A Walk on the Wild Side at New York’s Wild Center
By Bart Beeson
“It truly is a magic trick,” says my guide on a recent visit to The Wild Center, a family-friendly science museum and outdoor nature experience in New York’s Adirondack region. We are walking through the center’s Forest Music exhibit, a quarter-mile loop trail through the woods where a series of speakers play a whimsical soundtrack reminiscent of the Vincent Guaraldi trio (of A Charlie Brown Christmas fame). My guide explains that each of the 24 speakers mounted on trees throughout the trail is playing its own track, and the musicians commissioned to compose the piece did so with the location of each speaker in mind. As we completed the loop and continued the tour, I made a point to return later, to take my time and fully soak in the sensory experience.
I had come to the town of Tupper Lake to visit The Wild Center and explore a few of the many outdoor options this incredibly scenic area has to offer. This was my first venture to New York since the beginning of the pandemic, and I was both excited and apprehensive. I was reassured by the fact that The Wild Center, based on post-visit surveys conducted of their visitors, had been rated one of the most “Covid-cautious” destinations in the state.
My base for the weekend was the Hotel Saranac in the neighboring village of Saranac Lake, nicknamed “the capital of the Adirondacks.” While not as well known as nearby Lake Placid, Saranac is a quaint town that’s right in the middle of everything. Arriving on a Friday afternoon, I checked into the hotel and, as my first Covid-era hotel stay, couldn’t help but notice the little differences — room cleaning only upon request during your stay, a sticker-sealed door to show no one had entered since it was cleaned, and a QR code to review the hotel’s cleaning policies.
With a few hours of daylight left to kill, I decided to go for a quick hike up Mount Baker. Just a few minutes outside of Saranac, it’s a short but fairly steep hike to the summit, which affords great views of the surrounding peaks and of the village below. After working up an appetite, I headed to Blue Line Brewery for dinner. Located in a former car wash building and voted one of the best area breweries by a local paper, Blue Line features pizzas and pub fare, and their craft brew offerings include a milk stout, a red ale, and several IPAs. Arriving in the early evening, I felt comfortable as one of the only visitors and enjoyed sampling several of their tasty beers, accompanied by a hearty french onion soup and a linguica sausage sandwich.
The following day, I got up early and made the 20-minute drive to the Mount Van Hoevenberg Cross Country and Biathlon Center. This training facility for Olympic athletes has recently undergone an extensive renovation, and now features the longest mountain coaster in the U.S and miles of new cross-country trials. I rented cross-country gear and headed out to explore some of the trails. With temps in the single digits, and an organized race drawing participants and onlookers, I practically had the place to myself and enjoyed gliding through the peaceful wooded trails. Unfortunately, due to the cold weather and icy conditions, the mountain coaster was closed for the morning, so I would have to save that for another visit.
After a quick stop in Lake Placid for lunch and a chance to watch folks enjoying dog sled rides on frozen Mirror Lake, I headed to The Wild Center. I was greeted by Nick Gunn, marketing manager at the center, and my aforementioned guide. During the course of my tour, he explained how they have adapted during the Covid era. “We basically turned the museum inside out,” he said. While they have closed their inside exhibits, they made some of the animal enclosures more accessible so visitors can watch the otters playing and observe some of the other animals, including porcupines, a raven, and a peregrine falcon. Wild Center staff also provide educational presentations featuring the animals throughout the day.
The next stop on my tour was the “Wild Walk” — a series of elevated structures connected by suspension bridges that rise dozens of feet above the forest floor. A sign as you enter explains how the exhibit provides visitors with a different perspective of the natural world: “The majority of the forest is not tied to the ground the same way you are. Once you leave the forest floor you enter a whole new dimension of survival.” The exhibits are a mix of education and just plain fun — an oversized replica of a hollow tree discusses the role dead trees play in the forest ecosystem, while a rubberized spider web is just a chance for kids to jump around.
Other safety precautions the center has implemented include mandatory masks for all visitors, requiring reservations for one of four time slots available during the day, and capping the number of daily visitors. The 115-acre campus also gives visitors the chance to get out and explore beyond the principal exhibits, with trails into the woods and down to a nearby river, and the center offers free snowshoe and kick-sled rentals (the kick-sleds, new this year, are a surprisingly fun way to navigate the trails).
My Wild Center tour completed, I headed into Tupper Lake to visit Raquette River Brewery, which has quickly become a destination in its own right. The taproom is a spacious, lodge-style building with a cozy fireplace, a large bar, and a mix of bench seating and high top tables. Co-owner Mark Jessie relates that when they first opened most of their customers would stop by after visiting other area attractions, but now they see more and more people coming specifically to visit the brewery. He attributes their success to three things — excellent beer, a great venue, and tremendous hospitality.
“A lot of breweries may have one or two of those, but not many offer all three,” he says. Mark also points to the fact that the brewery is family-friendly, saying Tupper Lake needed a place where parents could go enjoy a beer with the whole family. The brewery doesn’t serve its own food, but there are food trucks parked outside — during my visit there was a wood-fired pizza truck, and in the summer there are several more food options. And while it was covered with snow when I was there, the brewery also features a large outdoor pavilion, which Mark relates was extremely popular when people were looking for safe outdoor venues during the summer.
After my tasting, I headed back to The Wild Center to experience “Wild Lights” — a nighttime exhibit where the attractions throughout the center are lit up with strings of lights. At the Forest Music exhibit, bundled up visitors sipping hot chocolate wandered among the trees wrapped with colored strings of light. As I walked the trail in the dark, with the glowing tree lights and music that seemed to move with me, it was hard not to feel a little magic in the air.
For more information, visit https://www.wildcenter.org/
Bart Beeson is a Burlington, Vermont-based freelance travel writer and photographer. He is a regular contributor to Travel Weekly, and has published in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy and other media outlets. When he’s not traveling, Bart can be found hiking with his dog Kesey or spending time at his family’s New Hampshire lake house.