There isn’t a traffic light off the exit of I-75 that leads to The Ark Encounter. There is no sign, not even an arrow pointing in its general direction.
What makes the exit stand out is the expanse of black asphalt with freshly painted stripes of school bus yellow for 4,000 parking spaces.
If you look beyond the asphalt, you can see, peeking over the treeline the pale, spruce bow of what builders say is the largest timber-framed structure in the world.
The moment you see it, it almost doesn’t register what you’re looking at..
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That instant of awe is what Mike Zovath, who is overseeing the Ark construction, calls a “wow moment.”
Several such reveals are built into the design of what will ultimately be a $92 million Bible-focused theme park.
The centerpiece, a replica of Noah’s Ark, was getting finishing touches last week in preparation for the July 7 opening.
Once open, visitors will park in the lot and travel in buses painted with images of Biblical floods down a two-lane road, rolling past the Kentucky Cowtown Arena, the Kentucky Veteran’s Cemetery North, and Mount Olivet Christian Church — which ark officials say is a friendly neighbor but not directly affiliated with the park — to the ark.
And, then, another wow moment.
The ark is in a valley and can be seen as the bus crests over a steep knoll. The expanse of the 510 feet long, 85 feet wide, 51 feet tall ark is a sight to behold. It is built to the modern estimation of Biblical dimensions.
The ark’s slogan is “it’s bigger than imagination,” according to Ken Ham, head of Answers in Genesis, which is responsible for the Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum, another Christian tourist draw just down the road.
Getting to opening day hasn’t been without challenges. Ham and Answers in Genesis won a legal battle against the state of Kentucky to retain an $18 million state tax credit.
The court battle, over whether state funding could be used to pay for a religiously themed park, ended in April. The project continued while the litigation took place.
612 milesworth of planks were used in the ark
Just to gather enough mammoth beams to serve as the support structures for the interior of the building was a multi-year effort, Zovath said. Logs as long as 50 feet were harvested from as far away as British Columbia and Oregon. All together, 3.3 million board feet of wood, or 612 miles worth of planks, were used in the ark. Ham said the goal was to show the true scope of Noah’s Ark, and that it’s possible to build a structure that could hold the 16,000 animals that believers estimate survived the Biblical flood.
Only one place in the United States was capable of doing the milling work for the ark because of the size of the logs. It was Colorado Timberframe.
Timber framing is a traditional form of building that employs heavy timber as beams in support of a wooden frame built through a sequence of ribs. Pieces of the ark cut in Colorado under the guidance of Amish carpenters were delivered to Williamstown with the promise of being accurate within a 32nd of an inch, Zovath said. At the site, whole ribs were pieced together and raised as one component, similar to an Amish barn-raising. It was an emotional moment for the construction crew when the first ribs were put into place, he said.
Traditional structures were held together by wooden pegs, but modern building code requirements called for steel nails, Ham said. Whenever possible, traditional craftsmanship was employed. For example, Zovath said, old-fashioned manpower was used to pull boards in place to create the rudder at the back of the ark instead of the shortcut of steaming the boards to make them more pliable.
Former President Jimmy Carter, who is both a Nobel Prize winner and a carpenter, visited the site in June, praising the craftsmenship as “remarkable.” Carter visited with his longtime friend LeRoy Troyer, of the Troyer Group, an Indiana company specializing in timber framing. Carter has worked with Troyer for decades on Habitat for Humanity housing programs.
The attention to detail extends beyond the frame of the building and through every piece of wood both inside and outside the ark.
“This is not the kind of stuff you can buy at Lowe’s,” Zovath said.
Visitors will start at ground level and move through the ark along gently sloping ramps. Along the way are views of the criss-crossed beams that run through the structure and are accented with large skylights.
Over the course of construction, about 75 Amish craftsmen worked on the project and hundreds of others were trained in traditional woodworking, Ham said. On days of heavy construction, 400 people worked, most dressed in bright, safety yellow shirts. Even with hundreds of workers, the vast site was never crowded.
Throughout the build, the ark has received media attention, including being featured on ABC’s Nightline.
A film crew from a Norwegian Christian broadcast was filming there last week.
There will be be no live animals on this ark, although the exhibits in the ark make the case that eight humans — Noah and seven others according to the Bible — could have managed to clean, feed and tend to the animals through an elaborate feeding system and an equally complex method of disposing of all the waste.
There will be some animatronic animals on this ark, and there’s a section that’s labeled “fairy tale” that deals with the “cute” ark journey depicted in some children’s books, the website explains.
Organizers estimate that 16,000 people can come through the ark in a day, Ham said. Ark visitors will also be able to ride a zipline and visit a petting zoo. Adult tickets are $40, and several combo tickets are available for admission to the Ark Encounter and Creation Museum.
Some of those who have seen the nearly complete ark have suggested that it could be designated a wonder of the modern world, Ham said. In 2007, a Zurich-based group called the New7Wonders Foundation had 100 million votes cast for modern wonders in the world. Those include the Taj Mahal in India and Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro.
It could be a tough sell. The Grant County structure is not the first modern ark. There is a seafaring ark that has toured the Netherlands but was recently hit by a Coast Guard ship near Oslo in a freak accident.
But an ark in a field? It is a wonder. The Los Angeles Times included Ark Encounters among the top 16 places to see in 2016. The story said, “Here’s a destination for the traveler who’s been everywhere and done everything.”
Ark Encounter: by the numbers
▪ 3: Number of NASA space shuttles that could fit on the ark roof
▪ 3.3 million: Board feet of wood used in construction
▪ 120,000: Number of sheep that could fit in the ark cargo space
If you go:
What: Ark Encounter, Williamstown
When: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., 5 p.m. until midnight, for 40 days starting July 7. Day times only after first 40 days.
Tickets: $40 for adults; $31 for 60 and older; $28 for children 5 to 12; free for children younger than 5.