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A Sustainable Pace

BY COLLEEN SAVILLE
PHOTOS BY Caitlin Patterson, John Lazenby, Judy Geer, Paul Bierman UVM, Val Stepanchuk, Wes Vear

*This piece originally ran in the September 2018 issue of Rowing News

When Dick Dreissigacker and Judy Geer took over the Craftsbury Outdoor Center in 2008, they knew they had the chance to make an already good thing even better.

Founded by Russell and Janet Spring in the mid-1970s, the Craftsbury Outdoor Center in Craftsbury, Vt., was originally an all-boys prep school the Spring family turned into a training center for Nordic skiers and rowers interested in learning to scull. Each summer, Judy and Dick would travel to Craftsbury for one week to guest coach the sculling camps, a group comprised of athletes of all ages and skill levels, eager to master the art of rowing small boats.

Through the Craftsbury camp system, Dick and Judy taught their two daughters to scull at an early age and, eventually, to ski.

Dick and Judy Dreissigacker.

“Up here it’s a long winter,” Judy says laughing, “and so we taught our kids to ski early on. In turn, they got to know the other kids who were cross-country skiing at the center. At that time, Craftsbury had hired a new cross-country skiing coach who wanted to start a junior program, and so we asked Hannah, our oldest, ‘Do you want to be a part of this program?’ and she said yes. We’ve been involved ever since.”

(Hannah, by the way, would go on to compete in the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 as a biathlete. Her sister Emily competed in biathlon in the 2018 Winter Games.) 

In 2008 Dick and Judy purchased the training center from the Spring family and reorganized as a non-profit to ensure the Craftsbury experience would be around for generations to come. Judy notes that she and Dick worked closely with the Springs during the transition, reflecting on what Craftsbury had been, and sharing visions on what it could be. Today, Craftsbury is a training center for elite rowers, Nordic skiers, bikers, and more recently, runners. It is arguably the most energy-efficient training facility in the country, and has built a strong reputation on its sustainable innovation and reliable snow.

Ask any Craftsbury athlete or coach, however, and they’ll likely tell you that above all, the center is a special kind of utopia. The Craftsbury Outdoor Center is many things, and in some ways, they’re just getting started. 

When Judy describes the foundation of the Outdoor Center, she quickly points to the mission statement by which the athletes, coaches, and members of the larger community live.

“We created a mission for the Outdoor Center, which has three prongs,” she says. “To support and promote participation and excellence in lifelong sports with a special focus on rowing, Nordic skiing, biathlon, and running; to use and teach sustainable practices; and to be good stewards of the surrounding land, lake, and trails.”

While sustainability—especially at scale—requires ongoing effort, Craftsbury is happy to rise to the occasion. Judy explains that in exchange for three organic meals per day, housing in the dorms, access to equipment, coaching, and all-expenses-paid travel to important competitions, Craftsbury Green Racing Project athletes (the official name for their post-collegiate group of elite rowers, cross-country skiers and biathletes), give back by dedicating 10 hours per week or 500 hours per year to the center by working on projects that support the mission.

Depending on the day, this could mean anything from working in the garden to splitting wood to trail maintenance, helping design a new building, or analyzing the energy uses of existing buildings. Oftentimes, too, giving back includes either mentoring or coaching junior or novice athletes. Judy notes that this idea of contributing to the larger community helps provide balance for athletes training at the elite level, while simultaneously creating a community by and for athletes of all ages.

“It’s an ongoing challenge,” she says. “These kids have to fly all over the world [to compete], and it’s not easy to be a team that way and be green. But we would, of course, rather try than not try at all.”

”These kids have to fly all over the world [to compete], and it’s not easy to be a team that way and be green. But we would, of course, rather try than not try at all.”

-Judy Geer

When Stephen Whelpley, former U.S. senior national team rower and Green Racing Project (GRP) alum returned to Craftsbury in 2017 to assume the role of head coach for the GRP rowing squad, he was already familiar with the green ways of life so central to the community. In addition to the benefits of sustainability at Craftsbury, Whelpley recalls the positive impact cross-training had on his career as a rower.

“When I joined GRP as an athlete back in 2012, I had never before cross-country skied,” he says. “That whole first year when you do it, you may be inefficient and have to augment what you do on skis with other indoor work on the erg or the bike, but by year two, it’s an invaluable cross-training tool.” 

Whelpley continues, explaining how Judy and Dick still today find new ways to harmonize their athletic initiatives with their vision to be as energy-efficient as possible across the center. Most recently, that has involved a snow-saving study in partnership with the University of Vermont, that tests and refines methods of storing snow over the summer months, with the goal of lengthening the Nordic ski season in late fall and early winter, while simultaneously reducing the energy costs and carbon emissions associated with snowmaking.

“We began almost sort of joking about it,” Judy chuckles, but Paul Bierman, who is a professor of geology at the University of Vermont and a Craftsbury member along with his kids, said, ‘We can do this, and I have a masters student named Hannah Weiss who would be a great asset to this project.’ From there, it all came together.” 

Judy explains that storing snow over the summer is both an art and a science, as it requires managing energy gains and losses to the snow pile, understanding which methods of insulation work best and are most sustainable over time, and of course, predicting melt rates that inform how much snow should be stored in order to net out to the desired amount. Right now, the center’s goal is to successfully store roughly 2,000 meter’s worth of snow to help lengthen the ski season, and act as a buffer for unexpected warm days or periods during the winter.

“Early races are something you stress about getting enough snow made for,” Judy says, “and the later races are challenging because you don’t want to make too much snow. This is where having that cushion would be a very nice thing.”

Judy notes that Craftsbury wanted to be in a position to host more racing, especially at the bookends of the season in November and March, and that snowmaking only works when temperatures drop below a certain threshold.

“Unfortunately, more recently, rising temperatures mean Craftsbury isn’t getting cold enough by the time we want to have snow,” she says. “And so what a lot of places in Scandinavia, and a few in Canada and southern Germany do, is save a huge pile of snow in the winter, and cover it with something during the warmer months … sawdust, wood chips, etc. What we’re looking at now is what’s going to be the best for us at Craftsbury. It’s science, combined with economics and environmental concerns, including the efficiency, the logistics and costs. It’s truly a multifaceted study.”

Part of what makes this project both challenging and interesting, is that the insulation methods that may work for one country or climate won’t necessarily work for another, since energy is transferred from the environment to the snow piles in different ways. Professor Bierman and Hannah Weiss, alongside Judy and Dick, must constantly consider the ways in which heat is conducted from the ground below to the base of the pile, since that variable directly affects the rate at which the protected snow will melt.

“They have fascinating monitoring equipment that can measure how fast the pile is shrinking,” Judy explains, “and temperature monitors that we put below the pile and then in the pile to help compare the different layers of insulating materials, in order to determine which are ultimately going to work best.”

Other variables the team must consider include the changing ground temperature during the warmer months, seasonal rain, and the increasing temperatures each year that warm the top of the insulating layer during the day, and in turn, melt the pile from the top down. The best conditions to store snow are of course cold, but also dry. If the air is dry, evaporative cooling from moist wood chips or sawdust will help remove energy from the stored pile of snow, rising out of the snow into the cool, dry air. 

An added bonus of snow storage for the center is that it allows the team to focus on making artificial snow only on the coldest nights mid-winter, when it is most efficient from a power and water perspective. Right now, Craftsbury has two experimental piles, but the plan is to refine the project for next year and in years to come based on this year’s findings.

“These are two experimental piles we knew weren’t going to be enough,” Judy explains, “but they should enable Hannah and Professor Bierman to create a model for how much snow we’ll need, based on how much snow they forecast we’ll lose. We’ll probably lose a good third of our snow, so that just means we have to save that much more,” she notes.

At the same time, Judy and team recognize that the journey is part of the process.

“We had some fun on the fourth of July,” she says, “and dug out a bit of snow for the local kids to sled on. It was a lot of fun.”

From a racing perspective, Whelpley notes that more and more important cross-country skiing competitions are being held at Craftsbury because of the center’s reliable snow, a reputation the study will only help uphold. He recalls his time as a GRP athlete and his role in helping make Craftsbury’s artificial snow making process as efficient as possible.

“One of the biggest byproducts of snow making is that the generator has to cook like crazy,” he says. “It pumps water from down below and helps run the process of pumping the water out and making it freeze, which, in turn, throws off a ton of heat. There was a neat, innovative project that preceded this process, where the team ran tubes underground and through ventilators into the shed where the generator lives, picking up the exhaust heat, and using it to heat a 50,000 gallon bladder, which I helped install as an GRP athlete.”

Whelpley explains that the bladder stays hot because it is insulated inside a cement box that functions as a heat reservoir, from which the center sources their domestic hot water for faucets, as well as for much of the radiant heating throughout the building, replacing the need for fossil fuels.

“We are very conscious that this thing we do to make our livelihood possible has byproducts,” he says, “and I think that’s an example of really interesting problem-solving. As a first step, we always look at what is already in place. In the case of the snow storing project, we looked at what was around us and recognized that if you have the snow, man-made or natural, why wouldn’t you try saving it?”

”We looked at what was around us and recognized that if you have the snow, man-made or natural, why wouldn’t you try saving it?”

-Stephen Whelpley

Olympic hopeful and Green Racing Project athlete Jennifer Forbes couldn’t agree more. When asked about the benefits of the snow storing study, and more generally, of having access to cross-country skiing trails and equipment as an elite rower, she is quick, like Whelpley, to acknowledge the ways in which Craftsbury’s variety of training options have helped her.

“I’ve always wanted to learn how to cross-country ski because I felt like that would be an amazing way for me to get off the erg,” she says. “After my back surgery, I was able to come to Craftsbury and do something that developed my hip and lower body strength, while still getting a killer cardiovascular workout. And, of course, there is the added bonus of being outside in the winter. You still need to stay in touch with the erg, but a lot of my work I did outside once I got proficient at skiing. Mentally it was great, but physically my body felt more balanced.”

From a coaching perspective, Whelpley says this type of cross-training is equally as appealing.

“You don’t have to come in an already savvy skier. Cross-country skiing as a form of cross-training is something you see across a lot of the successful European rowing teams. Look at the Sinkovic brothers [of Croatia], they ski. The Norwegians obviously ski, the British team skis, it just keeps going on and on, and I think that is because it’s such a therapeutic way for your body to get aerobic volume done without it taking a toll. There are a lot of other perks like balance on the skis that can translate to balance in the boat, and of course, there is a rhythm play that happens, too.”

Whelpley explains that cross-country skiing taught him how to work and rest at the same time, a notion familiar to rowers who are constantly perfecting the inherent dichotomy between the drive and the recovery.

“When you’re gliding on the ski you can’t turn off completely and be a bowl of Jell-O,” he says. “You still have to find a way to move that ski forward and relax at the same time. Everything we do in rowing is partial extension of the hip joint, and whether you prefer classic or skate skiing, both are therapeutic and engage your glutes while extending the hips. The injuries that our sport are most prone to are connected to overuse, and the imbalances that are derived from it. I think this type of cross-training makes rowers better athletes in the long run,” he says. 

While the Craftsbury and larger skiing community will have to wait and see what findings this initial snow storing study will bring, there are a few things we know for sure. So long as athletes continue to train and live at the center, Craftsbury will continue to innovate. Forbes describes just a few of the reasons the center is so special to her, quick to cite Dick and Judy’s support first and foremost.

“Dick and Judy are incredibly generous and supportive, and not just physically by giving us the things that we need in order to successfully train, like boats and a place to live,” she says. “The food is amazing, the air is clean, the water is clear, and it’s simply this little piece of paradise. My soul is very happy being here, and I think a lot of people share that notion. It’s a nice place to live.”   

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