March 9, 2018

The Making of a Vermont Fish & WIldlife's Dead Creek Visitor Center

On a Monday morning in April 2016, it was not the first time I turned off of Route 17 onto the Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area's (WMA) main driveway. The last time that I was there was the previous Dead Creek Wildlife Day (or Dead Duck Day as we affectionately called it in my childhood home), which quite reliably fell on a cloudy, windy, and often rainy October day. My dad, being an avid bird hunter and fine-carpenter for decades, always set up a duck decoy carving station. There he taught kids, or anyone interested, how to carve. Bringing all his carving tools and a pile of rough cut ducks -- heads unceremoniously in a pile all their own off to one side -- his station was always one of the most popular. Kids would stand at the table for hours trying all the tools with wood chips slowly gathering at their feet. The occasional particularly industrious carvers would bring their carving-in-progress back year after year, each October bringing it a little closer to its potential sea-faring glory.

On this April morning, I showed up at Dead Creek for an entirely different reason. It was my first day of work for Vermont Fish & Wildlife. I was ironically classified as a Specialist, which within the Department often means that you are more of a generalist, having specialties in more than one area. Many of the specialists worked with both the wildlife teams and the fish teams. I also worked as a generalist that specialized in a few things. From April 2016-December 2017 I mowed lawns, chased geese, painted murals, talked to farmers, watched eagle nests, paddled Dead Creek, wrote, researched, lugged stuff around, worked on design and photo editing, and fell indignantly in the sticky Addison mud between our canoe and the shore. I had somehow walked into job that perfectly matched my far reaching skills and experience, and my niche specialization. Since 2009, after college, I have been an ecoartivist, meaning that sometimes I work in art galleries and sometimes work on land conservation, but it always means that I work astraddle the environmental conservation activist art "division."

So, what could Fish & Wildlife, a state-run department with the mission “to protect and conserve our fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the people of Vermont” want with me, someone who has put in considerable effort and time in the arts? As it turned out, I was just what they needed: someone with a specialization in the creative fields of painting, design, graphic design, writing, and communication as well as environmental science, conservation, and climate change.  

For about three years prior to my first day working for the Department, Amy Alfieri, Dead Creek WMA’s manager, and Ali Thomas, outreach’s Education Programs Coordinator, with the help of some others, had been working on plans for a new visitor center. The idea was to create a home for information and education about the Department and the work that it does in Vermont.

 It was also designed to be a free educational resource for tourists, school kids, scout troops, and anyone else interested in Vermont’s wildlife. Being placed at Dead Creek, the state’s most heavily managed water system and WMA, it also highlighted why Dead Creek is so unique. After years of development and renovation to the mid-century ranch house that would house the Center, the project just was not progressing as rapidly as the Department liked. Amy and Ali are in change of multiple projects each and wear many hats. Finishing this project, that did not have an explicit deadline, was just moving too slowly.

So, Amy took it upon herself to hire someone specifically to get the center finished so that it could open to the public. Luckily for me, she chose me to be the one to come in and help. That is what lead up to the first of many beautiful morning drives to work at Dead Creek.

For those who do not know, Dead Creek lays in the flat Champlain valley of Vermont, which runs down the Western side of the state. The valley used to all be under water during the time of the Champlain Sea after the last ice age. Later the ocean was cut off, through uplift, and now only Lake Champlain remains, a long, thin, deep fresh water lake that makes the boundary of Vermont and New York. When coming from the Green Mountains or the Eastern side of the state, like I was that morning, you will pass the blinking light in Addison at the corner of Route 17 and 22A. From here you will go West on 17, and after a short way, will begin down a hill that gives you an expansive view over farm fields that gracefully edge towards the mighty Lake Champlain. Over the thin strip of this southern part of the Lake, the New York Adirondack Mountains stand in all their glory. I think it is next to impossible to ever tire of this view. It truly is a magical view, that is never the same day to day or even hour to hour.

Under Amy’s guidance, I began working.

Writing Panels

First thing that needed to be done was to develop,  research, write, and edit the text for the educational panels that would be hung in the center. Amy and Ali had developed an outline for them so they knew what subjects would be covered and, to different extents, some of the finer points. Writing these was a long process, which involved me working for a while, then giving them over to my superiors for their edits, and then back to me and back to them, and then eventually out to the appropriate people in the Department for their input.

Some of them include some particularly interesting facts about the development of environmental conservation in Vermont. For instance one of the panels tells the history of Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area. Dead Creek was originally a seasonal stream that flooded in the spring, and as it flowed to the Otter Creek and into Lake Champlain over the summer and autumn would dry up. Recognizing the area as a rich natural resource and seeing a possibility to maintain the wetlands all year-round, the Fish & Wildlife Department decided to build a series of dams and embankments to harness the water, and in their view at the time, create rich habitat for waterfowl.

Wetlands are a wonderful resource to be sure, and local and migrating waterfowl flock to the wetland system to this day for its abundance of food and shelter. However, the move to alter this landscape so significantly is absolutely a signature of the times (1950s) and the contemporary views about land management and conservation.

Another amazing thing that they did in the late 50s at Dead Creek was to establish a Canada Goose population. Prior to the development of the dams and embankments, making Dead Creek  year-round series of streams and ponds, Canada Geese visited Vermont on their way south in the autumn and north in the spring, but they didn't nest and bread in Vermont. With an eye towards hunting opportunities, the Department decided that they wanted to introduce the birds to Vermont. So, they collected wild geese and brought them to Dead Creek, housing them in a fenced in area for a number of years until they produced young. The young were released and allowed to migrate like wild birds do. Like all Canada Geese, the young returned to where they were born to begin the next generation, therefore establishing a Vermont resident population. This kind of species introduction is something done only rarely, and usually with a biological justification, but in those days, not considered as harmful.

Although almost all the panels had at least an outline when I arrived on the scene, the four climate change panels did not. These were left to me to design and write. I was thrilled to be tasked with this, given that I love talking to people about climate change, and I was excited to take a closer look at what was happening specifically to Vermont. One resource that I was overjoyed to find and use was the Vermont Climate Assessment. The VCA is similar in form to the National Climate Assessment, which is also a great resource. The VCA explains some of the projections for Vermont like: "Vermont’s temperatures are projected to rise by another 2-3.6° F by 2050 and 5-5.4° F of warming by 2100 according to computer simulation models by the IPCC based on low to high global emissions of greenhouse gases (IPCC– Christensen et al. 2013)." The Assessment also explains some of what has already occurred based on data from the state like: "Average annual temperature in Vermont has increased by 1.3° F since 1960; 45% of this change is since 1990. Winters are warming twice as fast as summers. Warmer temperatures have caused later “first-fall freeze” and earlier “last-spring freeze”. Over the past 40 years, the freezing period has shortened by 4 days each 10 years and the growing season has lengthened by 3.7 days every 10 years." These numbers are really quite alarming, when you let them sink in for a minute. I think that the future projections are a wake up call, but actually not as show-stopping as what has already been recorded. When talking with people about climate change, one of the hardest hurtles to overcome is that the future and uncertainties are hard to really care about, however, proven changes in your own backyard have a much different kind of impact on the psyche. I think it is data like this that can have the largest impact

Sourcing Photos for the Panels

After many, many hours devoted to writing the panels, I switched gears to look for photos to embellish the panels, for surely they would be more interesting with some visuals! I began looking through the numerous Department photo files, which was interesting in its own right. Some historical images were neat to see, but over all, there were many images I wish I had but didn't yet. So the search widened. I contacted the Vermont Historical Society, the Smithsonian, and the Shelburne Museum, among others. And I reached out to some professional photographers as well and we ended up using some of their beautiful photographs as well! Everyone was very helpful even if they didn't have the photos I was looking for.

Here you can see some of the great photos that were shared with us. A beautiful cedar waxwing, an image of John Muir and FDR in Yosemite, and Also Leopold.

Panel Graphic Design

When it came to designing the panels I wanted to give them an appropriate feel for the subject matter. In the beginning I actually looked at some other people's natural history panel graphic design, and found that I didn't like a lot of them. I found many that were stagnant feeling and blocky, which didn't feel right for talking about the natural world. I wanted something that felt more alive, full of life like the waterways and animals of Vermont. So when I sat down to sketch the design of the four climate change panels the first thing I drew was an fluid curve, and the rest evolved out of that.

Other details followed, like the treatment of the photos, the color scheme (which Ali had pre-determined when she picked out the color scheme for the new walls in the visitor center), and other details like the pull-out quotes.

Because I had a lot of things to work on in this position, we determined that I would create the design for the climate change panels and then we would send that to a graphic designer to mock up the rest. We thought that might be faster than me doing them all start to finish.

Here are the final climate change panels.

Painting the Two Canvas Murals

In the visitor center you will see at least two murals. There is one large one that spans the back of the wetland habitat diorama, and there is a smaller one next to it which is hte backdrop for the upland display. What a first-time visitor will probably not know is that the upland mural actually has three versions. Amy wanted it to be possible to change this mural so that it could display different habitats, different seasons, and highlight various animals that lived and were active from place to place. So, as a solution, we decided that one mural would be on the wall, and two others would be on canvas, which we would make possible to hang over the wall mural.

I began with the two canvas murals first, and to do that I enlisted the help of my dad and his workshop. After we made the stretchers I brought them back to my house where I had a fresh roll of canvas awaiting their arrival. The canvas was stretched and then primed.

Meanwhile Amy and I had worked on figuring out what the scenes for the four murals would be, working on highlighting unique elements of the landscape in each one.

When the gesso was dry, I could begin the long process of sketching and painting!
Here is one of the design sketches for the fall beaver pond painting. The pink beaver never did make it into the final version...

Here are the two canvases, getting all gessoed up!
Here is the base for the beaver pond, getting everything in place.

Here is the spring field painting getting worked on.

Editing the Panels

As we worked with the graphic designer we nudged the panels closer and closer to perfection with each go-around. They of course started very basic and jumbled, but as we worked on getting the text to the right length for the dimensions of the panels and the photos placed appropriately , they started to come together. Then we began the finer details of visual proportion, coherency, and readability.

Painting the Murals on the walls of the Visitor Center

As I finished painting the two canvas murals and was done with the heft of my part of the panels I began painting in the Visitor Center. There I created two murals, one for the wetland diorama, and one for the upland display. As we figured out what we would like to depict in the wetland mural, we also had to design the diorama. So I sketched the two together, for obvious reasons, and then helped along the way with the diorama company as they created a 3D version of Dead Creek. Also along the way I found us an realistic turtle replica and painted it, which the diorama people placed "under the water." Much later after the diorama arrived, I also made some baby voles out of sculpy to live in the nest to be forever guarded by their taxidermied mother.

The actual painting of the murals was fun, but of course I love paining and love painting big! I listened to a lot of music and a lot of podcasts, frequently pausing, taking a step back to view the piece and to listen to the creatures living in the attic or watch the weather roll from the New York mountains across the Champlain Valley floor.

One element of the wetland display (diorama, mural, one panel about habitats, and one about animal species) was to show a lot of the native life that lives in and around Dead Creek. With that in mind I wanted to incorporate specific plant and animal species in the mural. It would also have an accompanying identification card so that people could see what the species looked like. This involved talking to Amy about which plants she would like to highlight and then researching them. Painting like this is fun, it adds a whole other layer of complexity and intellectual engagement for me as the artist, but I hope also for the viewer, whether they know it consciously or only subconsciously that the plants are real and geographically accurate.

A couple of the sketches, pre-painting for the murals in the Visitor Center.

Starting to paint on the wall!

The diorama was installed!

Beautiful Dead Animals

There were many other small things to do over the months of working on the Visitor Center. Over this time I went on a few trips that involved animal, yes real-live, but dead, animals. One afternoon I went to pick up the flicker that you can now see in the Visitor Center beautifully displayed as if it were just about to alight on a branch. The flicker was in someone's freezer for a few days before I got there. They had carefully picked it up out of their front lawn where it had run into their living room window and fallen to its death. A sad end for the beautiful bird, but it now sparks awe and wonder in many and hopefully encourages them to learn about and care for its brethren. I also picked up the mink one morning where a woman had picked it up off the road in front of her house where it had been hit by a car. Again, what a lamentable end for such a beauty. When we were just beginning the diorama, I drove down to the Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas to pick up a couple small turtles, one painted, and one snapping. We decided in the end not to use one of them in the diorama, but instead to save their shells and add them to the touch drawers for people to explore.

Later in the project I also went to pick up some of the finished taxidermy. What was once dead had been given a second life of sorts. All the taxidermy animals in the Visitor Center have been killed accidentally, like the bear cub that was also hit by a car. Because of this, although I understand the criticisms of "glorifying killing" by displaying dead animals, I think these have an important role to play in education. Kids and adults alike walk in and as if to a magnet are drawn to the beautiful animals. They look at them up close, and initiate conversations about them, open to learning more.

Painting Feet and Other Things

Amy came up to me one day and asked if I could paint some animal tracks around the visitor center. I thought it was a great idea, so began thinking about which animals to choose and where to put them. We wanted to highlight a variety of animals, so in the end I picked mammals with padded feet like a bobcat, and mammals with claws like a bear, and mammals with hoofed feet like a moose, and mammals with webbed feet like an otter, and birds with webbed feet like a goose, and birds without webbing like a raven, and even a frog. It was interesting researching tracks, and it was actually much more complicated than you may initially assume. It is common for tracking books or cards to show one foot print with its shape and size, but finding accurate stride patterns is much more infrequent. Not only that, but any animal -- species or individual -- will have varying strides depending on where they are walking and at what speed they are moving. I also painted the Fish & Wildlife logo on the door, and then, of course, a welcome sign!

Red squirrel.

Coyote, moose, and red squirrel.

Black bear in the bathroom!

There's been a ruffed grouse here...

The walls get titles.

Logo in progress.
Finished logo.
Both sides of the sandwich board before it got screwed together.

Two Identification Cards

There were two identification cards that had to be made: one for the wetland diorama and mural, and one for the animal tracks. These were pretty straight forward to make, but fun to decide how to make them interesting and utilitarian at the same time.

Diorama identification card.

Work Days

Before the grand opening there was a lot of little things that needed doing, so Amy reached out to the Department and enticed volunteers with the promise of pizza. We had a good group that knocked out a lot of work. I helped direct and give advice as the day went along as well as worked on some of my own projects. We had people cleaning the lawn and trimming bushes. The game wardens helped set up the security cameras and related equipment. We had a couple people screw eye-hooks and tie tools down to the biological check station. We had someone help start the dividers for the touch drawers, while someone else started setting up the trapper's lodge. A couple people were making labels for everything with the Center's new laminater. Amy was master organizer with her list of to-dos, and tried to only minimally fret about the panels that were due to arrive by 10am, but kept not showing up. Eventually they did show up though, and it was the moment of truth to open the packages and see the babies in real life for the first time! I had put many hours into their creation and was excited to see how they turned out. Hanging them....level -- with each other, and on their own -- took some working, but by the time we hung the last ones, we had developed a pretty good system.

Game wardens setting up security hardware. 

The trapper's lodge coming together!

Making a biological check station.

Hanging the osprey.

Working on the drawers.

Sprucing up the lilac bushes.
Setting up the touch drawers with eggs and....poop!

Grand Opening

In preparation for the grand opening there was a tent to be set up, chairs to be set up, coffee to be made, and other details attended to, including a thorough cleaning. I also designed a handout that gave an order of events and thank yous on one side, and a brief overview of the displays on the other.

Proud to be finally watching the ribbon sutting. From left to right: Me, Amy, and Ali. 

Sitting in the New Center

After our September 28th opening, the Visitor Center was open six days a week until mid-November. Being new, the staffing of the Center was not quite fully formed, so a few employees, myself included, and one of our regular hunting instructor volunteers sat in the Center to be a resource and talk with visitors. I have held a number of public-facing positions in my career and enjoy speaking with the public and meeting new people. Sitting in this space was unique though, it attracted interesting people and sparked specific conversations.

I had hunters stop in and show me their day's harvest and I talked to a young couple with their new baby girl who, unbeknownst to her, would soon be getting her life-long hunting licence. I also talked to a woman who hated trapping, and a number of people that sneered as they said, "Ew, a fisher," or "Ew, a possum." I talked to a lot of people about our first "Emerging Issues" display, which highlights the Department's multi-year moose study which looks at moose mortality in connections with ticks and other factors. I was not surprised that so many people love moose and are sympathetic to their situation. Then there were countless people who came in and were viably overjoyed to tell me a story about some interaction they had with wildlife, be it a large mystery-bird, a fisher running behind their house, or a bear searching for a snack.

One of the commonest reasons people stopped in was the annual migration of birdwatchers hoping to get a good view of the thousands of snow geese that stop at Dead Creek on their southern migration each year. The snow geese is what is generally best known about Dead Creek, and it is not a mystery why. The refuge (part of the wildlife management area) is managed specifically for migrating waterfowl, and has attracted snow geese for decades. They used to come in numbers some 10,000-strong, but this year the numbers probably peaked at around 4,000, which is more typical now. I remember the first time I saw them; I was in grade school and remember the whole field was white with birds like looking down at clouds from a plane . This spectacle is what draws people from all across Vermont and beyond.

If for nothing else, the Visitor Center is a marvelous new place that sparks wildlife and conservation conversation and provides an invaluable place for education. As if these accomplishments were not enough, the Center will provide, and indeed already has begun to provide, other more specific educational opportunities. A scout troop visited even before its official opening, followed by school groups, elderly groups, conservation workers, and bird watchers. The Department offers a number of school-age-appropriate lessons that can be implemented out of the Center or in the near-by natural areas. Staff are on hand to give introductions to the area and conservation in Vermont.

Closing for the Winter and What Comes Next

The Visitor Center is new, and to a certain extent still a work in progress. It had to close for the winter (except by appointment) because the staffing was not fully figured out and it was unlikely that the visitor numbers would be as high as in warmer months. It is scheduled to open again in April though, which now is right around the corner! Go, check it out, enjoy, ask questions, and treat our Vermont land and waterscapes with love.

Here are just some photos of the final displays, you'll have to visit in person to see it all!

Final climate change wall.

Right side of this cabinet is the emerging issues display about Vermont's moose.

Biological check station and game warden display.

Dedication wall to the great Robert Fuller.