Ski lake of dreams
July 12, 2005
Ace Lane had a dream. He didn’t know it at the time, but this dream would produce the highest-altitude water skiing lake in the world (that’s what folks tell him now, at least).But back when Lane was hunting down the perfect piece of property, in 1991, everyone but his wife – his own brothers, even – thought he was just plain crazy.
“And everybody thought this place was an armpit,” Lane says during a recent walking tour of his 207-acre El Jebel oasis.”It was a train wreck. An absolute wreck. It was like some scene out of Arkansas. Old wagon wheels sticking out of the ground, barbed wire poking out all over, a potato shed caving in …”
A man of diverse interests and talents, Lane knew what he was looking for, though. In a cow pasture adjacent to Highway 82 and across from City Market, he envisioned the water-skiing lake. Elsewhere on the historic ranch, on tracts with good topsoil, he saw a nursery to support his present-day tree farm (20,000 specimens strong). The kicker: He noted senior water rights dating back to the 1860s.Lane bought the property. After a year of design and the approvals process, in the summer of 1992, the Kodiak Ski Lake was filled and ready for business.Aligned with nearby Highway 82 but a world apart, the lake is 14 acres – a half-mile long and 225 feet across. Like a barbell, the channel swells to 300 feet across at the ends for high-speed U-turns. It’s engineered, Lane says, “so wakes don’t stick around, and every pass is clean.”It’s 6 feet deep in most places, about 11 feet deep at the east end where Lane extracted enough clay to spread a 2-foot-thick swath across the bottom of the entire lake. “That keeps it sealed, sorta like a bathtub,” Lane says.
An 18-inch rainbow trout shows itself at the surface near the dock, but there’s no sign of the grass carp that Lane stocks to keep the grass down. Fishing isn’t allowed, but Lane knows of some that have been caught.”I can’t remember how many hundred thousand yards [of dirt and rock] we moved, but it took 40 days,” Lane says. “It was biblical, you know.”It just seemed like a cool idea to me. It seemed fun. And people were driving a long ways to go water skiing up at Ruedi. It’d take a lot of time to back in your boat, get set up. It was just very challenging. And it was cold.”Still, not everyone understood Lane’s logic.
“Bankers, everybody, thought I was out of my mind,” Lane remembers. “They just looked at me like, What are you thinking? Even the [Eagle] county commissioners, when I got permission to do it, they said, ‘Well, you have approvals, Ace, but we don’t know why the hell you want to go do something like that for.'””So I said, ‘OK, good night.'”
The Kodiak Ski Lake is private. Membership, at $3,500 a year, includes use of the state-of-the-art ski boat and modest facilities, plus a one hour and 50 minute session per week. Open from 7 a.m. to sunset whenever water temperatures accommodate (it was 77 degrees the other day), that makes for 49 slots a week.Members include local builders, attorneys, bartenders, chiropractors, caterers and doctors. Glenwood Springs resident Leigh Sheldrak, a former pro water skier, is also a member.So it’s unusual, on a hot afternoon, to find the 19-1/2-foot, 340-horsepower Malibu Response roped to the dock with no skiers, much less ripples, in sight.Eventually, though, people came. On this day, it was Jack Wilkie and two of his buddies.
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A member of the lake since 1993, Wilkie skis three days a week. His son, Cody, learned to ski at the lake; Cody’s Rollins College team won back-to-back Division 1-AA water-skiing national championships.”It’s all thanks to this guy,” Wilkie smiles, pointing to Lane.Wilkie and his friends fire up the Malibu and proceed to put on a demonstration of slalom skiing power and grace, negotiating the six buoy-gates with flair. Gigantic rooster-tail plumes are a magnificent sight against a backdrop of Elk Range classics like Sopris and Capitol.Lane says top skiers reach speeds up to 70 mph, depending on the length of the rope, the speed of the boat, the skill level, risk tolerance, etc. Then, just as Wilkie leans over for another turn, he bobbles, loses it and cartwheels. Wipeout.
He surfaces in a minute and waves OK.Back at the dock, Wilkie’s a bit rattled. He suspects he’s broken a rib, or two. But he’s been banged up worse water skiing. “I guess it’s like any athlete going after it with gusto. … “Both my hands are numb.”It seems it’s just another day at the lake.
Lane grew up in Chicago. He also grew to be an avid alpine skier. “I came out here after high school to ski race,” he says. “I had big dreams of making the national team, and I didn’t. So I raced for a college for a bit and then turned pro.”In 1987, Lane won the American Western Pro Tour.”I love sports. And I was always water skiing as a kid in New Mexico – my family later moved there and got into cattle ranching. There was a lake nearby, and that’s where I learned.”
Now Lane is enjoying skiing, on water and snow, with his three boys – ages 13, 9 and 7. The family lives on the property, tucked closer to the foothills.The Kodiak Ski Lake compound also serves as the headquarters for Lane’s two companies – Noble Design Studio and Wind River Trees – the design and building arms of his landscape architecture empire. The businesses occupy several restored historic buildings.”I’m really into trees, as you can tell. We’ve got a variety of high-altitude specimen trees: blue and green spruce, we have the largest bristlecone tree farm in the country, and that’s the oldest living tree in the world, and then we grow aspens and cottonwoods and lodgepole pines,” Lane says.As mitigation for the ski lake, Lane was required to build a quarter-acre wetland. Instead, he built a nine-acre wetland and, years before West Nile concerns, stocked it with gambusia, a fish that eats mosquito larvae. “The birds love it, it’s pretty and it works, so it’s pretty cool,” Lane says.
“We really try to go the environmental way. I have an absolute love for trees and natural elements. And, I don’t know, I like dirt. I like getting muddy,” he says.And it seems Lane’s El Jebel dream is still very much a work in process. He’s trying to arrange a pro water skiing and/or barefooting competition at the lake (apparently the high altitude might be conducive to record-breaking feats of one sort or another), and he’s working a few ideas for additional components, improvements.”I’d love to have more extreme sports going on here. Maybe a climbing venue? Well, there’s about 10 things I’d like to do, but I don’t think the county’s ready to hear me say it yet,” he laughs.Tim Mutrie’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org