ACES: Aspen’s wild heart |

ACES: Aspen’s wild heart

Katie Redding
Aspen Times Weekly
Though surrounded by the city of Aspen on all sides, ACES' Hallam Lake preserve remains a spectacular Rocky Mountain setting. (Courtesy ACES)

For 26 years, it has been home to an injured golden eagle found on Aspen Mountain.

For 30 years, it has been home to an internship program that the Princeton Review recently called one of the top in the nation.

For 37 years, it was home to the family of Jody and Tom Cardamone, the first naturalists.

And for 40 years, the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES) at Hallam Lake has been a magic show for children, a school for the ecologically curious, a meeting place for environmentally minded groups, a hospital for injured wild animals and a refuge for tired Aspen professionals on a lunch break.

“I climb up on Red Mountain and look down and I can see Hallam Lake,” muses Jody. “I look down, and I think ‘that’s the heart.’ … To me, it is a model for what every community would have, which is a true heart, a place where they can come learn about their place … a wild heart in the center.”

In the 1880s, miners dammed a spring to create Hallam Lake, then built an icehouse and a dance pavilion. The lake and grounds eventually ended up in the hands of Aspen Skiing Company titan D.R.C. Brown Jr., who kept horses and milk cows there.

Legend has it that when modern-day Aspen matriarch Elizabeth Paepcke first discovered the lake behind her West End home, she decided, on the spot, to buy it from Brown. For years it was a family playground for the Paepckes, albeit one with an occasional visitor; the Red Brick School House was nearby, and children often snuck down to catch frogs or fish.

“Every year, I worked on it,” said Paepcke in 1989, according to ACES. “Friends would come to see me. I wore a male shirt and pink bloomers and I would be up there with a shovel heaving manure down over the slopes in order to fertilize the land so we could grow plants and flowers ” which finally did happen.”

In the shadow of World War II and the presence of surging industrial growth, the Paepckes were busy promoting the humanistic in Aspen ” developing the Aspen Institute, the Aspen Music Festival and the Aspen Skiing Company.

But once those projects were humming along, say ACES founders, Elizabeth Paepcke realized there was a missing element: The connection between humans and the natural world.

“She saw Hallam Lake as a natural addition to the Aspen Idea ” bringing the natural world into the conversation and into the world view of people ” the notion that the natural world was something toward which we had responsibility and from which we had so much to gain,” explains Tom, now ACES’ executive director.

So in 1968, Elizabeth Paepcke, with the encouragement of several friends, decided to donate Hallam Lake as a nature preserve.

John McBride had only been in town six months when Elizabeth invited him over to have tea and discuss ACES. Back then, he says, Aspen was so small and so lacking in social hierarchy, six months was about as long as it took to know most people.

“She said ‘I’ve got this idea ” can you help me?'” he remembers.

Soon those at the tea, and other recruits, were helping Paepcke prepare the property. The lake, which had turned into something of a swamp, had to be dredged. The horse barn had to be rebuilt as a home for the naturalists. A fence had to be built around the lake, to separate the wildlife from dogs and people.

The nature center wasn’t a point of contention among the neighbors, say founders. But the fence was. In those days, they say, no one had fences and neighbors were used to traveling through each other’s yards.

“I remember traipsing around the property and flagging where we were going to put the fences ” and the irate neighbors coming down and saying ‘What are you doing on my property?'” says McBride.

As a child in Aspen, Jody Caudill Cardamone loved natural science so much that she talked local teacher and environmentalist Bob Lewis into letting her tag along during field sessions at his Aspen Institute of Field Biology. When she grew up, she went to Cornell University to obtain a degree in ecology and environmental education.

After graduating, she and her new husband, Tom, returned to Aspen for a summer, to work. As fall approached, they were thinking of moving to Norway, then a center of environmental thinking, so she could continue with a career in environmental education.

“We had been living in a tent on Jody’s family’s property [on lower Maroon Creek]. It was August, and about to get cold. I thought, ‘we need a plan here,'” Tom remembers.

One evening, Stuart Mace came to the Aspen Institute and told them about the recently formed ACES board, the idea for an environmental school and the remodeled horse barn at Hallam Lake.

Jody interviewed the next day and was hired immediately. Tom continued working at the Aspen Institute, but he lived with Jody at the barn and helped her care for the property.

ACES could only hire one person, he explained, but Paepcke wanted the naturalist to be married, because she worried that a single person would be more likely to wander into town and be distracted.

“I tagged along simply as a representative of stability and commitment,” says Tom, wryly.

The first summer they were there, they primarily dealt with beavers and other maintenance issues.

Stuart Mace, whose vision for how humans should interact with the natural world undeniably shaped ACES, took them aside and showed them how to preserve both the beavers and the trees.

Meanwhile, back in the barn, there were some technical difficulties. The Cardamones had a floor, a bathroom, running water and heat ” but the furnace had been installed by an alcoholic plumber who accidentally hooked up natural gas jets to a propane tank.

“If you put natural gas jets into a furnace and run it on propane, what you get is flames shooting out several feet,” remembers Tom. “The place almost burned down before we even settled in.”

In the beginning, the board of directors saw Hallam Lake primarily as a quiet nature preserve.

“Quiet being the watchword,” says Tom, grinning, and adding that the board’s vision was influenced by the fact that many had adjoining property.

But Mace took Jody aside and instructed her to get the kids to Hallam Lake as soon as possible. Soon, all Aspen elementary students were coming to Hallam Lake every fall, winter and spring.

Some Aspen parents still remember coming down the steps to ACES, through Elizabeth Paepcke’s yard. She fed them cookies and lemonade in Dixie cups.

In short time, Jody also developed a small homestead where young children could hold baby chicks and pull carrots.

After the first teaching year, Tom realized there was great potential at Hallam Lake, but not enough money. So he convinced the board to give him a position as a fundraiser/naturalist.

Realizing quickly that “schoolchildren didn’t have checkbooks,” Tom hatched the idea of adult programs. The summer of 1977 saw ACES’ first Naturalist Field School ” a program that now instructs roughly 300 adults every summer.

Next, Tom decided ACES needed to address the difficulty people had in finding them. In those days, an old train switchyard separated ACES and the rest of town.

Instead of trying to convince people to come to ACES, Tom decided ACES needed to go where the people were. So he developed relationships with everyone from the Forest Service to Aspen Skiing Company, and ACES started holding programs off-campus.

In hindsight, he says, that thinking has paid off. Though ACES is now very much a part of town, it is so popular that if it held all programs at Hallam Lake, then the human visitors could easily overwhelm the wild residents.

It wasn’t long, say Tom and Jody, before people in town began coming to them with all their nature questions.

“Mothers would call to say their child ate a red berry and will he be okay?” remembers Tom.

Soon, the injured animals started arriving.

“I tried to save every baby bird and every animal that came in,” says Jody, laughing at the memory.

Roughly 26 years ago, Tom received a call about a seriously injured golden eagle. Despite the Cardamones’ best efforts, the eagle never flew again. Instead, she has spent all of her subsequent years living at ACES.

Brett Rubenstein, a 1993-94 intern/employee, half-jokingly calls the eagle his first girlfriend. When he was here, he says, she would bring sticks and lay them at his feet in a nesting ritual. She’s had a lot of “boyfriends” among the male interns over the years, say the Cardamones. But this spring she has a real suitor. A male golden eagle has begun coming to ACES to court her.

Just the other day, says Jody, a friend of the Cardamones wandered out to the porch at ACES and watched as the male eagle came diving by the female in a courting ritual, all in the middle of downtown Aspen.

“Tom said his jaw dropped to his toes,” says Jody, laughing.

But at some point in the evolution of ACES, Tom and Jody realized that caring for every animal was not the best use of their time.

“I realized the value was not in saving those things, but in knowing those things,” explains Jody.

ACES still takes all injured animals, but now the center sends many of the creatures to a wild animal rehabilitation center in Silt, so ACES can focus on education.

As Aspen’s reach has expanded downvalley, so has ACES. In 1999, ACES purchased the Rock Bottom Ranch, midway between Basalt and Carbondale.

The ranch, with its animals and community garden, is now the outgrowth of Jody’s small homestead at Hallam Lake. Among the ACES properties, it is the place where the human connection to the natural world is largely explored through farming.

Recently, ACES purchased Toklat, the Castle Creek Valley property where Stuart Mace and family had their lodge, art gallery and dog-sledding operation. Though Mace had always dreamed of Toklat becoming a part of ACES, he didn’t own the property but rented it from the Ryan family. ACES was able to purchase the land and lodge from the Ryans in 2004.

The Cardamones see Toklat as the contemplative arm of ACES, “a place where people can come and find a sense of retreat,” says Jody. “Like a monastery of sorts, a nature monastery where we aren’t just doing, doing … a place to maybe look for answers that may be out of the box.”

ACES’ most recent acquisition is Rock Creek Spring, a 1938 fish hatchery on the Fryingpan River, 25 miles from Basalt. Originally a production hatchery, it will become a refuge for native cutthroat trout under ACES’ care.

Tom hopes it will become an educational center for young adults, attracting high-school and college students for longer, focused, hands-on stewardship sessions with hatchery biologists.

ACES is a lot of things, says Jody, but most clearly it is Aspen’s wild heart.

“People come down and they say they’ve had a really bad day and they come down just to sit by the lake and breathe,” Jody says of ACES.

“It’s a sanctuary for wild things, and for people ” for the community.”