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Breaking down the walls of learning

Wild Center seeks to educate public on and off site

March 3, 2012
By JESSICA COLLIER - Staff Writer ( , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

TUPPER LAKE - When you're coasting in a gondola up Whiteface Mountain, do you ever start to wonder about what kind of plants can survive up there in the cold, or why the landscape changes as it does when you go higher and higher up?

When you're enjoying a sunset at Tupper Lake's Municipal Park, have you ever wondered what was there before it was a park, or whether the lake was ever used for anything other than recreation?

The folks at the Wild Center natural history museum in Tupper Lake want to answer those questions for you. And they want to do it while you're there, at the site, rather than at the museum.

Article Photos

Rob Carr, part of the Wild Center’s design team, inspects drafts of signs he has created to interpret elements of nature on Whiteface Mountain to the general public.
(Enterprise photo — Jessica Collier)

Wild Center Executive Director Stephanie Ratcliffe said the idea is that the museum wants to be like a friend whispering in your ear, wherever you may be, "Hey, come see something cool."

Her staff has attempted to get visitors outside, learning while experiencing nature, from the museum's beginning in 2006. They've made interpretive walks a regular part of the museum's daily schedule, and the opening of The Pines natural playground a few years ago added to it. They're also working on the Wild Walk, a project currently in the funding stages that would let guests follow a trail on the museum's grounds that would end up in the forest's canopy.

And now the Wild Center is partnering with the state Olympic Regional Development Authority and the village of Tupper Lake to create interpretive stations on Whiteface Mountain and at the Tupper Lake Municipal Park that they hope will help people learn about nature while outside of the museum site.

Ratcliffe said most museums interpret a collection that is encased in its four walls, but the Wild Center hopes to not only interpret what's in its 54,000-square-foot facility or on its 31-acre campus, but the entire 6 million acres of the Adirondack Park.

"Everything we do, it's really site specific," Ratcliffe said. "In our world, it's called place based."

With that in mind, Ratcliffe said it just makes sense for the museum to start interpreting nature at sites outside the museum where people are already experiencing it.

"Our mission is to connect people with nature," Ratcliffe said. "It's sort of the next natural step for us."

Wild Center employee Tracey Legat Jolly is the project manager for both sites.


Whiteface Mountain

The Whiteface exhibits are planned for all over the mountain, Legat Jolly said. Some will run up the Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway, and some will be at the summit tower.

There are also exhibits planned for the bridge up to the Whiteface Mountain Ski Center; plus, each gondola will have an interpretive element included.

Since the Whiteface Memorial Highway tends to be more of a summer destination and the ski area on the mountain is obviously more of a winter destination, ski center Manager Bruce McCulley said they wanted to have exhibits at both sites in order to engage both winter and summer visitors.

He said both sites are the kind where people traveling through who aren't necessarily hikers can get a good feel for the environment of the Adirondack Park.

"I think it's a great opportunity for people to learn more about the whole Adirondack region and the natural aspects of it," McCulley said.

Along the highway, Legat Jolly said the Wild Center plans to have stations that describe how plant life changes as you get higher in altitude.

Closer to the top, there will be signs that explain how rare Alpine plants have the equivalent of antifreeze in their veins so they can survive in frigid temperatures, and how it's 20 to 30 degrees warmer inside the plant than it is outside in the elements.

"It's just all these kind of cool little stories and how it makes us see nature in a different perspective," Legat Jolly said.

Legat Jolly said they're still working out the format for some of the exhibits, but they plan to have in the gondolas something that will let a smart phone access a video that would compare human athletes to animals - like comparing the distance a snow flea can jump with how far ski jumpers fly through the air.

They're also planning a time-lapse view of Whiteface as part of the project. They have a camera installed on the shore of Lake Placid that is already taking pictures of the mountain; the photos can be seen at

McCulley said ORDA jumped at the chance to work with the Wild Center on the project.

"We're always striving to do more nature interpretive-type things here," McCulley said, "but it's actually a fairly expensive, involved process to do a well-done interpretive program."

So when the Adirondack North Country Association was putting together a scenic byways grant, it made sense to use that as an opportunity to get some money and collaborate with the Wild Center.

ORDA already has some interpretive stations on the mountain, some older and some put up more recently. McCulley said they were installed by various groups, including the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the now-disbanded Whiteface Preservation Society.

But the Wild Center team will revamp what's there and also create new interpretive exhibits.

"So this is going to take all our interpretive efforts, bring them under one look and feel, and plus we're adding to it at the same time," McCulley said.

McCulley said he and some colleagues took some of the Wild Center team around the mountain, showing them what's there and what they believe to be important. Then the Wild Center team took what they saw and went to work on designing signs.

During the design process, the design team is meeting with ORDA often, running ideas by them. When the drafts are complete, McCulley and his colleagues will review them and offer comments before they are finalized.

It's not just ORDA that Legat Jolly and her team are working with. A number of groups already do research at Whiteface. The State University of New York's Albany campus runs the Atmospheric Sciences Research Center there, plus the Adirondack Mountain Club, the AuSable River Association and other groups are also involved in the collaboration. Legat Jolly said she's been working with all those groups to interpret the science that's already being done there.

"We're learning so much, as you do with every exhibit project," Ratcliffe said.

They hope to have the Whiteface exhibits installed this summer and be ready to unveil by August.


Tupper Lake Municipal Park

The exhibits planned for Tupper Lake's largest park are in earlier stages than the Whiteface project. Tupper Lake's village board just last week approved a contract for the work to begin.

Tupper Lake's Revitalization Committee got grant money to create a plan to revamp the park, and the Wild Center has been involved in that process from the get-go.

"The Wild Center has been the most wonderful revitalization partner that a community could ask for," said Melissa McManus, grant writer for the town and village of Tupper Lake and head of the Revitalization Committee.

McManus said local businessman Dan King had the idea to incorporate the Wild Center's design aesthetic into new plans for the park, and the idea for exhibits at the park was part of that. She said as soon as the idea was brought up, everyone on the committee supported it.

And McManus said she's been pleased with the amount of support the idea has gotten from the Wild Center.

"I'm not sure that most museums would be that willing to engage," McManus said. "I really can't praise them enough."

McManus said the Revitalization Committee came up with the general idea of wanting to interpret the ecology and the history of the site, but left the rest up to the Wild Center crew, recognizing that they're the experts.

Legat Jolly and her team have come up with some interpretive concepts for the park. The town's lumber mill used to stand in the middle of the park on the water's edge, and lumberjacks would float logs along the Raquette River to the mill.

"That is such an interesting site for Tupper," Ratcliffe said.

They plan to use exhibits along the park's shoreline walkway to look at that history and how it changes the ecology of the site, as well as how the timber trade shaped the community of Tupper Lake. They'll also look at how the timber trade has waned and how Tupper Lake is now looking to its natural resources to become a recreational destination.

There's also an idea in the works in which Legat Jolly and her crew would team up with the Adirondack Public Observatory, planned to be built in Tupper Lake, to create gardens that would show where the sun sets in different months of the year and explain why the sunset moves as much as it does as the year progresses.

Legat Jolly and her team are set to present plans for the exhibit to the Revitalization Committee at its March meeting.

McManus said she hopes people will be able to take away from the exhibits an understanding of the community's history, "the sense that this is a community that has always worked in concert with the natural environment."

The grant money the Revitalization Committee now has allows for some initial exhibits to be put up this year, hopefully by July. McManus said they're hoping to get at least one set of interpretive displays out of the $24,000 they have from their portion of a grant given to communities along the route of the annual 90-Miler canoe race.

"We hope to do as much as we can with this round of funding," McManus said.

Another stream of grant funding for Tupper Lake's waterfront revitalization is slated to provide more exhibits - hopefully four to six - in the near future, McManus said.


Looking ahead

The Wild Center gets many visitors each year, and one of the goals of the Revitalization Committee is to draw people who stay in other towns and stop at the museum to also come into Tupper Lake and patronize its businesses and attractions.

So when the exhibits go up at Whiteface and the Municipal Park, the Wild Center will most likely include signs at the museum site telling about those exhibits, so people can check them out after they finish their day at the museum. McManus calls it a continuation of the Wild Center experience.

It may also direct people coming to those sites to the museum for a day.

"It's definitely win-win," McManus said.



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