July 7, 2013

A wild trip


---- — On a recent sunny morning, I set out for the wilds of the Adirondacks, and found myself encountering otters, birds of prey, ravens and a porcupine.

An unbelievable hike? Not exactly. It was a trip to the Wild Center.

Nestled in the Adirondacks, at Tupper Lake, the destination proved to be a scenic one-and-a-half hour drive from my Plattsburgh apartment. Since the Wild Center is both a museum and a 31-acre property, I was pleased that the weather was favorable for the trip — especially since a canoe expedition was to be part of the day’s events.

Upon my arrival, I approached the large building marked by the sign of the teal otter (a stylized otter is the symbol of the Wild Center, and the depiction near the doors is bright and colorful).

Inside, I found myself in a rotunda with huge glass windows displaying water-level views of the deep blue pond outside.


There, Executive Director Stephanie Ratcliffe talked with me about the purpose of the Wild Center. 

“This is designed to bring people closer to nature; that’s what we do,” she said.

To the right of the rotunda is a replica of an Adirondack camp, setting the mood for the exhibits beyond. 

“We want you to think of this as the base camp for your Adirondack experience,” Ratcliffe said.

On the other side of the rotunda is a wooden structure cleverly designed to look like Lucy’s 5 cent psychiatry booth in Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” comic. Instead of “The Doctor is IN,” the sign reads “The Naturalist is IN,” and Ratcliffe said Wild Center interns use it as a spot for interactive events.

Beyond the “base camp” is a large glacier replica, with movement and sound, intended to convey a sense of geological history; and beyond that is a pool/aquarium with some colorful residents.

Painted turtles were swimming about, and one had crawled up onto a rock to bask beneath a lamp. Ratcliffe said the turtles love the lamps and will sometimes climb atop each other to get closest to their warmth.

The painted turtle has bright orange coloration on its shoulders, and its dark green reptilian head has stripes of canary yellow.

Wood ducks paddled along the surface of the pool. The males have iridescent green plumage on their heads, which contrasts strikingly with their ruby-colored eyes.


Another room, called the “Naturalist’s Cabinet,” is described by Ratcliffe as “our nod back to the roots of natural history museums.”

It includes a collection of mounted butterflies and moths, as well as skulls and bones from various animals and birds. It also features a computer program that allows you to listen to the sounds of many different species of birds. The sounds are analyzed and can be compared to the sounds of other creatures (such as humpback whales) or musical instruments. Like the Wild Center as a whole, it is both scientific and creative.

While the Naturalist’s Cabinet includes some traditional elements, another room showcased a museum feature that seemed quite futuristic: a device called “Science on a Sphere,” designed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). A 6-foot diameter globe is suspended on a wire from the ceiling. Video projection and an elaborate computer system turn the sphere into an animated device that displays scientific data in an almost science-fiction way. The sphere can be used to show the paths of hurricanes, to model climate-change projections or to display other planets in the solar system. So, with the touch of a button, the sphere can change from Earth to Jupiter. 

“It’s a really fun toy,” said Kendra Ormerod, the center’s expert on the device.

While looking at the sphere, Ratcliffe and I met 12-year-old junior-volunteer Matthew Whitmore. 

“My mom works at the desk, and somebody said I could be a junior volunteer and have a job here,” Whitmore said. “I wanted to do it.”

At the center, exhibits showing a variety of Adirondack habitats are labeled in a way that is designed to be thought-provoking. 

“When you go out into the natural world, you might see it differently,” Ratcliffe said. “There are small and big stories that we want you to understand.” 

For example, she said, the next time you find yourself hiking near a river, you might consider how “the ‘babbling brook’ part of a river is highly oxygenated and is probably a good place to look for fish.”

As for fish, they are there in abundance at the Wild Center’s aquaria, including a massive pike, a prehistoric-looking sturgeon and brook trout with their spotted bodies and red bellies. 

The river otters are a highlight of the Wild Center. Their exhibit, which includes a small waterfall, is beautifully designed so that you can see the otters underwater. Watch an otter swim underwater, and you will be amazed by its sleek and streamlined design and by the speed and grace of its movements.


I had lunch at the center’s café, and then, in the comfortable, big-screen theater, I enjoyed a screening of “Flight of the Butterflies,” the featured film for the next year. The film tells the story of the migration of the monarch butterfly — and how the secrets of that migration began to be uncovered.

After the movie, I spoke with naturalist Kerri Ziemann about the Wild Center’s canoeing program. She said that it is a great way to get visitors, including families, to enjoy the outdoors at the center. 

“And we give them a little natural history along the way,” she added.

It also goes along with one of the things she loves about her job — “the chance to be outdoors sometime during the day.

“That’s definitely appealing for anyone in my field,” Ziemann said. “And this is a great way for naturalists to share our appreciation for the outdoors and for the Adirondacks.”

An easy walk through the woods will lead canoeing groups to the shores of the Raquette River; there, near an oxbow in the river, the vessels are waiting. On the day I visited the Wild Center, the river was unusually high due to the recent rainfall. However, the current was mild, and the skies above were clear and sunny. It was an ideal day for the distinctively Adirondack style of boating.

The canoe slid smoothly through the sun-dappled waters. The bright yellow blossoms of water lilies dotted the scene. 

Nearby, a red-winged blackbird was calling. It flew off, passing quite close to the canoe, so that the band of yellow near the scarlet of its wings was clearly visible.


Returning from the canoe trip, I met David Gross, the curator, who is in charge of caring for the Wild Center’s 500-plus creatures of 60 different species.

The center boasts an eco-friendly design, which has earned it a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Award, Silver Distinction, Gross said. One of the buildings features a sloped roof where one side is covered with solar panels and the other side is topped with soil and plants. The soil serves as an insulator, helping to keep the area warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. Both sides of the roof are “demonstrations,” as Gross put it, explaining his hope that some of the center’s methods will be adopted elsewhere.

He also introduced me to some of his charges, including Stickley the porcupine. Stickley had been found by a dog when she was a baby and was separated from her mother. So, she was brought to the Wild Center, where she was bottle-fed. Gross recalled the soft sounds that she would make as a baby. 

“Porcupines tend to wander about mumbling to themselves; they’re cute that way,” he said.

The initial plan was to rehabilitate and release Stickley, but since many people shoot porcupines, seeing them as pests, it was decided to keep her in the safety of the Wild Center. Gross pushed back Stickley’s lips to reveal her bright orange teeth. He said that since a porcupine’s teeth continue to grow throughout its life, the animal will chew on wood in order to keep the growth in check.

He pointed to a tree in Stickley’s enclosure that was almost devoid of bark. 

“She’s chewed off all the bark, so we’re going to switch it with a new one,” he said.

Gross also pointed out one of the center’s two skunks, “Night,” which has a black tail. This makes it easy to distinguish “Night” from “Day,” the other skunk, which has a white tail.


An array of birds grace the Wild Center, including a male kestrel named Squawkbox (so named for his loud calls), a female blue jay aptly named Lady Jay, a saw whet owl with golden eyes and a pair of red-tailed hawks.

A pair of ravens — perhaps the most intelligent of all birds, Gross said, showed off some of their vocal abilities. 

“Ravens have over 50 different types of calls. One sounds to me like a rotary phone being dialed. They can also bark like a dog, imitate other bird calls and pick up human speech.

“Wild ravens have demonstrated tool-use,” Gross added, in that they “strip the leaves from a twig and use it to probe rotting wood for grubs.” 

He also noted that the Inuit people of the Arctic use ravens to help them in hunting. They have trained the ravens to act as aerial scouts, and they reward the birds with choice pieces of meat from the kill.


Gross also showed me the outdoor enclosure where the otters live when they are not in the exhibit. 

The center has four otters, but since they are not necessarily social animals, they do not all go in the exhibit at the same time; the females, in particular, can be aggressive, he said. He told me about the density of their coat, which acts as an effective insulator. An otter’s coat has half a million individual hairs per square inch. (For comparison, a human may have some 20,000 individual hairs on his entire head). 

“If you live in the water, you have to be well-insulated,” he said. 

An otter’s coat allows it to stay warm in cold water or cold air.

At the moment, the two male otters, Remy and Louie, were in the enclosure — and they did not have to worry about cold. They were taking a nap together on a hammock, peacefully curled up in the sun.

“They sleep 16 hours a day,” Gross said.

Although otters are wild animals, I was suddenly reminded of my dog, Lady — who also enjoys the sun and seems to have a similar schedule.

With the day nearly over, I left the Wild Center with happy memories of its animal residents and its Adirondack environment. It had been a good day, and a good journey.



WHAT: The Wild Center.

WHERE: 45 Museum Drive, Tupper Lake.

HOURS: Summer hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week through Labor Day.

CONTACT: For questions, call 359-7800 or email To learn more, visit