Krabloonik Rides Again
Happy dogs, new owners and a fresh menu bring new life to old favorite.
Several times a day, howls fill the air around Krabloonik as 211 dogs call out to each other and the sky. It’s a joyous moment, with anticipation and excitement mixed in. It’s a sound you can feel in your bones, like the call of the wild.
If you’re a first timer out for a sled ride and a meal at Krabloonik, you may be feeling the same emotions as the howling dogs. Anticipation with the idea of a fast-paced ride behind a team of sled dogs running through the aspen trees and meadows above Snowmass Creek. Excitement because, even though you probably don’t know what you’re getting into, you look forward to the thrill of the adventure and a fantastic lunch or dinner afterwards.
When you enter the rustic log cabin restaurant, the room is lit with gaslights and warmed by a big iron wood burning stove. Giant windows offer unfettered views of Mt. Daly and other peaks in the surrounding wilderness. It feels like you’re deep in the woods, but in reality you’re just a few minutes from Snowmass Village.
Krabloonik began as a dog-sledding outfit in the 1970s. It expanded by adding a restaurant near the base of the Campground section of Snowmass Ski Area in 1983, joining a handful of other restaurants that in their eras connected our community to the winter landscape—Toklat, Skier’s Chalet and Pine Creek Cookhouse.
“It’s like stepping back in time,” says Gina Phillips, who with her husband, Danny, bought Krabloonik in December 2014. “It’s how people got around in woods in winter 50 or 100 years ago.”
Krabloonik is set in a time many people long for. When Snowmass and Aspen were better known as two of the top ski areas in the world, and the community’s relationship with the surrounding wilderness was more intimate.
“When you are out on a sled, it is silent,” Gina says. “It’s a collaboration of mushers and dogs, and you’re moving through the trees and it’s this magical, ancient thing that’s happening.”
New ownership, new opportunity
Danny and Gina Phillips knew that they were taking on a lot when they purchased Krabloonik a year ago.
They were taking over an outfit that was for many years one of the most celebrated traditions for visitors to the resort. Sled rides along Snowmass Creek and dinner in the most rustic building in the Valley were an annual event for many.
The largest kennel in the lower 48 states also came with the purchase. At 211 dogs, Krabloonik is in fact one of the largest sled dog kennels on the continent.
Danny grew up in Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho, near the Canadian border and has worked with dogs and horses his entire life. He and Gina, a native of Meeker, Colorado, also ran a recreational dogsledding operation down in Durango for a few years.
Gina brought a lifetime of restaurant experience to their new venture.
“I have worked on and off in the industry since I was 16,” she says. “Growing up in this part of Colorado, I have a strong sense of customer service, with all the hunters who came through Meeker when I was younger and from working in resorts.”
Danny and Gina also bought a piece of history. The log cabin restaurant was built with the original homestead from the nearby Ziegler ranch. The restaurant and dogs also have lineage back to Stuart Mace’s Toklat, the wilderness adventure lodge, restaurant and dog-sledding operation that was located in Ashcroft at the top of the Castle Creek Valley beginning in the late 1940s.
One of the eight wooden sleds that goes out daily is a two-seater (two adults and a child under 9, actually) built by Mace around the time he opened Toklat. The other sleds at Krabloonik are handmade replicas of that original.
Krabloonik’s Classic Wild Mushroom Soup, with Sweet Herbs and White Truffle Oil, is another Mace legacy. Stuart shared the recipe with Krabloonik’s founder, Dan MacEachen, around the time the restaurant opened, and it has been a staple on the menu ever since.
The Phillipses also knew they were buying into controversy. MacEachen had been under scrutiny from animal rights activists, employees and local community members for years over his treatment of the dogs. They were especially critical of the way the dogs were treated in the summer, tethered to small wooden houses with little opportunity to exercise. In 2013, much of the staff walked off the job, leaving MacEachen in a lurch.
“Danny called to see if he could help take care of the dogs when he realized Dan didn’t have anyone working for him,” Gina recalls. “Dan told Danny he wanted more than help, he wanted him to manage the kennel.”
Remaking the menu and the experience
When the Phillipses closed on the sale of the business, high season was upon them. It was time to get to work.
They hired Chef Ed Schmidt, who a decade earlier had worked as Krabloonik’s executive chef. He brought an attention to detail and focus that had been lost in the final years under MacEachen.
“Ed brought a lot of creativity to our menu and stepped the food up to a place where we wanted it to be,” Gina says.
Schmidt reworked the menu without veering too far from spirit of menus past. In addition to the mushroom soup, appetizers include a Pan Roasted Rabbit Loin, Smoked Rainbow Trout Filet, Wapiti Elk Tartar, Sautéed Wild Mushroom Toast and a selection of salads and seasonal plates.
“Honestly, it’s the food that I’ve always done in this context,” Schmidt says.
The entrees also reflect the connection to the land and the spirit of Krabloonik, which began serving game in the early 1980s, long before it became popular: Pan Roasted Ringneck Pheasant Breast with a Shallot, Thyme and Syrah Reduction, Maple Cured Peking Duck Breast with a Porcini Mushroom-Maple Syrup Emulsion and Pan Roasted Wapiti Elk Bacon-Wrapped Tenderloin with a Sun- Dried Blueberry-Zinfandel Reduction.
“The only thing that is a carry over from the last menu is the mushroom soup,” he says. “Pitchforks and torches would come out if we left that off the menu.”
The mushroom soup is in a wide bowl, a dark golden color with a dollop of crème fraîche in the middle. It is as beautiful as the flavor is exquisite. “It’s got buttermilk, yogurt and sour cream—without those flavors to cut the super dark flavor of the mushrooms, it would be a completely different beast,” Schmidt says.
This winter’s menu will see additions of a few more “wintery preparations”—two or three braises on the menu and other choices that reflect the season.
“I really appreciate the new ownership under Danny and Gina, and their infusion of new energy into the place,” Schmidt says. “The staff has fallen in right behind them, it’s nice to see.”
A family affair
Danny and Gina have three children between the ages of 7 and 16—MaKenzie, Jacob and Erika—who help with the dogs. Sometimes, that involves running with the puppies that Danny and his crew are breeding. Erika, the oldest, is more involved in the work of the kennel.
Danny manages the kennel and the sledding, and is out every day on a snowmobile to make sure the trail is clear of obstacles. If assistance is needed during a sled ride, he’s the one who will show up.
Gina runs the restaurant, working closely with Schmidt and the bartender, Brian Connelly. What impresses the new boss about her bartender is his ability to make classic cocktails an attraction in the present. “It’s the classics, with a twist,” she says.
“We want people to start thinking of Krabloonik as a place where they can come in and have a drink and an appetizer,” Gina says. Ed and Brian will play a big part of realizing that ambition.
Asked if there are any secrets about the winter season at Krabloonik she wants to divulge with Edible Aspen, Gina laughs.
“Oh, secrets, eh?” she says. “Where’s Ed? He’s my secret.”
Gina and Danny actually hired their executive chef without tasting his food, relying on glowing recommendations, his previous experience as Krabloonik’s executive chef and his enthusiasm.
The dogs live below and next to the restaurant. So do 13 mushers and rookies who tend the animals, clean the kennels and take guests out on the sleds. Living on site makes it easier for staff members to manage their time.
“It is so busy,” says Josh Aikens, a third-year musher. “You work all day, eat and then crawl into bed.”
During the winter and early spring, Krabloonik has three sled rides a day, beginning at 9 a.m. That first ride ends with an early lunch at the restaurant. The second ride starts after lunch, at 1:45 and returns at 3:15. During the busiest weeks, they offer an additional trip at 11 a.m. with up to four sleds.
The evening sled ride rounds out the day, leaving around 4:45 and finishing with dinner. This time of year, that means you go out at dusk and finish under the starlit skies of early winter in the Rockies. After the solstice, as the days get longer, the rides will end in the warm, spring twilight.
Often, when sleds are leaving, or returning, the kennel breaks out into a collective howl, reminding Gina and Danny of exactly why they made the leap and bought Krabloonik.
“I am truly blessed,” says Danny. “I work in the mountains with these amazing dogs, a staff that is like family to me and my beautiful bride. What else could a guy ask for? There is absolutely nothing I would rather do in life.”
Adds Gina, “This is a little niche that you don’t find up here any more: A momand-pop operation, living the dream.”
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4250 Divide Road, Snowmass Village | 970.923.3953
Every dog has a job
The kennel at Krabloonik, with 211 dogs, is one of the largest in North America.
Except for the retirees, they are all needed to run multiple sleds three or four times a day from late fall until early spring.
The dogs at Krabloonik all have names and unique personalities. Each also has a job on the team, or “kennel” as a group of dogs pulling a sled is also known.
The wheel dogs are the big, powerful animals closest to the sled. They provide the initial pull to get the sled moving and the power to get up hills. The subwheels are similarly powerful dogs and are one pair away from the sled.
Swing dogs are in the middle of the kennel, or team, and play the critical role of running farther out as the sled rounds a corner. The tension and pull they generate keeps the sled in line with the trail.
The point dogs are right behind the leaders. They are often leaders in training, and work as a liaison for the team to realize the commands of the musher and the direction given by the leaders.
The leaders are out in front. Their job is to move the sled and passengers with grace and care. One is usually more experienced than the other, and has the critical role of taking direction from the mushers, who are yelling “Gee” and “Haw” (“left” and “right”) and other commands to provide direction.
“It is a really sweet, natural way to move through the mountains. You see the dogs and it’s so clear that they love what they do.”
— GINA PHILLIPS, KRABLOONIK