Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Now and Then

The fall season was here and is now gone – certainly seeming much more gone than here at this moment as I sit next to the fire, snow surrounding the Woods Yurt. Not long ago, hundreds of young children were here, getting to experience if only for a few days a place much different than almost all others (those they have seen with their own eyes as well as those not yet glimpsed). And no matter how many places folks young or old have seen or imagined, Spruce’s unique feel is a fact. To prove this, one need not look much farther than the smoke curling from a yurt chimney into falling snow, the wind all around.

This place really does seem to live something of a dual existence with both being critical in their own right. Then – the fall, the season, the kids – is when the stream study, the habitat comparison, and “It’s All Connected” reign supreme. It is a time to teach and a time to open eyes, all the while showing young people the places and things they may have never seen before and might never again. This is important work and we do it gladly with boots on our feet and chalk in our hands. And Now – the winter, the off season, a few staff tromping through the snow – is when calm, slow thoughts make their way through nearly empty (and generally quite cold) spaces. To my way of thinking this is an equally important, albeit vastly different, phase in the yearly flow of Spruce. The busy seasons here are what get the press, generate the excitement and fulfill many of TMIs stated goals, but it is now during these short days and long nights that a few wool clad yurt dwellers get to fill a much different but still important role as the winter world surrounds. Rejuvenation. Rebuilding. Creation of excitement and energy for whatever might lie ahead – all of this can happen now, as the snow comes down, as all things seem to slow.

Now and Then. Both are good places. Both are where we need to be at the given time. I figure I don’t have many complaints about either and that’s a good place to be.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

To the Spruce Bars

It seems like the Spruce Bars were put there to impress me. Actually, impress is not sufficient as a descriptor; the hold that those trees have over me is such that further thought and further explanation are needed. Planted long ago (quite how long ago I can’t), it is always said that the Spruce Bars are the oldest planned windbreak in the country (state, county, universe?). As you can tell this is an entirely subjective entry without so much as a hint of a scholarly bent present. That is ok. This is simply an entry about the Spruce Bars and their singular ability to calm an unquiet mind. No matter my mood, the task at hand, or what is yet to come in a challenging day, that perfect arc of tree on horizon is absolutely what I should be viewing at that exact moment.

6:30AM. Only 5.5 hours of sleep to underpin my energy level and general ability to function in the midst of a final end-of-season push. Realizing that the printer really isn’t going to print my Google Maps directions, I grab the giant display board and box of brochures and newsletters I am to throw in the old Jeep (The Chief for those of you who know and care about such things) and lower my head for the overburdened walk to the rear hatch. None of this seems ideal and probably wasn’t until I finally looked to the east. Every color you can dream. The sunrise and the Spruce Bars.

It is doubtlessly true that innumerable cattle have been sheltered from the screaming winds of Spruce Mountain by the windbreak, but I still think that those trees may have been planted for me and mornings like that one.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Toeing the Starting Line

There is something infinitely calm in that moment spent standing at the starting line just before the clock counts down to zero and all moves into forward motion. Breath is exhaled, tense muscles relax, and thought is distilled to a point usually reserved for the dedicated practitioner of meditation. This year’s Run for the Hills 5k starting line was the site of this rare and (for me) much sought after clean simplicity of thought. I felt ready to do my part to honor the 2009 performance of one Robbie Kimmich and bring home a win for TMI staff.

And fare well we did. It seems that one of the hiring criteria at the Spruce Knob Mountain Center may be love of the trail running as staff have done quite well in the races since the event’s inception three falls ago. Home trail advantage is not a bad thing to be sure, but staff up here in the high country put in the hard miles in preparation. Take a look at the results page here and keep an eye out for the following names: Clare Smith in the ½ marathon and Melinda Brooks, Lyle Coutts, Dylan Carolus, Stephanie Palmer, Rebecca Saunders, Klancy Nixon, and Chuck Whitney in the 5k.

As always the pig roast following the race was a tremendous hit, and it was mentioned more than once from participants that this was some of the best food they had ever seen at a race. Also in no way disappointing was the beer from Mountain State Brewing out of Thomas – runners were able to bask in slightly accentuated post race camaraderie and storytelling thanks to a keg of amazing IPA. Chicha, our composting pig, certainly went to a great cause and we all feel that her spirit was smiling down on the weekend. In fact, in an unprecedented push to make next year’s pig the happiest yet, TMI employees, David Young and Liz Guttierez, spearheaded a fundraising effort to build a palatial hutch for our animals to live in next year. An amazing rendition of a winged Chicha was created and a good bit of money was raised for what is certainly a worthy cause.

Plans are already in the works to make next year’s event bigger and better than ever, and if you haven’t come out to the races and roast yet, this will be the time. Bring the running shoes or focus more on the beer stein – whatever the case, we’ll see you out here next fall.

In case you missed them earlier, check out the results of the Run for the Hills and West Virginia Trilogy races here.

And for those who really want to get in depth here, check out this blog for the perceptions (possibly skewed by massive levels of fatigue) of a Trilogy runner.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Randolph County Outdoor Education Program: A Staple

Camp Pioneer is the place.

For over 10 years now, the Randolph County Outdoor Education Program (RCOEP), held at Beverly, WV's Camp Pioneer, has been a staple of TMI's yearly programming as well as a highlight of the fifth grade year for hundreds of West Virginia students. Combining local history, science, art, music, and technical skills, the program does exactly what outdoor education should: allowing kids to learn in a dynamic, surprising, and constantly evolving environment. Whether tackling an orienteering exercise or checking the PH levels of Tygart Creek, the participants in this program are combining classroom-style academic information with the hands on aspects you can only get when wading in a stream or tromping across a field. And when you factor in "Everybody's It" - a key RCOEP free time activity that is simply the greatest off shoot of Tag ever been created - you have something nearing perfection.

The local media agrees. Take a minute to check out this story. Sometimes the fact that you just might be having an impact somewhere down the line - be it near or far - is exactly what it takes to to push one to really commit to a project . Who knows which one of the fifth graders attending this year's program might end up on the board of directors of an environmental policy leader or a key member of a non-profit committed to showing kids that it's still worth getting outside and into the woods? You never know. And we at TMI will continue to do what we can to give kids a chance to discover the outdoors - through science, art, or music - making it something they will eventually focus on and grow connected to.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Festival and Races Are Coming Soon

The Woodlands Homesteading Festival (October 1 & 2) and our third annual race weekend (October 7 – 9) are at the forefront of all minds up here at the Spruce Knob Mountain Center. Giant army surplus tent s are being set up, hills are being run, and the kitchen is gearing up to turn out near record amounts of food. I could spend a bit of time here talking more about the specifics of what’s going on out here over the next couple weekends, but it’s already been done, and nobody is a fan of unnecessary repetition. To that end, please feel free to check out the fine entry in this very blog from a few weeks back. This is just a reminder my friends, just a reminder. Hope to see all blog readers out here in the land of falling leaves and cold mornings very soon.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Working seasonally at TMI has provided me with many things, not the least of which is the opportunity to type the words you are about to read. As great as my current situation is the moments that stand out with real clarity as I ponder my comings and goings are the arrivals. Always filled with anticipation, energy, and a hint of nerves, that first drive up Sawmill Run to 18 Woodlands Way has also never failed to bring with it a touch of the unexpected.

In the fall of ‘08 I came with no expectations and apparently not much sense of direction. Soon after entering what I now know as our driveway, I meandered past the observatory and nearly to the Hawthorn grove at Backridge before wandering back down to what I was sure were the yurts. Little did I know at the time that Daniel Taylor’s was not the yurt I was looking for. Eventually I was greeted in the proper parking lot by Brett Bjorkman (who happens to be arriving again soon for another season - bringing things around in a full circle sort of way).

The spring of ’09 came and after arriving late the night before a course’s beginning I awoke to eight inches of freshly fallen snow covering the roof of my humble van home (also known as “The Whale”, a retired but still faithful early 80’s Ford Econoline). It was a wet and cold hike that day with a slightly astounded group of 5th graders, but the pictures of that snow-covered early morning still resonate.

Ah yes, the fall of ’10. I rolled up to the Earth Shelter to see a certain burgundy Toyota Tacoma’s rear axle hanging off the edge a rock retaining wall - some five feet off the ground and surprisingly supported by nothing more than the bucket of our newly purchased Kubota tractor. All was well in the end, and with the help of a come-a-long, several hi-lift jacks, and the ingenuity of nearly an entire staff, the Tacoma was restored to its terrestrial home.

The voyage can be good, the adventure itself memorable, and the departure sad, but for me - at this place - the arrivals will always stand out.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Here's To New Beginnings

An introduction is in order I suppose. Readers should, in my estimation anyway, know who is typing the words that make their way to the esteemed pages of the Spruce Knob Mountain Center Blog. Nathan Hayes, Josh Nease, and, of course, the most recent contributor, Jeff DeBellis have all left their mark on these pages over the last handful of years, and now I’m excited to sidle up to the keyboard. Oh yes, an introduction was the goal here. Back to it.

Until the age of six I lived in a cabin in the northern Michigan woods somewhere in the range of 45 minutes from the nearest town (Vanderbilt, 200 strong). This is a place that I am lucky enough to get to visit quite frequently and every time I meander up the driveway I am reaffirmed in my desire to spend the majority of my time away from concrete and strip malls. Living in that cabin started me down a winding forest path that I have followed to this this day – a path that I am lucky to have stayed relatively close to through the years. High school and college came and went and I landed in western New Mexico where I began mountain biking and trail running – passions that have held to this day. (At this very moment my bike is actually awaiting the completion of this fine blog entry.) I have found myself at TMI on three previous, seasonal occasions, and now as the new Course Director and Communications Director I am lucky enough to call this mountain my year round home.

Needless to say I am looking forward to bringing random ponderings, solid updates, and possibly the occasional crazy tale to this blog. Basically, it will be as if Spruce Knob were right in your backyard (for those of you reading this in the Earth Shelter that will actually be true I suppose). Read on, friends.

Chuck Whitney

Monday, August 22, 2011

New Spruce Knob Postcards Available

With the help of the folks at Fairmont Printing Company in Morgantown, we've made some beautiful new postcards. There are five scenes in all, each designed to capture something unique to Spruce Mountain. If you're interested in ordering a few, give us a call. We're selling them for 75¢ apiece.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Cultural Freezer Space

One of the things I like most about long hikes with school groups is the chance to talk with other teachers about education philosophy - why they value experiential education, how it fits into their work in the classroom, and what they've learned from their time as educators. Often though, the conversation will find legs of its own and wander about.

Talking with a teacher from the East Harlem School last week, somehow our conversation drifted to language and he mentioned that in Colonial America, there was no such thing as th British accent as we know it today. The present-day American accent is much closer to how everyone spoke English in colonial times. Later on, British folks, especially in the upper classes, began intentionally changing their speech patterns and it caught on.

Like most Americans, I had assumed the British accent had been around forever. Once the colonies broke free, the American dialectic split from the British and took on its own form. The British accent was the original, and the American came later.

Once I got out of the woods, I did some quick research.

"Received (British) Pronunciation developed at the end of the 18th century, during the period of the American Revolution. At that time there was no pronunciation by which people in America could be distinguished from people in England . . . When Americans began to return to England after 1800, they were surprised at the change in fashionable pronunciation" (Algeo, 2001, p.71 & 73).

Pretty wild. But then I found something even cooler. Dialects within the United States obviously differ a bit - from Coastal Maine to The Bronx to the Deep South to Southern California. But the unique dialect peculiar to Central and Southern Appalachia may be the closest living dialect to how everyone spoke in the colonies. The hills that isolate this part of the country have acted like a cultural freezer, preserving an incredible piece of history. Today, the Appalachian dialect is an outlier. But 250 years ago, it was the norm. It was how most people spoke. Modern British and American accents have diverged from it.

"(Appalachian folk speech) has preserved a record of colonial speech unequaled in any other American region, largely due to Appalachia's relative physical isolation during much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Differing agreement patterns between subject and verb (as in 'We went to hunt for the horses which was lost'; 'Snails is large and common'; and 'Two files was demanded by the Indians'), which were once standard usage in the north of England and in the Scottish Lowlands, were also common in the writings of colonial America. Such constructions appeared in the speech of Appalachian natives well after their disappearance from mainstream American English" (Abramson & Haskell, ed., 2006).

One more reason that Appalachia, and the ability of mountains to isolate and preserve unique cultures in general, is so special.

Abramson, R. & Haskell, J., ed. (2006). Encyclopedia of Appalachia.
Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press.

Algeo, J. (2001). The Cambridge History of the English Language: English in North America. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Fall Events: Homesteading Festival and Race Weekend

It feels like all of a sudden the temperatures have dropped and darkness comes earlier and earlier each night. Backpacking through the Seneca Creek Backcountry with the East Harlem School last week, I noticed there is already a good accumulation of brightly colored leaves on the trails.

Time to start thinking about the fall. We've got two major events this autumn: the Woodlands Homesteading Festival and the Race Weekend. The Homesteading Festival is a celebration of the things that make this part of Appalachia so special - both in the past and today. We'll have presentations, workshops, and demonstrations about biochar, grassroots cartography, making and using biodiesel, goat milking, and more. Saturday night we'll prepare a dinner made from locally grown ingredients to be followed by Old Time music and dancing. The festival will happen the weekend of October 1st and 2nd. Click here for more information or here to register.

The following weekend, beginning on October 7, is our third annual Race Weekend. It is a combination of TMI's Run for the Hills! races and the West Virginia Trilogy Races, organized by our friends, The West Virginia Mountain Trail Runners. All combined, there will be a 50 mile, 50k, half-marathon, and 5k spread out over the three day weekend. The runs will wind through the beautiful trails of the nearby Seneca Creek Backcountry. The event will be catered, and, following the runs on Sunday, we will have a pig roast to celebrate not only the races, but the entire season. Click here for more information on the Race Weekend.

We hope to see you in the mountains this autumn.

Monday, August 1, 2011

TMI Appalachia Program in the News for "Camp Good Grief" and "Stars & S'mores"

I've been out of town for a couple weeks, so I'm a little late in getting these up. We got some good news coverage during the month of July that I wanted to share. I was sitting on the bench outside of Yokum's General Store in Seneca Rocks waiting on a school group a couple weeks ago when I noticed an article in the Pendleton Times about a program we did with Camp Good Grief, a local group that helps kids who have lost someone close to them. If you click on the images, they will open up big enough to read.

Chris Dorst, a photographer with the Charleston Gazette, came with his son to our monthly astronomy open house. He and Rick Steelhammer put together a nice article for that paper about the event and about Joe Morris, TMI's astronomy guru. Check it out at http://wvgazette.com/News/201107281061.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Oh, the Wonders of Water

"Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps." -Henry Davide Thoreau, Walking

It was with this sentiment that seven West Virginia school teachers and five TMI instructors took part in TMI's four-day Wonders of Water (WOW) workshop this July at the Spruce Knob Mountain Center. After learning and practicing Project WET activities with Rose Long of the WV Department of Environmental Protection, and Wonders of Wetlands activities with Kate Frase of Environmental Concern, everyone dug into Environmental Concern's "Planning of Wetlands" (POW) process for creating schoolyard wetland habitat. The POW guide details everything one needs to know to take a hunk of lawn and make it a marshland or swamp filled with macroinvertebrates and sedges. At the Spruce Knob Mountain Center, we had a jump on the game with the beloved Butt Cheek Ponds, an existing set of wetlands. The Butt Cheeks have some wildlife but were in much need of diverstiy and a face-lift to fulfill the desired education role. Thanks so much to the participants who opened up the viewshed, suffered the prick of an occasional hawthorn, laid the stone pathway, and planned the proper location and density of our new wetland vegetation. We planted 242 stems of Swamp Milkweed, Blue Joint Grass, Marsh Hibiscus, Blue Flag Iris, Lizard's Tail, Wool Grass, and Soft Stem Bulrush. We look forward to having everyone back to our new High Camp Wetland Revitalization Project in the near future. Bring your students!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Maret Horizons

We just finished up a short program with a group of enthusiastic students from the Maret Horizons program. Horizons is a nationwide summer enrichment program for children from low-income families. Maret, a private school in Washington, DC, is one of the schools that hosts the program.

The kids, mostly from northwest Washington, DC, swam in the North Fork River, hiked to the summit of Spruce Knob, and practiced their wilderness survival skills. By the end of the program, everyone was able to get a fire going in under five minutes.

In the top photograph, a girl holds a Red Spotted Newt that had been basking in the shade of the Spruce trees. In the lower photograph, the students assemble an emergency debris shelter with sticks and leaves. The students pulled together in great ways - orienteering, cooking, and solving problems as a team.

Richard, one of the group's chaperones, came to The Mountain Institute as a fifth grader. It would be great to see some of these kids come back one day too.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Positive Feedback

Wendell Berry once said that "a teacher's major contribution may pop out anonymously in the life of some ex-student's grandchild. A teacher, finally, has nothing to go on but faith, a student nothing to offer in return but testimony." Going on faith is often one of the most challenging aspects of teaching, especially when your time with students is so short as ours often is. Everyone once in awhile though, we do get to see results - or at least hear about them secondhand. It's enough to prop us up and give us a glimpse of the greater impact of our work. So thanks to the parents for sending the note above, it's good to know we're doing something right.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Adventures in the Mountains...and in the Valleys

The second week of TMI's Mountain Adventures Summer Camp is in full swing! As I write this, the campers have probably just finished orienteering to the summit of Spruce Knob, the highest peak in the state, and are now languidly lying around the grassy summit eating lunch or climbing boulders.

The first week of camp wrapped up on Saturday. Ten campers, two instructors, and Claudia, our long-time camper-turned-intern started the week off with an overnight paddle through a section of the S. Branch of the Potomac River. They also pranced across the high ropes course at Camp Hidden Meadow in the East Fork of the Greenbrier Valley, swam in Seneca Creek, and zipped through the tree canopy high above the North Fork Valley at Nelson Rocks Preserve (top picture).

Tomorrow, campers head into the Seneca Creek Backcountry for a two night trip through beautiful high elevation Red Spruce forests.

For more information on TMI's Mountain Adventures Summer Camp, check out www.mountain.org/summercamp

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

"Holy cow, I think we've met before!"

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The Spruce Knob Mountain Center is proud to let you know that we now serve pork sausage and beef from Flying W Farms in nearby Burlington, WV. With the rising gas prices, local food sourcing is making economic sense now more than ever. This meat-seeking non-profit can relish not only saving a few bucks, but also in hearts that don’t sink with every mouthful of biscuits and sausage gravy. Why do our omnivorous hearts now soar? Because unlike trucked-in pounds of meat, local meat comes with answers to our questions: How were these animals raised? How much gas did it take to get this meatball on top of my spaghetti? What farmer raised what animal and did they like each other – those creatures that depended on one another for so much?

The certified natural beef we buy from Flying W Farms is pastured for about three quarters of its life and grain finished outside Petersburg, WV on their farm. It is also processed (slaughtered and butchered) on that same farm. I emphasize place because most of the beef in this country is pastured in one state, grain finished in the feed lots of another, moved again for processing, and trucked even further on down the road to a distribution plant. It is impossible to know much about the life of what you are eating when it has passed through so many different hands.

I am all in favor of wanderlust, but I have to admit, such cultured cows make me downright uncomfortable. Why buy perishable items that have been tramping all around the country instead of those that had the sensibility to stay home? They can come home with all kinds of troubling new ideas. USDA food qualifications such as “Organic,” “Cage-Free,” and “Non-GMO” help us differentiate from what we have come to call “conventional.”[1] To be certified as “natural,” meat must be “minimally processed” with no artificial ingredients added (to the meat). Additionally, Flying W does not administer growth hormones or antibiotics (to the animals).

The pork processed at Flying W Farms comes from David Hevener’s farm outside of Franklin, WV, from whence came our own joyous pig Chicha (also known as Eleanor). On that farm I have seen with my own eyes grand sows lounging in the pastoral shade of a sunny day. I have shaken the very hand that helped pull a wee piglet into this corner of Appalachia and created new life from grass and rocks and drainages, a life whose body will nourish my own.

West Virginians spent almost $4,000 each on food last year, but less than 1% of that went to in-state farms. West Virginia has never been a big producer of non-timber cash crops, but we have managed to send a large percent of our money and resources out of state. Spending our money on in-state farms, however, has a ripple effect that improves the general local economy: “a $1 dollar increase in personal income of farm establishments creates roughly a $4 increase in total personal income in the West Virginia economy.”[2]

Small farming communities are part of our Appalachian heritage, in a land where mountains have hemmed in development and dictated livelihoods – where immediate community can be more important than large-scale industry. As non-renewable sources of energy deplete, let us turn to each other, for on the day that they are gone, what will we know how to do? Who will we thank for our food and our heat and our laughter? How about our neighbors? How about ourselves?

Next time your near Burlington, visit Rick and Margaret Woodworth's Flying W Farm store on Route 50 & 220 or drop them a line at 304/289-3005. -EG

[1] Visit: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/factsheets/meat_&_poultry_labeling_terms/index.asp

for more information on certification terms and conditions.

[2] Visit: http://www.caf.wvu.edu/gdsouzawww/agricultureinWVeconomy.pdf for more information on farm industry and local economy.

Monday, June 20, 2011

TMI Wraps Up another Week of Prairie Restoration

One doesn't generally associate West Virginia with prairie habitat. In fact, much of the east coast would be forested if not for human interference. In Smoke Hole Canyon, within Grant County, however, prairie is the norm. The hot, dry climate and historic disturbances (likely grazing of elk and wood bison) prevented forests from forming and allowed grass species to proliferate, many of which exist nowhere else in the eastern United States. TMI has been working with The Nature Conservancy for the past two years to restore the native prairie to a small test plot in this unique pocket of the Mountain State. For more information about this project please see our article, "TMI Begins Third Season of Prairie Restoration in Smoke Hole Canyon," in the Spring 2011 issue of the Spruce Knob News.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Work Weekend: No Longer an Oxymoron

Many thanks to the volunteers who gave their time and energy to the Spruce Knob Mountain Center this past weekend. With ten volunteers and four staff members, we were able to resurface one of our dormitories from start to finish.

The stucco on the Mud Hut was beginning to crumble, so we tore it and the insulation beneath away to expose the rammed earth wall. Then we resurfaced the building with a lime-based plaster which will (in theory) hold up better.

Many of our volunteers worked from can't see to can't see to get the job done.

The building is still tarped, to protect it from too much sunlight while the plaster finishes drying, but before and after photos will be soon to follow.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Volunteers Needed for Hellbender Survey

All of us up here at The Mountain Institute will be joining Joe Greathouse of the Good Zoo in Wheeling for another hellbender survey on June 11 and we'd love for you to join us. The more volunteers we've got, the more hellbenders we'll find!

The survey will take place somewhere in the Pendleton/Randolph/Pocahontas County area - we haven't pinned down the exact location just yet.

Please give us a call for more details at (304) 567-2632 or email Liz at lgutierrez@mountain.org. You can plan to be in the river all day, so bring a lunch, comfortable, warm clothes, and hip waders if you've got them. We'll have a few extra pairs as well. If you have a landing net, bring that along too.

Afterwards, join us up on Spruce Knob for Stars & S'mores (see blog entry from May 6).

Friday, May 20, 2011

Hellbent on the Greenbrier River

This past week TMI staff joined Joe Greathouse of the Good Zoo in Wheeling, WV, to scour the West Fork of the Greenbrier River for Eastern Hellbenders. Melinda Brooks, at right, is holding the one we found on the cold and rainy day.

We first tried the Shavers Fork of the Cheat River and the East Fork of the Greenbrier, but water levels were too high in both, so we ended up in the West Fork, walking through the river, flipping over large rocks, and blindly feeling around for the slippery critters. We grabbed two that slid away before we were able to coax this one into a net.

Eastern Hellbenders are the largest salamander in North America and are thought to live as long as seventy years. The one Melinda is holding is twenty-one inches long! They are found throughout southern and central Appalachia and as far west as Oklahoma and Kansas. Like all amphibians, hellbenders are an indicator species - one that is particularly sensitive to pollution. In many places, their numbers are declining.

After we caught this guy, Joe and his crew measured it (the gender is difficult to determine outside of breeding season), took a blood sample, and induced vomiting to see what it had been eating (this guy had two or three crayfish in his belly). In addition to counting hellbenders, Joe is studying the effects that climate change has on the creatures.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Edible Seasons

Ramp season has come and nearly gone in the Allegheny Mountains. The last few weekends, I’ve spent countless hours with my fingers in the dirt, trying to get them up by their roots – avoiding breaking them off at their stems. Some I pickled, some I froze, some are still hanging from my window frame drying in the sun. Some went straight into biscuits.

Just in time to take their place, the dandelions have arrived. The flowers can be battered and fried into dandelion fritters, their roots can be roasted, ground, and steeped into tea, and the leaves make excellent salad greens – all packed with vitamins. In Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Euell Gibbons writes, “this herbal hero, one of the most healthful and genuinely useful plants in the material medica of the past, is now a despised lawn weed. Now that supermarkets sell green vegetables throughout the winter and druggists are vending tons of synthetic vitamins, we no longer need to depend on the roots and leaves of this humble plant to ward off sickness and death, so we have turned on the dandelion. Every garden-supply house offers for sale a veritable arsenal of diggers, devices and deadly poisons, all designed to help exterminate this useful and essentially beautiful little plant which has so immensely benefited the human race.”

Morels are out now too, though I haven’t seen any of these mushrooms that blend in so well with the forest floor. Before long, chanterelles will pop up in the mossy banks of Big Run. Chicory, a close relative of the dandelion, with many of the same uses and benefits, will appear in summer. So will yarrow, bee balm, mint, and st. john’s wort, all of which are excellent dried and brewed in tea. Blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries will cover the meadows near our observatory and flood zone along the headwaters of Big Run.

In fall, the trees will begin to fruit. That is, if the frosts this past week didn’t prevent it. Apples and hawthorns can be boiled into jellies or pressed and mulled into cider. Pears and paw paws as well. There are a lot of benefits to living on Spruce Mountain, but being surrounded by a constantly rotating supply of wild edibles is one of the better ones. One thing grows as another is fading out, just as the sun takes the place of the moon each dawn. The human race has long since phased out hunting and gathering as its primary means of sustenance. First, we cultivated plants where they would naturally grow. Then we started trading them, first on foot from town to town and now from continent to continent by plane and ship. An entire planet’s food geography is condensed into any given supermarket. We’ve devised new methods and chemicals to make things grow at exasperating rates. Meanwhile, every other species on Earth continues to hunt and gather.

In the past few years we’ve become more aware of the food we’re eating: where it comes from and how it grows. More and more people are buying organic food and planting small victory gardens. My friend in Brooklyn adopted a small square of unoccupied dirt in the courtyard of her apartment building to plant ferns and heucheras. My friend in DC grows hot peppers in a small box in his window.

Living in a place with such a bountiful natural harvest, I see little need to plant anything. For me, there are no simpler and purer things to eat than what is already growing, in places where they are meant to grow and in quantities which the topography and climate have dictated. Of course, I don’t have nearly the knowledge or ambition to subsist only on a natural harvest. I merely add it to whatever the world has funneled into my supermarket and subsequently my kitchen.

After awhile, the snow will come and the last of the wild edibles will be all but gone. Everything will shut down, at least on the surface. The spring will follow and the maple sap will start running. I’ll wake up before work and crunch over the snow to tap the trees and use the sweet water to brew coffee and tea and make syrup. In early April the sap will stop running and by that time the ramps will be up again. Humans are no longer dependent on the edible rhythm of the seasons, but these foods are all around us - whether we harvest them or not. -JPD

Friday, May 13, 2011

New Staff Wrap-Up Spring Training

Spring has just arrived and we've completed another successful staff training! This spring we have welcomed 9 new members to our TMI staff team and family. They've traveled from all over to join us here on Spruce Knob (California, Oregon, Washington, D.C., Colorado, Illinois, and even Elkins).

We spent 10 glorious days in April getting familiar with the inner workings of the Mountain Learning programs. We learned how to “Read the Landscape," to be Appalachian Watershed & Stream Monitors, and we spent some time getting to know the Monongahela National Forest, our backyard and outdoor classroom. Even with such a busy schedule, we had time for some fun.

The morning of April 15th, as the staff gathered together to begin their hike toward Spruce Knob. They all trotted out from their spruce covered campsite to discover that a large “bunny” had hidden eggs for each of them to find. There is nothing like starting a day off by eating chocolate hidden in plastic eggs. What a treat!

To cap off the entire training experience, returning staff and new staff joined forces for the weekend. An overnight canoe training was postponed due to rain and high waters that pounded our area. Instead, we all had a wonderful time touring Smokehole Caverns and the Greenbank Radio Astronomy Observatory. We ended the day hanging out at Kevin’s for a dutch oven dinner, campfire, lawn games, and slumber party.

All in all, it was a great kick off to the spring season! We have an excited and eager team of outdoor professional ready to jump into working with school groups. A big thank you to everyone who helped with training. It would not have been nearly as successful without the help of so many individuals. Thanks to everyone and welcome to all of the new TMI instructors!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Stars & S'mores

This summer, we'll open our observatory one night each month for Stars & S'mores. The events are free and open to all, so please do come join us. We will have a brief introduction to our telescope and the observatory that it's housed in, look at the stars and planets that fill our night sky, keep a campfire blazing, roast marshmallows, and make s'mores.

The skies above Spruce Knob are some of the darkest in the east. According to www.observingsites.com, the night skies here are "the best that you will find anywhere east of the Mississippi. Extremely remote location and moderately high altitute (4860 feet) combine to give skies that are absolutely incredible when the weather is good. No light domes at all. The sky is black from horizon to zenith."

If it’s raining, or too cloudy to see the stars, we’ll still enjoy the night be searching for salamanders and frogs!

Stars & S'mores will take place on June 11th, July 9th, and August 6th, all Saturdays. Camping is available for $15.

Follow HWY 28 South from Circleville about 5.5 miles, turning right on 28/10 Sawmill Run Rd. Follow signs to TMI, about 6 miles. Turn right into the facility, take the left fork, and follow about ¾ mile. Park near the canoes and follow signs to walk to the observatory (about a ¼ mile).

Give us a call ((304) 567-2632) for more information or to make reservations. Hope to see ya there!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

New Season, New Pig

There's a handful of benchmarks that can be used to mark the start of a new season at TMI: the first school course of the spring, the day that our full complement of senior staff return from their winter adventures, the day that the seasonal staff arrive, or the day that new staff graduate from training.

Perhaps though, a more precise marker than any of these, is the day we acquire our pig. Eva picked up our pig, Eleanor (Ellie), from a farmer on the other side of the county yesterday. Ellie will help us out by eating all of our food scraps throughout the year so that they don't end up in a landfill. She'll also be tilling our garden.

Ellie had a long and bumpy ride up to her new home and broke loose from her fence to explore the Spruce woods shortly after this photo was taken. She's now back in her spacious pen and happily rooting around.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

In Elkins, a Documentary Theatre Project Explores the Lives of Individuals in a Community Facing Mountain Top Removal

Coal River written and directed by Becky Hill is an original documentary theatre project inspired by the people of Coal River Valley, West Virginia. The show focuses on a community in Southern West Virginia as they face Mountain Top Removal Mining. The language of this piece is formed from actual interviews, documents and speeches. The community members' voices were taken from interviews collected by Hill and Jen Osha, a former TMI instructor, within Raleigh and Boone County.

All performances are free of charge. Donations are appreciated. All proceeds will go Marsh Fork Community Association.

The show will be at the Boiler House Studio Theatre at Davis & Elkins College in Elkins April 20th-21st and 26th at 7pm.

The cast includes various Elkins community members ranging in age from 21 to 69 with music by Gerry Milnes.
The Cast is as follows:
Judy: Emily Yeager
Shannon: Craig Hyre
Ernie: Bill Talbot
Silvia: Jane Birdsong
Junior: Adam Williams
Rick: Matt Kupstas
Walker Cat Representative: Evan Burks
West Virginia Coal Association Representative: Bill King
Safety Official: Spinner O'Flaherty
Friends of Coal Women's Auxiliary Representative: Roxy Todd
Definitions: Susan Krakoff

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

I Pity the Poor Non-Profit

Like all non-profits, TMI is dependent on the grace and generosity of its supporters, whether in the form of financial support, goods, time and energy, or specialized skills. There is no part of our Spruce Knob Mountain Center - from our buildings to our curriculum to our bookkeeping that is untouched by volunteers.

Below is an abbreviated wishlist of things that will help us to maintain our 400 acre facility and the high quality education programming that we bring to thousands of students each year. For the full list, for more specifics, or if you are able to donate any of the following items, please contact our office at (304) 567-2632.

Gear to Outfit Students for Programming
Midweight Long Underwear (S, M, L)
Winter Hats
Thick Waterproof Ski Mittens
Neck Gaiters
Waterproof Hiking Boots (Men's 6-12, Women's 6-8)
Winter Boots (Sorel Glacier or Similar) (Men's 6-12, Women's 6-8)
Thick Fleece Pants (S, M, L)
Thick, Full-Zip Fleece Jackets (S, M, L)
Thick Wool Socks
Rain Jackets & Pants (Helly Hansen Impertech or Similar) (S, M, L, XL, XXL)
Breathable Stockingfoot Chest Waders (M, L)
Shoulder-Length PVC Gloves
Hip Waders w/ Boots (Men's 6-8) (Please no Neoprene or Felt Soles)

Facility & Office Needs
Ten Inch Pouch-Type Laminator
Large Propane Commercial Washer/Dryer
Compact Car for School Visits
Fifteen Passenger Bus

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Summer Courses for Adults at SKMC

TMI will be offering three Professional Development Workshops for teachers and other interested citizens this summer. Participants will learn about the mountains, forests, and streams that make up the Central Appalachian Highlands - one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the United States. They will also leave with the skills and materials necessary to teach this information to their students.

The workshops include:
Wonders of Water: July 11-14
Explore existing water based curricula for your classroom and leave with over 100 lesson plans to use! Learn how to create an outdoor wetland classroom on your school property. Our focus will be Project WET, Wonders of Wetlands, and Planning of Wetlands. Use these activities alone OR to complement a field trip to TMI.

Reading the Landscape: July 18-21
A comprehensive overview of forest and watershed systems using field-based investigation and classroom materials.

Appalachian Watershed & Stream Monitors (with TMI & Trout Unlimited): August 8-11
Immerse yourself in water quality monitoring techniques, stream restoration options with youth, and the wonders of headwaters streams, while covering multiple science and social studies Content Standards & Objectives!

For more information on any of these workshops please visit www.mountain.org/professional-development-opportunities.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Nazareth College Group Spruces Up the Earth Shelter

Last month a dedicated group of students from Nazareth College in Rochester spent their spring break at The Mountain Institute. Most of their energies were concentrated on the Earth Shelter: scraping the ceiling, painting the walls, and rearranging the furniture. It's finally starting to look like a real office in here. They also had some time left over to make delicious bread and yogurt and spend some time strolling around the property to learn about the natural history and ecology of Appalachia.

They kept their own blog going while they were here: http://nazarethtmi.blogspot.com/.

A huge thank you to all the students who volunteered their time to make this place look great.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Spruce Knob News Spring 2011 to Hit News Stands!

The Spruce Knob News won't actually hit news stands - in fact, I don't know of any news stands anywhere near here. However, it will be mailed out soon. So if you're a friend of TMI's Appalachia Program and would like a copy in your mailbox, drop me an email (jdebellis@mountain.org) and I'll add you to our mailing list.

You can also check out the electronic version (as well as all of our thrilling back issues) at www.mountain.org/publications.

The coming issue will feature a piece about the weather and climate in this part of the world ("Turnaround Time: Notes on a Year of Weather Watching," by Jeff De Bellis), an article about soloing the long, cold winter on Spruce Knob in a 100 year old farmhouse ("Keeping Time, " by Eva Gutierrez), updates on our public school, watershed education, and conservation programs, and much much more.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Are you Ready for an Adventure?

TMI is getting ready for an exciting and adventurous summer and so should you! We are proud to host the Mountain Adventures Summer Camp once again. Join us for one, two, or three weeks of summer camp in the wild and wonderful state of West Virginia! We will raft the rivers, climb the peaks, hike through the spruce forests, and gaze at the stars in our astronomical observatory. Throughout all these activities campers will make lifelong friendships and reconnect with the outdoors.

2011 Summer Camp Dates:

Week One: June 20th-June 26th

Week Two: June 27th-July 3rd

Week Three: July 4th-July 10th

Summer Camp at a Glance:
  • Our unique round buildings (yurts) set back in the forest, make for an ideal location to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city
  • Our adventures include whitewater rafting, backpacking, canoeing, hiking, orienteering, ropes courses, rock climbing, and much more!
  • This is a co-ed summer camp for ages 12-17
  • Our "challenge by choice" model leads to increased self-confidence
  • With some of the darkest skies in the eastern U.S., our location is ideal for stargazing with our observatory
  • Small group sizes allow our campers to thrive in a world of friendship and fun
  • Safety is our first responsibility - all of our instructors are certified Wilderness First Responders.
Please visit our summer camp webpage for more information: www.mountain.org/summercamp

We look forward to seeing you this summer!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

TMI to Host Training Camp for High School Runners

This summer The Mountain Institute will host the 2011 Spruce Mountain Running Camp. The camp, organized by the West Virginia Mountain Trail Runners, will take place from July 3-9 at the Spruce Knob Mountain Center. Over the week you will thoroughly explore the area, running, hiking and camping on the trails.

The staff is made up of expert runners, coaches and experienced wilderness guides. You’ll learn about running, trail stewardship, the botany and history of the area and yourself over the seven days and six nights of this camp. This camp is designed as an early season boost for your cross country system, but the actual running won’t be the hard part. You’ll be challenged in many ways and will become a better runner for it.

Come join us for a week of running in the woods this summer, in a truly special place.

For complete information including registration forms and scholarship information, visit http://wvmtr.org/camp.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Spring Cleaning

With programming beginning in mid-April, this is the time of year that staff begin cleaning, fixing odds & ends, and shoveling away the last of the snow-piles that block the doors. This spring we've embarked on a massive cleaning effort like never before. Walls are being scrubbed, chimneys are being cleaned, and buildings are being renovated. Chris, to the right, is scrubbing down the hard-to-reach places in the shower barn. Our new, well-drawn water system is in place & new urinals have been installed in the shower barn. Next week, a group of students from Nazareth College will be coming to help with various projects, including painting the Earth Shelter.

The snow is all but gone here, with a few piles still hiding out in the shadier places on the mountain - the north facing slopes & in the thick spruce woods. Days are sunny, nights are frigid, and maple sap is flowing prodigiously. Returning staff will trickle in one-by-one as the maples bud until all the little yurts are filled. New staff will join us at the end of March and school courses will begin shortly thereafter. This spring promises to be a busy one, and we're starting the year off with everything in top shape.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Monongahela National Forest Trails Survey

The National Forest Service recently put together a survey for users to give feedback on trails in the Mon National Forest. The survey will be used to help identify maintenance priorities. The forest has over 860 miles of trails and only a small group of employees and volunteers maintaining them. At times, we at TMI have done much of the grunt labor on these trails - trimming branches, rolling 300 lb rocks to create staircases and reduce erosion, or digging through rocky soil to plant signposts. These trails, especially those in the Seneca Creek Backcountry, are vital to The Mountain Institute's school courses. They are the pathways that we use to introduce students to the natural world of the Appalachians. Beyond that, they are the primary access routes into what is one of the most isolated, undeveloped, diverse, and unique areas in the eastern United States.

Those of you who spend time with these trails, here's your chance to give the Forest Service some feedback at http://montrailssurvey.blogspot.com/.