From Toklat to Krabloonik
September 19, 2008
In 1974, Bill Moyers, on his public television show, the Bill Moyers’ Journal, called Aspen dog-sledding mentor Stuart Mace “a man whose love for his family, this mountainous country and those Husky dogs makes him a unique figure in the eternal struggle of selfhood against mobism.” In 2000, Stuart and his wife, Isabel, were inducted into the Aspen Hall of Fame.
Flash forward to 2008, when a website about Krabloonik ” the current iteration of Mace’s dog-sledding operation ” called the outfit “a concentration camp-like environment where 250+ dogs are tethered by sub six-foot chains for several months with no release.” On Sept. 8, dozens of community members filled the Snowmass Village Town Council chambers, asking council members to address the alleged cruelty perpetrated by Krabloonik owner Dan MacEachen.
It seems obvious that the relationship between the Roaring Fork Valley and dog-sledding has changed. The real question, however, may not be “what has gone wrong,” but “what has changed in the intervening years?”
It seems odd that Mace is revered as an Aspen hero and MacEachen is reviled as a villain. Do Mace and MacEachen follow different practices? Or are our 21st-century sensibilities about domesticated animals simply different than post-World War II ideas?
The answers may be yes, and yes.
After three years of being a conscientious objector during World War II, Stuart Mace joined the 10th Mountain Division and was sent to Camp Hale, just outside of Leadville. There, despite his inexperience with dogs, he volunteered to take charge of the canine corps, according to his daughter Lynne.
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Returning to Boulder after the armistice, he took a dozen or so of his wartime huskies with him. But he was not happy in Boulder, and Boulder was not happy with him ” his neighbors thought he was raising wolves. So when Walter Paepcke, who had once purchased a dog from Mace’s Boulder kennel, invited Mace to Aspen, he went.
Mace spent his first season at the Highland-Bavarian Lodge, giving dog-sledding rides around Aspen. But he said in an oral history that this work didn’t feel important or interesting.
So in 1947, Mace and his family moved to the upper Castle Creek Valley, 12 miles northwest of Aspen, to start a dog-sledding operation in the remote valley. Mace called the place Toklat ” Eskimo for “valley formed by a glacier.”
And so began the modern-day history of dog-sledding in Aspen.
An early brochure shows the Maces conducting educational tours of the Toklat kennels for 50 cents, and serving all-you-can-eat Thursday steak dinners for $2.75.
“It was always an economic struggle,” recalled Lynne Mace.
“Financially, it’s an unprofitable avocation,” Moyers explained to his 1974 audience. “The dogs cost him more than he can earn from their labors. He subsidizes his expenses by operating, with his wife, a small dining service, and by making and selling mountain jams, jellies and curios. But it’s the way he wanted to live and he’s been rewarded manifold, he says, by the wonders of nature and by what the huskies have revealed to him.”
Except for the Toklat restaurant in Ashcroft, and the loaning of the Toklat land and dogs for the Sergeant Preston television series (1955-1958) and the movie “Those Redheads from Seattle” (1953), most of Mace’s business ventures were not profitable, said his daughter Lynne.
“My father was not a business man. He was a visionary,” she explained. “He did many things but could never get himself on sound financial footing, except for a couple of years.”
Lynne Mace describes Toklat as the reverse of what Krabloonik has become, explaining that it seems as though MacEachen has been able to make the dog-sledding financially viable, in part by making it very large ” Krabloonik now has about 260 dogs.
“I think [MacEachen] told me he runs nine sleds three times a day. I mean, that’s ferocious,” she said. “At the most, my father had 80 dogs.”
In the meantime, Aspen changed. The streets were paved and developments crept up the valleys and mountainsides. Fortunately for Mace, the Ryan family was gracious enough to give him a lifetime lease ” so even as real estate prices rose, he never had to worry about losing Toklat.
Still, even hidden up in Ashcroft, Mace couldn’t help but notice what was happening to Aspen.
“If anybody told me when I came to Aspen 25 years ago that we were going to have a pollution problem and that I’d have to wait 10 minutes to cross Main Street, I would have laughed at them,” he told a group of schoolchildren in Moyers’ video. “So you can see that it’s conceivable that within the next 10 or 15 years this group, sitting here, could see this turned into a dried-up housing development, except that one person gave it in perpetuity.”
Meanwhile, throughout America, the relationship between humans and their pets was changing. In 1954, the Humane Society of the United States was founded. In 1980, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals began. More people moved off farms and ranches, where they had work animals, and into cities, where they had pets.
As Aspen grew up, it developed a relationship as a particularly dog-friendly town, a place where canines were welcome everywhere from the bank to City Hall. Today, the local phone book devotes more than two pages to dog-related services ” including a pet crematory, two dog spas and a trainer offering “pawsitive dog training and behavioral counseling.”
Around the country, mushers have increasingly found themselves under fire as animal-rights groups criticize everything from kennel practices to endurance races like the Iditarod. This year several dog-sledding operations in the United States and Canada were charged with cruelty to animals, including one in central Colorado.
In April, Ron Wyatt of Leadville was charged with 16 counts of animal cruelty after his sled dogs were discovered without adequate food, water or shelter north of St. Kevin’s Gulch. Since there was no evidence that the dogs had been recently visited, they were taken to an animal shelter; all but three of the most badly malnourished were later returned to Wyatt. Fifth District Deputy District Attorney Shasta Smith said the case was dismissed recently after the original investigating officer failed to appear at a hearing.
In spring 1974, Stuart Mace gave to MacEachen, who was then one of his dogsled drivers, 55 of the world-famous Toklat sled dogs, and officially retired from the business. By then, MacEachen had spent four-and-a-half years as an apprentice under Mace.
“There was no money exchanged. It was a gift but I had to earn it. I don’t even think we shook hands,” MacEachen said in the Mace’s induction video for the Aspen Hall of Fame. “But the deal was I had to move from Toklat, I had to change the name and I had to take good care of the dogs. If either side didn’t think the deal was going to work, they could say, that’s it. The agreement was for 10 years.”
MacEachen named his operation Krabloonik, after one of Mace’s sled dogs. The name means “white eyebrows” and, by extension, “white man,” since the first people the Eskimos encountered were the Norsemen, who had great white bushy eyebrows.
“If you ever met Stuart, he had those very same eyebrows,” explained MacEachen in his Hall of Fame tribute. “People thought I named the business after him and, quite honestly, that certainly is part of it.”
MacEachen moved the operation to the Snowmass Creek valley, one mile west of Snowmass Village. He also competed seven times in the lditarod, the famous 1,049-mile sled-dog race in Alaska.
And he made other changes. As was the vogue in the ’70s and ’80s, MacEachen started raising smaller, faster breeds of Alaskan huskies that were better racers than Mace’s larger but slower dogs. For many years MacEachen hand-made all of his leather harnesses, but he eventually decided to buy cheaper, better-fitting harnesses that require much less time and work.
Instead of the longer trips that Mace offered ” up to two days ” MacEachen started offering a standard two-hour trip. Lynne Mace speculates that Krabloonik doesn’t have the luxury of space that Toklat had.
“Dan doesn’t have anywhere to go out there on that kind of trip,” she said. “It’s just different.”
About 10 years ago, MacEachen became worried that he might not have any land at all. His landlord, he said, put Krabloonik up for sale, for $1.4 million. MacEachen worried that if he didn’t buy the land, it would be sold to someone else. So he purchased it, with the hope of building a hotel. In the ensuing 10 years, however, his numerous development ideas were turned down by Snowmass Village and his debt grew. Eventually, in a complicated land swap, Snowmass Village purchased the land and promised MacEachen a 20-year lease for $10 a year, which relieved MacEachen of his large mortgage payment.
In June of this year, Lee Ann Vold was running on the Ditch Trail when she looked down at Krabloonik, saw that some of the dogs didn’t have water, and started to wonder if they were being exercised in the summer.
She took her concerns to Seth Sachson, the director of the Aspen Animal Shelter. At a recent fundraiser for the Friends of the Aspen Animal Shelter, Sachson introduced her to Bill Fabrocini, who had also expressed concerns about Krabloonik.
Vold and Fabrocini set to work learning everything they could about sled dog operations, calling the Colorado Department of Agriculture (the regulatory agency), mushers and other sled dog operations. The two wrote a letter to the local newspapers on Aug. 10 and by the end of the month they had started an advertising campaign encouraging residents to attend a Sept. 8 Snowmass Town Council meeting.
“Cruel. Inhumane. Unacceptable. Unequivocal. And it’s in your backyard,” read the advertisements, which encouraged people to give the dogs a voice.
Meanwhile, Dara Green of San Diego, who had read about their efforts in the paper, helped to launch a website, voicesforthekrabloonikdogs.blogspot.com, featuring pictures of the dogs near their own feces, with empty water cans and open wounds. It refers to Krabloonik as a “concentration camp” for dogs and presents numerous letters of support, the opportunity to sign a petition and other information about the effort. There is even an epistle written as if from the dogs themselves.
“My name is Hopeless,” begins the letter. “I have been tethered by a five-foot chain my entire life. My mother’s name was Despair, and my father is called Forgotten.”
On Sept. 8, dozens of concerned citizens packed the Snowmass Town Hall and Fabrocini and Vold handed out photocopied pages requesting 10 specific improvements at Krabloonik. Holly Tarry, the Colorado director for the Humane Society of the United States, spoke, arguing that the more she learns about Krabloonik, the more she thinks there may be violations of state criminal statutes at the facility.
MacEachen showed up too, speaking softly in response to his opponents’ claims and appearing surprised by the crowd’s fervor.
It wasn’t the first time Krabloonik had come under fire. As early as 2005, public outcry had arisen over MacEachen’s practice of shooting dogs in the head to cull the pack. In response, MacEachen promised to cease the practice and started an adoption program for retired dogs.
Even after the confrontational September meeting, MacEachen has only kind words for the critics who have taken the time to talk to him, especially Vold. In all the years people have complained about practices at Krabloonik, he said, Vold is the first one to do something about it. Her main complaint when she first came to see him was that the #10 cans he used for water were rusty, and she has since brought him hundreds of fresh cans.
Rather than resisting the “Krabloonik Advisory Committee” set up to oversee his personal business, MacEachen seems pleased that people are taking time to listen, with open minds, to his explanations. For example, he said, the committee had requested a fence around the property. MacEachen replied that such a fence would have to be collapsible, so that it could be taken down in the winter for snow removal, and showed them a quote that ran to $35,000.
In some cases, MacEachen appears to have convinced his detractors that his practices, while foreign to most pet owners, are common sled-dog practices. Vold says she now understands that fasting the dogs one day a week is common, even if she still has a hard time with it. And Fabrocini explains that while he once found it “appalling and unacceptable” to chain the dogs, he now realizes the practice is widespread.
Still, the two say that there are many things they think can be changed. Both would like to see the dogs off their chains and exercising during in the summer. (MacEachen argues that the dogs are susceptible to heatstroke during summer months, and that to exercise them, he would need to build a pond.)
Vold would still like to see a spay and neuter program, which she thinks would be a health benefit to the dogs. For now, she said, “we’ve agreed to disagree” on that point.
Ultimately, MacEachen said he’s open to changes at Krabloonik, and willing to acknowledge there is room for improvement, but he’d like the changes to be practical. He can’t see buying 260 stainless steel water bowls when he can recycle #10 restaurant cans for free.
“The thing about me is I’m logical, I’m practical” said MacEachen. “I’m Scottish.”
But Vold argues that perception may be almost as important as reality, and MacEachen will spend much less time fighting animal-rights groups if he changes some of his practices. Fabrocini maintains that standards of sled-dog care really have changed, and that a modern-day operation should ensure regular vet check-ups and plenty of staff to care for and regularly exercise the dogs.
In the meantime, as Fabrocini, Vold and others have continued to work with the MacEachen, they’ve alienated some more stringent critics who would like to see Krabloonik shut down. MacEachen worries that, even if he works with the advisory committee, a second wave of less compromising critics will continue the attacks. He points out that of the 6,000 people who have signed the Krabloonik petition, few have ever been there and even fewer have bothered to learn about sled dogs or actually speak to him.
“It’s easy to criticize somebody from a computer,” he argued.
To help with public perception, Vold has promised to help with an information campaign that explains some of the things she’s recently learned. She’s imagining a question-and-answer brochure that could be posted on the web and available at Krabloonik.
As MacEachen walked around the kennel on a recent Wednesday afternoon, he openly pointed out dogs with problems, identifying them by name and explaining what he’s doing to remedy their health issues. Earlier that day, he said, a local veterinarian had checked the dogs that the state veterinarian was recently concerned about.
Asked what has changed between Toklat and Krabloonik, MacEachen says it is primarily public perception. Ten or 15 years ago, he says, he didn’t have any neighbors. Now, people who know nothing about sled-dog operations look down at Krabloonik from the Ditch Trail and pass judgment.
Noting repeatedly that he is not trying to cast aspersions on anyone, MacEachen argues that average pet owners leave their dogs at home alone all day, but don’t consider themselves cruel.
“I suppose you could say that my father could have gotten away with more because he was so isolated,” said Lynn Mace. “Dan is in the middle of a very, very urban situation.”
And she notes that many of the practices MacEachen is now being criticized for ” culling the pack, feeding the dogs on their deck and fasting ” he learned from Stuart Mace.
Still, she says, if the pictures on Voices for the Krabloonik Dogs website are accurate, then conditions at the kennel need to improve.
“Oh my god,” she said, “it makes me very sad.”
Mace points out the trees and grass in the videos of her father’s kennels. And she believes the complaints would go away if the Krabloonik kennels were painted and spiffed up, vegetation were added and the grounds were kept clean.
“I think the town of Snowmass ought to stand up and take responsibility,” she said. “They leased the land. They should make it a showplace.”
Fabrocini imagines that Krabloonik could one day be the kind of community asset that the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES) is.
“Ironically, from what I read, ACES was a spin-off from Stuart Mace. Would it not be amazing if Krabloonik could one day be as well?” he asked.
MacEachen agrees with Mace that many, though not all, of his practices are long-standing and were learned from his mentor. But now, he says, people tell him times have changed.
Standing outside his office, watching the kennel, MacEachen explains that if the eloquent and convincing Mace were alive today, he would be the one talking to the press and the critics.
“I’m not Stuart Mace,” he had said earlier. “It took me a long time to figure that out.”