For more than 150 years, vacationers from around the world have flocked to the Thousand Islands – an archipelago of 1,864 isles nestled in the St. Lawrence Seaway between America and Canada. While they may enjoy viewing the lighthouses, castles and maritime museums, and fishing, shopping and dining in the quaint villages along the shoreline, the rustic natural beauty of the landscape is what leaves a lasting impression upon those who visit the area.
Ranging in size from just a few square feet to more than 48 square miles and with terrain that varies from steep, rocky cliffs to wetlands, forests and meadows, the isles are home to a vast variety of flora and fauna. It is this diversity of wilderness and wildlife that makes a visit to the Minna Anthony Common Nature Center on Wellesley Island so memorable, said Molly Farrell, Nature Center director.
“The Thousand Islands are home to several unique ecosystems, and one of the most amazing things about the Minna Anthony Common Nature Center is that we have several of these different environments within close proximity to each other,” Farrell said. “The Nature Center is a fantastic place to come and experience all that the region has to offer.”
Named after local conservationist and nature educator Minna Anthony Common, the Nature Center sits on a 600-acre peninsula inside Wellesley Island State Park, where Common’s interest in the natural world developed into a passion that changed the course of her life.
“Minna was very passionate about the environment,” Farrell said. “She was a self-taught ecologist, biologist, botanist, artist and a published writer. She spent her life educating others about the natural world, and that lived on through her children.”
Common worked as a librarian and then as a teacher and tutor. During the summers, she took courses in nature studies at Thousand Island Park. An avid artist, she sketched and painted the plants, flowers and animals she came across, and she wrote articles and created illustrations for magazines and newspapers. Common’s interest in both nature and teaching prompted her to advocate for the inclusion of environmental education in the curriculum of local schools, Farrell said.
“She believed that it was important for children to develop an appreciation of nature and a connection to the natural world from a very young age,” Farrell said. “She knew that children who grew up loving the outdoors would become adults who had an interest in protecting and being good stewards of the natural environment.”
Common’s daughter, Catherine Common Johnson, shared her mother’s vision for encouraging environmental stewardship and served with the Thousand Islands Park and Historic Preservation Commission for more than 40 years. It was this organization that secured the site of the Nature Center on Wellesley Island in 1962 and dedicated its main building in 1969.
Wellesley Island is located just over the first span of the Thousand Islands International Bridge – a multi-span suspension bridge that crosses the international border between the United States and Canada, touching down on a series of islands along the way.
Once inside the park, the road winds through wetlands, past meadows, scenic views of the river and the Heron Camping Area before ending at the Nature Center.
The Nature Center’s main building is being renovated, and several upgrades will create an enhanced experience for visitors when it reopens in the fall. A large garage currently houses some of the center’s exhibits and gift shop. Inside, guests can sit and read about the plants and animals that inhabit the island, and they can meet a few special friends.
A painted turtle and a snapping turtle share a tank with a large bullhead. Farrell said that the reason the bullhead has grown so large is that – despite the fact that he was put into the tank as food for the turtles – the pair decided to adopt him as a roommate.
Bumpers placed at the doorway prevent the Nature Center’s pet chipmunk from escaping as he rolls around in a hamster ball.
While the staff looks forward to the completion of the building project, Farrell said that the majority of the learning experiences at the Nature Center take place outdoors.
“There is something new and different around every corner here,” she said. “We have some great exhibits inside the building, but our primary goal is to engage people with the subject matter and to do so in a manner that gets them outside and gives them an opportunity to immerse themselves in the natural world.”
The Nature Center provides a variety of different programs, and Farrell said that there are learning opportunities suitable for visitors of all ages.
“There is something that can engage every age group with layers of information geared toward target ages,” she said. “Our goal is to provide programs that interest everyone – from young children to adults.”
There are nine miles of trails that traverse the property belonging to the Nature Center, winding through the woods and leading to breathtaking vistas at locations such as Eel Bay and Sand Cove. Some visitors choose to spend the entire day exploring the trails, but Farrell said there is much to see even on shorter hikes, which are perfect for younger visitors.
“Every Thursday in July at 10 a.m., we will have either ‘Trail Tales’ or a story walk,” she said. “We deconstruct a book and laminate the pages. The people in the program have to hike the trail to find the pages and put the stories together. It’s a half-mile loop, so it’s easy and enjoyable for the kids.”
The Nature Center is a popular destination for school field trips, because it provides an opportunity for students to get away from their textbooks and learn in a manner that drives that knowledge home for them.
“They can take the knowledge they have gotten in the classroom and get hands-on, practical experiences that relate back to what they are learning,” Farrell said.
Farrell said that the programs and lessons provided at the Nature Center are based upon New York state learning standards and that input from local educators helps the staff as they plan their exhibits, displays and experiences.
“We tailor the educational opportunities we provide to align those with real-life experiences that the kids need to have in order to truly understand the content they are studying,” she said.
“Geology, for example, can be difficult subject matter to grasp,” Farrell said. “We take students on a hike and show them the four glacial potholes that we have on the property. When they see rocks that were carved by glaciers 10,000 years ago, it really bridges that gap between what students are learning in the classroom and what physically exists in the real world.”
The Nature Center also offers several “on the water” programs for visitors.
From fishing clinics to kayaking, to trips in the newly refurbished 36-foot-long Voyageur canoe, the goal is to showcase the beauty of the St. Lawrence River and to remind visitors of the important part they play in keeping waterways clean and safe.
Visitors can get a close-up look at the lives of painted lady and monarch butterflies at the Nature Center’s seasonal Butterfly House. Local schools get involved with this display by raising butterflies and bringing them to the house to be released.
Wellesley Island is also a bird watcher’s paradise. During peak migration seasons, ducks and Canada geese can be found resting in the swamps. During the summer months, osprey nest on the island. From late November to early January, bald eagles are a common sight.
The Nature Center welcomes approximately 30,000 guests each year, Farrell said, with the vast majority visiting during Wellesley Island State Park’s open season – from May through Columbus Day weekend. What many people don’t know, Farrell said, is that the Nature Center remains open year-round.
“We want to keep people engaged and outdoors and show them that there are so many things to do outside in the off-season,” she said. “We live in an area where we are fortunate to have four very different seasons, and there is always something to do outdoors during each of those seasons.”
In the fall, the Nature Center hosts special luminary hikes, a “Hike for Hunger” event to benefit local food pantries, and their popular annual Autumn Festival, which is held on Columbus Day weekend.
Snow transforms the hiking trails into a perfect place to go snowshoeing – whether on a self-led trip or on a guided tour. The staff hosts “Moonlight Hikes” in the winter and offers snowshoe rentals.
In the spring, guests can enjoy basket making classes and watch as the local plants begin to bud and come to life. The first Saturday in May is “I Love My Park Day,” and Farrell said volunteers from the community come out to help prepare the grounds for the busy season.
With just two full-time staff members and a handful of seasonal employees who work during the busy park season, the Nature Center relies greatly on support from volunteers. Farrell said their volunteers are a tremendous asset to the organization.
“We have students who come here for internships, people who volunteer to weed the flower gardens and do trail grooming, retired teachers who lead programs and lessons, artists who teach painting and drawing – our volunteers are an amazing group,” she said.
Farrell said that while the mission of the MAC Nature Center is to provide environmental education programming that encourages a love of the outdoors and fosters conservation, at its core it is really a community center.
“We want to bring people in and provide a place where they can explore nature and develop connections to the place, the community and the natural world,” she said.
“Our hope is that everyone who visits the center will immerse themselves in the beauty of the natural environment and leave here with a greater understanding of the impact that an individual can have in conserving that environment,” she said. “We want to instill in them a love of the natural world that will last a lifetime.”
The MAC Nature Center can be reached by taking Interstate 81 N toward Canada and crossing the Thousand Islands International Bridge. A toll of $2.75 per vehicle is charged for crossing the bridge, which provides a breathtaking panoramic view of the St. Lawrence Seaway.
Once across the first span of the bridge, take exit 51 and follow the signs for Wellesley Island State Park. A fee of $6 per vehicle is charged for entry to the park, which is home to the largest camping complex in the region, a swimming and picnic area, four boat launch sites, a natural sand beach, and miles of trails for hiking and exploring.
The Minna Anthony Common Nature Center is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. seven days a week, every day of the year except for Thanksgiving and Christmas. The Nature Center does not charge admission, but some special programs do have a fee associated with them.