BLUE MOUNTAIN LAKE, N.Y. -- Visit a cottage constructed of intricately laid twigs and branches. Picnic in the shade of a fire observation tower. Reflect on mountain life as the water ripples past your little skiff. There are few places where art imitates nature more clearly than at the Adirondack Museum.
Situated on a 32-acre campus that once was the site of the Blue Mountain House resort hotel, the museum celebrates all things Adirondack, from the guideboats that delivered sportsmen to the region's remote interiors to the chairs that have come to rival the hammock as the ideal summer relaxation spot.
Twenty-two buildings explore the role of hunting, hiking, mining, logging, camping, and boating in the 6 million acres that make up the country's largest park outside of Alaska -- 200 years worth of work and play in the Adirondacks.
Don't dismiss this place as just one of those options for when nasty weather keeps you from tackling the summit of nearby Blue Mountain or taking the kayak onto the lake. The Adirondack Museum has a bit of the theme park about it: Exhibits are sprinkled around the landscaped banks of Blue Mountain Lake, allowing visitors to experience the pristine sites the museum celebrates. Nature hikes are offered, and a staff member will even row you around a tiny pond on the museum grounds.
To a large degree, the museum's buildings themselves are the attraction: a schoolhouse built in 1907; a rustic privy from a doctor's lakeside camp; the cottage studio of landscape artist Gustave Wiegand; a log-structure hunting camp; and, of course, the classic Adirondack lean-to. The most enthralling is Sunset Cottage, built by Adirondacks craftsmen for a camp on Forked Lake. Intricately constructed in the rustic mosaic-twig tradition, this furnished one-room structure seems to be lifted from the pages of a fairy tale.
Other buildings hold themed exhibits. A "Woods and Water" exhibit treats outdoor recreation from the early 19th century. One illuminated diorama portrays hunters in watercraft using illegal "jacklights" to freeze deer in their tracks as a game warden hides in the brush nearby. A life-size reproduction of the camp of the hermit Noah John Rondeau details the life of the Adirondacks woodsman who achieved a measure of fame appearing in sportsmen's shows in the 1940s and '50s, complete with some of his journal entries, written in densely scrawled code.
A special two-year exhibit entitled "A Paradise for Boys and Girls" celebrates a golden age in children's camps in the Adirondacks. The close-knit bonds these children developed are explored in the daily regimens of the camps -- singalongs, competitions -- and in how the camps affected the economy of the region.
A particular treat is in the "Boats and Boating" exhibit, where boat builder Allison Warner is hard at work at the painstaking creation of a replica of that flower of Adirondack boatbuilding: the guideboat.
Tucked in a workshop in a corner of the building that features a flotilla of canoes (described in the exhibit as "the poor man's yacht"), kayaks, racing sloops, paddle boats, and steamboats, Warner is in the midst of a multiyear project that will yield a replica of a classic 13-foot Blanchard guideboat. The craft, developed in response to wilderness guides' need for a light, quiet boat in which to bring hunters close to their prey, is probably the quintessential Adirondack boat, Warner said.
"This is kind of an icon for the Adirondacks," said Warner, a native of Odessa, Texas. "These are just beautiful boats with a rich
history. They have a beautiful shape and a real efficiency to them also." As she builds the guideboat, Warner answers questions from museum visitors about her project, which she took on midstream from the craftsman who began it last year. She said she hopes that when the boat is completed, perhaps next year, it will be auctioned off to raise money to put back into the museum's programs.
Across the museum campus, at the Marion River Carry Pavilion, Windy Baker is busy assembling another article that is emblematic of the region: the celebrated Adirondack chair. Baker, a museum employee, produces anywhere from three to 12 chairs a day, all the while fielding questions from onlookers.
"My father made these, and he taught me some of the skills," said Baker, who lives in Indian Lake. "He was a jack of all trades and master of none, as many of us up here in the Northeast tend to be." Baker's creations are sold in the museum's gift shop for $75 each; more than 150 of them have been sold since the beginning of the year, he said.
Furniture of another kind graces the interiors of Bull Cottage. Split spruce logs cover the outside walls of the two-story structure, hinting of the treasure of rustic furniture within. Tables, chairs, bed and mirror frames, dressers, and other pieces are intricately adorned with birch twigs and branches and plastered with birch bark.
"This is functional art," said Barry Gregson, owner of the Adirondack Rustics Gallery in Schroon Lake, N.Y. Three of Gregson's creations are in the Adirondack Museum collection. "I think the popularity of this furniture is to be able to grab ahold of something that looks like it grew; you can still see quite a bit of the character of the tree in it."
Fans of the rustic style will be able to view work by Gregson and other modern craftsmen on Sept. 13 when the Adirondack Museum holds its annual Rustic Furniture Fair. The creations of the contemporary artists will be offered for sale that day. "It's the main show for rustic furniture in America," said Gregson.
Perhaps the most charming exhibit in the museum is a mechanized topographic diorama that shows the multistage route taken by visitors to Blue Mountain Lake before a paved road to the town was completed in 1930. Created in 1960 by a Boston company, the display illustrates the Raquette Lake Transportation Co.'s boat-to-train-to-boat service route. As a recorded narration plays, a tiny version of the steamboat Killoquah moves magnetically across a hand-painted Raquette Lake to its rendezvous with a miniature train at the Marion River Carry (in the Adirondacks, a portage is called a "carry").
After a 3/4-mile trip, the passenger train unloads its tourists onto another steamboat, the Tuscarora, which ushers them to various camps and hotels farther north. After reaching its destination on Blue Mountain Lake, the journey is repeated in reverse.
After touring the museum, visitors won't know everything about the sprawling wilderness around them -- the Adirondack Museum explores very little about Native Americans' presence in the area and the region's role in the Revolutionary War. But the museum is an immensely entertaining and informative place, inside and out.