Exhibit in the sky

WILMINGTON – Environmental researcher and educator Ed Ketchledge used to say the tops of Adirondack mountains are like living museums. That’s because they are the only alpine environment left in an area that used to be alpine all around, before glaciers shifted out of the area 10,000 years ago.

“I’ve always loved this concept,” Stephanie Ratcliffe, executive director of the Wild Center natural history museum in Tupper Lake, told the Enterprise Thursday.

Now Whiteface Mountain is even more of a museum than the rest.

With the help of partner organizations, the Wild Center has installed a series of interpretive signs and learning stations along Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway, at the Whiteface Mountain Ski Center and around the town of Wilmington as part of a new exhibit that will teach people about the natural history and environment of the area.

The signs are filled with facts like how the mountain was formed, pointing out interesting mountains and other natural markers that can be viewed from the summit, and how plants and animals survive in such an extreme alpine environment.

Tri-Lakers may recognize Saranac Lake native Dustin Drury in a series of videos on Whiteface’s gondolas explaining how animal adaptations make them similar to Olympic athletes.

Wild Center officials held the exhibit’s grand opening Thursday afternoon at the summit of Whiteface, surrounded by about 60 museum supporters and members of the various organizations that helped with the project, including the Atmospheric Sciences Research Center, the Adirondack North Country Association, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the state Olympic Regional Development Authority, the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the Adirondack Mountain Club.

As part of the opening, Ratcliffe brought along a pair of Ketchledge’s hiking boots, and a group of the main players in the exhibit stretched out a boot lace between the two boots and cut it, like a ribbon cutting. The boots were borrowed from an exhibit at the Wild Center’s home base in Tupper Lake that describes Ketchledge’s legacy of learning about and being the first to push for the conservation of alpine environments.

Officials say the new Wilmington exhibit is the highest museum exhibit in the state, reaching 4,867 feet in the air at the peak of Whiteface.

Ratcliffe said it’s the first time the museum can call all 6 million acres of the Adirondack Park part of its collection, and it will help the museum fulfill more thoroughly its mission of teaching more people about the story of the Adirondacks.

Wilmington town Supervisor Randy Preston, ANCA Executive Director Kate Fish, ORDA President and CEO Ted Blazer all spoke as well, talking about how excited they are about the exhibit and how it’s a great addition to a wonderful town and mountain.

Tom Martin, the DEC’s regional natural resources supervisor, said the few existing interpretive signs on Whiteface before the new exhibit was installed were lacking, and there were “just thousands and thousands of teachable moments that were missed.” The new exhibit will go a long way toward fixing that, he said.

He noted that kids today need more interaction with the natural environment, and having an exhibit outdoors in the environment will help them learn about it and appreciate it more, which will encourage them to grow to be environmental stewards.

All of the speakers noted that the clear, sunny day was a stroke of luck after weeks of rain and clouds.

“This is a magnificent day, a magnificent exhibit, and a magnificent mountain,” Preston said.

After the formal ceremony wrapped up, people milled around the summit of the mountain reading the exhibit signs and munching on hors d’oeuvres. Examples of the signs placed in the town at the base of the mountain and at the ski area were on display in the stone building at the summit.

Rob Carr, creative director for the exhibit, told the Enterprise about the two-year process of putting it together. The small creative team spent a long time on research, then worked out the various interpretive story lines they would tell through their signage and interactive features. The last year was spent designing the signs and interactive elements, and the team has been working to install the exhibit for the last six or so months.

Carr said the exhibit required some unique problem solving.

“We’re in one of the most extreme environments in the Adirondacks,” Carr said.

Because of that, the signs are made out of phenolic resin, an extremely durable material, and printed with a process that is both high quality and highly durable.

“We took a lot of time to make sure the signage we put up here is going to last and be able to stand up to the elements,” Carr said.

He said that after two years of work on the project, it was amazing to see people enjoying the exhibit.

“It’s a really pretty special moment,” Carr said.

Contact Jessica Collier at 518-891-2600 ext. 26 or jcollier@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.