Wearing lederhosen and a traditional alpine hat, Gene Dayton began tooting out a tune on 11-foot-long Swiss Alpenhorn to get the attention of folks who were relaxing in the lodge at the Breckenridge Nordic Center. His wife, Therese, came over to put an arm around him and leaned in for a hug.
“This is my girlfriend of 31 years,” Dayton said during a celebration at the start of the year. “She missed me last night, but her aim is getting better.”
Therese pretended to be offended.
“We’ve been married 31 years,” she said to her 75-year-old husband, who learned to play the accordion when he was 65.
Gene founded the business in 1969. Now, in the center’s 50th season, there is plenty to celebrate.
The Breckenridge Nordic Center, which is separate from the Breckenridge Ski Resort, is a community institution dating back to when the alpine ski area was only eight years old. Despite the encroachment of real estate development near the cross country trails, the skiing is excellent. Gene’s son Matt learned to ski on those trails and became a 2002 Olympian in Nordic combined, competing on a team that nearly won a medal.
“So many miracles,” Dayton said.
One of them is the current “Oh Be Joyful” lodge, a public-private partnership with the town of Breckenridge that opened in 2013, with public space 2½ times larger than its modest predecessor. There is a fireplace for thawing chilly fingers and toes. A bank of picture windows showcases a gorgeous view of Peak 8’s high alpine slopes and its summit 3,100 feet above. A sign by the rental area says, “MOOSE ON TRAILS SKI AT YOUR OWN RISK.”
The room is full of folks relaxing after exploring the trail system that features 30 kilometers that are track set for skiing and 20K for snowshoers. Some are enjoying warm food and drinks. Soon a guitar player is singing John Denver songs and the crowd joins in.
Dayton wishes he could ski. With Therese, he’s done 10 of the world’s ski marathons — including the classic 31-mile American Birkebeiner in northern Wisconsin ine times — but now his body won’t let him.
“At the moment I’m on the bench,” said Dayton, who was a scholarship swimmer at Florida State in the 1960s. “I’m suffering some injuries, ankle troubles. I’m getting out in the sit ski and swimming pretty much daily, just to try to keep my lungs in shape.”
Dayton opened his first Nordic center on the northern outskirts of town in 1969, operating out of a 19th century mining cabin where millions of dollars worth of gold was melted and formed into gold bars. In subsequent years, the center would move to the base of Peak 9, operating for a time out of an igloo, and later to a spot on Shock Hill below the Peak 8 base area of the Breckenridge resort.
The first Peak 8 building was formerly a ski patrol shelter originally constructed high on Peak 8 that Dayton bought for $1, disassembled, transported down the mountain and reassembled. It had a wood stove and a cozy feel.
“It served a purpose at the top of the mountain for 12 years, and we used it for 38,” Dayton said. “Every nail went back into the same hole.”
Dayton later purchased the mining cabin that had been the operation’s original home — again, for $1 — to save it from demolition. He relocated it on the upper reaches of the Nordic center’s trail network, where it was repurposed as a warming shelter they named the Hallelujah Hut. When the current building opened in 2013, the converted ski patrol shelter it replaced was sent to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
On New Year’s Day, the lodge was full and the mood was merry. Eric Vera of Golden had been skiing with his wife and two kids, ages 10 and 9. The family has been coming here for 10 years.
“I feel relaxed here,” Vera said. “I feel like as a family we can come and enjoy ourselves, no pressure, get in some good exercise and feel good about it, but then be free to hang out with music, fire, food, people. The kids have a ball. It’s been a great place for us as a family.”
John McCray, who also lives in Golden and has a place in Breckenridge, confessed he liked the quaint old lodge more.
“It was more cozy,” McCray said. “But somehow, they managed to make a huge events center and it still feels warm and family friendly. It’s kind of like a neighborhood Irish pub. The Daytons are always friendly. It’s great.”
Dayton’s first wife died from a heart attack in 1984, leaving him with three children. Therese has been part of the family now for three decades and a critical partner for Gene in running the business.
Gene may not be skiing these days, but he does spend some time on the trails. He dresses up in that lederhosen outfit and climbs into a fancy heated snowcat with windows — he calls it the Immaculate Contraption — to take folks on tours. It’s a hit for visitors who want to get out on the trails but don’t have the fitness or skills to ski them.
There’s another reason the tours make sense. The snowcat tows a grooming apparatus, so Dayton can be doing trail maintenance while he’s entertaining tourists.
“We take people on a trip back in time to an old mining camp where a family was raised very close to here,” Dayton said. “They sought the riches of Colorado in gold. It’s been very popular, a cross generational experience that we can offer. It’s taken off. Now it’s a daily experience, and we can groom the trails at the same time.”
Dayton is a big proponent of cross country skiing for its physical, emotional and spiritual benefits. In the ’80s, he got to meet ski legend Herman “Jack Rabbit” Smith-Johannsen when he was 109 years old. Johannsen, a Norwegian immigrant widely credited with introducing cross country skiing to the U.S. and Canada, was featured in Sports Illustrated when he was 104 (he had been a skier for 102 years at the time), and he lived until he was 111. For the last 22 days of his life, he was the world’s oldest man, and credited his longevity to cross country skiing.
“He said, ‘I was always wondering what was over the next hill and the next bend in the river,’ ” Dayton said. “It kept him going.”