Appreciating the Adirondacks isn't always easy. What is best about the vast expanse of rugged wilderness was, for decades, its very inaccessibility. Now there are roads and airports and hotels and nice restaurants.
Consider this: In 1867 a farmer in Connecticut named Miles Talcott Merwin purchased more than 11,000 acres of land around Blue Mountain Lake. Six years later, Miles and his son, also named Miles, got around to visiting the land. They traveled to Glen Falls, in eastern New York, and then had to hike five days through forests to reach their property. Today the drive by car is less than an hour and a half.
Merwin built a lumber camp, and later a hotel, on his land. Today it is the site of the Adirondacks Museum, a collection of a couple of dozen buildings and other structures. The museum pays tribute to Adirondacks history and culture, and helps educate visitors on the complexities of environmental and political issues ever-present in the country's largest park.
Yes, you read that right. The largest park in the United States. With more than 6 million acres, the Adirondacks state park is bigger than Yellowstone or Yosemite National Parks – bigger than both of them combined. And if you add in Great Smoky Mountains and Glacier National parks, it is still bigger.
And much of the park is privately owned, which makes for interesting and often uncomfortable political complexities.
Outside of New York, the Adirondacks may be best-known for an uncomfortable wooden chair and the Winter Olympics. For folks more knowledgeable about the mountains and forests and thousands of lakes, the Adirondacks represent a distinct culture, a way of living just different enough from the rest of the country that it can actually be called unique without misusing the word.
And that is reflected in the Adirondacks Museum. There you can see a snow roller. There had always been more snow in these mountains than it was practical to plow until the most modern plow trucks came along. So most towns in the mountains rolled the snow. Giant, wide wheels, something like the front end of a steam roller, were pulled by horses to pack down the snow so sledded-wagons could traverse the streets. One of the rollers is at the museum.
There is a milk wagon on sleds, to help keep people healthy and alive. And for when that didn't do the trick, there's a hearse on sleds.
There are things you would expect, like a luge sled that was used in the Winter Olympics (held twice in Lake Placid, in 1932 and 1980); a cottage filled with the rustic furniture, almost always made of wood and twigs and limbs, that is so associated with the area; and lots of boats.
The boats offer a needed opportunity for self-education about the Adirondacks. When you look at an Adirondacks guide boat, you might mistake it for a canoe. It's not. It just looks like one. It's a row boat (because it's powered by two oars, and a paddle is used only rarely and for steering, not propelling).
Allison Warner is often on hand in the boat exhibit building a guide boat. She is from Saranac Lake but spends her summers in Blue Mountain, at the museum, building boats. She told me that typically 700 hours of work go into each boat.
When she's done, they are auctioned off to raise money for the museum, for anywhere from $14,000 to $25,000 each. She has made four boats so far.
There is a watch tower that visitors are allowed to climb. As you're reaching the third, or top, level, a sign warns that the overhead clearance is low. I read the sign as I smacked the top of my head into the piece of metal I was being warned about.
Still, once on top, the view is great. You can see the entire museum grounds and, in the distance, Blue Mountain Lake, and beyond that endless mountains. (Whoops, gotta be careful here; the Endless Mountains, capitalized, are in Northeastern Pennsylvania, not far from where I grew up.)
There's an art gallery with dozens of paintings of hunting and fishing scenes, and a device that rotates hundreds of photographs on a conveyor-type belt, showing 19th and early 20th century scenes. The close-ups of folks who lived in these mountains before they became so touristy convince you that there was, indeed, a culture here that is disappearing. You see toughness and determination and gentleness in the faces. And acceptance of the harshness that was the Adirondacks before all those roads and airports and hotels and restaurants came.
There's a luxury railroad car that a rich family owned. An extra-long speed boat. Early automobiles. Dioramas of campfire scenes. Log cabins that were once standard residences for local folk. Lumber camp scenes. Lumber camp equipment. A small diorama of Teddy Roosevelt reading a telegram informing him that President William McKinley has been shot in Buffalo. (Roosevelt, vice president at the time, was vacationing in the Adirondacks when the president was shot; he rushed to Buffalo, was told by White House aides that McKinley would survive and that he, TR, should return to his vacationing in the Adirondacks so the country would know everything was all right; he returned, climbed Mount Marcy, the highest point in the state, and on the way down was handed a telegram informing him the president was about to die.)
The museum is larger than I expected, and you should expect to spend at least two hours in it if you walk pretty fast, up to four hours if you're more leisurely. And it's a museum that deserves a leisurely visit, which is appropriate. The Adirondacks once meant ruggedness. Now it means leisure.
If you go