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Aspen’s wild heart

Katie Redding
courtesy of ACESThough surrounded by the city of Aspen on all sides, Aspen Center for Environmental Studies' Hallam Lake preserve remains a spectacular Rocky Mountain setting.
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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.

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 recalls.

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 and the idea for an environmental school.

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

ACES could only hire one person, 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.

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 outside the city limits, 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.

Wild heart 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.


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