The Great Outdoors

Photo by Helen Heizyk

Finger Lakes Museum & Aquarium

Nancy E. McCarthy

The Finger Lakes Museum & Aquarium’s waterfront campus in Branchport is a vibrant and engaging natural space. It is host to many programs that embody the museum’s mission of “inspiring appreciation and stewardship of the cultural heritage and ecological evolution of the vast Finger Lakes Region.”

This summer, the museum will offer numerous water-based kayak and canoe events, guided wetland walks, a timber framing workshop, plus a weekly community Farmers Market. It all takes place on the expansive 29-acre property with shorelines that touch Sugar Creek and Keuka Lake.

While raising the necessary funds to transform a former school building into a world class museum, the idea to work from the outside-in began in 2015 when Natalie Payne became the museum’s executive director.

Payne’s first major project was the creation of the Creekside Center – a two-story kayak and canoe livery near Sugar Creek, an artery of Keuka Lake. With the addition of an ADA-compliant launch at the creek, the center has become the linchpin for abundant water-based treks and adventures. Some offerings, such as Community Paddle days, are free to the public. Others, including a Moonlight Paddle, Endurance Paddling and even Paddle & Yoga are offered at a nominal cost. Programs will appeal to both experienced and novice “paddlers.”

Nearby, the museum’s Grady-Townsend Wildlife Preserve is utilized as an outside classroom for educational programs such as birdwatcher walks, wildlife photography workshops and plein air (outdoor) painting classes. The 16-acre preserve, located across the road, is an extension of the main museum campus and hugs Keuka Lake. Comprised of protected wetlands, the preserve is home to blue herons, turtles, various duck and song bird species, otters, beavers and muskrats. Creating pathways, installing boardwalks and interpretive signage, and building a lakeside pavilion are ongoing efforts.

It was wildlife photographer and writer John Adamski who initially proposed the idea of a Finger Lakes museum in 2008. Payne is an outdoor enthusiast who lives in Canandaigua with her family. She has been with the museum project in various capacities since its inception, starting with a simple brainstorming session about the concept.

In 2010, after a highly publicized site selection process, Keuka State Park was chosen as the future location. Early fundraising produced $1 million through grassroots efforts. However, the daunting $10 million endowment figure that the state’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation required before the museum could be built delayed the ability to raise money toward actual construction.

Along the way, the fledgling project caught the attention of Finger Lakes Regional Economic Council. It characterized the museum as one of the region’s transformative priority projects under its “tourism and the arts” category. As a result, the museum has since been awarded several state agency grants.

The museum’s board voted to pull out of the Keuka State Park deal in 2014 and moved the site to the former Branchport Elementary School, where the existing building could eventually be renovated into a museum. Since then, much progress has been made. But to finish the building’s new footprint and install exhibits and learning space will necessitate a comprehensive fundraising campaign – in the planning stages now. The 150,000 gallon freshwater aquarium showcasing native Finger Lakes species will be a signature attraction, but it will be the last installation with a separate fundraising campaign.

“Opening the museum’s doors in 2020 is an attainable goal,” says Payne, who patiently steers the multi-million-dollar project, along with a dedicated Board of Directors, a cadre of devoted volunteers and some part-time staffers.

In the meantime, supporters, nature lovers and water enthusiasts are enjoying the Finger Lakes Museum & Aquarium’s myriad of outdoor programming and events. Those who appreciate the abundant natural spaces our beautiful Finger Lakes region provides will relish these offerings and learning opportunities. Visit for more information or to make a donation.

Second Annual Paddle Keuka 5k: Race for the Museum!

August 5, 2017

Join the excitement while raising money for the Finger Lakes Museum & Aquarium (FLM&A). Hosted by FLM&A and Finger Lakes Racing & Events, this timed race across Keuka Lake and back includes single and double canoe, kayak or standup paddleboard options, plus a non-timed Family Fun Paddle event on the water. Pre-registration is required, visit and click on Programs & Events.

Finger Lakes Museum & Aquarium, 3369 Guyanoga Road, Branchport, NY

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