If you only have a day in Tupper Lake, you have to visit The Wild Center. It's a world-class nature museum that brings the outdoors in, giving visitors a peek into life inside a pond, a stream, and even the soil. It's all accentuated by live animals and interpretive programs, making it a beautifully conceived experience that's brimming with education and cool critters.
But there's another side to the museum -- the outside.
A pass to the museum gives visitors access to the museum's 115-acre campus, snowshoe rentals included. You won't find any open summits or dramatic backcountry destinations, but the trails here do lead to scenic spots, and they're easy and well-marked, making them perfect for beginners. Just keep in mind that The Wild Center is only open Friday through Sunday in winter.
Taking in Greenleaf Pond
I arrived in Tupper Lake minutes after a whiteout-inducing snowstorm dumped several inches of powder on the region. The sky was gray but getting lighter as the sun burned the cloud cover away.
The snowshoe rack is around back, just walk straight through the building's amazing foyer, Big Wolf Great Hall, and head to the door by the cafe. Snowshoes are easy to put on -- simply strap them onto your boots and go -- and unlike snowshoes that have several straps, The Wild Center's have a single strap to pull and tighten, which makes them even easier for beginners.
The first loop trail starts just past the snowshoe rack. I headed right to cross the bridge that skirts the edge of Greenleaf Pond; before entering the woods I paused to appreciate the surroundings. In summer this place is alive with insects, birds, fish, and turtles. In winter it's a beautiful, frozen expanse of untouched snow. Brown, dry cattails and other water-loving plants protrude from the white blanket, and tiny animal tracks snake between them.
The hike had just started and already I was content to be still and admire the view. Pulling myself away, I finished crossing the bridge and approached the iForest.
What is an iForest?
I like unique, immersive museum experiences that play on the senses, and iForest didn't disappoint. On the surface it's music in nature, but there's more to it than that. Composer Pete Wyer created the music for this particular space in the Adirondacks, and I could tell. The music, performed by Philadelphia-based choral group The Crossing, is graceful, peaceful, and almost haunting. Many of the pieces are inspired by Native American traditions, and parts of it are sung in the Mohawk language.
The music is played through speakers discreetly mounted throughout the forest, and it's done in such a way that the soundscape surrounded me. If you visit iForest and don't quite "get it" at first, I'd urge you to stand still for a few minutes to let yourself observe the woods. When I was there, a gentle breeze kicked up that knocked piles of freshly fallen snow off the pine boughs above. The snow clumps seemed choreographed to the music and I watched as they fell diagonally between the large tree trunks.
To the oxbow
From iForest, it's a short, easy walk to the oxbow on the Raquette River. The trail passes the Wild Walk along the way. The magnificent structure is closed in the winter, but this interpretive walkway through the treetops is totally worth a return visit.
I followed the path as it switchbacked down to the river, where there are a couple of wooden viewing platforms overlooking the water. I've stood here before, in the summer, as nighthawks hunted for flying insects, turning and swirling with the silhouettes of the distant mountains popping against the sunset colors in the sky. Today things were quieter. The sun had finally emerged and the river was blindingly white. There were no nighthawks to be seen -- they migrate south in winter -- but the distant mountains were there, rising like hazy, crystalline hulks in the distance.
Warmth is never far away
The path back to The Wild Center is the most challenging part of the entire trail system. It isn't bad, but it is a short uphill climb. Once on level ground, I took my snowshoes off and walked across the parking lot, back to the museum. Well-marked, clear, and scenic, these trails are a fine choice for anyone looking to try snowshoeing, or for anyone with kids who wants to reach a couple of easy destinations. Don't stop exploring after the hike, though! Consider The Wild Center the final destination. Grab food in the cafe, get warmed up, and spend the afternoon meeting some residents of the Adirondack forests.
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