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From the June 2007 Conservationist

On the Wild Side

By Howard Fish

Visitors view an exhibit
Turn down an avenue in Tupper Lake, and you're on the way to a journey into the heart of New York's Adirondack Park. Banners fly from poles leading to the great stone welcome sign that marks the entrance to the Wild Center/Natural History Museum of the Adirondacks. This new museum has earned spectacular reviews, and word-of-mouth buzz has helped attract visitors from all 50 states to this town at the center of the Adirondacks. The museum's mission is "to inspire a broad public understanding of the natural systems that shape and sustain life in the Adirondacks." That's exactly what the Wild Center has done since its July 4, 2006 opening, when more than 5,000 people descended on the museum's site in this historic logging town, creating the largest event of its kind since the opening of the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. Drawn by national media attention, more than 25,000 people came to the museum in its first 30 days. The New York Times proclaimed the Wild Center "stunning," and the Christian Science Monitor said "nature pours into the center." The Wild Center has expertly tackled its mission to redefine the way people see the surrounding region, beginning with a building inspired by the best traditions of classic Adirondack architecture. You enter the Wild Center through the Big Wolf Great Hall, a soaring, 42-foot-high rotunda with floor-toceiling windows that offer unusual waist-high views of the pond and wetlands that lap against the outside of the building. Nine towering white birch trees, each mounted in an eight foot-high glacial granite boulder, ring the hall. There's a real lean-to in the Great Hall and a massive moving glacial ice wall describing the last ice age that carved the modern Adirondacks.

Walk past the glacier and you're on the Living River Trail. The trail ascends past lakes, bogs, streams, rivers, waterfalls and forests to the summit of a high peak. It's the museum's core indoor exhibit, containing more than 2,000 living creatures that help the natural world of the Adirondacks come alive as the river courses around the perimeter of the Hall of the Adirondacks.

At the museum, you can see fish, birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians at close range in their natural habitat. Nature infuses the hall, including the sounds of cascading water from the plunge pool at the dramatic 20-foot-high Otter Falls. Here you can watch the Wild Center's resident otters showing you exactly why they have such a reputation for playful behavior.

Interspersed along the route of the Living River are a series of interactive exhibits located along wet and dry information tables and rails. You can feel how cold the earth was when the glaciers were two miles deep over the Adirondacks, squeeze water out of sphagnum to see how bogs are made, or run your hands through a cloud. The Bog Lab, Forest Lab and Log Labs, each 30-feet long, are filled with living and interactive exhibits that allow hands-on study of wetlands, woodlands and the forest floor. The Living River Trail surrounds the Find Out Forest, a media-rich interactive environment that fills the center of the Hall. The company that created the television series Nova, and winners of numerous Emmy Awards, produced enough movies about the Adirondacks to keep you immersed for more than two hours if you want to watch most of what's available. You can explore the far reaches of the Adirondacks through the Adirondack Journeys series, learn interactively from natural scientists and ecologists in Adirondack Views, explore the Adirondacks close-up in A Closer View, and come to understand natural systems in the Flying Karamazov Brothers Theatre. You pick the films, whether you want to travel down the Hudson Gorges with one of the nation's foremost forest researchers, go to the top of Whiteface tosee how cloud research is conducted, track a moose or learn about winter survival for animals. The experts who guide you are engaging and knowledgeable, and there's plenty of seating so you can relax and enjoy the shows.

Museum visitor looks at a snakeIf you like traditional natural history museums with collections you can hold, you'll delight in the Naturalist Cabinet that adjoins the Hall of the Adirondacks. There's a diving mounted beaver, black bear and drawers filled with collections from butterflies to eggs that you are invited to explore.

When you're finished with the Hall of the Adirondacks you'll start to see why the Wild Center is setting records for the time people are spending with its exhibits. The national average for a similarlysized museum visit is around an hour and a half. In contrast, the Wild Center is averaging nearly three and half hours per visit according to the museum's new visitor study, and people are coming back for more. The museum already has more than 5,000 members. After leaving the core exhibits, walk over to the west wing opposite the Great Hall and you'll find the Flammer Panoramas Theater. The theater has an unusual panoramic screen and its high-tech multimedia shows let you become a part of the wide, sweeping Adirondack scenes before you.

Also found in the museum's west wing are the Wild Supply Co. museum store and the Waterside Café. The store has plenty of books, and a fine selection of gifts. In warmer months, you can eat outdoors at the café's terrace, overlooking the museum's Blue Pond. The terrace is also a good jumping-off point for a walk through the Wild Center's interpreted trails, starting at the pond.

Water play is a big part of any Adirondack story, and while the Wild Center's three-acre pond acts as a backdrop to the building, it's also a wetland that attracts birds, amphibians, small mammals and insects that can be viewed from trails and bridges around the pond. Trails wind through the Wild Center's 31-acre campus, and naturalist-led hikes are offered regularly. The trail system culminates at the Raquette River, where raised wooden overlooks give you sweeping views of the river and mountains beyond.

Eight years in the making, the idea for an Adirondack natural history museum was first conceived by Betsy Lowe, the Wild Center's managing director. It took shape in 1998, inspired in part by the public reaction to a small exhibit about the 1996 ice storm that Lowe helped produce from her staff position at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. From that start, Lowe set about finding a way to make more exhibits, and give them a home.

Now Lowe sits in an office at the museum that is filled with stories about the natural world, surrounded by a summer staff of 37, more than 150 volunteers, and the public still wants more. In response, the museum will open a brand new major exhibit this summer.

Whether you come for the hands-on exhibits, the live otters, a cool walk through a forested glade, or the aweinspiring panoramic multimedia theater shows, you'll leave with a renewed sense of wonder for the sensational Adirondack Park we all treasure.

Photo: Nancie Battaglia