Willoughby: ‘Gee’ and ‘haw’ for 75-years

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Fritz Kaeser photo of Toklat sled dog team in Ashcroft.
Willoughby collection/Courtesy photo

You might have read about the closing of Krabloonik’s sled dog operation. That is the closure of around 75-years of sled dog operations in Aspen.

The first was Stuart Mace’s Toklat Husky Kennels. It closed in 1974, and in its final years, Krabloonik’s owner, Don McEachern, was trained by him, and the dogs were transferred to Krabloonik.

Mace opened his operation in 1947, leasing the Highland Bavarian Lodge halfway up Castle Creek. The next year, after leasing Ashcroft land from the Highland Bavarian partners, he began building Toklat Lodge, designed to house a dozen guests at a time. It opened in 1949 with 30 dogs.

During WWII, he trained huskies for the military to be used for rescues of downed planes flying in the Arctic. He acquired his early dogs from that operation, including a lead Siberian dog, Nunki, that he had trained. Nunki had even been parachuted in Greenland and had been the lead dog for the fourth Admiral Byrd Antarctic Service Expedition.

Toklat Lodge was not just about dogs. Mace fashioned his family lifestyle as self-reliant, taking advantage of what nature provided. He did his own woodworking and made items to sell like picture frames. He sold polished rocks, too. In the 1950s, he started a floral research laboratory where he adapted wildflower seeds for commercial sales.

He an the lodge were featured in a 1951 Life Magazine article. The Ashcroft area and his dogs were used for filming of the TV series “Sargent Preston” in the 1950s. That helped advertise Toklat — important because, for many of those years, the Ashcroft road was not paved, so it was a long slow trip to stay there. One winter, a snowslide stranded guest for several days.

In my elementary school years, I had the fabulous experience of staying at the lodge. Alan Mace and I were in the same class together. I was there in both summer and winter. One of the first experiences was eating dinner at a table that moved. Toklat was carefully organized to maximize space. The dinning room was also the lobby/living room. At mealtime, tables, instead of being set up with folding legs, were hung from the ceiling using long metal poles. The table would move when you cut your meat. Food was prepared by Mrs. Mace, and it was not standard fare. That was the first time I ate potato chips that were not from a bag (quickly a favorite).

Alan had many chores, so I accompanied him. At that time, they had around 100 dogs; they bred them. You did not wander through and around the pens; there was a method to it. As an example, to put together a sled team, six pairs of dogs and one team leader were selected. But you had to know which dogs could be paired and which ones could not. As you went through the kennels, all the dogs were begging to go out on a sled run. If you pulled one out to take to the sled, you had to know which aisles you could take the dog to avoid confrontations.

At that time, Mace had constructed an A-frame cabin in the Montezuma Basin near where the Montezuma mill was located. Stuart had a snowcat and would pack down the road to make it easier to haul guests by sled to the cabin. I got to go on one of those excursions, being towed with a rope behind the snowcat on skis.

One of the greatest experiences was being at Toklat on a winter night. Alan had an intercom in his room to monitor the dogs, but even without it, you could hear the huskies howling at the moon — a whole chorus of Siberian huskies.

The dogs had to be trained for use pulling the sleds. While I don’t remember all the traditional musher terms, I do remember “gee” and “haw,” but it was not the words as much as who was making the commands.