Friday, April 19, 2013

Resourcefulness at Spruce Knob

“Well how the heck did they build this place, anyways?”

It was mid-April, and the Ulan Bator yurt was still decked in white. The spring Wilderness First Aid class, led by Beth Boehme, waded through snow drifts to complete their scenarios. NOVAC star gazers roller-coastered through slush in their vehicles on the way to the high plains. And, at the moment, I was alternating my time between shoveling snow, pumping white gas camp stoves, and running in circles around the Ulan first floor in an attempt to unravel the architectural visions of Bill Coperthwaite.

A Wilderness First Aid scenario - no one was hurt!

This excitement had started a half an hour earlier, when the oil man had arrived in the driveway, throwing open his ice and mud-caked truck door to exclaim, “There is no way I am going to be able to get back out of here.” He was at the mountain to check out the gas tank, which was sending off suspicious odors. As he began to investigate the problem, he concluded that there was a leak in the gas line somewhere near Ulan and asked us to turn off the oil and trace the line from its end back to the tank. He stated this request as if it was a simple matter, but the widening eyes of those present foreshadowed the reality that life is seldom straightforward at the Spruce Knob Mountain Center.

Soon, Mike’s lunch-cooking was transferred from the propane stove to a series of camping stoves set up outside of the kitchen. Mel, James, and Jason took temporary leave of their WFA class to hunt for access to the underside of Ulan's upper level deck. Beth assembled GORP to appease her class’ hunger in light of their delayed meal. The oil man scratched his head: “I don’t understand. They couldn’t have built this place without easy access to the gas line. It’s not possible.” With a resounding CRACK, Jason pried open another panel in the Ulan wall.


Rebecca Saunders models a cast!
“Nope, not yet, but we’re just going to keep trying ‘til we get it!”

In the end, we did get it all sorted out. It wasn’t in much more than an hour that a crowd of staff and WFA course members sat laughing in the outer ring, warm with Whisperlite-stewed soup and toaster-browned bread. A new, bright yellow gas line coiled its way from Ulan, where the leak had indeed been discovered. Fridges and crates that had been pried away from walls were pulled neatly back in to place, and the oil man made his way slowly down the mountain in steady first gear. As I watched his red truck disappear over the edge of the high plains, my gaze turned to the ancient Appalachians stretching across my view, their hills and valleys forming a circuitous horizon. These mountains, I reflected, certainly do not make for an easy path from one place to the next.

However, I have noticed that it is precisely for this reason that Spruce Knob and its surrounding hills are also, ultimately, some of the greatest teachers. On field courses, groups orienteer straight up through the mountain’s vertical brambles, a challenge that is often enough to prompt cross-eyed upward glares: “It’s impossible!” Reaching the boulder field atop Spruce requires resourceful thinking, determined leadership, relentless teamwork, and grit resolve to reach a goal. But, despite these formidable requirements, every group to which I have presented this challenge has stood on top of the mountain and gazed down on Appalachia, which smiles back at them, as if to say, “Impossible?” After some time walking in the woods, or – in the case of the gas line – some digging around under floorboards and snow, those who have lived under the watch of Spruce Knob Mountain begin to realize that, with resourcefulness, there’s not much that is impossible around here.

Post-Script: Precisely two days later, I walked the high plains under a high sun and blue sky, broadcasting clover seed. Sweat ran down my forehead and through my tee shirt; snowmelt coursed down the hillside and over my boots. As I looked up to see two robins tweet happily by to settle on a nearby hawthorne, it dawned on me: suddenly, unexpectedly, and in her own fittingly roundabout way, Spruce Knob has brought us springtime after all. Happy Spring! -Andy Notopoulos

Photos for this post provided by Bob Traube, WFA participant and NOVAC astronomer.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Spring Season 2013

Spring staff!
 The spring season at The Mountain Institute began with staff training, Appalachian Watershed Monitoring Programs, spring cleaning at the facility, shoveling snow off our big white van, Maverick, and wrapping snow chains around his rear wheels to navigate through persistent snow coverage up at High Camp. For the first time in recent memory, none of the staff stayed up at High Camp to ski and play during the winter months, and so we returned to yurts, dormitories, and a shower shack quiet since late November.

Since the Mountain Institute doesn’t run any programs in the winter, staff that wants to return in the spring finds ways to keep themselves busy. Sophie Roblin WWOOFed at sheep farms, Patrick Dupre helped build homes in Charlottesville, VA, and Kacey Kai went to Kansas to work for UPS. The remainder of staff made use of West Virginia’s excellent winter recreation economy in Tucker, Greenbrier, and Pendleton counties. Michael Escol, Andy Notopoulos, Shannon Gaffey, Megan Gyonogski, Rebecca Saunders, Braja Smith and Zach Trunkely all took advantage of West Virginia’s winter sports season to work, variously, as cross-country and alpine ski instructors and ski technicians.  With the exception of Zach Trunkeley, an Ohio native and master’s certified rock hound, and James Crawford, a local resident from Canaan who will be managing our gear shed, kitchen, and facility, this year’s staff is all seasoned from previous time up at The Mountain Institute.

Spring staff!
It will be a couple of weeks before a school bus growls around the hairpins on Sawmill Run Road for a field course and in the meantime we are traveling to public schools as part of Appalachian Watershed Monitoring Program (AWSM), funded this year by a grant through National Geographic that focuses on GIS technologies. With the data that public school classes collect, we’ll create an interactive map of West Virginia’s streams and their conditions that will be used as an educational resource. The kids we met with the past couple of weeks have been in excellent spirits, despite frozen kicknets and our benthic macro-invertebrate zoo becoming a giant popsicle of mayflies and aquatic worms. During our many visits to schools and streams, we were shown wonderful hospitality, attention and interest by the school teachers, staff, and kids we met, an experience that warmed our hearts if not our fingertips.

Besides sampling streams, we also went on a staff canoe trip, which gave us sunny skies and a glimpse of maple buds outside of Petersburg, WV. David Young, former Mountain Institute course director, now a graduate student of Hydrology at WVU in Morgantown and the proud father of a baby girl named after a family of stoneflies (Petra Perlidae, also daughter of Elizabeth Gutierrez, former instructor at the Mountain Institute), led eight boats of staff down the South Fork of the Potomac, a trip that gave us an opportunity to practice our water safety and canoe maneuvering skills. Although we had a day of sunshine, the moment we got out of the water the snow came down, a storm that lasted four days and left two and a half feet of snow on our mountain. In a winter storm that came so late in the season, it was nice to see that winter was at least trying to impress us.

Organizing the library!

 We'll be fiddling around with this blog in the coming weeks, having our rotating staff of residential on-call staff write a blog post on a weekly basis. This week it was me (Braja Smith), next week it'll be Andrea Notopoulos.