Thursday, December 17, 2009

Quiet Months at the Spruce Knob Mountain Center

What happened to November and December?

As late Fall turns to Winter, the desire for schools and private groups to be on Spruce dwindles. The concept of a warm house is different here than most other places. Buildings and rooms are heated when you need them and cool down when you don't. Fires are built and maintained during the day, the stoves are packed full in the evening, and we awaken early to a cool house or yurt in the morning. This whole process, from cutting, splitting and stacking wood, to heating your house each day makes one realize how much energy we're consuming versus what we actually need. My home is plenty warm all of the time, with minimal heating, as long as I don't expect to be wearing a t-shirt around the house.

In November, most of our staff left the mountain. We did not host our annual pig roast this year, but butchered our hard working sow after her duties were complete and we had no more food waste to feed her. A days work from staff members led to a freezer full of pork and a delicious farewell dinner. We have not seen the November snow that blessed us last year. This November has been perfect for our last few stream sampling programs and great fall trout fishing.

December has left just a few us around. There is some office work to be done, but nothing that cannot wait until after Christmas. The days have been cold and clear and we've received only a few small snowstorms. This has allowed us to wrap up those last few outdoor projects that we wouldn't have been able to get around to if the snow was flying. We have plenty of projects planned for winter work.

We're all very pleased with our 2009 season and are looking forward to 2010. Now, we wax the skis and wait for the snow.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Highest Race in West Virginia Went Off With a Bang!

As we awoke that Saturday morning, the weather wasn’t exactly what we had hoped for. There were a few clouds and a bit of mist, but that didn’t keep our runners inside! When the 5K race was nearing its starting time, we rang the five-minute warning bell and the racers began to descend upon the starting line. What started out as just an idea was finally becoming reality. We had 14 runners for our very first 5K race. The 3.1-mile race looped around the Mountain Institute’s property, starting in the parking lot, following the driveway towards the Earth Shelter. Once there, the runners ran off into the fields and back around for a dramatic finish on our high planes. All of our runners did extremely well, especially considering the hilly course and the weather conditions. I would like to congratulate Robbie Kimmich for finishing first place overall, with a course record time of 19:31. The first place in the female division was Sara Litzau, with a course record time of 25:31.

After all of our 5K racers finished we got ready for our next race, the Half Marathon. We had six participants at the starting line, including our own Adam Sewell who had just finished running in the 5K! He decided to run in both races. This option will be given out next year as our “King/Queen of the Mountain Race”.

As we sounded the horn, the racers headed off into the clouds towards Spruce Knob Lake. As the runners raced their way towards the lake, the clouds lifted just enough to see some of the beautiful fall foliage. As they made their return journey back to the high planes, we saw in the distance our first place finisher Jack Marmorstein. He finished with a course record of 1 hour 32 minutes. The first place female finisher was Sophie Roblin, with a course record of 1 hour 52 minutes. The King of the Mountain, Adam Sewell’s overall time with both the 5K and half marathon was 2 hours 9 minutes and 20 seconds.

For a few participants, this was their first race and first visit to the Mountain Institute. Among these new faces were some old familiar friends. We shared stories and created new memories. The race weekend was definitely one to remember and also one to look forward to for next year. I know years from now we’re going to look back on this weekend with fond memories and remember the time when we only had a few runners on the starting line. Our goal is to double our participants each year. We hope that all of you can help us with that!

We would like to congratulate all of the runners who came to the First Annual “Run for the Hills”! The race turned up more participants than we expected and could have hoped for! We especially want to thank our volunteers for all of their hard work! We look forward to seeing all of you next year!

-by Katrina Weyland,

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Waning Days of the Fall 2009 Season

Last Friday marked the end of Fall 2009 for our seasonal staff here at the Spruce Knob Mountain Center. Since September 1, we have served over 1,000 people with our programs and facilities. So far this fall we have run 22 programs with public and private schools and provided programs and facilities for a wide variety of adult groups and organizations. We’ve got three more weeks for our residential staff to run programs and hope that the good weather can last just a bit longer.

Our school course season has gradually been extending on both ends, beginning earlier in the spring and wrapping up later in the fall, sandwiched on either end by severe winter weather. Last year, during this very week, we were chaining up the vans and skiing due to a 10 inch snow storm. This year, daytime highs are reaching the 50’s and 60’s and night time lows are in the 30’s.

We want to praise and thank all of our staff members for working so hard to provide safe, educational, and enjoyable programs to all of our schools and adult participants.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A New Use for the Monongahela National Forest

Gas Development Pending for Spruce Knob and the High Allegheny

In July 2009, the Monongahela National Forest released a map of candidate drilling areas for natural gas exploration. The mineral rights of these areas are being sought after by members of the gas industry and were scheduled for the public auction block in mid-September. The auction has now been rescheduled for December or early in the Spring of 2010.

These candidate drilling areas occupy thousands of acres in the northern Monongahela National Forest, from the border of Dolly Sods in the north to a few miles south of Spruce Knob. The proposed areas border The Mountain Institute on three sides and provide the headwaters of many vast and vital watersheds. Within the proposed areas are the headwaters of the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay, as well as the headwaters of the Cheat River, which flows into the Monongahela and eventually the Ohio River. Other sensitive features of this area are the headwaters of Big Run, Upper Seneca Creek, and Lower Seneca Creek. These are three of the four remaining intact watersheds for reproductive brook trout populations in West Virginia.

The mineral rights of these areas have been available for some time, but not desired for drilling operations of the past. For many years in West Virginia, companies having been extracting natural gas from the Oriskany Sandstone formation. These rigs drill deep into earth to tap into gas pools within the formation. The new development source of natural gas is one that has, until recent years, been economically unattainable. It is found up to a mile and a half below the earth’s surface, sealed in the cracks and crevices of Marcellus Shale. Its extraction is a rather new undertaking and is quite different than the natural gas operations of the recent past. This is the expected method of development for these areas.

The Marcellus Shale drilling footprint is considerably larger than traditional Oriskany wells and possesses a major component unique from its predecessor: large water volume fracture treatments, or hydro-fracturing. These two issues seem to put Marcellus drilling operations in a league of their own, thus requiring updated regulatory standards, more stringent enforcement, and new water treatment and disposal technology. Hydro-fracturing requires millions of gallons of fresh water, usually extracted from local bodies of water, mixed with a corporation’s own chemical recipe. Components of this “frac” fluid, by law, are viewed as proprietary and do not have to be revealed. However, it is known that the fluids are high in salinity and possess a wide variety of carcinogenic and environmentally harmful chemicals.

Furthermore, the fluid underground is in contact with many rocks and minerals and from them gains hydrocarbons, heavy metals, and radioactivity. This fluid is one of the most serious concerns of the Marcellus drilling boom. It permanently contaminates excessive amounts of our fresh water when created and threatens to contaminate even more through its disposal.

The disposal of these fluids is very expensive for the gas industry. The frac fluid can be injected into the ground for storage, hauled to wastewater treatment plants, or reused. The underground storage is a concern due to the possibility of contamination of groundwater or seepage into waterways. Currently, there are only two permitted Underground Injection Control wells in West Virginia, few water treatment plants capable of adequately treating this type of fluid, and not enough treatment facilities to handle hydro-fracturing volumes.

The brief history of Marcellus play includes a number of accidents and careless decisions from the gas industry, resulting in environmental catastrophes. New York and Pennsylvania have already learned, from experience, that the affects of hydro-fracturing can be detrimental to freshwater resources when not managed properly. As a result, they are dealing with dead streams and unhealthy drinking water. So far, West Virginia has few of these experiences with natural gas development. Other concerns associated with Marcellus drilling operations include non-stop engine noise, heavy traffic, and long term occupancy.

The Monongahela National Forest is treasured by the citizens of West Virginia and by all of its visitors. To jeopardize the public land trust in favor of a few private interests would most certainly devalue the treasure and generate opposition from user groups such as The Mountain Institute, as well as the general public. A considerable portion of the proposed drilling area is used consistently during TMI programs and is viewed by thousands of students and adult visitors each year. This area is promoted by TMI as a pristine “wilderness” and the definitive example of a healthy and thriving ecosystem. Marcellus Shale drilling in the vicinity of TMI could severely limit the program area and affect the everyday lives of those who live at and visit the Spruce Knob Mountain Center.

Recently, Forest Service officials held a meeting at the Monongahela Forest Headquarters in Elkins, WV. The Forest Supervisor and other USFS officials met with representatives from TMI, Trout Unlimited, and Friends of Blackwater Canyon to discuss the impacts that drilling operations could have on TMI programs and the surrounding forest and watersheds. TMI plans to continue monitoring this situation, as well as the streams and forests of this area.

Until proper water treatment technology and enforceable regulations are in place, the mistakes made and damage caused in New York and Pennsylvania could be repeated in West Virginia. Until then, The Mountain Institute cannot support Marcellus Shale drilling in the Allegheny Highlands of the Monongahela National Forest.

by Joshua Nease

Photo by Edward Todd,

Thursday, September 10, 2009

River Watching

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.
The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.” –Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

Over seven hundred people live in the Big Run watershed. Yet since the headwaters of the stream are so close to us here at the Spruce Knob Mountain Center and they play such a large role in what we do, we often think of Big Run as our stream. The Chesapeake Bay watershed, which Big Run feeds into, is home to over sixteen million people. Since Big Run is the highest stream in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, its waters flow past the overwhelming majority of Chesapeake Bay watershed residents. The waters of Big Run belong to nearly sixteen million people. More precisely, nearly sixteen million people belong to the waters of Big Run. And yet we still think of it as our stream.
Our stream, like all streams and rivers, is not static. It is a part of the landscape as dynamic as the life forms that depend on it. It acts and is acted upon. It is the stage as well as a lead actor. Most of the changes that a river undergoes, however, are much too slow for the human eye, much less the human attention span, to detect. Every now and then rapid changes do occur though, and when they do, we notice.
Earlier this season, many of us came back to the Big Run watershed to find a major change. The beavers that had built the long abandoned dams and lodges at the headwaters of Big Run had returned. Sometime in early 2009, beavers came back to Big Run after a long hiatus to construct a new dam and lodge a quarter mile downstream of their old one. The result is an enormous pool in a tiny stream, like a large rodent being swallowed by a snake. Where the stream was once only a few inches deep, the pond is now as much as a few feet deep. Red Spruce and Red Pine trees once on the banks of Big Run are now three feet deep in water.
Aside from humans, beavers do more to modify their landscape than any other creature. Beavers fell trees with their constantly growing teeth in order to have the sticks they need for their dam. They patch these together with stones and mud. The dam creates a pond which acts as a moat to protect their lodge. The lodge is built out of the same materials. From the bank, it looks like little more than a burn pile. Inside, there are two rooms, or dens. One is a sort of mud room for drying off, the other is a living area for as many as a dozen beavers. Though the dens are above the surface of the water, the actual entrance to the lodge is below. Beavers can remain underwater for as much as fifteen minutes.
Like much of the changes that occur on Big Run, we noticed the end result of the beaver dam but not the process. Beavers work at night and they work quickly. During East Harlem School’s inaugural visit in August, my co-instructor and I led our group on a night hike to the beaver pond in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the building process. We did a short reading and then sat on the edge of the pond in silence, watching the night sky emerge and hoping the beavers would do the same. We waited for about twenty minutes. At that point our focus began to dissolve and we compared observations. Some people thought they saw the slightest signs of movements or beavers perched on the logs scattered about the edges of the ponds. I certainly didn’t see anything. Regardless of what anyone else thought they saw, we all spent those twenty minutes doing nothing but watching the river. Whether we perceived it or not, we all saw the river change.

Jeff De Bellis

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Reading the Landscape with WV Teachers

On August 10 - 12, The Mountain Institute hosted the first Reading the Landscape Professional Development Workshop for teachers. Eleven teachers attended the action packed, three day event that was designed to familiarize teachers with the highland forests of West Virginia and the curriculum that TMI has to offer.

Highlighted topics during the event were patterns of West Virginia forests, astronomy, the plant kingdoms, habitat comparisons, stream assessment, salamanders, insects, and creating online lessons. Teachers in attendance were provided with background materials on each topic and lessons to use in the classroom. Each day, the teachers participated in a wide variety of scientific field research activities that are designed to meet the needs of WV students and teachers.

The event began with a session that examined the patterns and trends of these upland forests. It was a look at this ecosystem as a whole and its relationship to all factors, biotic and abiotic, natural and manmade, that occur in the area. Following a fantastic dinner on the deck, Joe the Star Guy provided a tour of the Back Ridge Observatory. A heavy cloud cover that evening was incondusive to star gazing, but the participants all enjoyed learning about the facility.

Day two of the event hosted a packed schedule of activities. It began with an investigation of the Plant Kingdom, taking a closer look at each division and identifying what it is and why it grows there. This was followed by a Habitat Comparison activity, where two different habitats were examined, species of flora were identified and counted, and the two plots were compared for diversity. The next activity was the assessment of Big Run, looking at the biological, chemical, and physical characteristics of the stream. The after dinner geology lesson kept teachers out until dark and the day’s final event showcased some new, fun activities for the classroom.

The final day of the workshop involved learning about and searching for woodland salamanders and the sampling to two different plots for insect life. The final activity took the outdoor experiences to the internet, where teachers learned to create online lessons for their students.

The workshop was fun, full of hands-on, field based science, and very successful. As one teacher said upon leaving, “I’ve been to a lot of these workshops and this was by far the best one. I’ve learned so much!” Another teacher, when asked what was most enjoyable about the experience wrote, “The relaxed atmosphere was so conducive to learning. (It was) a very positive experience that combined academics with professional development. I will recommend this workshop to everyone that is interested in good, beneficial, and useful professional development.”

Due to the overwhelming positive response to the workshop, The Mountain Institute has already scheduled the Reading the Landscape Professional Development Workshop for August 9 – 11 (12), 2010.

Thursday, July 9, 2009


I had never experienced solitude until the summer of 2005, when I was the only full time instructor at SKMC. For most of the summer, it was me and the rabbits. Morning would turn to evening and the sun would begin to set. I began retiring to bed early, to avoid face to face meetings with the coyotes that I would occasionally hear after dark or an encounter with the bear in my mind, hiding behind every tree. My days were filled with long hikes and fishing trips or old lawn mowers and shoveling gravel. These quiet weeks were interrupted every so often with a small summer camp. Ah, the good ol’ days.

A quiet, relaxing summer season on Spruce Knob is a thing of the past. This summer, we have eight full time instructors, a few interns, and a whole lot of programming. During our 12 week summer season, nearly all of our weeks and weekends are full of activities. Here are some examples of what’s been going on up here since the second week of June what we’ll be doing until our fall season kicks off:

Volunteer Work Weekend, three 4H Programs in two counties, a weeklong program with the Friends of Deckers Creek Youth Advisory Board, The Mountain Institute’s International Mangers Meeting and Board Meeting, Trail Crew, two Mountain Adventures Summer Camps, a weekend with WV HSTA Senior Students, Sacred Mountain Midwifery School, Star Gazing on new moon weekends, teacher conferences, 2 more summer camps, weeks of facility rentals, an early August school course, two Professional Development Workshops for teachers, and a Wilderness First Responder Course.

The changes over the last five years have been dramatic. Our summer season is no longer a summer vacation. Programs are beginning in late March and running until Thanksgiving and our busiest seasons employ 18 instructors plus four full-time staff members, and a few VISTAs. Five years ago I would have had plenty of time for blogging daily, now the best I can do is every two months.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Mobile Command Unit Retires

After years of dedicated service on the gravel roads of the Monongahela National Forest and beyond, The Mobile Command Unit has finally been retired. Known as one of The Mountain Institute’s most treasured fleet members, it featured swiveling captain’s chairs, window shades, a CB radio, interior lights, curtains, and more! The MCU has transported hundreds of students, hauled canoe trailers, carried equipment, and most of all, sparkled in our parking lot. Emerging triumphant through rain, snow, mud, heavy loads and long trips, and eventually, one cylinder shy of the standard eight, the MCU drove through our highlands. It now rests in peace with Elkins Metal.

For many years our vans have endured these difficult weather and road conditions on Spruce Knob, with much love, affection, encouragement, and maintenance. We greatly appreciate donations of vehicles or financial support to keep our fleet transporting students. If you are interested in donating, we may be able to incorporate your van, truck, or small car into our fleet, as our activities are varied. Give us a call at (304) 567-2632 if you are interested.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Big Problems for Bats

Last spring, the Spruce Knob News reported on a disease that was running rampant throughout the Northeastern United States, chronically affecting thousands of bats and sparing the lives of few. One year ago, the disease was confirmed at 13 sites in New York, Vermont, and Massachusetts. Today, the disease has been confirmed in nine states, from New Hampshire to Virginia and is responsible for the deaths of over a half a million bats. In February, White Nose Syndrome (WNS) was confirmed in three caves in Pendleton County, WV.

White Nose Syndrome was first discovered in 2006 at four caves near Albany, NY, where thousands of bats, usually hibernating throughout the winter months, were found dead outside of the cave. More than half of these bats were observed with a white fungus near and around their noses. Within a year, during the winter of 2007 - 2008, WNS symptoms were confirmed in Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. This winter, 2008 - 2009, WNS has been reported and/or confirmed in all of the aforementioned states, as well as in New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia.

The white-nose fungus itself doesn't appear to be killing bats, but seems to disturb their sleep so that they end their hibernation early. Bats that normally awake every two to three weeks are waking every three to four days. The fungus grows on bats and infects and destroys the local tissue. Infected bats have been observed flying during the day and during cold winter weather when the insects they feed upon are not available, causing the bats to literally starve to death. Often, these bats uncharacteristically move to cold parts of the hibernacula instead of their typically warmer roosting spots, causing them to use even more of their energy stores to stay warm. Currently, a WNS study is being conducted in Wisconsin, researching exactly how the fungus is affecting the bats and hopefully discovering some way to stop or at least impede its spread. Similar fungi have been reported on bats in Europe in the past, without the same devastating effects.

On March 26, 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a voluntary moratorium on all caving activities. In response to this announcement and correspondence with WV Division of Natural Resources biologists, TMI has made the decision to remove caving from its programming until further notice. The caving activities will be replaced with educational curricula developed around karst topography in cave country, bats, and the WNS crisis. This curriculum can be paired with TMI’s newest citizen science initiative, Appalachian Bat Watch. Along with bat education at TMI, Bat Watch includes the installation of bat boxes, summer homes for bats, and the monitoring of the individual colonies that reside there. Bat Watch sites can then compare statistics with other sites throughout the state and monitor their own populations from year to year. These activities will work to promote understanding of the significance of bats in our ecosystem as well as the importance of species biodiversity in our natural world. This WNS information and more can be accessed on the web at,, and through other various media outlets.

It's Almost Summer!

The Mountain Institute's Mountain Adventures Summer camp for 2009 has arrived! Fill your summer up with adventure, adrenaline, thrills, and education. From white water rafting, rock climbing and caving to astronomy, art, and cooking, the Mountain Adventures summer camp is exactly what you've been looking for!

Rates: 1 week $800, 2 weeks $1550, 3 weeks $2000
Dates: June 28th-July 4th, July 5th-11th, July 12th- 18th
For more information please visit our website

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Welcome New Staff Members!

February 23rd, 2009 dawned a snowy, blustery day; Spruce Knob’s welcome to our new staff members! Upon turning off Highway 28 onto Sawmill Run Road, they ventured into our winter wonderland on Spruce. We spent the following eight days both inside and out, building huge fires in the woodstoves inside and hiking and playing games to stay warm outside. We learned about The Mountain Institute, ourselves, and each other as they prepared to work with us.

Our new staff members join us with varied academic backgrounds, enriching our diverse skills and experience. Their Bachelors and Masters Degrees include: Geology, Social Work, Literature, Electronic Media, Chemistry, Environmental Studies, Youth Ministry, Health and Physical Education/ Outdoor Education Administration, and Forestry.

Prior to working with The Mountain Institute, our new staff members worked on trail crews, counseled and mentored at risk and adjudicated youth, helped with desert and prairie restoration, served with Americorps, worked at environmental education facilities, cooked for groups, led mountain biking trips, coordinated volunteer groups, fueled and analyzed recycling efforts, provided grassroots outreach, were camp counselors, completed graduate research in outdoor education, taught college classes, worked with city parks and recreation, and one was even a professional bridesmaid and wedding dress fitter!

We are excited to welcome this diverse, talented, and animated group of individuals to our staff “family” here at Spruce Knob.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Blog is Back

As far as my new duties as blog master are concerned, I have been failing. Around November 1, 2008, there was a peaceful transition of blog power and unlike the peaceful transition of our humble commander in chief, I did not campaign and I wasn't elected. And now, two and a half months after being appointed to this position and two and a half months of blog neglect, the Spruce Knob blogging world is in arrears. Watching the Presidential Inauguration today, I have become motivated to take on a challenge. If Barack can do it, so can I.

I'm still not exactly sure about the definition of blog or who reads them and why. I don't have my space or facebook or any of that other hoo-haw and hardly have time to do half of things I'd like to, let alone get done the things I need to get done... but I am now the blog master. The blog is about life on Spruce Knob, something I know a thing or two about and as far as I'm concerned, there's no finer place to live.

Things are nearing perfection in our world up here. Our wood stoves are warm, our bellies are full, our work is fulfilling and plentiful, and our evenings and weekends are full of hobbies, projects, and friends. There would be no time for television if we had one. This life is much more interesting, enlightening, and rewarding than any other I could imagine. A glance to the outside world today seems as promising as any; Barack Obama is President and the Steelers are going to the Super Bowl. In our world today, the plants in the greenhouse survived the cold snap and it looks like it will be another great ski day, after work of course.


(These views do not represent those of The Mountain Institute (TMI) or of any TMI supporter. This entry does represent my views and I'm not even encouraging you to agree, so big deal.)