A Glimpse into a Colorado Lifestyle: Hightailing It to the Rocky Mountains
Embracing the Colorado lifestyle goes well beyond the ski slopes, bike paths, and hiking trails. There are hobbies and sports that take place deep in the heart of the Rockies, which very few fair-weather tourists have the opportunity to experience. Hobbies can be expensive and time consuming, especially when only utilized a few days out of the year. It’s much easier to invest time and money into passions when already living in the destination one’s heart desires.
Colorado locals, Ronny and Kristin Ullrich have found their perfect work-life balance in the Roaring Fork Valley. They carefully weigh their time between their conventional careers on the 9-5 with a cherished historic form of arctic transportation dating back even before the 20th century. Local small business owners have to work double-time to capitalize on our specialized and highly competitive market; which is why it’s equally important to make time for one’s self in nature, when not doing the daily grind.
Of the many bonds between them, is their passion for the great outdoors. A New Castle native, Kristin attended Colorado State University and grew up camping, hiking, skiing, and fishing with her dad. They’d go rafting in the summer and snowmobiling in winter.
One of her personal mantras is, “Don’t sit around waiting for experiences to happen.. you have to create them.”
Ronny, himself, made a rather adventurous transition in his 20’s. He left his family in Berlin, Germany to move to America to learn English (which he speaks eloquently), and he landed in Aspen, only to never leave the region.
Ronny is an avid hiking, skiing, fishing, and hunting enthusiast; when not touring on motorized ATV’s or RZR’s, he and Kristin tour the woods and mountains in a more primitive manner, which truly immerses them in nature on every level.
Ronny adopted the hobby of dog sledding with Kristin, who joined in his enthusiasm for the sport – initially as his assistant, but for the past three years, she has taken the reins into her own hands to lead the pack! Hike up, sister!
They met while working at the Volkswagen–Audi dealership in Glenwood Springs, eventually wed, and currently share the love of Ronny’s teenage daughter, Sophia, an accomplished soccer and piano player, along with their canine team on their sprawling 40 acres of land in New Castle.
They started their journey into “mushing” or dog sledding when they saw an ad seeking a new home for a Siberian Husky, Polar. Also eager to embark on the Colorado lifestyle, Polar was wild at heart at the time they adopted him. The Ullrichs tamed and trained Polar, and in turn, he eventually trained the other dogs they steadfastly adopted.
The Ullrich’s dogsled with their canine kids mostly for recreation. Occasionally they’ll race, but it’s more of a social event, rather than racing for time or awards. It’s all about sharing their passion for the outdoors, practicing an ancient tradition among the most exquisite, domesticated descendents of Canis.
“All they want is love. They just lick your face and want attention,” Kristin said wistfully.
She did say that the females (or “the girls,” as Kristin calls them) really run the show.
“When they get in a fight, it’s terrifying. They usually look so sweet and innocent, but they go right for the throat in a fight.”
Much like siblings, fights will inevitably break out, and sometimes Kristin and Ronny have to break them up, but at the end of the day, they make-up, cuddle together, and work as a family unit.
To be clear, if “mushing” or dog sledding is embraced properly, this is not animal cruelty. To the contrary, these dogs are born with the love to run.
They have naturally built-in four-wheel drive and have the calloused pads to handle varied terrain. Their coats are double-layered to insulate them from the cold, and regulate them in the heat.
In some conditions, protective booties are required. 60° Fahrenheit may be too warm for them and -40° Fahrenheit may be too cold, but they have the capability of withstanding cold temperatures, less than glamorous accommodations, and expansive terrain provided they have food, water and shelter when needed, and in many cases, love.
Eager to explore a different kind of Colorado lifestyle, our Marketing Director reached out to Kristin to see if we could interview the Ullrichs to capture the experience first hand.
After all, it’s not every day you see one of your associates being transported on a sled being pulled by a team of dogs! We were so excited to experience this new adventure, and so grateful they welcomed us along!
That early Sunday morning, we woke to a blushing sunrise in Glenwood Springs to start our drive west to New Castle and then further on north to Buford, Colorado into the White River National Forest.
It was about 20° Fahrenheit and the skies were mostly clear with feathers of clouds against the robin’s egg blue. Once we made that easy-to-miss right turn from the backroad cow-lined pastures of New Castle to head up to over 12,000 feet elevation, we skidded uphill through several inches of light and fresh snow-covered switchbacks to the Buford Flat Tops.
At the main parking area, we met the Ullrichs and their nine canine kids, among a few other sledding friends and nearby snowmobilers.
Creatures of habit, there’s a rigid routine for the dog sledding excursions. The dogs are cozy in their little boxes, stowed on a flatbed of Ronny’s trailer and taken to the destination where they are then leashed while Ronny and Kristin prepare their breakfasts and water bowls; they eat together like a family.
Surprisingly social, we approached some of the dogs who weren’t already indulging in their power bowls of all-natural protein breakfasts. They nuzzled us and jumped up to hug us. Uber-social, most of the pups welcomed our affection, but they all have their own unique personalities, just like humans.
“The Wild still lingered in him & the wolf in him merely slept.” – Jack London
Their coats were visually coarse, but soft to the touch, much like their dispositions. Others were overtly friendly, and then suddenly a little more standoffish, shy, and skeptical. Mostly, they were all way too distracted with excitement for their morning run to be bothered with photo ops or interviews.
For once, Instagram and Facebook had no relevance! Where these dogs run, there are no phones, no computers, and no signals – other than what they offer to one another with a glance, an ear-bend, a snarl, a smile, a lean, a lick, or a song.
While the dogs are finishing breakfast and taking a few moments to digest, the mushers start laying out the lines like a Kite Surfer on a beach. Once all of the equipment is outlaid in the snow, they start bringing out the team.
First to be harnessed are the Leads. Rhino, strong, shy and boyish, and Java, sweet, athletic and sharp, are at the helm.
They lunge and jerk forward with natural instinct with the appearance of hood ornaments when the mainline pulls them back into position; they just cannot contain their enthusiasm for this Colorado lifestyle voyage ahead, and their excitement is infectious.
Tank, a ten-year-old handsome sage, who I personally took a shine to, mentored the new puppy, Nanook; in Inuit, Nanook means ‘Polar Bear,’ though she resembles nothing of the sort. She’s slight of frame, observant, lean, feminine, willful and fearless; not dissimilar from her matriarch, Kristin!
In the lineup, when going uphill or approaching a turn, Nanook would lean into Tank who would swiftly nudge her back into place. The more mature dogs usually take on the puppies to help train them how to obey, stay in alignment, and maintain their focus.
That brings us back to the Wheel Dogs, who run closest to the sled. Floyd, who was borrowed on this particular journey from a sledding friend, and pretty boy, Polar, had their padded paws kicking up snow in front of me.
Each dog, like any athlete, has their own style, individual gait, and grace.
Polar is probably one of the larger and “huskier” Siberian Huskies on the team. Unlike some of the other team members who are very lean and much smaller in stature, he has more characteristics of a traditional show dog for which he may have been bred.
When Ronny and Kristin adopted Polar, he was jumping fences – defiant; a contrarian, and had no sense of ‘true self,’ it seemed. He was restless, vain, and fueled with unutilized energy, so when Ronny trained him to pull a sled and run a guided, disciplined distance, it mellowed his harshness in a harness.
I felt my own pulse quicken with anticipation of this new Colorado lifestyle adventure!
The mushers or dog sledders sometimes have to verbally scold the dogs into better behavior, settling them down until they have all of their brothers and sisters ready, so they’re not tangled up. For the most part, the dogs are all very disciplined and know their rank among humans. The hierarchy still remains where their master or musher is the alpha.
“Dogs do speak, but only to those who know how to listen.” –Orhan Pamuk
Commands like ‘Ha , On-by or On-Trail , Gee, Hike-up or Mush,’ perk the dogs’ ears, eyes, and tails to attention.
Rhino and Java, the Lead dogs, turn back to look Kristin in the eyes to seek her approval, before charging forward.
Java’s sisters, Nala and Akira (in Thai, meaning sunlight or sun, and in Sanskrit, meaning graceful strength), are the mainline pups. Entirely on her own, Sky was in the Swing position on that chilly Saturday morning.
Being accustomed to our Colorado lifestyle, I wore my heaviest ski jacket and Klondike bomber hat for the ride; dog-tired, I was still shivering by the end of our two-hour tour, but my smile was still frozen into my face!
I don’t know if I was more moved by the dog’s interactions with one another with their nuzzling, baying, and cuddling, or by Kristin and Ronny’s romantic gestures with each other and their pack.
They praise their pups, train them, nurture them, and reel them in to be equal contributors to the pack.
Kissing and patting each other affectionately, the Ullrichs and the dogs are clearly FAMILY.
They exhibit all of the highs and lows of close contact and healthy competition, while surviving extreme temperatures of one another’s moods and natural extremities. They build stamina, survival skills, adaption, devotion, loyalty, and the unquenchable joy of running into the void of the woods.
“They really feed off of encouragement,” Kristin said, as she praised them for making it up a steep hill with an awkward fall line in the fresh 8” of heavy snow. “They just want to please you.”
Just like a child in a school play searching for their parent’s proud smiles in the audience, the dogs occasionally look back over their shoulder to make sure you’re smiling and looking at them – to seek their musher’s approval.
“The goal is not simply to ‘work hard, play hard’. The goal is to make our work & our play indistinguishable.”
“ROCK-SOLID” best describes the Ullrich family, and it’s consistent with their persistent quest for stability and survival in the mining of a more literal matter; their actual livelihood is in the ownership of a stone quarry in Oklahoma.
Combined with Kristin’s position at Aspen Dermatology, their stone quarry business keeps them busy during the week, reserving the weekends to exclusively devote time to Sophia, their dogs, and enjoying a true Colorado lifestyle.
Ronny and Kristin have acquired Pine’s Stone Company located in Carbondale, Colorado, where they fabricate all varieties, colors and cuts of stone from quartz to sandstone, Comanche Moss rock, limestone and dozens of others.
They cut, buy, fabricate, mine, buy, sell, and deliver fine, raw, authentic selections of stone all over the state.
General contractors, masons, architects, regular community members, and the like, all take a chunk out of their mine to build some of the most luxurious fortresses and hardscaping for which so much of our Aspen, Snowmass, and Roaring Fork Valley yearns.
Our luxury housing market in the Roaring Fork Valley demands elegance, uniqueness, and prompt, professional service, and Pine’s Stone delivers.
They service commercial businesses as well as residential, including golf course water features, monument road signage and even decorative stone carvings.
Among many others, Pine’s Stone’s product is even utilized by some of our most recognized local artisans, including Martin Cooney – a ‘Bath’ native who lives just outside of Aspen, and Lyle Nichols of Palisade, near Grand Junction, Colorado.
The past two years of increased development and construction in the Roaring Fork Valley has kept the Ullrichs busier than ever; especially this past year with the pandemic-generated real estate boom.
For so many residents of the Roaring Fork Valley, work is an overtime means for economic endurance, while outdoor recreation is the means of saving our souls.
Mushing is, and has been, the Ullrich’s opportunity to run in the wilderness, and off the grid – breaking free from the ‘working to survive’ norm, while taking full advantage of a true Colorado lifestyle.