‘It’s much harder than the show’: Why would 9 former ‘Survivor’ contestants converge on a 4,000-person Maine town?

From left, two-time "Survivor" winner Sandra Diaz-Twine, fellow former show participant Terry Deitz and season 17 champion Bob Crowley at Crowley's Maine Forest Yurts property in Durham Friday afternoon. (BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

From left, two-time “Survivor” winner Sandra Diaz-Twine, fellow former show participant Terry Deitz and season 17 champion Bob Crowley at Crowley’s Maine Forest Yurts property in Durham Friday afternoon. (BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

The pond is deceptively deep, deceptively long and deceptively cold. And it’s that much harder to swim when one of your hands is busy holding a torch above the surface, stretching to hold the flames out from your body while someone else tries to splash it out.

A participant in the Durham Warriors Survival Challenge tries to swim with a torch. (Photo courtesy of Bob Crowley)

Clark Giguiere of Irvine, California, swims with a lit torch during this year’s Durham Warriors Survival Challenge. (Photo courtesy of Bob Crowley)

I know, because that’s what I did last Saturday — among other exhausting wilderness challenges — to test out some of the obstacle courses awaiting the competitors of the second annual Durham Warriors Survival Challenge. Just like what happens off-screen before each season of the hit CBS reality television show “Survivor,” a group of guinea pigs went through the challenges in the Maine version last weekend to make sure everything worked.

I was one of those guinea pigs, and I can attest: The challenges work.

And now, for three-plus days, Durham, Maine, has a per capita population of reality stars higher than probably anywhere else on Earth. With nine former “Survivor” participants on hand to either compete or watch the Durham Warriors Survival Challenge, there is one in the town for every 425 people or so.

That would be like if 160 “American Idol” contestants converged on Portland, for reference.

With all that said, let me back up and offer some particulars. This is the second annual Durham Warriors Survival Challenge, in which participants from around Maine and the world come to the Maine Forest Yurts property of 2008 “Survivor” champion Bob Crowley. The multiday event — team challenges started today and will continue into Sunday — raises money for Crowley’s nonprofit organization and very much resembles the television show.

Teams stay in the woods and go through obstacle courses that challenge the contestants mentally and physically — stuff like crossing a log over water to acquire the pieces of a three-dimensional puzzle they’ll then need to assemble. The ones that perform the best win things that make their lives in the wild more tolerable, like food and items that can be used to create shelter, and ultimately the participants vote to eliminate each other from competition.

Steve Morin of New Hampshire counts sticks alongside Matt Bischoff, a contestant on "Survivor: Caramoan," during a Friday challenge in Durham. (BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

Steve Morin of New Hampshire counts sticks alongside Matt Bischoff, a contestant on “Survivor: Caramoan,” during a Friday challenge in Durham. (BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

They outwit, outplay and outlast.

The last one standing is the winner. So, in that regard, the Durham Warriors Survival Challenge is like the television show.

Except that it’s harder.

How do we know? Terry Deitz has done both. He was on “Survivor: Panama” in 2006, then came up to quarterback one of the DWSC teams last summer.

“Obviously the starvation is not there and some of the anxiety about voting people out is not there, because you don’t have as much time to think about it,” Deitz said, watching this year’s competition in Durham. “But with the challenges? Doing one every two hours? That’s much harder than the show. By the end of the day tomorrow, these guys will be hammered.”

Andy Baker, of West Hartford, Connecticut, works with teammates Laura Burns, of Orland Park, Illinois, and John Muzzy of Bangor on a challenge Friday in Durham. (BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

Andy Baker, of West Hartford, Connecticut, works with teammates Laura Burns, of Orland Park, Illinois, and John Muzzy of Bangor on a challenge Friday in Durham. (BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

When you’re on “Survivor,” you might have a day or two between each of the challenges you go through, and you spend the time in between playing politics and building alliances with other competitors — you might need their votes to avoid getting kicked off the proverbial island, and the longer you can avoid that, the better your shot at winning.

In Durham, there’s little time for backstabbing and alliance building. Because of the condensed schedule, the teams are on the run from morning until evening, and the winner is determined more by how he or she performs in the challenges than how many proverbial backs he or she scratches.

And those challenges, if I didn’t make it clear earlier, are no walks in the park.

“I’m sitting here thankful that I’m just sitting here,” said Sandra Diaz-Twine, a relieved spectator at the Durham event. Oh, and the only two-time winner of the “Survivor” television show.

“I put my hand in the water and I said, ‘Oh, that’s cold — that’s not for me,’” she added. “There are times, though, when I want to shout out and help [the competitors], but we’ve got to stay quiet.”

Another difference between the TV show and the Durham challenge is the trophy. If you win “Survivor,” you win $1 million. Not bad for a few months roughing it. If you win the Durham Warriors Survival Challenge, you win a statue of a lobsterman made out of shells and wearing a bow-tie made of two $1-bills.

In fact, contestants in the DWSC have to raise $300 apiece to take part, what with the event being a charity fundraiser and all. But the opportunity to rub elbows with “Survivor” participants and get a taste of show is enough to attract applications from around the country. While the television show has had its ups and downs in terms of ratings, it has built up a large and loyal cult following, and between seasons, Durham has quickly become a new focal point for that community’s attention.

“A lot of these people have tried multiple times to get on ‘Survivor,’ and this is as close as they’re going to get,” Deitz said. “This has grown easily twofold compared to last year.”

And event emcee/organizer John Vataha, an Arizona man who himself has applied unsuccessfully nearly 30 times to get a spot on the television show, said he’s already gotten applications for next year’s challenge.

Richard Hatch, the first winner of "Survivor," right, takes in the competition at the Durham Warriors Survival Challenge on Friday. (BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

Richard Hatch, the first winner of “Survivor,” right, takes in the competition at the Durham Warriors Survival Challenge on Friday. (BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

Diane Kazilionis is a South Portland teacher who serves on the board of directors for Crowley’s nonprofit, the Durham Warriors Project, and the fourth place finisher in last year’s challenge.

“It’s out there — the social media has gone crazy,” she said. “[Season one winner] Richard Hatch and Sandra Diaz-Twine? When people like that start coming, it really says something.”

There are three teams of seven in the Durham challenge, and each team has a resident “Survivor” veteran. The white-clad Bezo tribe — which ended Friday in first place and won the shelter of a teepee and potato chips to snack on for their success — were led by Kathy Sleckman of “Survivor: Micronesia.”

The Skog tribe, wearing orange T-shirts, finished Friday in second, and were given some apples and peanut butter for getting the day’s proverbial silver medal. The recognizable beard of Matt Bischoff, a participant on “Survivor: Caramoan,” could be seen among their ranks. And the third place Awasos tribe, in dark green, included Coby Archa of “Survivor: Palau.”

Former “Survivor” competitors Michael Snow and Jimmy Tarantino were also due in Durham to cheer on the teams this weekend.

Jordan Szechowycz came from Illinois to see her husband, Ian, compete for Awasos. Last year, Jordan competed herself and finished in the top 11.

“I’m scared of the dark,” she said. “I don’t like the dark, and the first night we had to sleep in the woods, completely alone with nothing but a tarp. But I had such an amazing time.”

The Durham Warriors Project funds getaways for veterans groups and other qualifying nonprofits at Bob and Peggy Crowley’s Maine Forest Yurts campus, which my colleague, Beth Brogan, wrote about earlier this year.

But while the Crowleys’ lavish yurts attract vacationers the rest of the year, this is one weekend dozens converge on the Durham property for a chance to sleep outside them.

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