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 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, 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!