Snow crunches. Branches snap. In the shady woods east of town, people sneak through the trees.

The hunt is on.

Their target? The massive troll that has taken residency in the clearing ahead, among the rocks and mud.

Friendly banter is overheard.

“The troll didn’t walk away, did he?” asks one man.

“Nah,” responds another, returning from the pilgrimage. “He only comes alive after midnight.”

Actually, the troll, named Isak Heartstone, looks perfectly content in his place. A smile is stuck to his wooden face, boulder-sized black eyes focused on the cairn he builds up toward his head at 15 feet.

His mane is unkempt, a shock of sticks and twigs. While one hand builds, the other is planted in the ground, his fingers longer than any legs of the parents scattered about on this day. The toes are bigger than some of the kids.

Every hour it seems, 100 more come to get their picture with Heartstone. Since arriving three months ago, his fame has swept the Front Range, spreading faster than skiers will next month when the runs open on the mountains seen beyond.

“There’s been a lot of talk in Denver about it,” says Mike Porter, on a day trip here like most of the others.

Also, there’s been a lot of talk locally.

“Most everyone is cool with it,” says Kayle Burns, a Breckenridge resident among those cool with Heartstone, whom she now is introducing to visiting family. “It’s just the people here.”

She’s referring to the neighborhood a stone’s throw away. Houses are on the other side of the buck and rail fence that recently was installed, a sign attached: “PLEASE RESPECT OUR NEIGHBORS.”

The troll has become the Halloween attraction no one saw coming.

“Through social media, more and more people started sharing their pictures,” says Robb Woulfe, president and CEO of the organization responsible, the town-funded nonprofit Breckenridge Creative Arts.

“I think people were gravitating to this idea of the legend of the troll, and that’s part of what Thomas creates. He likes the folklore of it, the mythical nature of it.”

Thomas Dambo is the Danish artist who has unleashed trolls elsewhere in the world. And it was his trolls that Woulfe thought of when contemplating a special installation for August’s Breckenridge International Festival of Arts.

The annual event has proudly spotted art in nearby nature. A yeti of moss and grass, for example, and red chairs and tentacles spiraling from the Earth — all intended to be awe-inspiring surprises.

What if Dambo brought one of his trolls to Breckenridge?

For $40,000, he and his company spent two weeks constructing with beetle kill timber collected from the area. A kid from the neighborhood delivered a heart-shaped stone, the troll’s namesake now kept in his chest.

The artist left, the hunters came, and Breckenridge never has been the same.

“It has been insane,” Mayor Eric Mamula says.

He, like everyone else around, isn’t used to such crowds in the months and weeks before ski season.

“Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought in the middle of October in Breckenridge there would be something like this,” he says.

But the mayor has had to answer to the nightmares described by Heartstone’s neighbors. Those black eyes stare through windows, they say, though the troll isn’t as menacing as his visitors.

They reportedly have parked on the streets, blocking driveways. They have littered this trail once mostly reserved for the 282-home neighborhood, and they haven’t been cleaning up after their dogs either. They are loud. They lurk at night, their flashlights disrupting the peace and quiet.

Others have expressed new fear for the children playing in the alleys.

“If you guys want, I can promote the ‘Burning Troll Festival,’” one homeowner told the Town Council this month, as reported by the Summit Daily. “I’d be really happy to get that going.”

In response, the town formed a troll task force.

Police presence has increased. Trash cans have been installed, along with the fence posts and signs pointing the proper way to the troll. At the trailhead’s often-full parking lot, an electronic display encourages drivers to park in town and board the bus that has become known as “the troll trolley” after once serving only neighborhood commuters.

The mayor looks at data now: On one Saturday this month, an estimated 500 people got off at the stop along French Gulch Road. For the same Saturday last year, that number was three.

But anyone waiting to see Heartstone gone will have to wait longer. The Town Council on Tuesday accepted the recommendation by the troll task force: Let him stay for the winter, continue to try to ease worry and reassess in the spring.

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