VINS New Canopy Walk Designed to Delight
Vermont Institute of Natural Science is expanding – upwards! Over the past few years, the local environmental education center has undertaken a project to design and construct a 900-foot-long canopy walk, and the project is expected to be ready for its grand opening in October.
Those who know VINS are no stranger to the flora and fauna at the center’s 47-acre campus, and may have even experienced them up close along the nature trails. Soon, though, visitors will be able to experience the forest from a new perspective: one that’s fifty feet or more above the ground. Because the property slopes downwards away from the center’s main buildings, the canopy walk will have only a slight incline at the beginning, and it will be fully ADA compliant and wheelchair / stroller accessible.
VINS has grown since it was founded in 1972, and it now hosts about 38,000 visitors per year. The number of patrons grows to 60,000 when including their offsite programs and outreach events. “Environmental education is so important,” says Assistant Executive Director Mary Davidson Graham, “and that’s what we do.” Whether it be one of their three daily on-site presentations and seventeen raptor enclosures, the summer nature camp that this year has served 530 children, the hundreds of injured birds they rehabilitate every year (652 last year, with a likely seven hundred by the end of this year), or a number of special exhibits and events, environmental stewardship and education is at the
heart of the organization’s mission and its work. The organization has a handful of portable exhibits, including StarLab, an inflatable planetarium that regularly makes school visits to illustrate the various celestial bodies that exist, and the Stream Table that realistically
simulates river properties and processes.
“We’re incredibly proud of our educators, their knowledge, their communication,” Executive Director Charlie Rattigan says. “We’re always looking for ways to expand the mission, to create the next generation of environmental stewards.”
The forested parts of the VINS campus have long been an area for opportunity. Forty acres of the campus, despite the trails, nonetheless weren’t seeing quite as much engagement as Charlie and the rest of the VINS staff knew they could. “You could go out… they’re not usually busy,” he remarks. The canopy walk is an attempt to address that, as an addition to the range of educational tools that already exist at VINS.
Inspiration for the canopy walk comes from the time Charlie spent in Costa Rica, where in 2013 he explored a canopy walk in Monteverde. He found it intriguing to explore the forest from a different angle and to understand the woods from there. After he began at VINS the following year, and in conversation with Margaret “Canopy Meg” Lowman, a biologist who studies canopy ecology (“she pretty much invented the science of canopy study,” Charlie muses) and whom he had met through the Audubon Birds nature guide app he had helped to create, Charlie began to conceptualize a canopy walk in Quechee. He had already developed a few indoor exhibits, including Birds Are Dinosaurs and the Forest Exhibit, and so turned his attention outdoors. He and his team at VINS engaged an architect to begin planning the structure, and then reached out to their donors for support. After that, the canopy walk was ready to be built!
Chris Collier, Director of On Site Programs and Exhibits, is thrilled with the project. His work involves planning and producing the sign board panels and other informative and educational materials. He has four types of materials planned for the canopy walk: first, panels with “big picture” information, including why nature is important, what services it provides, and how humans and nature interact; second, simple panels that identify the wildlife (mostly plants, he says, because the animals won’t be quite so stationary!) and describe what guests might encounter on the trail; third, phrases and quotations that are meant to invoke memories, thoughts, and inspiration; and fourth, interactive materials that can be touched or heard or perhaps smelled. “My hope is that this will get more people out on a different kind of trail,” Chris shares. He recalls one young woman who, upon coming to VINS for a job shadow day in her wheelchair, saw renderings including a person in a wheelchair. “She got very excited and asked, ‘So I’ll be able to get up there, also?’ The opportunity for her to experience what it’s like to walk among the leaves is one that I look forward to being able to share with everyone.”
The entrance to the canopy walk starts along the McKnight Trail, which has been closed during the construction of the project but which will reopen in October alongside the canopy walk. When it opens, the entrance will be adorned with a sculpture from local artist Herb Ferris. After the initial ramp, the walk is almost completely flat, but the ground drops away, so that elevation in some places is around sixty feet from the forest understory.
After the covered entry portal, the trail will connect a number of viewing platforms and three main features. The giant spider’s web, Charlie explains, is designed to emulate the real thing, but it will be twenty feet in diameter and strong enough to allow visitors to crawl out into the middle, with forest floor visible below. An owl’s nest will be constructed near the web. Farther along, guests will experience an eagle’s nest, adorned with sculptures of the majestic raptor in natural poses. Perhaps the most impressive structurally, though, will be the tree house, which ascends four levels to a point around one hundred feet above ground. Secured by five separate support poles and twenty thousand pounds of concrete, the tree house will reach above the treetops to provide an unobstructed view of the surrounding forest and countryside.
“One of the things I think is so remarkable about the forest is the way it changes over seasons,” says Charlie. He muses enthusiastically
on the fullness, the density of colors, and the change of leaves that occurs with each season. “I think – I hope – people will want to come at least four times a year, once for every season, to gain insight.”
This new canopy walk is an exciting addition to an already impressive nature center. VINS anticipates an increase in attendance of around 25,000 next year. That, of course, means more revenue for the organization, and for many nearby businesses. More importantly for the staff,
though, it means 25,000 more visitors learning about nature and raptors.
“Getting us into the forest opens other avenues for creating awareness,” says Charlie, including even the awareness that it is possible to save an injured bird, with the help of the experienced professionals at VINS. Under their guidance, volunteers of all ages receive training to help rehabilitate the birds, including feeding schedules sometimes as often as once every half hour. This service to the wildlife of New England is invaluable, and the new canopy walk is yet another phenomenal addition to the organization’s repertoire of insightful and informative offerings.