Sweating, I powerwalked the fern-lined winding road along Blue Mountain Lake in the Adirondacks. The morning sun was just hitting the crystal clear water that gently lapped the shore. In the woods, an indignant chipmunk chirped and swished dried leaves. Mad already? Maybe at me? Nearby, two birds called to each other.
I had two thoughts: one, someone needs to invent a gym machine that kicks my butt like this beautiful hill did (both up and down), and two, I can't wait to get to the Adirondack Museum I just passed.
Prior to my visit, I viewed the Adirondacks as a giant green area on the state map where people camped. Who would have guessed it had a fantastic story to tell?
That story is told in the Adirondack Museum, the voice that brings the 6 million acres of lakes, forests, towns and villages that are the Adirondack Park area to life. The museum complex is so large -- 22 structures sit on the 32-acre campus -- that you need at least a full day to explore it. We actually spent two days there, which is something I would recommend. Luckily, you can buy a one-day ticket and get a second consecutive day free.
This year is a special one as the museum celebrates a golden anniversary with exhibits that speak to the mission of telling the story of the people, the land and the wildlife that is the magical history of the Adirondacks.
Before you start your tour, enter the visitor's center, where you might meet former Western New Yorker Bob Emmert, one of the folks who works seasonally as a docent.
Exhibits at the center give an overview of the Adirondack story, which basically boils down to this: A booming lumber industry leads to hunting and fishing "camps" for the rich folks of the Gilded Age (think Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Astor of the late 1800s), which leads to fine hotels for the upper class. All of this eventually fades to the present-day recreational state park.
The story is important because it's connected to what you will see in the various exhibits, including the Water Witch (an "Idem class racing sloop" circa 1900), which was once owned by Whitelaw Reid, the editor and publisher of the New York Tribune. The gorgeous craft is suspended in the visitor's center, along with a picture board that tells a tale familiar to many of the museum's items: How the lives of the rich "summer people" intersected with the daily lives of the locals.
Before you head out, watch a video that shows how the museum acquired some of its items. You'll see, for instance, a loon created for a carousel by former Buffalo State College student Karen Loffler, the founder of Adirondack Carousel Inc. (Read her story at www.adirondackcarousel.org.)
Here is just the tip of the canoe of what awaits you in the larger buildings at the Adirondack Museum:
*Boats & Boating in the Adirondacks Building
How did those rich, summer folks get to remote Adirondack camps and hunting expeditions? Often, by boat. This exhibit does an excellent job of showing how guide boats, canoes and eventually rowboats and speedboats became an integral part of Adirondack history. The workmanship and ingenuity is incredible -- especially the craft that was built tough enough to haul gear, people and hunting dogs, yet was light enough for portage from one navigable waterway to another.
The story of builder J. Henry Rushton is fascinating. He crafted canoes and guide boats for many, including writer George Washington Sears "Nessmuk" who wrote for Forest & Stream about life in the Adirondack woods. Sears requested a super-light craft (less than 20 pounds) that he could maneuver alone and Rushton built it.
The wilderness exploration eventually gave way to the outdoor recreational movement of the early 1900s. Ruston built his "Indian Girl" wood and canvas canoe for novice paddlers. It was a strong, light and cheap option. Canoeing became such a rage it was even honored in songs like "Paddlin' Madeline Home" and "In My Tippy Canoe."
Working boats eventually lead to pleasure (row and sail boats) and racing crafts, like the El Lagarto, considered the "Leaping Lizard of Lake George" and winner of the Gold Cup Challenge Race with its Packard engine.
If you are lucky, you'll catch artist Allison Warner building a guide boat in the traditional manner. She's working here throughout the summer.
*Living with Wilderness and the Lynn H. Boillot Art Galleries
This museum and art galleries are housed within one building.
Inside Living with Wilderness, be sure to take a seat in front of the outstanding Photo Belt, a moving conveyor belt that displays some of the museum's 68,000 pictures of Adirondack people and landscapes. Particularly intriguing is a video about Seneca Ray Stoddard (1844-1917), a photographer and mapmaker who captured thousands of stunning images. He is credited with bringing the Adirondack region to life for the rest of the country.
The real gems of the art gallery are found in "Adirondack Rustic: Nature's Art 1876-1950," a new, two-year furniture exhibit. The rustics (furniture fashioned from Adirondack forest wood, branches, bark and the like) are magnificent. Often the locals, who worked as summer guides, would craft during the winter. The rustic movement eventually spilled into art, architecture and lifestyles. The Chicago (1893) and St. Louis (1904) world fairs featured rustic cabins, furniture and trophy animals, touting the Adirondacks as a "sportsman's paradise."
The furniture and photos here bring the "great camp" to life including J. Pierpont Morgan's camp Uncas and New York Lieutenant Governor Tim L. Woodruff's Kamp Kill Kare. You'll also learn about the Vanderbilt's Sagamore, and their builder, William West Durant. The progenitor of the Adirondack great camp, Durant used the trees and stones of the Adirondack mountains to build these Gilded Age millionaires mansions that looked like they sprang from the forest floor.
*Adirondack History Gallery
A compliment to viewing original rustic pieces, this gallery has gorgeous items made by today's craftspeople. To the untrained eye (like mine) some items looked as if they were made long ago, while others had a definite contemporary twist. A great video shows visitors some of the painstaking processes and techniques employed by these modern artists.
*Log Hotel: Hotels, Camps & Clubs
Tour the Log Hotel, the oldest surviving structure of the Blue Mountain House resort (1876), once located where the museum now stands. Pictures highlight the many swanky places that sprung up throughout the Adirondacks, like the Lakeside House in Tupper Lake, the Miller House in Lower Saranac Lake and Blue Mountain Lake's own Prospect House, the world's first hotel to have electricity in every room.
It's fascinating to see how these folks "roughed it." In addition to the many maid, cleaning and laundry services, there were also formal dining rooms. (A 1918 Loon Lake menu offered roast capon and lamb as choices!) On display are such items as custom dinner plates, antique bowling pins and the original room key board of the Prospect House.
*Roads and Rails: Everyday Life in the Age of Horses
The rugged Adirondacks made travel and farming difficult. An impressive collection of vehicles, from a milkman's sleigh to a rich man's carriage, mirrors the societal divisions of the era.
Engineers will love to see the plank and log roads display, as well as the giant snow roller used to pack down the roads. Fans of railroading will love "The Oriental," an elaborate car once used by August Belmont. While it was never used for the Adirondacks, the museum acquired it as an example of the type of train the upper class would have used on their journey. It is gorgeous, with carved wood and shining glass. Watch the video that shows its transport to the musuem -- it's amazing. Mike Cronin's carriage used to rush Theodore Roosevelt from his Adirondack vacation (down 35 treacherous miles, using three drivers) to a train headed to Buffalo to be sworn in as president.
*Buck Lake Club Camp: An Adirondack Hunting Camp and Bull Cottage: Adirondack Rustic Furniture
Built in the 1960s, the Buck Lake Club Camp is a testament to great building. The entire cabin was constructed without the use of nails, spikes and chinking (filling gaps). It's all tongue-in-groove, wood pegs and dovetails.
Bull Cottage highlights other unique rustic furniture, including rarely displayed pieces. It's neat even to just walk through the cabin and smell the wood. Be sure to look up into the woods here to see a free-standing stone chimney and stairs leading to a long-gone cabin.
*Woods and Waters: Outdoor Recreation in the Adirondacks
This exhibit covers fishing, hunting, trapping, hiking and climbing. Follow the trail to hear the sounds and sights of the Adirondacks. Even the pesky bugs have their own little display! Check out the whopping 30-pound trout caught in 1951, along with antique fishing gear and lures. A winter exhibit highlights ice sports including the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics. The video of the USA hockey team beating Finland for the gold will still give you chills!
The poignant display also shows how the fur trade, logging and human invasion destroyed wildlife (including the Adirondack wolf). Must-see items here are the "Artists in the Adirondacks" art display to learn how the Adirondacks inspired artists throughout history, and the camp of Adirondack hermit Noah John Rondeau, who, among other quirks, kept journals written in code.
*Work in the Woods: Logging in the Adirondacks
This building focuses on the heavy logging of the ancient forest that once stood strong. The industry term "Adirondack standard" was coined during this period and refers to a log 19 inches around by 13 feet. Watching men of a bygone era sawing a tree will leave you exhausted. The term log jam couldn't be better illustrated than in photos of loggers searching for the log causing a huge backup in the water. The gruesome life of a logger is also told -- long days with serious injury and death lurking at every turn.
Free-standing smaller exhibits are found among the main exhibits. They include:
Adirondack Artist's Cottage
This interesting little studio was used by artist Gustave Wiegand, landscape painter.
Rustic Privy and Rustic Gazebo
Both have gorgeous handiwork and still look functional.
A fantastic twig structure moved to the museum from Camp Cedars.
Used from 1907-1945, youngsters will get a kick out of seeing this one-room school. They can try to make paper dolls, spin a wood top or walk on stilts.
Marion River Carry Pavilion
Here you'll see the steamboat Osprey and the H.K. Porter locomotive. A diorama is fun to watch. A mini-train and steamboat move along the map like magic, taking the route once used by folks heading to Adirondack camps and hotels.
Before leaving the museum, take a picture off the Lake View Deck. It's a spectacular view of Blue Mountain Lake. You will certainly become one of the many who have fell in love with the splendor that is the Adirondacks.
After reading about the Adirondack-frolicking rich folks of the Gilded Age at the museum, take a ride to Raquette Lake (about 14 miles from Blue Mountain Lake) to tour the Great Camp Sagamore, once owned by the Vanderbilt family. It is incredible, to say the least.
This is not an ordinary cabin in the woods, but a compound of buildings that once had a full, year-round staff that supported the Vanderbilt family (who spent roughly six weeks a year at the place). It is mind-blowing to tour the mini-town where the workers lived, then the family's area that includes a huge rustic home for "bachelor" guests, the three-story main family home, a children's playhouse, a semi-enclosed bowling alley and huge dining hall. The place makes an appearance in the film "The Good Shepherd."
During the "No Velvet Ropes Tour," guests are escorted by a guide through the camp and are treated to an extraordinary interpretation of the place and its history. You'll learn information about its builder, William West Durant, and the family's history, including a fun look at the height marks made on the door frame, measuring the Vanderbilt grandchildren.
You can stay at Great Camp Sagamore (not to be confused with the historic Sagamore resort), which hosts a variety of events, including grandparent/grandchild week, Simly Sagamore Weeks, Adirondack Gilded Age History Weekends, Adirondack Women and more.
Summer tours are daily at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., lasting about two hours. For information: (315) 354-5311, www.sagamore.org.
On the way home, consider stopping in Old Forge for a boat ride up the Fulton Chain of Lakes on one of Old Forge Lake Cruises boats. A boat ride is a great way to experience the area. The route follows along much the way folks would have traveled during the early days of the Adirondacks, when heading to the great camps and hotels. The leisurely cruise is accompanied with narration by the captain, who points out historic landmarks and current day points of interest.
You'll see the location of the former hotel where comedian Don Rickles got his start; St. Peter's Church that has a dock; and you'll learn about the "pickle boat" that brought camping supplies via water.
Old Forge Cruises offers two-hour sightseeing cruises, a one-hour kids' cruise and three-hour mailboat cruises, which still serves one of America's longest running freshwater mail routes, started by President Harrison in 1902. Cruises run rain or shine.
For information: (877) 508-6728, www.oldforgecruises.com.
>Eat, sleep and shop
Prospect Point Cottages, Route 28, Blue Mountain Lake is a wonderful base camp.
Overlooking Blue Mountain Lake and about a mile from the museum, it has a private beach for swimming/lounging and rowboats and canoes guests can use. The cottages include linens/bath towels, fully equipped kitchens, cable TV and a spectacular view. Guests have use of a main building to hang out in, play cards and piano, and read one of the many books on hand. A neat little exhibit has items found on the land from the swanky Prospect House that once stood on the very spot. Host Carol Doherty is a hoot and fun to visit with. For information: (518) 352-7378, www.prospectpt.com.
If you hate to cook after a long day of touring, there are good options for dining in nearby towns, like the Indian Lake Tavern, Indian Lake (518-648-5115, www.indianlaketavern.talkspot.com) and the Adirondack Hotel in Long Lake (518-624-4700, www.adirondackhotel.com).
On the way to Long Lake, stop at Hoss's Country Corner (800-952-4677, www.hossscountrycorner.com). The place is crammed with everything from camping gear and food to books and gift items.
>If you go
The Adirondack Museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., now through Oct. 14, and then weekends only until Oct. 28. Cost is $15 adults; $8 children 6-12; free children 5 and under. Buy one day, get the consecutive day free.
There are ongoing events all summer, but the highlight will be the 20th annual Rustic Fair on Sept. 8-9.
The Adirondack Museum has a great cafe that serves soups, salads, sandwiches and daily specials. We loved the gourmet rosemary and olive oil potato chips and old-style birch beer. Picnicking is also allowed on the scenic grounds.
The museum's gift shop is wonderful. Books, art, toys, textiles, pottery and more fill shelves.
For more information: (518) 352-7311, www.adkmuseum.org.
(From the Buffalo area)
Take Thruway I-90 exit 31 to Route 12, north;
Follow Route 12 to Route 28;
Follow Route 28 through Old Forge, Inlet and Raquette Lake to Blue Mountain Lake;
Continue straight through Blue Mountain Lake village and take Routes 28N and 30 up the hill about one mile. The museum is on the left.