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Dispatches : Adventure

Volga Dacha: Redefining Minimalism

“Minimalism” is one of the outdoor-gear industry’s most pervasive buzzwords, and it’s invaded more than just running. People are adopting the idea of eschewing clutter in their homes, too. 

The Volga Dacha, located outside of Moscow in the country, is one of the best examples we’ve seen of an efficient four-person home. Even the getaway’s shape avoids frills: a simple gabled rectangle with blackened-wood cladding. When the family’s away, shutters cover the windows and doors.

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This Volga Dacha (literally, “a small vacation cabin on the Russian river Volga”) located in the country outside of Moscow is one of the best examples we’ve seen of a simple, efficient four-person home. Even the getaway’s shape avoids unnecessary frills: a simple gabled rectangle with blackened-wood cladding. When the family’s away, shutters cover the windows and doors.

Architects from the firm Bureau Bernaskoni used a grid based on building-material sizes to plan the house, which measures just under 1,000 square feet. A small wood stove and radiant concrete floors heat this well-insulated home during Russia’s brutal winters. In the summer, the floors stay naturally cool and are easy to clean.

The cabin has two sleeping spaces, living and dining rooms, a kitchen, a bath, and generous terraces. A shed—essentially a smaller version of the main house—forms the courtyard. Even the lawn, surrounded by wild grasses, is maintenance-free, thanks to the geotextiles that were placed on a sand bed and then covered with gravel. 

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The main floor’s living, dining, and kitchen areas are open to one another and to countryside breezes. The only deviation from the cabin’s standard grid? The minimal outdoor shower adjacent to the house. 

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The Outdoor Exchange: Never Buy Gear Again

If your friends’ lack of kayaks keeps spoiling your dreams of organizing flotillas in nearby lakes, weep no more: last week, a small group of New Jersey men formally quit their jobs to focus on The Outdoor Exchange (OX), a subscription-based gear closet.

The brainchild of outdoor enthusiast and startup veteran Dariusz Jamiolkowski, five-week-old OX gives subscribers access to a catalog of high-end, expensive gear. Basic subscriptions to OX (there are a few options, the cheapest of which is $100) allow users to rent one item per week. You can rent more items at 10 percent of each additional product’s value. OX recently started an Indiegogo campaign to boost its membership, and expects to be “fully operational” by July, after which point basic subscription costs will double. 

So far, most of the rentals come from New Jersey (OX is based in Fairlawn), but subscribers hail from California, Colorado, Florida, and even England. Jamiolkowski estimates the young company rents about 10 items per week, and he hopes to attract more than 1,000 total subscribers by the end of summer, mainly by preaching the company's cause at big events like the Philly Folk music festival and relying on word of mouth. 

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But while OX is still young (currently it only has a couple hundred paying members), it's run by seven business- and tech-savy teammates whose resumes are padded with names like Lockheed Martin and Novo Nordisk. Jamiolkowski officially left his position as Handybook’s vice president of finance in February after being accepted into startup incubator TechLaunch, while marketing lead Adam Hackett quit his day job on June 6.

That team has come up with a unique gear-sharing model. Unlike GearCommons—another peer-to-peer program that depends on its users to supply gear—OX stocked its warehouse full of gear by working directly with manufacturers and distributors. The majority of the 300 products in its inventory were provided by companies like Black Diamond, Hobie, Maverick, and Folbot, a foldable kayak manufacturer. It's a relationship that benefits both parties. 

“The issue (Folbot’s) having is that they have a great product, but it's hard for somebody who hasn't been in a foldable kayak to spend $1,200 on a foldable kayak,” Jamiolkowski said. “So we're putting butts in the seats for these guys. We're gonna get people to try the product and nine out of 10 people are gonna try it and say it was great, but one person is gonna end up purchasing the kayak...And our customers are going to be happy because they get to use a premium product at a low entry-point.”

The company is still working out some kinks, including how to streamline shipping costs. For New Jersey residents, OX will drop off and set up gear at trailheads within 25 miles of its warehouse for $20. But the idea of spending $100 a year on shared gear doesn’t sound as good if you have to pay an additonal $200 in shipping.

This week, OX began testing what its founder calls the Trailblazer Program. For a set $74 per year, subscribers can ship all their rentals for free within the continental United States. Ultimately, the team hopes to open local warehouses where subscriptions are most concentrated to help defray costs. 

You may be wondering, “What happens if the gear gets damaged?” Well, Jamiolkowski and his team have set up a system to incentivize good gear treatment. OX rates both customers and gear internally when products are returned. If a customer gets low enough marks, she can’t rent gear anymore. “In order for this to work, it's gotta work both ways,” says Jamiolkowski. “Have you seen Meet the Fockers? We're building the Circle of Trust.

“We have families to support and mortgages to pay for, but we strongly believe in what we're doing, based on everything we've done so far to build a very successful, not only business, but a community for outdoor enthusiasts,” he says. 

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Can’t Keep a Good Dog Down

Animal athletes are as much a part of the GoPro Mountain Games as human competitors. In fact, it's fair to say that dock dogs—in which pooches spring down a runway and launch themselves into a pool to retreive a toy—garners the most spectators of the weekend.

And this past weekend, all eyes were on Avalanche, a 4-year-old Lab who jumped a personal best distance of 13 feet, ten inches, and brought home six medals around her scruffy neck. 

But even more impressive than Avi's GoPro performance is the story of how she got to Vail in the first place. 

Six months after Alisa Babler put her black lab, Alpine, to sleep, she was on the lookout for a new companion. Her search ended with an ad on Craigslist in October 2010. A couple was looking for a new home for their yellow lab, which they described as “too much dog” for them to handle. They warned Babler that the puppy had broken her elbow and had three pins put into her front left leg to repair the bones. Undeterred, Babler met them at a dog park, fell in love with Avi’s exuberance, and gave the Craigslist puppy with hardware in her leg a new home.

Soon, Babler noticed that even though she'd been injured, Avi was an athlete. “She jumps around constantly,” Babler says. "She would bounce up and down at the back door; the slobber marks on my window were higher than my head.”

A vet explained to Babler that by jumping off and landing on her hind legs, Avalanche could leap and land with no pressure on her bionic front leg.

That’s when Babler knew dock jumping would be great for Avalanche, who also loved to swim. The pair went to the local dog park in Chapfield, Colorado, and started practicing by throwing a canvas hunting dummy out into the water from the dock. “I didn’t even have to give her treats or try to encourage her to jump and fetch,” Babler says. “It’s what she wants to do. Just the act of jumping into the water after her toy and some praise from me was enough reward for her.”

For a year, Babler and Avalanche went to the park to practice every week. In September 2013, Babler entered Avi into the Broomfield Days Dock Dogs competition but didn’t come away with any laurels. Nine months later, however, Avalanche left the GoPro Mountain Games with a slew of medals around her neck.

Avi jumped at the Junior Bottom Level, and for it only being her second competition, Avalanche showed a lot of promise. Babler says that there will definitely be more Avalanche showings in future dock jumping contests.

But, as with many athletes, competition isn't always about winning. “We are in it for the fun, not to just win,” Babler says. “I’m spending time with my dog and making great memories.”

Check out our behind-the-scenes look at the Dock Dogs competition and the rest of the GoPro Mountain Games:

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