Monday, December 27, 2010

"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes." -Marcel Proust

At the end of every fall season, usually sometime in mid-November, the Spruce Knob Mountain Center begins to clear out. Over the course of the month, the fall staff of about 20 funnels down to 10, then 3 or 4, then 1 or 2, then sometimes none. The students and teachers that fill the yurts, the dorms, the deck, and many pockets of our cherished woods and fields throughout the fall stop coming - quite suddenly. Sooner or later the snow begins to fall, shutting down the long driveway and oftentimes the road as well. For short time, the entire mountain seems to hibernate beneath a blanket of snow.

For the past two years I've had the incredible fortune to have the mountain more or less to myself for the month of December. Landmarks that I've seen thousands of time take on new forms in the long shadows of winter. The narrow entrance to Backridge Cave, in the upper left picture, fills with snow. The young spruce trees bend with a heavy coat of snow. The "High Plains" - the large fields just up the hill from the yurts in the lower right picture - look otherworldly. There is always the question of what I do with all the free time and space on the mountain in the wintertime. Really, much of my time is spent simply grappling with survival in this environment. Chopping, bucking, and splitting wood. Building and maintaining fires. Baking bread and cooking soups and stews. Ensuring that our buildings endure the ferocious alpine winter. Just getting dressed in the morning to go outside is an endeavor. Walking from the shower barn to Ulan Bator in deep snow can take 3 or 4 times as long as it would beneath the summer sun. Most of the time left over is spent skiing, snowshoeing, reading, visiting friends in town that I've neglected throughout the busy season, and developing whatever skills and hobbies I deem most interesting at the given moment.

Christmas has come and gone now and December is nearly over. In early January 4 or 5 of our core staff will begin to dig out their wool clothes, trudge through the snows to the Earth Shelter, build a fire, dust off their keyboards, and begin the behind the scenes work that will make the coming season happen. Cleaning, fixing, scheduling, hiring, purchasing, and a thousand other little jobs. The rest of the core staff will filter in throughout early March, the new staff for the season will arrive shortly after, and not long after that the schools and other groups will begin to arrive and fill the buildings and woods with new energy.

All of us who come to this mountain come for more or less the same reason - because it's a special place, one of the rare truly unique places on Earth. What we can learn from this mountain is certainly more than we can learn from any book, any film, any other person. Whether we come here as a student, a teacher, an astronomer, a summer camper, or a staff member - we come because what we get from this place is not something we can get anywhere else.

To see the mountain in all its seasons this year is a powerful reaffirmation of what an important place this is. Happy New Year. -JPD

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

SKMC in the News

As the air temperature drops and we relish the last few sunny days of the fall, all of us here on the mountain are beginning to reflect back on our accomplishments during what has surely been our busiest and most productive year.

This is a yearly ritual for most of us as the yurts transition from the busy school courses of October and November into hibernation mode for much of December. This year, local and regional media have taken notice of our accomplishments as well.

We've gotten four nods in the press this year - the most recent an article in this past Saturday's Charleston Gazette about Clendenin Elementary School's visit. The article is titled "Clendenin Students Mentored in the Mountains." In October, The Intermountain News in Elkins published a photospread and article from the Randolph County Outdoor Education Program. Ed Tellman, editor of The Pendleton Times came up in September to visit with us and 6th graders from North Fork Elementary. He wrote an article about our "Reading the Landscape" program. Back in June, Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine published a piece entitled "Higher Learning," about some of TMI's Appalachian education programs as well as our international efforts.

Our own newsletter went out at the end of September. If you're not on our mailing list and would like a copy, send me an email (

Thursday, October 21, 2010

New TMI Gear for Fall

We've redesigned our merchandise for the new season.

Baseball caps have TMI Appalachia's logo on the front and say "Conservation Culture Community" across the back. They are available in olive (pictured left) and khaki for 15$. Now that the temperatures are getting colder, we ordered beanies (they're one size fits all but do better on smaller heads). Beanies are also 15$.

Our new shirts have TMI Applachia's logo on the front and are blank on the back. Short sleeve shirts (below) are available in any color you want, so long as it's gray; sizes youth large and adult small through double extra large. Long sleeve shirts come in green; sizes adult small through double extra large. Shirts are 15$ for short sleeve and 20$ for long sleeve.

To order, send a check and a note specifying size and color to:

Spruce Knob Mountain Center
Attn: Sales Department
HC 75 Box 24
Circleville, WV 26804

Please include an extra 5$ to cover packing and shipping charges.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Mountain Institute's Race Weekend

Could you ever imagine running a 50 kilometer, 50 mile, or 13.1 mile race? How about all three? The Mountain Institute is partnering with the West Virginia Mountain Trail Runners Association for the West Virginia Trilogy on the weekend of October 8-10th. Runners who participate in any of these races will receive free food, a spot to place your tent, and use of our facilities. These races will wind through the hills, up and down mountain trails, and cross gorgeous mountain creeks.

In addition to the Trilogy, we will also be offering a 5k race for those who like to run, but don't need to run 50 miles to get that runner's high! The 5k race will take place alongside the half-marathon on Sunday, October 10th at 9:00 am.

All of these races will both challenge and inspire runners. It's an event not to be missed! Please join us for a weekend filled with running, great food, friends, and raffle prizes!

For more information about the races please check out the websites, or

Friday, August 13, 2010

Thanks to the Garden Interns, it will be a Delicious Fall on Spruce Knob

Hello! We are the garden interns. We have had an incredible summer, and we'd like to let you in on it.

My name is Anna Poaster. I am originally from Boston, MA and I am going to be a junior at Carleton College in Minnesota. I came up to Spruce because I wanted the opportunity to learn, in a really hands on way, what it takes to make a garden grow. I'm really interested in urban farming and getting into the Edible Schoolyards movement, but I figured I should spend some time learning how to garden before trying it in the city. I liked the idea of Spruce's garden being a new project because it has made for lots of opportunities for us to figure out new plans and inject our own creativity into the long run objective of SKMC being more agriculturally sustainable.

...And my name is Meg Trau. I am from Georgia, and I will be a junior at College of the Atlantic in Maine. I was looking for internships in agriculture or outdoor education, which made TMI the perfect fit. I am a botany nerd, and I get fired up about food systems issues. Last term, I took a course on the theory and practice of organic gardening, and I have been able to bring all that knowledge to life this summer.

We have done a variety of different projects that have given us new skills we never thought we would get from being "garden interns" - like using power tools! Some of our bigger endeavors were building a rotating composter and planning for an expansion of the garden. Hopefully Spruce will be able to produce even more food in coming years. This summer, we have battled flea beetles, cucumber beetles, slugs, and sneaky rodents. But we have still managed to add some freshness to the kitchen - radishes, cucumbers, lettuce, kale, tomatoes, and squash. Everyone love cooking with produce from the garden, and it has been extremely gratifying to provide it.

We were also charged with finding local and organic alternatives to ordering from a food distribution company. This led us all over West Virginia and part of Virginia too. We went to several farmers' markets and even a Mennonite produce auction. It was really fun (and tasty) to get to meet farmers from all over the state.

More than anything, we have enjoyed life on the mountain. It is a serence and quiet place to spend time, punctuated by energy and excitement from the many groups that come through. Neither one of us knew what to expect when we signed up to move to West Virginia for 3 months, but we have found a wonderful community and organization that we hope to stay in touch with for a long time. Thanks for a wonderful summer, TMI!

Monday, June 28, 2010

A Note from 2010 Summer Campers

Hello! We are campers from The Mountain Institute. We have a variety of fun activities. These include biking, camping, rock climbing, rope challenge courses, tree climbing, and more. Another awesome part about the camp is that it has great food and you get to be outdoors. Also you get to make lasint friendships with fellow campers. The best part is you can return year after year to see your friends! It's great!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Volunteer Work Weekend 2010

This past weekend volunteers and staff came together to "spruce up" the Spruce Knob Mountain Center as part of TMI's annual Work Weekend. Volunteers came from as far away as Georgia to work on projects around the facilities, including cleaning the deck behind the yurts, improving the rooves on Almati, the Waterfront Yurt, and the Garden Yurt, building a stone wall and a planter box at the front gate, installing a new gate, tilling the garden, mending fences, and a wide swath of other odd jobs. All together, over 40 people helped out over the course of the weekend.

Being on the mountain all the time, it's often easy to miss the small improvements that are always being made. But when that many people work together for a single weekend, the progress is alarmingly conspicuous. The facilities and grounds are looking better than ever. Thank you so much to all who pitched in!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Weather on the Mountain

Spruce Knob's weather station is back up to full strength - mostly. Reception often cuts out during heavy fog or storms, but most of the time you can see what the current weather is like at our Spruce Knob Mountain Center no matter where you are in the world. Our Weather Underground site, at, shows current temperature, humidity, dew point, rainfall, pressure, wind speed and direction, and daily highs and lows. The page is updated hourly. The rain collector & anemometer are strapped to a tree that's somewhat sheltered by Back Ridge so rainfall and windspeed reports tend to be a little lower than elsewhere on the campus.

You can also view past weather data at For weather forecasts, go to and search for Circleville, WV. Circleville is about ten miles away and 2,000 feet below us so the weather is usually a little more extreme up here, but it can give you a pretty good idea of what the weather will be like. As always though, bring your rain gear just in case.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Spruce Knob Sandpipers

For all the wild and wonderful natural beauty that West Virginia rightfully claims to have, there is one natural feature that is often glaringly absent: the ocean. Despite all of the fun to be had in our scenic mountain playground, it's still worth it every once in awhile to pack up the car and make the 6 or more hour drive to the coast. There just isn't anywhere in West Virginia that you can lie in the sand, stare out across a seemingly endless body of water, listen to the crescendo of ocean meeting land, and watch sandpipers frantically race acros the sand in search of tasty crustaceans. Nearby Spruce Knob Lake is about the closest thing we've got and it isn't enough to convince anyone - except maybe a few of those sandpipers. As we were loading canoes into the water for an afternoon of paddling with students from a visiting school, a lone sandpiper raced across the shore. What are you doing here? He was a long way from the coast.

A little research revealed that while most sandpipers spend their lives on the coast, some of them do frequent wetlands further inland. And sightings in West Virginia of Spotted, Semipalmated, and Least Sandpipers are not uncommon. Perhaps the birds are captivated by the Potomac Highlands from above and stop down for a visit along their migration routes. Some sandpipers fly from South America all the way to their breeding grounds in Northern Canada. According to the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, there are over 200 species of birds that visit the state during their migrations - this in addition to the over 75 species that live and breed here. In fact, this stretch of the Appalachians has the highest biodiversity of anyplace in the country that doesn't have a coastline.

We may be 4,000 feet above and 6 hours away from the salty edge of the continent, but perhaps we're not so far removed from the coastal environment after all. If the sandpipers appreciate West Virginia just fine without an ocean, maybe we can too. -JPD

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Drilling a Well!!!

Each year, TMI’s Spruce Knob Mountain Center (SKMC) continues to serve more guests. As these schools and private groups utilize the facility more frequently, the limitations of our existing water system become more apparent. It is not unusual for us to run out of water when large groups visit, especially in the summer and fall. The water source for SKMC is a spring that is located just above the facility that has been determined by the State to be under the influence of surface water. We continue to chlorinate our water before it is used by our visitors; it is potable, safe to drink, and has never made anyone sick, however, this treatment alone does not meet WV state standards for a public water source.

We are subject to federal drinking water regulations, which now require us (as a system that serves the public) to change our system of supply or treatment. We can either drill a well to provide groundwater that is not influenced by surface water, or we must add a filtration system to our treatment regimen, in addition to the chlorination. The cost of pursuing either option can easily run into hundreds of thousands of dollars. We are hoping to have success in drilling a well because there are fewer ongoing maintenance costs associated with providing drinking water from a good groundwater source and because it could also solve the problem of sufficient quantity.

Drilling a well is a gamble. It is quite expensive and there is no "we find water or your money back" guarantee. This is a real concern to us, as we are some of the highest residents of the state of WV. For months we have consulted geologists, hydrologists, neighbors, elected representatives, well drillers, and dousers. There were many different predictions for our well and several suggested locations, water depths, and flow rates. All of these were educated guesses, as we don't really know the answer until the drilling is done.
We decided on a location that was recommended by the geologist, the well driller, and the douser, and that also worked well for us to tie the water into our existing water and electrical system. The drilling began about 10:30 a.m. this morning and ended around 3:00 p.m. The drilling company, B.W. Smith Well Drilling, struck water at 3 different levels on their way down, one around 65 feet, the next around 85 feet, and the highest flow of all at 180 feet. The drill has extremely high flows now, up to 40 gallons per minute. He does expect this to drop, but even then, this flow would be more than adequate to run the Spruce Knob Mountain Center.
This is a major victory in the well drilling battle, but the drama continues. Before we can throw our celebration, we must get the water tested by state labs to prove that it is not under the influence of surface water. Keep your fingers crossed and we'll keep you posted!

Monday, April 12, 2010

New Staff Training

This spring, TMI is welcoming 9 new staff members to our team of field instructors. This new group began their new staff training at noon on Friday, April 9 and will conclude their training session on Sunday, April 18. This 10 day training will cover all of the content, group handling, campcraft, and risk management skills associated with being a TMI Field Instructor.

The training was designed and is being run by the Appalachia Program's Education Coordinator, Beth Boehme. The new staff spent the first three nights learning their way around the Spruce Knob Mountain Center and hiked out into the woods today for a 6 night camping, field-based training session.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Restoring Big Run Since 2006

TMI’s Spruce Knob Mountain Center lies in the far reaches of the Big Run watershed. For many years, Big Run has been the centerpiece to the watershed education element of our programs. During this time, students have been assessing the upper sections of Big Run, learning of the importance of high quality headwater streams, and beginning to understand the upstream – downstream concept. Since these first days of TMI’s watershed education programming, Big Run has been the example of a nearly perfect stream.

The waters come together in a meadow and begin flowing as Big Run at approximately 3500 feet in elevation. Rain and spring water from the western flank of Spruce Knob and the eastern continental divide create the stream, and it is separated from the headwaters of the well-known Seneca Creek by only a small ridge. Big Run meanders through this meadow and gains water from its many tributaries. As it grows, it provides a fresh water home to myriad organisms, including a high biodiversity of macroinvertebrates, a colony of beavers, and a reproducing population of eastern brook trout.

Big Run offers a near perfect environment for all of its inhabitants, but as with any watershed, it is only as good as the sum of all of its parts. The stream is one of the few remaining intact watersheds for brook trout in West Virginia. These fish can travel the stream length in its entirety and many move upstream each fall to the tiniest of tributaries to spawn. It was in few of these seemingly insignificant waterways where a major problem was occurring for the reproducing trout. Their spawning grounds were being degraded by an unlikely contender, cattle.

Within the Monongahela National Forest there are several areas where private farms hold grazing rights. There is an area like this on a tributary of upper Big Run, where the cows, grazing throughout the spring, summer, and fall, rely on the small tributary as a drinking water source. The narrow foot of the heavy cow easily collapses the stream’s banks, creating more of a wetland than a stream system. This impact increases turbidity in the water, exposes more of the water to sunlight - raising temperature, and destroys the stream channel needed for trout reproduction.

Since 2006, TMI has been working with TU to help repair and restore these tributaries of the stream. TU, in conjunction with US Fish and Wildlife, has set miles of cattle fencing around the tributaries to keep the herd out, built bridges over stream crossings, and created alternative water sources, spring fed troughs, for the cows. TU has been providing management of the restoration site and TMI has been providing students. Since 2006, TU, TMI, and their students have planted thousands of trees in the riparian zone of the affected stream lengths. The results are already impressive, as the trees are beginning to grow, the tributaries are again channelized, grass is shading the channels, and turbidity has dropped. If you visit this area in fall and approach the banks slowly, you may just catch a glimpse of reproducing brook trout in their spawning bed.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Where was TMI when...

"Where was TMI when MNF let drilling proceed on the Fernow EF in clear violation of ESA, NEPA rules and CWA?"

This was a comment left on the blog late last week; a comment I assume is in response to TMI's recent letter to the BLM, filed to protest the leasing of two parcels in the Monongahela National Forest (MNF), both within 10 miles of TMI's Spruce Knob Mountain Center. Where was TMI at the time of drilling in the Fernow? We were right here on Spruce Knob, incredibly busy doing what we do, running our programs, and not privy to the situation at the Fernow until after the fact. The original map of candidate drilling areas for this particular auction, released in July 2009, contained proposed lease areas surrounding and bordering our facility, the Spruce Knob Mountain Center. This couldn't fly under our radar; it was in our back yards.

Over the last year, the proposition of natural gas development in Marcellus Shale in the region has generated much thought and discussion within TMI’s Appalachia Program. TMI Appalachia is not an advocacy group, but an educational organization that works to protect, promote and support the best interests of mountains and all they encompass. This creates an interesting dichotomy in the organization’s view of Marcellus Shale drilling in the mountains of West Virginia. On one side of the division is the preservation of our mountain environments; on the other is the development of cleaner burning energy, natural gas, that many believe could be an important stepping stone in the United States’ conversion from coal and oil to green energy and energy independence.

The Mountain Institute wants to promote the development of cleaner burning fuels and other energy alternatives, but with the immense footprint of the drilling operation, the water use and pollution issues, the current lack of enforcable drilling regulations in place and no real movement in the state or country to use the natural gas to replace other current fuels, it is difficult to support development of the resource, especially on our public lands.

I'm not sure of the intent of this comment. Is someone (anonymous) upset with us for not protesting drilling in the Fernow or wondering why we chose one lease over another? I hope that I have helped to answer the question. If anyone has any questions regarding our letter of protest or our stance on Marcellus Shale drilling, please don't hesitate to email or call the office.


Thursday, February 18, 2010

More Winter Pictures

If you're planning on coming up or would like to schedule a meeting off of the mountain, please call ahead, as it may take some time to prepare. The WV DOT has been working almost non-stop since Christmas to keep the roads open and safe. There are many roads throughout Pendleton County, and ours, Sawmill Run Road, may end at a higher elevation than any other residential road. They have done an excellent job keeping up with the snow and wind and they never forget about us up here. Sometimes it takes a few days to get the road open again, but we don't travel far most of the time. Good thing we can ski to work.
The lower photograph is of the road out of here. In the photograph, snow has drifted 2-4 feet deep across the road. The upper photograph is of buried cars... buried like everything else. Our neighbor, Annie, has lived on this mountain for over 90 years. She says that this winter is similar to those of her childhood. "We could just step right over the fences," she commented.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Winter Adventures Continue

The snow continues to fall. The drift outside of the office door is nearing the 5 foot mark and the walk from the driveway to the office is not an easy one. The snow is hip-deep nearly everywhere, with some drifts topping out over six feet. The road is closed. Since Friday, February 5, we have received between 3 and 4 feet of snow. On Tuesday the wind began to blow. Sustained winds were measured between 25 - 25 mph, with gusts exceeding 55 mph. As the wind blows, the drifts get deeper. How long can this last? From the looks of the weather report, at least 10 more days.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Flooded Towns and Leaky Roofs

The rain fell last night in a torrent. I awoke several times throughout the night to hear that the storm had not subsided, but had increased its intensity. As the sky grew lighter, the rain finally let up to a light drizzle. Out the window, the eight inches of frozen snow and ice that had covered the landscape was gone and rivers of water poured over the exposed rock and grass. Living at the top of the mountain, at the head of the watershed, pondering the volume of water flowing away from you doesn't not create the fear it would if you lived 25 miles downstream; It creates concern for those below you.

Schools were closed in all surrounding counties. Marlinton was closed to all traffic. Rivers everywhere had left or were about to leave their banks. The Greenbrier Valley seemed to be getting hit the hardest. The most familiar part of the Greenbrier to most is the calm, wide river that flows through Cass and Marlinton, past Watoga State Park and towards Lewisburg. The economy of the surrounding communities seems to be based on the tourism that the river brings. The Greenbrier River Trail is a favorite to many and the river is canoed and fished by thousands of people every year.

The Greenbrier River comes together in Durbin, WV at the confluence of its two largest tributaries, the East Fork and West Fork of the Greenbrier. Both rivers are of substantial size and hold fantastic populations of trout. Following either tributary North takes you through deep canyons and into a high country that is lightly travelled. The East Fork begins in high elevation wetlands that are home to rare species of Canadian plants, Balsam Fir and Spruce. As it flows, the river gradually widens, takes on more water, and quickly becomes a fantastic Brown Trout fishery. The high elevations of this watershed were, until last night covered with same 8 inches of snow and ice that Spruce Knob was covered in.

By noon today, all of this water flowed through Main Street in Marlinton. The river didn't crest as high as initially predicted, however, as the water recedes, the damage is becoming evident. The Pocahontas County Times ( and Allegheny Mountain Radio providing updates on the status of the river and those affected.

The affects of the storm on Spruce Knob are minimal compared to those downstream, but still inconvenient. At 8:00 this morning, the Earth Sheltered Office was leaking in about 15 spots and reiterated a fact that we already know. We need a new roof. We'll keep saving money and collecting donations, and hopefully by next summer, we can put a solid top on the office. Until then, we'll keep catching the leaks and running the dehumidifiers.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Winter's Here to Stay

We're in the midst of a real winter. As in much of the state, the mercury dropped below freezing in mid-December and has showed no signs of rising since. The pre-Christmas snow storm that paralyzed much of the mid-Atlantic dropped well over two feet of snow in the Spruce Knob area and snow has fallen nearly every day since. The wind picked up around the first of the year, blowing this snow in every direction and leaving drifts on the driveway that are taller than most everyone I know. The yurts are open to ski and snowshoe traffic only and it appears that this will be the case for some time to come. The state road crew plows the road up to the gate and David Colby Martin, TMI's Program Officer who also lives on the mountain, has a plow on his truck and has kept our lower parking area open and provides us access to the office.

It's the time of year where we get a chance to catch up on work that goes by the wayside during our busy program seasons. We work to better our programming options and content, plan for improvements in our overall operation, catch up with TMI friends and supporters, and fill the remaining gaps in our spring program schedule. This time, although casual, spawns the philosophy of a new year of operation. We brainstorm, compare thoughts and ideas, revisit our mission, and work on making The Mountain Institute more effective.

The sun doesn't rise over Spruce until after 7:30, remains low in the sky, and is soon behind us and back in the trees well before work is through. There are no unexpected visitors, no hunting dogs, and no traffic. When the wind blows, that's all one can hear. It swirls in the canyon and picks up speed as it rises over Back Ridge, across the High Plains, up and over Spruce Knob, and continues on its way towards the Atlantic.