BOEC and Breckenridge Nordic Center founder, Gene Dayton, frequently entertains his guests at the Nordic center.

BOEC and Breckenridge Nordic Center founder, Gene Dayton, frequently entertains his guests at the Nordic Center.

Over 50 years ago, the BOEC was just a dream for founder Gene Dayton. This dream was formed way back in Gene’s childhood when his father, the local chairman of the Red Cross, operated a swimming pool in Dekalb, Illinois. Gene recollects, “There were several hours in the morning when the pool wasn’t open and there were buses (with kids) from all over the county that came to the pool for a water therapy program. I became really interested in this program. I was in the sixth grade, I was teaching kids to swim who had disabilities, it was a good thing.” Gene explains in greater detail.

“My dad was a visionary, and he reached out to people with disabilities when people had kids in the post-polio epidemic. They didn’t bring them (children with polio) out in public much, and this brought them out into a real-life situation where they had the freedom to move like they had never moved before. That stuck.”

Throughout junior high and high school Gene continued teaching at the water therapy program which planted the seed for Gene to find a place to start an outdoor recreation school for kids at risk and kids with disabilities. After high school, he attended Florida State University on a swimming scholarship and majored in recreation administration. Between his undergraduate and graduate studies, Gene took a trip out West to look for potential locations to start the school he’d been thinking about for so many years. This trip took Gene on a five-state tour with his last stop in Breckenridge, Colorado. Gene shares his motivation for moving to Colorado this way, “I had a Master’s in recreation administration, I wanted to put it to use, and this seemed like the right place, and it felt good. I loved the town, and I got here as fast as I could.”

Gene featured in the Florida State University Florida Flambeau for setting new records in freestyle swimming.

Gene featured in the Florida State University Florida Flambeau for setting new records in freestyle swimming.

The Vision Becomes a Reality

When Gene relocated to Breckenridge in 1965, he felt that it was the right time for a cross-country (Nordic) skiing school. Gene recalls that at the time, in the early 1960’s, the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vermont was the only place in the whole country setting Nordic ski tracks so there was nothing like this in the Breckenridge area. He linked up with John Rahm, the first manager under Aspen Ski Corporation who liked the idea and was a great mentor for Gene. He also attributes much of his interest in Nordic skiing to his professor and master’s thesis advisor from Florida State, Dr. William James Tait who was from Denver, and Willy Schaeffler, the Denver Nordic ski coach and a founder of Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA). Dr. Tait predicted after his travels to Europe, that Nordic skiing would have a future here in the US.

Gene’s vision for a school in Breckenridge expanded after working with Outward Bound at Dartmouth, in Minnesota, and in Colorado. This was a time of personal growth that expanded through challenges and stress and through learning to adapt to various circumstances. In 1965, Gene came to Breckenridge with his wife, who was his dance partner from Florida State. He explains their simple existence this way,

“We were vegetarians, and we ate mung beans and Frank’s hot sauce, and that was about it.” He continues, “So we didn’t have very many needs and I was fortunate to have someone give me a cabin to move into on Peak 7. If I couldn’t find what I needed left over from the mining days or in the woods, it didn’t go into the cabin – and the cabin is still there on Peak 7.”

During this time, Gene worked towards realizing his vision, which eventually became the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center (BOEC), through grassroots efforts. He recruited volunteers and volunteered himself for five years to build the organization he had in mind. It was also at that time that Gene began teaching at Colorado Mountain College (CMC). He explains,

“I was teaching at the college, and I taught courses in mountain orientation, ski orientation, and desert orientation. There were a lot of interested young people who were very well educated, who were interested in the idea from my classes. Those people were the first volunteers, many of them with degrees in special education.” 

In 1969, Gene was operating this school he called the Breckenridge Ski Touring & Ski Mountaineering School serving skiers of various abilities and disabilities out of a hut located at Tiger Run, originally known as The Retort Mining House and today is known as the Hallelujah Hut. Nordic skiing was integrated into these programs. One group he started working with at the time was from the sheltered workshop for Arapahoe County. This program, for people with disabilities, occurred every other week for three years. 

Around the time Peak 9 was being developed at Breckenridge Ski Resort in 1972, the Breckenridge Ski Corporation gave Gene a building from the top of the mountain to use as a base of operations which came in handy for cooking and as a shelter when the weather got really bad. Gene and some friends built an igloo that could sleep 12 to go along with the building from Breckenridge Ski Corporation at the junction of Carter and Lehman Creek. He chuckled as he recalled that the igloo caved in the first night they put it to use.

Gene Dayton Nordic skiing in the early days.

Gene Dayton Nordic skiing in the early days.

A favorite hike he led was up Mount Helen where they built snow caves in different locations along the path, which offered a brief respite from the elements. People came from other states for these treks including one group from a private boy’s school from Canada for at risk youth who came on a 10-day course in ski mountaineering. There seemed to be a need and opportunity to help bring people to the mountains who had never had exposure to this kind of outdoor activity.

The Early Leaders 

While he had a growing pool of people willing to help, Gene knew that his grassroots program needed some legs. He asked Dr. Aris Sophocles, a physician at Breckenridge Medical Center, Olav Pedersen, the visionary behind “Ski for Light” a Nordic program for the visually impaired, and Kim Batcheller, the town attorney, to be an ad-hoc board of directors, meeting monthly for breakfast to discuss ideas. Gene reminisces on that time, “I just knew that, you know, with leaders like that, this was going to fly. And the biggest gift, of course, was that from the Town of Breckenridge.” 

Dr. Aris Sophocles, Olav Pedersen, and Gene Dayton at the first Breckebeiner.

Dr. Aris Sophocles, Olav Pedersen, and Gene Dayton at the first Breckebeiner.

Gene and his partners took some videos and some TV coverage and went to the town council and said, “We have this program, and here is what we’re doing. We’d like to expand it and we want to be a nonprofit. This is what we’ve done, and this is what we’d like to do.” The biggest gift from the Town of Breckenridge came in the form of a five-year lease for five dollars, for a portion of a 39-acre piece of land at the F&D Placer that was the site of the old town reservoir at the base of Peak 9. The F&D Placer remains the location of the BOEC Wilderness campus today and thanks to a strong ongoing partnership with the Town of Breckenridge, the campus now has a 75-year lease and annually serves over 1,159 people.

Aris Sophocles’ involvement happened by accident. When Gene’s oldest son Matthew was about four years old, he slammed his thumb in the car door so Gene went to see Dr. Sophocles who told him that kids will heal but tell me about your program. After Gene described the program Aris talked about his motivation for asking. Gene shares this response from Aris,

“The reason I asked you is I have a friend in Austin, Texas who’s a rock star and he’d like to do a benefit concert in Breckenridge, and he wants the money to go to a worthy cause, and this might be it. So, Michael Martin Murphey came and did a concert at the high school (around 1972), and it was our first fundraiser. He was a popular Western singer and had some very well-received hits. It drew a crowd in Breckenridge and that was our first fundraising success.”

Gene’s connection with Olav Pedersen brought a new aspect to the school. Gene describes Olav this way, “He had grown up in Norway and was a tremendous athlete. Olav was a great visionary, and he was a hard worker. He taught here (the Breckenridge Nordic Center) for 18 years before he finally said, “that’s enough” at 88 years old.” 

Olav was the originator of a program in Norway called Ski for Light which brought together those with vision impairments and mobility restrictions to learn to Nordic ski. Olav was inspired by his friend, a Norwegian accordion musician, Erling Stordahl, who lost his vision due to diabetes. Erling founded Beitostølen Health Sports Centre, a sports center for those with disabilities in Europe in the high mountains of Norway about 150 miles north of Oslo. 

Erling had the goal of making the national sport of Norway accessible to everyone. He traveled from northern Norway to Oslo playing the accordion and giving a talk at schools while raising money for the health sports center. Gene spent a month learning from him in Norway and shares this, “Erling felt that nature was the greatest influence in his program, integrating people in all sorts of ways with the visually impaired and those with mobility challenges and was just a tremendous man with a desire to serve.” 

When Olav met Gene, he proposed bringing Ski for Light to Summit County. This tied in perfectly with what Gene was working towards. When the first US Ski for Light occurred in Frisco, Colorado in 1975, the King of Norway was present and eventually knighted Olav for this endeavor. Gene explains that he “stood on the shoulders of giants” through these incredible friendships and mentors. 

Community Support Has Always Been A Cornerstone

With so much support from the community, Gene handed over the Breckenridge Ski Touring Ski Mountaineering School to Wally Taylor, another local leader, and split off the nonprofit side, the school for those with disabilities, which he led himself. During this time, the school had funding from grants from The Gates Foundation and Novell Cisco among other donors. In 1976, Kim Batcheller wrote the articles of incorporation for the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center (BOEC) and along with fellow board member Aris Sophocles has been a supporter ever since.

In the 1980s after the first lease was approved at F&D Placer, BOEC was quite creative in constructing trails accessible to the students. Breckenridge had an abandoned water diversion trough that came from Carter and Lehman Creek that fed the Sawmill Reservoir. Since this was level ground, something necessary for those participants with disabilities, those at the school cleared it enough to ski on it. It had the makings of a good day excursion skiing from the donated building and igloo to the reservoir for lunch and back. 

The BOEC found another opportunity when the Henderson molybdenum mine was expanding. Gene knew a county commissioner who worked at the mine and helped him obtain a building that was about to be torn down. The building was built by a man named Berger in 1938 with no nails, a “Rubik’s Cube” as Gene describes it. Gene and his team of volunteers brought the disassembled cabin up to the BOEC Wilderness site on two trailers and reassembled it at the location where it still sits today. This building is referred to as the “old cabin” and is still used for rustic lodging for BOEC programs. Gene recalls those days, “We were in a wing and a prayer, everything was kind of by the seat of our pants.”

Front page local news coverage for Gene’s Ski Mountaineering & Ski School highlighting a local boys group from Denver.

Front page local news coverage for Gene’s Ski Mountaineering & Ski School highlighting a local boys group from Denver.

A new chapter was unfolding at this point, and although Gene’s focus was primarily cross-country skiing because the BOEC location was at the base of the Breckenridge Ski Resort’s “C” lift, it seemed natural that alpine skiing was the way the BOEC winter program would go. The Breckenridge Ski Resort got more involved which they continue to be to this day. Gene shares,

“They were very generous in giving passes to participants and instructors. The ski area actually provided snow cats to deliver our gear to the hut and help us get set up. They were very supportive and bought a track setter for us, for cross-country.” 

Challenges Overcome Lead to Further Growth

In the 1980’s, BOEC’s alpine ski program took off after Gene had stepped down to focus on the Breckenridge Nordic Center, which he also had in the works. At this time, BOEC went through a rocky period under a couple of different leaders. A name change to the Colorado Outdoor Education Center was contemplated and was ultimately unsuccessful. Due to the generosity of people like Dr. Oliver Stonington, who financially helped the BOEC make it through the rough times, the organization stayed afloat. And today, after nearly 50 years, Gene is still involved with the BOEC board. He jokes with a laugh, “I don’t think you can get rid of me,” and in more seriousness, “I will be there as long as I am worth something.” 

The BOEC has had significant community support and investment since its inception. Gene speaks of Rick Hum, president of FirstBank in New York, this way,

“He came in and wanted to be part of it (building a place for those with disabilities to recreate in the mountains) and he lent a tremendous background in finance to the school, something that we didn’t know anything about. He realized that we needed to get better organized and he took a big step forward in doing that.”

Aris Sophocles, Eric Mamula, Pete Joyce, Tim Casey and Gene Dayton at the grand opening of BOEC’s new HQ and staff housing building.

Aris Sophocles, Eric Mamula, Pete Joyce, Jon Gunson, Tim Casey and Gene Dayton at the grand opening of BOEC’s new HQ and staff housing building.

Gene continues,

“Virtually every business owner and leader in town has been on the board or chairman of the board, and Tim Casey, of course, more recently, and one of the greatest contributors of all directors of all times and helped also establish the Nordic Center and acquire the permit from the Forest Service. Tim is certainly a pillar in this community who helped with the school tremendously with his vision and ability to get support from leaders with means. So, the expansion of the base at Peak 9 and the offices now is, I mean, unheard of.” 

Gene expresses gratitude for the support from Scott Sodergren and his company Blue River Sports and so many others, recognizing the extensive community support and leadership invested in the BOEC throughout the years. “Unbelievable” is the word Gene uses when describing the support from The Town of Breckenridge over the past 50 years. From their original lease for a dollar a year for five years and continuing to extend the lease of the land for BOEC, most recently for another 75 years. 

A favorite memory for Gene was inspired by his Outward Bound experience working with adjudicated young, mostly male individuals whose lives changed for the better. Gene still receives letters of appreciation from some of these men to this day. These students told him that the one thing lacking in their lives was a concern for others. Most of these students didn’t have adequate means growing up. They came to the program run by Gene, where they learned how to ski. Then they were taught how to guide visually impaired skiers and they were paired one to one with a visually impaired skier. Gene shares, “It was amazing to see them grow up – that is the best term I can think of. They matured and took responsibility in their position as a staff member.”

The BOEC internship program, described as “the backbone of BOEC” since its inception, was initiated by the program mentioned above and by the students who took Gene’s mountaineering courses learning both skiing and teaching. Those who became volunteers involved with Gene’s programs, gladly assisted during the day with programming supporting the participants with disabilities, leaving at the end of the day when the participants went to rest for the night in the igloo. As Gene says, “That kind of enthusiasm is unstoppable.” The internship still serves as a training program for those eager to gain essential outdoor skills and a background in assisting those with a wide variety of disabilities. 

Stepping Back But Still Involved

When discussing the success of the BOEC today, Gene choked up. He told now Executive Director Sonya Norris,

“It’s phenomenal! I could have never done what you’ve done, what you do. It was time for me to step down. I remember telling one of the interns, ‘You know what? I’m not outside anymore, I’m not doing what I came to do and it’s time for me to do something else.” 

After stepping back from the BOEC, Gene started investing all of his energy into the Breckenridge Nordic Center. He had previously spoken to Jim Berwick, who was living in a teepee in the area that is now the Breckenridge Nordic Center. He recalls Jim saying, “You know, this is a busy road. It’s got a lot of trails over here. Why don’t you find out who owns that.” So, Gene found out who owned the land expressing his desire to build a Nordic village with trails through it. 

He explains,

“Now, that’s essentially what happened. It didn’t happen exactly the way I thought it would, but they put in a one-million-dollar bridge to make the black loop and integrated, for example, and tunnels to maintain the trail system that can be added to the Forest Service lease of 20 years of national forest and then the town dedicated trail system. It couldn’t be better. It’s a lot of miracles.” 

In 1980, Gene purchased the old ski patrol hut from Breck Ski Corp for one dollar and relocated it, piece by piece, to the head of the Nordic trail system, the beginning of what has transformed into the Breckenridge Nordic Center.

Gene at the Breckebeiner with para-Nordic racers.

Gene at the Breckebeiner with para-Nordic racers.

In recent years, Gene has continued to actively contribute to BOEC. For 18 years, starting on Gene’s 60th birthday, Gene and Therese Dayton organized an annual festive Nordic ski race fundraiser known as The Breckebeiner at the Breckenridge Nordic Center. Inspired by Ski for Light’s successful ski-a-thons, the event raised funds for the BOEC scholarship fund. Gene is happy to see the Breckebeiner picked up by BreckEpic and reimagined in 2024 as a USA Triathlon Winter Triathlon National Championships with duathlon, and Nordic races as well. This race not only benefits the BOEC as in the past but also has para-race categories to include racers with a wider range of abilities.

Gene at the capital campaign reception in 2016 at the Breckenridge Nordic Center with Rob Mathis and Bruce Fitch.

Gene at the capital campaign reception in 2016 at the Breckenridge Nordic Center with Rob Mathis and Bruce Fitch.

When looking back on the past 50 years, nearly 60 since he arrived in Breckenridge, it seems like yesterday to Gene. In his words he says, “We’ve been blessed, and a lot of people have really invested careers and lives in it.” He mentions the former ski director Gene Gamber, Jeff Inouye, current ski director who has invested 30 years into the BOEC. He recognizes current director Sonya Norris, former directors and board members who he notes are, “Very talented, educated people far greater than I have stepped up to the plate and led in difficult times and supported in difficult times through muddy waters, you know, and politically impossible. But it happened.”

The dream that Gene had originally has not only been fulfilled but has far surpassed what he could have imagined. He says, “I never dreamed of a wheelchair ropes course or of a year-round program with things like hand cycling, rafting, kayaking, and all the things that are being done right now.” He would like to see another canoe trip as this had been a wonderful experience and an important activity for him since he was 12. In the future, he hopes the BOEC will live on. He is pleased with the course it is on with talk of expansions, new ideas, and new people to ensure the vision continues.

Gene and Therese Dayton at Fiesta for BOEC 2023.Gene and Therese Dayton at Fiesta for BOEC 2023.

Gene and Therese Dayton at Fiesta for BOEC 2023.Gene and Therese Dayton at Fiesta for BOEC 2023.

The BOEC has evolved incredibly over the years to what it is today due to the influence of so many people and Gene’s dream and leadership to get there. As a result, many individuals with barriers to recreating outdoors have had opportunities they may not have had otherwise. As his dad used to say, “If you help another guy up the hill, you get a little closer to the top.”