When first-years ventured into Pisgah National Forest for the student-run pre-orientation program Project Wild last year, they got a little too comfortable for law enforcement’s taste. 

An investigation by The Chronicle found that Duke suspended the program for 2017 after an incident in Aug. 22, 2016 during which 23 participants were cited for public nudity. The group also illegally blocked the Appalachian Mountains trail leading to the waterfall where the students were naked. The students were cited for the illegal blockage, according to citations obtained by The Chronicle via a Freedom of Information Act request to the United States Forest Service and public records from a United States District Court. 

Senior Camil Craciunescu, the project’s current student program director, said the group was suspended for blocking the trail and not the nudity. Jordan Hale, director and assistant dean of new student programs, declined to comment repeatedly. 

“I don’t have anything to say about it,” Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs, said. 

The program is now off probation and will return in 2018, with a number of changes to protect the safety and well-being of students. As part of the two-week wilderness trip, the program has usually encouraged participants to go on a 36-hour isolated experience with no food. Although this experience—dubbed "solos"—was not related to the nudity incident, it will be revised next year. 

Moving forward, students will be given three meals a day throughout the 36 hours. Additionally, a supervising faculty member will now be required to go on the trip. 

In 2016, a faculty member accompanied the students, said Craciunescu, who was not program director at the time. However, Craciunescu added that at the time of the citations for public nudity and blocking the trail, the faculty member was not present. Craciunescu suggested the faculty member, Jan Hackett—a former physical education professor—might have been off getting groceries. 

“He was not at the scene, or anywhere close to it,” Craciunescu said.   

Hackett confirmed he was on the trip, but did not answer questions about the group’s trouble with the law. Nathan McKinnis, managing director of recreation programs, said Hackett is a contractual employee who teaches wilderness first-aid. Hackett will be on the trip again as a faculty supervisor in 2018, Craciunescu said.  

Craciunescu said that a condition of Project Wild’s reinstatement was that a Duke faculty member or someone on Duke’s payroll be “present on every trip and make some effort to communicate and check in with the students.” 

However, Project Wild will continue to be dominated by students, Craciunescu noted. 

“When it comes down to planning every single logistical aspect, it’s up to the students. The culture of the program is up to the students, and the University doesn’t have a say in that unless they think something is egregiously wrong,” Craciunescu said. 

‘It’s time to get naked’

Multiple former first-year students who were on the trip in 2016 and whose identity have been protected for fear of retaliation said that Project Wild reserved the forest’s Cove Creek Group Camping Area. This included a natural rock water slide in a secluded location off a trail between two open campgrounds. The students said camp staffers told them that they could go down the slide if they wanted to, partially clothed at first. 

But later, the upperclassmen announced that some people were going to do the slide nude, the sources said. The upperclassmen then told those students who did not want to go nude to not spectate. 

Men not affiliated with the program were also at the rock slide area, the sources said. The upperclassmen told the men to leave, but the men refused. However, they eventually left and reported the nudity to park rangers, who later came to the scene, the sources confirmed. 

The sources added that the group did not pressure anyone to partake in the nudity. 

“It was very wholesome, no ill intent,” one of the former first-year students said. “There wasn’t pressure. I wasn’t naked in any part of that trip, but it wasn’t weird.”

According to a complaint on the citation report obtained by The Chronicle, one camp staffer shouted “it’s time to get naked.” Craciunescu denies that was ever said. 

Craciunescu insists that Project Wild was suspended and denied a permit by Pisgah National Forest solely because it restricted trail access to the rock slide. The organization had “a couple” staffers on each end of the trail to ensure that no one was “disturbing their privacy,” Craciunescu said. He said the group blocked off the trail to passengers in a car that wanted to drive through, who then went to the rangers. 

“We thought because we reserved the campground that it was our private space for the weekend,” Craciunescu said. “So we had a couple staffers stationed at the entrance of the second campground to make sure no one was disturbing our privacy. We had the same situation set up at the other end of the trail.”

“They came in and investigated and found people there who were blocking trail access, which is seen as a very egregious offense in the eyes of the U.S. Forest Service—the whole reason for our rejection from the national forest in general,” Craciunescu continued.

He added that the U.S. Forest Service has received noise and other complaints about Project Wild groups on several different occasions throughout the past decade. 

“They saw this incident where we were restricting trail access to people we didn’t know had trail access in the first place,” he said. “They saw that as the final straw.”

According to the police report on the citations obtained by The Chronicle, several staff members acknowledged their efforts to limit public access to the area. 

Taming Project Wild

Other aspects of Project Wild, unrelated to the nudity citations, will be revamped next year. 

A signature part of the program—“solos,” in which students separate and live by themselves for 36 hours with no food and just water and shelter supplies—will be amended. Students will now receive food, Craciunescu said, noting that students traditionally receive maps and whistles, and cannot be solo outside of whistle range.

“If people who potentially have eating disorders are put in a situation where they’re forced to not eat for 36 hours, that could trigger certain behavior that maybe they’ve been working to correct,” Craciunescu said. 

Students are usually not told about the solos before they go on the two-week trip. But, participants have gone on the solos since the program started in 1974. The solos are intended to be a period of self-reflection for first-years, Craciunescu said. 

“It’s highly encouraged,” Craciunescu said before The Chronicle obtained the citations. “We don’t make them do it. We say if you ever get uncomfortable with it at any point, you can come back and stay with us. But we don’t force them to do it. It’s just highly encouraged.”

But after Craciunescu was shown the citations, he slightly changed how he framed the “solos.”

“I wouldn’t say you’re highly encouraged to do it, because we always, always make sure that they know. We tell them that people have done this before, it’s completely normal to be freaked out and scared and if you feel like you can’t handle this, please come and stay with the staff,” Craciunescu said. “We don’t know what they’re thinking all the time, but we give them the opportunity 100 percent to come back with no judgment, because we don’t tell any of the other crew members that they came back early.”

Another change to the program will require students to participate in trail maintenance services with the guidance of the Pisgah Conservancy, a nonprofit that supports the forest. 

In March and August, Project Wild upperclassmen staff members completed trial runs of the service—clearing brush, irrigating trails and rebuilding portions of the trail. Also included in their service was removing invasive species and hauling lumber “three miles up a slope,” Craciunescu said. 

He added that the Forest Service actively monitored the Project Wild campers, paying visits to the base routinely to check in on them. 

Hale, the director and assistant dean of new student programs, said the number of staff members will also be reduced from roughly 60 to 40—a cut that has been instituted across all pre-orientation programs.

“It’s to make the programs run more efficiently and it’s to make sure we support first-year students in a way that is adequate and that they have a good experience,” Hale said. “We have a lot of people who come to campus early and a lot of people who are here for camps, so our team and facilities really have a hard time doing any projects."

As a result of the cuts, Project Wild made the application to become an upperclassman staffer or crew leader more competitive, Craciunescu said. Staffers have to be more involved, including helping out with a house course that Project Wild directs—an introduction to experiential education that aims to “prepare people to become stewards and staffers of the outdoors.” 

The program will also modify its emphasis on non-directive leadership that tended to put the first-years in charge of day-to-day decisions. Before, the first-years would choose where to camp, which trail to take and what they’re going to eat for dinner, among other decisions. Now, if a group of first-years "decides to do something that could be detrimental to the group or organization as a whole, staffers have the obligation to step in and be directive," Craciunescu said.

“[The first-years] are usually the ones running the trip because it’s their trip, but we’re here to help if they have any questions,” Craciunescu said. “It’s that kind of independence that we give them that has led to a lot of the problems that we’ve had with making our presence too known in the forest. The staff will be much more directive if they see something questionable.”

In addition to the focus on mental health awareness, Project Wild is now focusing more on gender role awareness, Craciunescu said. The organization has someone from the Women’s Center speak at every staff training, which lasts three or four days, Craciunescu said.

“P-Wild is a pretty liberal-leaning organization and everyone is pretty open and accepting, but inevitably there are going to be some issues that are going to arise,” Craciunescu said. “It’s good to know what issues could arise and how to cut them out.”