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Craftsbury Outdoor Center

In northern Vermont, a “crazy idea” has become a world-class, award-winning cross-country and outdoor center. By Peggy Shinn

In February 2014, as the Olympic torch was lit in Sochi, Russia, the Craftsbury Outdoor Center in northern Vermont was having an opening ceremony of its own. Around a bonfire, locals raised glasses of cider and toasted Hannah Dreissigacker, Susan Dunklee and Ida Sargent, three of Craftsbury’s own who were competing in biathlon and cross-country skiing at the Winter Games. 

The three athletes, who grew up skiing at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center (COC) and went on to compete for its elite Craftsbury Green Racing Project, were the first of many Olympians that the COC hopes to celebrate. This past winter, Sargent scored several top 20s in World Cup sprint races, including a fifth in a team sprint with former Dartmouth teammate Sophie Caldwell. In biathlon, Dunklee earned her second World Cup podium, finishing second in a sprint race in Presque Isle, Maine. Teammate Dreissigacker competed in her third world championships, with her best result coming in the sprint race (she finished 18th). 

These three world-class athletes symbolize how far the COC has come from its humble beginnings. In 2015, Craftsbury Nordic was named the Cross Country Club of the Year by the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, honored for “stepping up to host national-level events” like the U.S. Masters National Championships and two USSA Super Tour weekends with nearly 800 starts each weekend. COC also won the 2015 John Caldwell Award, the highest honor given by the New England Nordic Ski Association. Both organizations lauded COC for its superior organizational skills, homologated race courses with snowmaking, its new eco-friendly day lodge and training facilities, and its commitment to developing the next generation of racers. It’s also a popular destination for recreational skiers, who stay for a weekend—or longer—in the dorm-style lodge, lakeside cottages and brand-new cabins.

The story begins in 1973 when, as family lore goes, Russell and Janet Spring wanted to escape the “rat race” of Stowe, Vermont. After graduating from Yale, Russell—the brother of ski market-research pioneer and former ISHA chairman Jim Spring—had moved there to become an alpine ski instructor in 1950. A few years later, he met and married Janet. They started a family, and Russell became a stockbroker for F.I. DuPont in its Burlington office.

“He was driving back and forth to Burlington every day to lose lots of money,” says his son, Russ. “The market was doing poorly, and he got sick of it.”

So Russell and Janet bought half of a cattle ranch in Wyoming. But the deal fell through when their partner’s husband ran off with a hired hand. Instead, the Springs moved to Craftsbury, where Russell founded the Craftsbury campus of Windridge Tennis Camp. 

Driving back and forth to Windridge every day, Russell passed Cutler Academy, a defunct boys school on Big Hosmer Pond. He proposed an idea to his family: buy the property and start a sports center. “We all voted a resounding no,” remembers Russ with a laugh. “But in our family, it wasn’t really a democracy. [Dad] voted yes, and we obviously know what happened.”

With two partners, Arlen Smith and Dean Brown, Russell leased the property in 1975 and purchased it a year later. Thus was born the Craftsbury Sports and Learning Center, soon to be renamed the Craftsbury Outdoor Center. The center offered cross-country skiing in the winter and kids’ soccer camps in summer. Campers and skiers stayed in Cutler Academy’s former dorms and ate in the dining hall, where the Springs served famously delicious food.

“We started with one rickety snowmobile and one little piece of stuff to drag behind it,” said Russ. “I was the snowmobile driver, and Russell and Janet were the ski instructors.” 

The 25 kilometers of trails were mostly old sugaring and logging roads. But the trail layout and grooming were better than at other nordic centers at the time, and they had an experienced director, John Brodhead, to help maintain them. A former Middlebury College nordic combined skier, Brodhead started in 1980 and is retiring in December 2016. 

The operation saw very few guests in its early years. Undeterred, the Springs kept expanding the trail network. Russell also expanded the Center’s programs, including a summer sculling camp—the “crazy idea” of a long-time friend who saw Big Hosmer Pond as an ideal rowing venue. Two of their first sculling coaches were Olympic rowers Dick Dreissigacker and Judy Geer; Dick and his brother, Pete, had recently started an oar-building business in nearby Morrisville. They would soon come out with the Concept 2 indoor rowing machine that’s now ubiquitous in fitness centers across the country. 

In 1981, Brodhead started an event that’s now an annual institution at the COC: the 50-kilometer Craftsbury Marathon. The race now attracts around 500 skiers each year, including some of the nation’s top cross-country skiers, past and present. He also started nordic programs for both kids and adults that brought the community to the COC, including the Dreissigackers with their three kids, the Dunklees, and the Sargents. 

In 1994, Russell let his son Russ have a hand in running the COC. “He was still actively involved, but he stopped making all the decisions unilaterally, which was the only real difference,” says Russ. “I was allowed to make decisions as long as he agreed with them.” 

In 2007, Dreissigacker and Geer proposed buying the COC through a family foundation. Russ and his sisters thought it was a good idea. But Russell was opposed to it. “He was bound and determined to keep it in the family,” said Russ.

After a few years of conversation, Russell conceded when he realized that Dreissigacker and Geer believed in his original vision and wanted to improve it, not change it. They were all for simple, comfortable lodging and a focus on outdoor, human-powered sports. They also wanted to start a resident program for elite athletes and add more community fitness programming.

Dreissigacker’s and Geer’s nonprofit foundation purchased the COC in 2008. A year later, the Craftsbury Green Racing Project was born. Funded by the COC, Dick and Judy’s foundation, and corporate sponsors, the CGRP typically attracts NCAA Division I graduates who aspire to compete at the World Cup level in cross-country skiing and biathlon (as well as rowing). In addition to Hannah Dreissigacker, Dunklee, and Ida Sargent, CGRP’s Caitlin Patterson and Kaitlynn Miller have competed in World Cups. 

Conceived by Middlebury graduate Tim Reynolds, the CGRP allows athletes to train full-time while earning their keep by working at the COC. They teach fitness programs, coach kids in the popular Craftsbury Nordic Ski Club, and maintain the garden, among other chores. They also helped to design the new energy-efficient, spacious fitness center and ski lodge that opened in June 2014.

In 2012, the CGRP added a year-round rowing team, and CGRP rower Peter Graves (no relation to the well-known ski announcer) finished 13th in the quad scull at the London Olympics. Four CGRP rowers won 2016 Olympic Trials, but in the end, failed to qualify the men’s quad for the Rio Games.

While Olympians ski the trails and ply the water of Big Hosmer Pond, the Craftsbury Outdoor Center remains a community resource—and a community itself.

“Its success is primarily built on the vision and generosity of Dick and Judy, who are way too humble to tell you that,” says Lindy Sargent, Ida’s mom. “We call it our ski family, and it includes all the racers and parents of racers around New England and now the U.S. Ski Team. But it started with the club, and everyone who skis at Craftsbury is part of the family.”  

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