The Heart Lake Nature Museum; the name itself conjures images of grand halls filled with species of all types and sizes, a living museum with towering trees inhabited by birds chirping in the morning sunlight. Our museum is anything but large; in fact there is just one small room that can only accommodate a few people at a time, but for its meager size, visitors leave with a sense of wonder and excitement to learn more about the natural world around them. It’s not the size of the museum that matters, but how effectively it teaches and inspires the visitor to learn more after they leave. That has been the goal since the Adirondack Mountain Club’s (ADK) Nature Museum’s inception; to teach, excite and inspire people of all ages to learn about nature.
Exploring nature’s lessons has been a part of the Adirondack Mountain Club’s publications and programs since the early 1960’s, but it was the creation of the Natural History Committee that brought together a group of natural history enthusiasts and professionals to create more formal lessons that would help visitors gain a better respect for nature. According to With Wilderness at Heart, in 1962, under the auspices of former ADK president Arthur Newkirk, a summer Natural History Program was created at the Adirondak Loj, with Dr. Orra Phelps, a botanist and nature-enthusiast as the sole ranger-naturalist. For the first two years of the program, Dr. Phelps ran her naturalist programs out of a tent near the shores of Heart Lake, with “ferns and fern allies” as one of her more popular workshops. In 1964, the tent got an upgrade to its current cabin structure by then Loj Manager Ken Foster, with help from Acton Davies. Dr. Phelps stayed on as the ranger-naturalist from 1962-1973, which ended up being the longest stint of any Heart Lake naturalist so far in the history of ADK. Her work and dedication to teaching others about the natural world put the Nature Museum and naturalist programs “on the map” for Heart Lake and her legacy continues to live on through the people who enthusiastically create and staff the museum each summer.
My first experience with the nature museum came in 1997, when I became employed at ADK’s Johns Brook Lodge. I would visit the museum on my days off and enjoyed all the fun hands-on exhibits it offered. At the time, the museum was still staffed by a full time naturalist. “Brian the Naturalist” we called him and it seemed as though we could ask him any natural history related question and he would have an answer (or at least know where to find it). Brian McAllister was the last of the full time “ranger-naturalists”, a role that would later become a seasonal internship position with help from some very talented volunteers throughout the years.
In the late 1990’s, the time of the ranger-naturalists ended, but in 2002 the Summer Naturalist Internship program began, allowing for seasonal interns to be hired to create and run all of our summer interpretive programs at the Heart Lake Program Center. Fully funded through the Lillian M. Slater trust, college-age individuals who were studying natural history, environmental science, education or some other similar program, were hired to develop and run the museum under the leadership of Jen Kretser, ADK’s Education Director at the time. Jen started this internship program, and it has been going strong ever since.
The Nature Museum is small in stature, but its role has grown from allowing ADK members and visitors to learn something new, to being a model for other organizations around the world. In 2004 and 2005 the Altai Assistance Project hosted 7 professionals from the Altai Republic in Siberia and toured various outdoor centers around the northeast including the Heart Lake Program Center. During these visits, the Loj property and facilities were explored and it was at this time that the group found great interest in our little Nature Museum. Several individuals were excited to see that this small, low budget museum, with its hands-on displays could be attainable in their Altai parks. In 2006, ADK’s Jen Kretser and Julia Goren went to the Altai to teach a Leave No Trace Trainer, and interpretation course thus strengthening our ties to that region and providing them with more tools for educating their visitors. The end result is that there is now at least one yurt-style nature museum in the Altai.
From a tent on the shores of Heart Lake, to a yurt in the vast regions of the Altai, the Heart Lake Nature Museum has been an inspiration for many. Its legacy has only been made successful by the amazing educators who have put their hearts and souls into running it, and we hope to continue this role for future generations.
If you are interested in supporting the Summer Naturalist Program consider making a donation.