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Heaven Under Our Feet

Picture it: the Adirondack Mountains, 20,000 years ago. An astonishingly vast and thick sheet of ice covers all of what would one day be northern New York state. The ice is a mile thick. Far beneath the ice was the uplifting Adirondack dome, which would be carved and shaped as the glacier eventually retreated. (Fun fact: the Adirondacks are still being uplifted, at a rate of about 2mm per year.) The world left behind evolved into something unique, rugged, beautiful, and dangerous. It's here for you to explore, right now.

You can learn all about this and explore the wildness of the Adirondacks not far from Tupper Lake, at the Paul Smith's College Visitor Interpretive Center (VIC). The VIC originally opened in 1989 as a state-run center for outdoor interpretation, along with another, similar site in Newcomb. The VIC has always been a people-oriented facility, offering environmental education in an informal, engaging manner, focused on ways of creating connections to the world around us. A fairly regular — probably annual — feature of my childhood was the much-loved, deliriously-anticipated field trip to the VIC. One of my favorite things, something I looked for time and again, was a long, narrow wall display that showed the scale of the glaciers that once covered the Adirondacks. It was one of the first times in my life that I truly began to understand the massive, overwhelming scale of the natural world.

Inside the visitor center, displays, interactive activities, and theater provide a great introduction to how the Adirondacks came to be and what they are now: a biologically vibrant system of habitats teeming with life. As a whole the VIC is, in many ways, a scaled-down model of the Adirondacks. It features a mountain to hike and a network of trails that wind through a variety of habitats. In fact, the VIC has every type of habitat found in the Adirondacks, except alpine. The trail system, featuring walks and hikes of varying lengths and levels of difficulty, allows visitors to explore this Adirondack universe on a small, manageable scale, scenic and intriguing in all seasons.

The woods here are full of conifers, chipmunks, deer, acidic soil-loving fungi, and the call of birds. Hikers looking for a full day of exploration can take on the nine-mile round-trip hike to Jenkins Mountain. The biodiverse wetlands are accessible via broad wooden boardwalks. Several trails, particularly Boreal Life, Heron Marsh, and Barnum Brook, provide up-close views of the wetlands and the delicate plant life found there. In summer, look for graceful water lilies floating on the surface of the water and in the boggy sections, the carnivorous pitcher plant. Pitcher plants lure insects with sweet nectar, trap the insects from being able to fly back out, and slowly digest them for their nutrients. The VIC's habitats contain examples of plants, animals, and ecosystems that, no matter what their size, make the Adirondacks such an ecologically diverse, dynamic, and interconnected system.

The VIC, with its emphasis on approachable, accessible, and digestible education, is, and always has been, a great place to take children. The trails are the perfect accompaniment for the knowledge shared indoors: there you are, out in the world, walking past a marsh, listening for birds, maybe keeping an eagle eye out for interesting fungi. Oh, and eagles? Those have been known to fly in the area, as well. The VIC hosts regular events and workshops either free or for a small fee, including naturalist walks, introduction to cross-country skiing clinics, sleigh rides, natural history themed arts and crafts activities, and seasonally-themed lectures. The VIC’s educational programs combine fun and wildly useful knowledge, the kind that inspires children to study butterflies and adults to go on mushroom foraging outings (they do those at the VIC, too).

The trails, one of the most beloved places in the Adirondacks for scenic adventure on foot, cross-country ski, or snowshoe, are open dawn to dusk, seven days a week. Access to the lobby with restrooms is available 9 a.m. - 5 p.m., seven days a week. During the winter months, the building is staffed Saturday and Sunday. These are great days to go, as the knowledgeable volunteers and staff have so much to share! There is even a full moon snowshoe walk coming up on March 6, perfect for families! Don't let the cold of winter keep you away: bring your skis or snowshoes, or rent some here, and explore the woods in the snow. It's the prettiest church you'll ever enter.

Visit the VIC all year long. In summer, enjoy a sunny hike and a visit to the butterfly house. Savor the cool air and crunch of crisp leaves in fall. Snowshoe at dawn in the winter. Listen for the chatter of returning birds in the spring. No matter what time of year you visit, the VIC has something to engage your senses and sense of wonder at this big, seemingly immeasurably big, part of the world.

With it's range of activities, including outdoor adventure, historic sites, and local food and craft brews, Tupper Lake is a cozy vacation destination. Here, adventure is literally on your doorstep. Start planning your getaway today!