Thursday, December 26, 2013

Happy Holidays!

Spruce Bars after a light snow in early December.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Mountain Institute Staff Abroad

Megan Gyongyosi joined the Spruce Knob Mountain Center for the fall of 2012 and the spring of 2013 before moving onto a position with the Peace Corps in the Phillipines. Here's an article from the Parkersburg News and Sentinel about her involvement with the typhoon relief efforts.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Bill Coperthwaite and The Mountain Institute

Bill Coperthwaite in Almati, date unknown
Bang! A wooden door opens and shuts quickly, drawn down by the cast-iron pot which serves as a counterweight. A group of curious children rushes up the stairs to the library, pauses at the ladder to the aerie to gaze up at the giant skylight which frames lazy clouds overhead, and then the whole lot of them clambers up into the topmost room. The library is soon filled by the sound of their whispered conversations. Downstairs, in the outer ring of the yurt, a group of staff sits at a table, overlooking the meadows of the High Plains, eating lunch. They’d looked towards the group of kids as they ran in, but since the sight is a familiar one, they return to their food with enthusiasm. In the belly of the yurt is the kitchen, where the air is warmed by the oven and a couple of staff run laps around the circular kitchen as they clean up the dishes and scrub down the counters after putting out lunch. Outside the yurts, a truck comes down the bumpy road and turns a corner. The driver catches sight of the yurts for the first time, and wonders, briefly, if he has entered Middle Earth.  
Ulan Bator being built, King Seegar in foreground
For those of us arriving at the Spruce Knob Mountain Center for the first time, these yurts seem to have come from another world. Really, they came from the mind and hands of Bill Coperthwaite, who passed away this past week near his home in Maine. Coperthwaite designed these iconic buildings, and worked alongside a large crew to build Ulan Bator, our three-tiered yurt, in 1975. Besides his influence in the aesthetics of the place, he was also a contributor to The Mountain Institute’s philosophy and will be dearly missed by those who knew and admired him.
Bill Coperthwaite was inspired to build his version of the Mongolian ger (yurt) after seeing a National Geographic article on the structures used by the nomadic herders of that part of the world. Coperthwaite took the basic design and modified it for the wet climate of the Northeastern United States. The fabric covering traditionally used is well suited to the dry climate of Mongolia, but in the Eastern U.S. it would act like a sponge for rain and snow. He kept the design principles the same, including the copper ring that held together the wooden planks of the structure. Coperthwaite described a yurt in an early Yurt Foundation calendar, published in 1976:
"The Yurt design has its origins in the folk wisdom of ancient Mongolia where the prototype has, for thousands of years, been found to withstand the severe cold and violent winds of the steppes of inner Asia. There the nomadic herders developed a circular tent made of light poles and thick felt, held up by a simple band of yak hair or wool (similar to the hoop that holds a wooden barrel together) encircling the Yurt at the eaves and taking the outward thrust of the roof. The result was a circular living space, free of the normal tents' inward sloping wall and the resulting negative space, and unencumbered by interior support. It is out of deep respect for the folk genius of these nomads that their word “yurt” was chosen for this modern offspring of their ancient engineering skill."
Ulan Bator Work Crew, "Bill Cop" 5th name
Coperthwaite designed both a simple yurt (the inspiration for several staff residences at the Spruce Knob Mountain Center) and a concentric yurt. He put together the drawings and plans that would eventually become TMI’s three-tiered “yurt within a yurt.” As a nod to the yurt’s origins, this building was named “Ulan Bator,” after the capital of Mongolia. Coperthwaite continued to design yurts and participate in workshops through The Yurt Foundation, a small non-profit which he ran from his own yurt in Maine. Coperthwaite’s design principles reflected his personal ethics, and special care and meaning was put into much of the design. Bill believed in the principles of democratic design, which influenced his love of teaching people to build low-cost yurts and encouraged his affinity for curved spaces: "Why Hobbit shaped doors? We are not rectangular animals. A door with a curved top appears more inviting. When making your own it is nearly as easy to make it curved as not - and it is more fun. We are narrowest at our head and feet and widest in the middle. Early thoughts were to have doors widest at the shoulder, but, on pondering more I realized that often we are carrying a load in our arms when passing through a doorway - groceries, a child, firewood - and that man-cum-load is widest at the elbows” (Coperthwaite, 1986).
Coperthwaite remained involved with The Mountain Institute after designing and helping to construct Ulan Bator in the 1970s. Most recently, he led a workshop during the 2011 Woodlands Homesteading Festival. Now, after his death, his yurts continue to symbolize TMI and embody the organization’s most dearly held values: democracy, equality, self-sufficiency, and intelligent, intentional choice. Bill’s legacy will live on at Spruce, both in his buildings and in the philosophy behind our day-to-day operations.  
As Bill commented, “I think that there is more emotional security in people’s lives if they have an intimate relationship with their surroundings. What I am talking about is more than just knowing the flowers and birds and trees in your region. It can be knowing the things that you are using. If you make a shirt, you know that shirt in a way that you don’t if you just walk in and buy it. The same is true of a spoon or a bowl or a house. If you have been involved in making it, it gives you more understanding of that. Plus there is a confidence that comes. I can build my own house. For me, an awful lot of the violence in the world comes from insecurity. If we could find ways to grow in emotional stability we wouldn’t have to tell the ethnic jokes, we wouldn’t have to push someone else down, either mentally or physically. Otherwise we are going to continue having this society that does violence to people in so many different ways."
Ulan Bator in the 70s
Some quotations from:
MacIver, Rod. (2011). An Interview with Bill Coperthwaite. Heron Dance Creativity Journal. Retrieved from
B/w photo of Ulan from The Yurt Foundation calendar, color photograph likely from:
Easton, Bob and Lloyd Kahn (1973). Shelter. Shelter Publications.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Human Power

                The recent addition of solar panels to The Mountain Institute’s Earth Sheltered building and our new energy efficiency programming have sparked discussions amongst staff about the most effective forms of energy in terms of practicality, effect on the environment, and overall efficiency. Our energy sources – such as coal, natural gas, wind, and solar – power our lights, heat our homes, and power the machinery that builds our buildings. Yet in any discussion about energy there is one source of energy production that is often overlooked: the human body. 
                Through the ages, human and animal power has constructed the pyramids, built entire cities, and ploughed large swaths of land for agricultural use.  For a majority of human history, human power and handmade objects were highly valued. The industrial revolution in many ways valued the mass-produced product and the industrial product over handmade products and the hard work that went into them. However, it is only in the last two centuries that industrial power production has overtaken human power as a greater source of energy production.

                 Many questions arise in my mind when talking about energy. How can we provide for all of humanity's power needs? What new forms of energy production can power our cities? Yet amongst all of my possible ideas and thoughts about energy production lies a simple idea: that we use less electrical energy and do more to provide directly for our own basic needs.
                 The principle of Bread Labor, fostered and popularized by Ghandi, holds that a person must work in some way each day to directly provide for his or her basic needs of food and shelter. It is perhaps Ghandi's practice of Bread Labor that may aid in our return to a more energy efficient, human-powered way of living. Like any other form of life, humanity needs to capture food, seek shelter, and produce energy in order to survive. Yet, in our busy modern lives, we are so often disconnected and uninvolved in the very processes that create our homes and grow our food. If we were more involved in these processes and used more human energy to produce them, we might reduce the energy waste associated with their production.
                 The Mountain Institute was formed on the very premise that this principle of Bread Labor is a necessary part of life and work for the staff and volunteers that live here. From the beginning, raw human power was big part of its creation. The main yurts were built entirely by volunteers, without the use of power tools, and the materials were sourced from local timber.
                The designer of these yurts, Bill Coperthwaite, lives in a yurt that he built in Maine where he survives without electricity and grows most of his own food, thus abiding by the principle that human power is the most important and interesting form of work. Bill admired Scott Nearing, another Thoreau-like modern philosopher and homesteader, who at ninety-nine was still splitting his own firewood. Scott Nearing, quoted Thoreau in one of his books, saying that firewood gathered by human power, "warms us twice, and the first warmth is the most wholesome and memorable, compared with which the other is mere coke...the value is received before the wood is teamed home." These men believed the mere act of cutting your own firewood, growing your own food, and building your own dwelling, made from local resources, is an activity that saves an unnecessary the use of energy. Human power, for them, was not only a fact of life but the very essence of their philosophy about energy and how one ought to view work and life. For them, the handmade product or building was more important that the cheap, mass-produced one, because it was a representation of human power rather than an energy-intensive industrial process. Bill and Scott both proved in their lifetimes that living off the land by using mostly human power and the principle of bread labor is still possible, even in the modern world.

                To many of us, the lives of modern homesteaders, like Bill Coperthwaite and Scott Nearing, seem to be an extreme example. Perhaps not all of us are in a position to make a sudden switch to homesteading, or stop using our power tools. However, we can still make better choices about the energy we use, especially our own human energy. –Mike Escol

To learn more about the Nearings, see this link.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Fuel from Trash

Paper bricks, an example of refuse derived fuel.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Most of us have been hearing this, the holy trinity of the environmental movement, since we were in elementary school. Although there is a time and a place for each, there is a reason for the order that these words are always placed in. Reducing the amount of waste we create can make the most progress towards reducing our impact on the world around us. Recycling, on the other hand, can end up with the same disadvantages of tossing things into a landfill because of the amount of time and energy it takes to transport, sort, and process recyclables.
                Here on Spruce, we’re taking a big step towards reducing our environmental impact by reusing much of our waste instead of recycling it. Given our remote location, the nearest recycling facilities are forty miles away in Elkins. Without another reason to make the trip, there is a lot of gasoline consumed in getting our recycling to town.
                With a few simple tools and a little bit of time, we are able to convert our paper trash – the bulk of our recyclables - into heat. Refuse Derived Fuel is the fancy terminology for this process. Paper is shredded, soaked, and compressed into bricks using a device such as this one. Once dried, the bricks burn as well as some woods. Since most of the buildings here are wood heated, this cuts down on the amount of fire wood that we need to burn. 
                Cardboard can be processed into fuel with even less effort – pieces are cut down to wood stove-length sections, rolled into logs, and tied with natural fiber string. The cardboard logs heat up quickly and burn hot, but last longer than if you threw the pieces in flat.
                A group of volunteers from "Outside In" in Elkins was up last month to help make paper bricks. The project was so successful that they are working to implement a similar program on their own campus. A big “thank you” is due to the folks from "Outside In" for all of their hard work.
Plastics and metals can all be recycled locally and don’t build up nearly as quickly. As far as glass, we are making the Spruce Knob Mountain Center glass-free beginning in 2014. If you do bring glass containers on your visit to the Mountain, we ask that you bring the empties home with you to recycle.

                With a few simple steps, we are reducing our driving, reducing the amount of firewood we need, and eliminating the need for someone else to sort all of our recyclables later on down the line. That’s true sustainability.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Visiting Filmmakers Profile TMI in the Caves

This summer, a collaborative film project called Conversations from the Open Road visited the Spruce Knob Mountain Center and had the opportunity to go caving in the Sinks of Gandy. The film of their experience is now online! To see it, click the link:
Exploring the Caves of Spruce Knob
For more information on the project, you can also check out their blog.
The crew of Conversations from the Open Road.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

A View from the Stars: The Almost Heaven Star Party 2013

Mr. Bob Traube of the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club reflects on September's annual Almost Heaven Star Party.

Center of the Milky Way from TMI
Those of you reading The Mountain Institute’s Blog already know how beautiful and relaxing it is at TMI.  If you’ve visited there you also know how knowledgeable, helpful, and friendly the staff is, so some of what I’m reporting here will come as no surprise to you.  Now, imagine those fantastic facilities and that super staff coping with over 250 guests camped on the field at TMI over a long, five-day weekend.  That’s exactly what happened this past September.   For the 9th consecutive year, TMI successfully hosted the “Almost Heaven Star Party.”  Every year, volunteers from the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club and TMI staff organize and conduct this annual astro-extravaganza, offering astronomers and their families the opportunity to experience the darkest skies East of the Mississippi.  Those not recovering from a long night of observing also participate in numerous daytime activities uniquely suited to TMI’s setting. 
California Nebula
Solar Observing from the Yurts

Extremely dark skies over TMI provide astronomers with amazing views of galaxies, nebulas, star clusters, and planets that are the grist of amateur astronomy.   Without the light pollution and sky glow so prevalent in other areas of the country, these objects are not only visible in our telescopes - they are dazzling!  Visual observers can see faint details only available through much larger telescopes while astrophotographers are able to image delicate features not possible to capture from home.   It’s no wonder that so many amateur astronomers and their families flock to the Almost Heaven Star Party each year.  But that’s only the beginning of the fun.

While the main focus of the event is on observing and photographing the nighttime sky, a host of other activities are available during the daylight hours at AHSP; these include birding, caving, fishing, hiking, mountain biking, rafting, canoeing, and rock climbing.    Most of these are 
scheduled activities led by either a TMI staffer or a knowledgeable NOVAC member, and are open to all AHSP participants.  There is safe solar observing during the day, when sun spots and solar flares (prominences) are visible. Having the right gear is essential to doing this effectively and safely.  Never look at the sun without a proper solar filter!  You’ve been warned!

There’s another good reason to attend the Almost Heaven Star Party… the door prizes!  These amazing incentives are provided to the event by astronomy vendors, NOVAC, and even individuals, to the delight of participants.  This year, we gave away nearly 50 prizes, valued at thousands of dollars.  The door prize drawing is always well attended, as you can see…
The AHSP Door Prize Give-away

In addition to all the local events taking place during the day on the mountain, there are two big “road trips” to fill the days.

Steam Locomotive at the Cass Mountain Railroad
This classic steam rail line was built in 1901 to haul lumber to the mill in Cass, West Virginia.  The AHSP tour visits their maintenance depot and takes a breathtaking trip up Cass Mountain via their coal-fired, steam-powered Shay locomotives and coach rail cars.  The sound of live steam and train whistles accompanied by the smell of burning coal provides a visceral trip back in time to an era when steam-driven locomotives were an essential part of everyday life in West Virginia.  This trip is fun for astronomers and their families alike.

On the second tour, participants experience the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Greenbank, West Virginia. 

300ft Byrd Radio Telescope at NRAO
The site is home to the largest, fully steerable radio telescope in the world.  The tour includes a behind-the-scenes visit to the technical workshops and laboratories, rarely open to the public.  For those who register, there is an overnight workshop that includes training and hands-on experience operating a 40 ft radio telescope dish to capture and analyze radio signals from planets, distant galaxies, quasars, and black holes.  It’s certainly not the usual fare for us backyard astronomers!
Kevin Enjoys the AHSP!
TMI Campus

Perhaps the most appreciated feature of the Star Party is the hospitality shown to us by the TMI staff.   They seem to “never say no” to any request.  They go far, far out of their way to accommodate the 250+ guests and make us feel at home.  Amazingly, they never fail to help us solve the logistical problems we all have when traveling and to make us comfortable in the unique culture and environs that is TMI.  For an additional fee, TMI serves savory meals to keep us satisfied and well fed.  For breakfast, lunch, and dinner we are treated to a sometimes unusual, but always tasty, variety of food.  Their desserts seem to be everyone’s favorite, given the chef’s fondness for chocolate cookies and brownies!  Oh my!  Our thanks go out to all of the TMI staff for making us feel at home.
Andromeda Galaxy

While the sky is the main attraction at any star party, getting together with old friends from past AHSP events and meeting new ones is a key part of the pleasure of observing under the dark West Virginia skies.   Participation at the Almost Heaven Star Party is open to everyone; you don’t have to be a NOVAC member to register.  Please consider joining us next summer, August 22-26, 2014, for our 10th annual event.  Registration will open sometime early next year so keep your calendar free and check the website often for news and registration instructions.
Eyes on Ulan Bator
-Article and photography by Bob Traube

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Run for the Hills & Trilogy 2013!

The half marathon winner crosses the finish line!
 This was the 5th year for the Run for the Hills 5K and Half Marathon race and the 4th year for the West Virginia Trilogy (50K, 50 Mile, Half Marathon). Runners and their families joined us for a whole weekend of racing, eating good meals, and meeting with both old and new friends. The Run for the Hills race is a fundraising event for the the Spruce Knob Mountain Center. Race reports, photos, and this year's results can be found here. You can also check out the blog  of runner Nick Billock and see more photos of the event on the TMI Flickr!

Runners who successfully completed the Trilogy race smile for the camera!

Winners of Sunday's 5K show their smiles. 

Sunday's half marathon winners!

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Northern Virginia Astronomer's Club and The Mountain Institute

Thanks to its unique location within the Monongahela National Forest, the Spruce Knob Mountain Center attracts not only school groups looking for a wilderness experience, but also an assorted bunch of other groups. These include cross-country runners, college survival groups, men and women's retreats, and - thanks to our isolation from cities and light pollution - astronomers. In late August, hundreds of amateur astronomers from the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club camped out on the High Plains for the Almost Heaven Star Party. As a blurb from their website puts it:

"A truly dark sky is a sight that few get a chance to see. For amateur astronomers who are used to backyard astronomy in the light-polluted suburbs, the sky at Spruce Knob will be an experience that you won’t forget. While the trip takes some time, it will be worth it. However, if your idea of roughing it is a hotel that doesn’t offer turn-down service, you might want to pass. While the amenities at The Mountain Institute make this far from a primitive site, camping is not for everyone. We recommend that you come prepared and have reasonable camping experience in order to fully enjoy AHSP."

This year's event was a sold-out success, which meant that our kitchen stayed busy as staff provided breakfast, lunch, and dinner to AHSP stargazers who had opted for a meal option. After working in the kitchen, many staff wandered out into the high plains to mingle with the observers and peer through their telescopes into the heavens above. Since astronomy is a part of the curriculum for school groups, the AHSP is a great chance for TMI staff to get acquainted with constellations. 

To give you a sense of just how awesome the skygazing can be on the High Meadows of Spruce Knob, here's a collection of photos from NOVAC member Bob Traube, a regular visitor to Spruce Knob who took these photos over the 4th of July weekend. The descriptions of photos are his as well. Thanks to the staff and participants of NOVAC and AHSP who make the August experience terrific for everyone!

This is the amazing Andromeda Galaxy.  Its full extent covers three full moons.  Designated as M31, the shot also includes two companion galaxies, M32 and M110.  The "M" designation identifies them as members of the famed Messier List. 

This image presents the North American nebula on the left and the Pelican Nebula on the right.  These clouds of Hydrogen gas glow red from the absorption of Ultraviolet light from nearby stars and remission of that energy as the red light we see.  Both are located near the star Deneb in the constellation Cygnus, the Swan also know as the Northern Cross.

This circle (actually a sphere) of glowing gas is the remnant of an ancient supernova shockwave.  As the energy of that violent explosion encounters interstellar gas, it causes it to glow,  revealing its progress.  The bright star on the upper right is 52 Cygni, placing the nebula in the constellation Cygnus.

These and the following photos are shots of a passing thunderstorm.

 As Bob Traube wrote, "It is no wonder why we enjoy our visits to TMI so much!"


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

8th Grade Landon Boys Return to Spruce

On September 10th, I was nervous. The next day I would be welcoming twelve 8th-grade boys from the Landon School to Spruce Mountain, and I had never worked with an all-boys school before. I didn’t know what to expect. Twelve hours later, as we hiked to our campsite together, the boys barraged me, my co-instructor, and our awesome school chaperone with questions about the campsite and the mountain. This inquisitiveness would set the tone for the week. While I knew they would be excited to learn hard skills of campcraft, fire building, and survival, the boys surprised me with their curiosity about conservation, mushrooms, astronomy, and especially medicinal plants.

On our last full day together, the boys led us to the top of Spruce Knob using their new orienteering skills. They were eager to succeed, and while they sometimes struggled physically on the long hike and required a few pep talks, they hit their destination spot-on. Our time atop Spruce Knob encapsulated the best parts of our time together. The boys fearlessly climbed the boulders, devoured lunch, listened patiently to a geology lesson, sat quietly hunched over their journals as the rain lashed them during a brief storm, and joyfully played games together when the sun came out. That night they had to answer questions on what we’d taught that week to earn marshmallows for their s'mores, and they nailed it.

Overall, it was a great week for everyone. My co-instructor and I played Paper/Rock/Scissors to see who would get to spend one last hour laughing and playing with the boys as we waited for their bus to arrive, which is extremely rare at the end of a long week. It’s our hope they return to Landon with new friends, more confidence in their problem solving and endurance, and memories of wonder and fun out in the woods. And instead of nervous, I will be super excited to work with more all-boys schools in the future! - Katy Medley

Sunday, September 8, 2013

New Staff, New Season

This past week, we welcomed eleven new seasonal staff and two new interns to the Spruce Knob Mountain Center. Melinda Brooks led this season's staff training, taking staff out camping, canoeing, and caving. Returning staff included Sophie Roblin, Sara Dorsey, Jeff DeBellis, and Kate Preston. New staff were Eric Winter, Ryan Stewart, Craig Hauptman, Paula Kaufman, Erin Lineberger, Brittany Smith, Katy Medley, and Eleanor Warner. We also say a sad goodbye to summer staff Dylan Harris, who will be leaving TMI to pursue a graduate degree in London. Patrick Dupre also returned from a summer spent biking and farming in Maine.

We're gearing up for our busy fall season, so expect updates as we work with a variety of schools, including Landon, Roland Park Country School, Shipley, Green Acres, Winston, and Gilman, among others. In the meantime, here are some photos from New Staff Training.

Canoe training on the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac

Kevin Stitzinger goes over stream sampling protocol
Day hike around the Monongahela National Forest
Building a debris shelter

Melinda Brooks teaches topographical features

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

From Harlem to the High Falls of Seneca Creek

by Braja Smith, Resident Instructor
At last month's Spruce Knob Mountain Center staff alumni reunion, we were treated to slideshows of pictures of the Spruce Knob Mountain Center from years past. Featured prominently in several slides from the '80s were familiar-looking aluminum frame backpacks. A close inspection revealed several of them still live in our backpack storage, twenty years later. Our stoves, water filters, and some of our topographical maps have changed since then, but our staff's knowledge of, and love for, our backyard wilderness remains the same. Of all the courses that we run, backpacking courses are a stalwart favorite among the staff.

East Harlem School at the Exodus House
Last Monday, thirty kids from the East Harlem School took a nine hour bus ride to our campus and spilled out onto the front lawn of the Earth Sheltered Office. East Harlem has partnered with TMI for about four years, and lends its incoming class of eighth grade students to the backcountry of West Virginia for a solid eight day course. The mission of the East Harlem School is to “develop academic excellence, moral integrity, courtesy, and an unshakable commitment to their future and the fate of their community”, a statement that reflects many of the same values underpinning The Mountain Institute’s own mission.

Geology school at the top of Spruce Knob
East Harlem is a non-profit charter school that is free to its students. Students in our group of nine kids spoke of visiting the Dominican Republic, Hershey Park in Pennsylvania, and relatives in South Carolina, but wilderness was an unimagined and untraveled landscape. As one the kids commented upon the completion of our descent to the High Falls of Seneca Creek, “This is like a music video!” (TLC's '94 song "Waterfalls" kept our kids in high spirits on some of the tougher section of trail.)

Simple camp craft lessons on the trail often led to engaged science discussions. One night, I showed the kids how to hold a match at a sloping angle, rather than vertically up and down. Our chaperone asked our kids to think about why hot air rises and why cold air is denser than hot air. An avid discussion followed about convection, conduction and radiation, all sparked by a match and a piece of birch bark.

Getting ready to head out from Spruce Knob

In New York City, a mile is twenty blocks, but a mile in New York City does not have downed trees, stinging nettle, water crossings, or elevation gains of 800 feet. The romance of the mountains competed for our students' attention with worries about bears and bugs. Not long after a butterfly inspired terror in our group, we stopped at the top of the Judy Springs trails, in an open patch of meadow with a view of the Allegheny Front. One of the kids exclaimed “This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. My mother would cry tears of joy if she could see this.”

I was constantly impressed by the students' wonder and inquiry about the world around them, and by their care and attention for each other. Tears shed in the middle of the night were met by sympathetic backrubs and hugs from all group members. As the kids reflected at the end of the week on their experience, they all commented on the care that they had felt from each other in the unfamiliar world of the wilderness. One kid summed up the experience; “There were times I didn’t think I could do it, and it felt like the hardest thing in the world. Now I’m so glad I’ve gone on this trip.”

Picture of the East Harlem School courtesy of their website.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

“It looks like a hurricane ripped through here!”

Hard at work in the Seneca Creek Back Country.
This week wrapped up our last week of Mountain Trail Monitors, and students from Winfield, Petersburg, Morgantown and Canaan Valley joined us in clearing Horton and Spring Ridge trails, and blazing some tricky spots along Big Run in the Seneca Creek Back Country.
The kids were mostly strangers to each other, but as the group quickly piled into the van amid a typical afternoon rainstorm, whatever trepidation I had about working with a bunch of teenage boys for the week soon melted away. I shamelessly eavesdropped on their conversation about current events and political trivia (how many groups of boys will start to get to know each other by intelligently discussing the Zimmerman trial? My mind was blown). Upon arrival at camp, tents and tarps popped up like mushrooms as the guys showed off their various attempts at fisherman’s knots and truckers hitches, swapping brief stories about soccer, encampment, raising horses, and general ruckus. Although few had much experience backpacking, many came with some prior knowledge of hard skills, and those who were less experienced seemed eager to learn. Before we knew it, dinner was served, firewood was gathered, and it felt like the week was startin’ off right.
Monday morning dawned and with it the beginning of our work week. After a close look at our topo maps, we set off to conquer the Horton trail. The group worked in surprising silence for most of the morning, quietly waging war on intruding beech saplings. But the first GORP break broke down that barrier and laughter and curiosity came pouring out. Throughout the week, each student was so enthusiastic about learning about the plants and fungi around them, Mike and I could hardly keep up with the demand for cool facts. “Dude, smell this twig!” was a frequently heard statement as we worked our way through deciduous forest heavy with black birch, the wood of which offers a wintergreen-like scent. Flowers tucked into button holes and the headbands of our hardhats became a required fashion statement. Spruce tips and bee balm tea simmered by the campfire most nights as students speculated on making bowdrills while leading each other in ridiculous rounds of Mafia, a TMI campfire favorite.
The group’s curiosity and enthusiasm (not to mention a healthy level of West Virginia pride, a love of history and a serious collective work ethic) made a week of sweaty, manual labor an uplifting and joyous experience for all of us. Finishing our work a bit early, we were able to fit in both a trip through the Sinks of Gandy and a gorgeous hike up Spruce Knob Friday morning. By the end of the week, we could proudly say that the Mountain Trail Monitors program was able to cover all of the Seneca Creek Backcountry, as it lies in Randolph County, plus additional trails along the Greenbriar and Laurel Fork. Very exciting! So thanks, guys, for an excellent week of hard work, interesting conversation, zeal and mindfulness. Y’all make the future look good.
And to all those MTM participants out there, thank you: for your hard work, your reverence for the land, your time, and for your compassion. Please don’t be a stranger! Come on back and see us sometime. - Shannon Gaffey

Lopping is fun!

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Appalachian August

 It is turning out to be a busy weekend at the Spruce Knob Mountain Center, with participants from the Hero's Journey Foundation and the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club sharing High Camp with visiting alumni of TMI's Scholars Program. It has been rewarding to watch how each group uses and enjoys this space in their own way.
Meanwhile, the solar panels at the Earth Shelter continue with their work; as of today, 868 lbs of carbon have been offset by the array. That's the rough equivalent of 10 trees! To keep tabs on our energy conversion, check out this link:  
Monday will bring the arrival of the East Harlem School of New York City. Students will kick off our fall season of school courses with an eight-day backpacking trip in the Monongahela National Forest. Reports on our adventures are soon to follow! 
Happy August!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Crawdads, Berries, and Trail Work on the East Fork Trail


The sky was clear across the meadows spanning in front of the office as Braja and I waited patiently at the Earth Shelter Office for our week’s trail workers to make their way up the mountain.

We were expecting a diverse group and were excited to see how kids can learn a lot just from being around one another. Throughout the week, it was great to see barriers going down as kids from Buckhannon got to hang out with kids from Ethiopia, a meeting of two worlds that may have never happened otherwise. The students arrived with their hands shoved deep in their pockets, but we noticed some hidden smiles and casual conversation and knew our group would get along just fine.

After we got everything we needed to survive in the field for four days into our backpacks, we played a few games before shoving off in our vans to our destination. The initial silence of the ride was punctuated by the sound of kids sharing stories and the cool mountain wind blowing in from the windows. By the time we made it to the campsite, the students were acting like they had known each other for years.

Our first campsite was at the Island Campground, near the East Fork of the Greenbrier River. Some students built a fire while others hunted crawdads underneath the river stones lining the Greenbrier. By the time bedtime rolled around, everyone seemed excited about the week and were ready to get some work done on the trail.

This trip was many of the students’ first time backpacking, making the six mile hike to camp a real challenge. We all made it with our heads held high and the sense of achievement that washed over the students as they neared camp was nearly tangible. The sweat and sore shoulders were soon forgotten as we set up camp for the night at Abe’s Run.

The next morning, we split into two work groups and immediately set out to clear the rest of the trail leading up to Abe’s Run. A few hours later, we met in the middle after completing our work on either end and had enough time to head to a swimming hole we found along the trail.

That night we discussed the history of the Monongahela National Forest and the CCC while sitting around a campfire. As the fire burned into coals and the conversation neared a natural end, we noticed some of the kids resting their heads heavily on their hands. After another day of hard work they were definitely tired, but we never heard one complaint.

The next morning, after we split into work groups, I could hardly walk fast enough to keep up with the students, the same students that struggled with hiking a few days earlier. Their positive discourse and broad smiles made it clear that they weren't walking fast just because they wanted to be done with the trail but were enjoying themselves. We cleared the trail to Pig's Ear, our designated stopping point, by three that afternoon, far ahead schedule. 
We had free time, so we did solo hikes to the swimming hole. Solo hikes give the students alone time to reflect on the significance of their accomplishment. I walked ahead and was lucky enough to see the tranquility and sense of achievement on their faces as they met up to go swimming. Our group had achieved their goal of finishing a day early because of their hard work, a feat unprecedented so far in the Mountain Trail Monitors program.

Since we finished a day early, we were able to go caving at the Sinks of Gandy and hike to the top of Spruce Knob. Many of the students had never been caving and had a great time exploring the limestone caverns that make this region so unique and beautiful. At the top of Spruce Knob, we spent a few hours hanging out on top, overlooking the Monongahela National Forest. By this point, the students seemed more like family than strangers, and it was apparent that they had fostered a deeper appreciation for nature as well as one another during the short time they were together.


The Mountain Trail Monitors program is an excellent opportunity for students to get their hands dirty in a productive way. Unlike other summer experiences, they are actually doing some pretty tough work, but I am always surprised by how much the kids learn about themselves, one another, and nature in such a short amount of time. I think it is unique in the sense that is free for the students, opening the door wide for a diverse group of students, and that it encourages productive work and new experiences for kids who may have never camped in their life. So far so good, and I am looking forward to see how the program continues throughout the summer.

Post by Dylan Harris