Mountain Yurts in Brownfield.
“They’re really unique. They’re round and cross between a circus tent and a teepee,” he said.
There’s no electricity inside the circular structure, which can sleep up to six people. But there’s a wood stove for warmth in the fall and winter, a gas stove for cooking, a sink, a table and chairs and a composting toilet. And it’s easier to heat up a yurt than to cool it down because of the lack of electricity and air conditioning, Crowley said.
It was a family affair as Crowley and his wife, Peggy, their two sons and daughter decided to go into business together. The $1 million (before taxes) from Bob’s 2008 reality TV show win didn’t fund the business, but was used to pay off other bills before Maine Forest Yurts was established.
“When it became time to start, we’ve been pretty much building it up all along and cutting down the trees on the property,” he said. “I am still a cheap Yankee.”
The Crowleys’ first yurt was erected two years ago, a second one was recently put up and third one should be up and running this fall. There’s even a log cabin for people to experience more traditional camping in the Maine woods. But even if the business fails, there’s at least one perk.
“My son sat down and said, ‘Dad you know something cool about this? If we went into business for a restaurant that didn’t work, we would have a restaurant that didn’t work. If this doesn’t work, we have a really cool camp,’” Crowley recalled.
After opening the business, Crowley wanted to find a way to use his reality TV fame to help people out. He didn’t even try to land himself a spot on the show, but people from “Survivor” sought him out. An aspiring screenplay writer attended a pig roast hosted by Crowley and one of his sons on Stave Island in the middle of Casco Bay. When the TV producers looked around the room at the cast for “Survivor: Gabon,” they realized they were missing an old man.
“’I know one of those in Maine,’” Crowley quoted the screenwriter, who worked with the show in 2008, as saying.
“I don’t even like the show because an honest person never won,” Crowley recalled telling the guy who called him from the show, asking him to fill out a 17-page application and create a short video. But then he crunched the math, realizing at least 50,000 people were trying to get on “Survivor,” Crowley realized he was on the short list and here he was being rude.
“The rest is sort of ‘Survivor’ history,” Crowley added.
A friend told Crowley of fan John Vataha, who was looking to do a survival challenge. So the pair combined forces and two years ago, the nonprofit Durham Warriors Project was formed. A large fundraiser called the Durham Warrior Survival Challenge is held in August, where 18 Americans are invited to run the gamut of survival challenges, ranging from pond puzzles to a gross food eating challenge to a rope maze and everything Survivor-like in between.
“We treat them very poorly for four days,” Crowley said, laughing.
But ever since Richard Hatch, the first person to win “Survivor,” heard about the challenge, he’s come to the Crowleys’ roughly five times a year to help out with the event. Other “Survivor” players have stepped in and assisted as well, including Jimmy Tarantino aka Jimmy T. from Gloucester, Mass., and Terry Deitz of Connecticut. It takes roughly 100 volunteers to pull off the event, which includes playing the game about a week before its scheduled to make sure there aren’t any snafus.
“It is just a really fun project. Everybody loves to get involved,” Crowley said, adding that the money helps veterans, their families and active service members. “Whenever a veteran wants to stay at Maine Forest Yurts, they don’t pay.”