Finger Lakes Museum founder John Adamski holds tight to his dream

Leo Roth
John Adamski, founder of the Finger Lakes museum, is one of the country’s foremost wildlife photographers and authors.

Like many great ideas, this one was born in the shower.

John Adamski, an Irondequoit native whose varied career interests have mostly been tied to the woods and water, thought that a museum in the Finger Lakes dedicated to the region’s rich cultural and ecological history would be a terrific idea.

Such museums had worked in the Adirondacks, an area he was very familiar with working at Whitney Park in the 1970s. Washing the suds from his hair, Adamski felt it was past time the Finger Lakes Region, what with its 11 glacial lakes, its wineries, its agriculture, its boating and aviation history, its hard-working, fun-loving, entrepreneurial people, got its due.

He floated the idea in an article that appeared in Life in the Finger Lakes magazine, quickly resulting in a shower of calls and emails from people who shared his passion and his vision. That was 12 years ago — many meetings, fundraisers and hurdles leaped ago.

Today, the Finger Lakes Museum exists as a “museum without walls’’ on 30 acres of picturesque land fronting Sugar Creek, a tributary of Keuka Lake, in the hamlet of Branchport, Yates County. There’s a handsome post-and-beam paddling center, boardwalks and hiking trails through an ecologically rich wetland, a full schedule of outdoor-themed programming promoted by professional social media, and a small army of directors, board members and enthusiastic volunteers.

What’s missing still is the brick-and-mortar building the museum sorely needs to finally tell its story, and to finally realize John Adamski’s dream.

To be accurate, what’s missing is the completion of the museum building. A former elementary school purchased for $200,000 years ago, its walls removed, its asbestos abated and its roof fixed, is aching in its innards to be filled with exhibits and people.

And that’s where the story grows heart-wrenching.

Our friend John Adamski has Stage 4 prostate cancer. Coping with the thought of not seeing his project through to completion creates a pain of a much different kind.

“I’ve been going downhill and I can tell,’’ said John, 77, a robust man who has lost 50 pounds over his four-year fight. “I asked my oncologist, ‘This is 2020, what are my chances of seeing 2021?’ He looked me right in and eye and said, ‘Not very good.’ The thing that breaks my heart the most is not seeing the Finger Lakes Museum come to fruition.’’

But it will come to fruition, vowed executive director Natalie Payne, who has been with the project from the beginning.

After establishing a footprint with initial development of the outdoor campus, the museum has at long last (thanks to a generous donor) secured an architectural schematic design of its vision for the main building.

“To tell the story of the Finger Lakes hasn’t required, to this point, four walls,’’ Payne said. “We’ve done it well with social media, we’ve done it well with programming, but we also realize we have so much more to share with people. In order to do that, we need a place for people to come.’’

And when they build it, they will come.

HBT Architects of Rochester has created an inspiring depiction of what the 1950s era school can be when repurposed with handsome western red cedar and stone veneer siding on the outside, and a plethora of glass, metal and wood exhibits on the inside telling stories of glaciers, stream life, wine making, the comeback of the bald eagle, the Erie Canal, Native Americans and so much more.

The existing building is 17,000 square feet and an addition will add another 5,300 to accommodate an entry lobby, exhibits and connective link to a community center, which is the former school gymnasium.

“We’ve got some really nice plans, some really good architecture, all we need now is the money,’’ Adamski said. “You can’t sell a pipe dream, you need the drawings, because a lot of people can’t envision it. You need to show them.’’

Timing has never been on the Finger Lakes Museum’s side.

When the seeds were planted, the country was coming off the 2008 recession. Now when they need money to push the project over the goal line, the country is economically upside down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But too much time, money, sweat and tears have been invested to quit now.

“I panic occasionally, given the climate we’re in, but it will get done,’’ Payne said. “We’ve had such a tremendous asset in John. The last couple years he hasn’t been as active because of his declining health, and it’s hard for him. But he also knows that he and I share this vision of creating this place. We both have authentic love for the region and only want to make it a better place for everyone. He’s trusted me.’’

Adamski has waged a courageous health battle.

There was a time when he spent six days on the road drumming support for the museum. These days, cancer and the coronavirus keep the widower confined to his woodland retreat, just outside Dansville that he built with Barbara. Just as her cancer fight inspired him, he inspires others.

His primary “caregiver” is a lovable mutt named Daisy Mae, because we all know a dog is the best medicine.

John has been an outdoorsman, horseman, author, outdoor photographer, architect and fish and wildlife manager. I’m probably leaving out a half-dozen other careers. Lately, he has been sharing on Facebook a prolific amount of his extraordinary wildlife and landscape photographs collected over a lifetime of adventure.

“I do that to let people know I’m still alive,” said Adamski, who hasn’t allowed cancer to steal his sense of humor.

Critters of every shape and size have been captured on film, then pixels, thanks to Adamski’s patience and eagle eye. Black bears, whitetails, waterfowl, turkey, rabbits, reptiles, eagles and beavers from close to home. Buffalo, bull elk and big horn sheep from his travels out west to places like Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons and Canadian Rockies.

He posted to a friend, “I have lived a life of adventure, that’s for sure. But it didn’t fall in my lap, I went after it.’’

There’s a message for living fully in there.

Adamski, who was recently awarded “Lifetime Membership Status’’ by the New York State Outdoor Writers Association, has had to sell his camera gear and surrender the lease to his 2019 Ram pickup. Friends and neighbors have been kind, dropping off food, doing his yard work unannounced. Lynn and Carolyn Gorton, friends for 50 years from Canadice, have started a GoFundMe campaign to help with medical bills.

“John has always been the first one to step in and help those in need, whether or not he knew them,’’ Lynn Gorton said.

Adamski said he’s “overwhelmed” by people’s kindness, but he shouldn’t be. He has lived the Golden Rule and now it’s payback time.

“I believe in sharing,” he said, mentioning how legendary Democrat and Chronicle outdoors writer Floyd King once mentored his writing. “People shared with me over the years, so it was my turn to give back. Now I’ve got more help than I need, more food that I can eat.”

And with time and luck and determination by those carrying the torch for a museum that pays homage to our beloved Finger Lakes, more money than they can spend. When appropriate, the plan is for a “quiet’’ fundraising phase, then a public push to secure the last dollar for the last brick.

“He’s been the driving force for years and it’s very tough on him now, but what makes him feel good is knowing there will be a legacy,” said Adamski’s son, John Jr., the herpetologist at the Seneca Park Zoo. “He’s mentioned that he might never see it to completion, but he’s got so many people on board, there’s no stopping it.”

It started with an idea in the shower. John Adamski is now showered in love.