Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Earthen Energy

Last Friday, The Mountain Institute celebrated the longest day of the year with the installation of a solar panel system on the roof of our office building, the Earth Shelter. Within a matter of hours, rows of photovoltaic cells were unloaded, secured in place, and connected to the grid; suddenly, the Spruce Knob Mountain Center has become capable of producing its own energy.

Mountain View Solar installs solar panels on the Earth Shelter roof
 in conjunction with the Appalachian Stewardship Foundation.
The system is predicted to fulfill much of the energy needs for the Earth Shelter and adjacent cottage building. Aaron Sutch, Energy Program Manager with TMI, reported that the panels’ first weekend produced a surplus of energy. As the system is directly connected into the grid, this surplus can be sold back to our electricity provider, making the production of clean, locally produced energy a reality at the Spruce Knob Mountain Center.

I spent the next morning sitting in the meadow above the Earth Shelter with the sun in my face as I watched light beat down on the opaque panels. Beyond the roof line, the Appalachians stretched outwards, decked in their summer coat of green and also basking in sunlight. What a fantastic thing, I mused, that the sun manages to feed all of these plants, give warmth to all of this land, and bring light to the sunrise every morning, yet still has energy left to power these little black panels and grant us the very human desire for power via electricity. I gazed upon the system almost with mistrust, asking myself irrationally, “What if it is possible to use up this energy and life-giving light?!”

That afternoon, I was in my yurt when a thunderstorm rolled in. As cumulonimbus clouds tumbled and billowed overhead, the sky turned dark and wind stirred the tall grass. Rain began, its first big droplets yielding to a pelting downpour. Suddenly, a blinding flash, a deafening pop, and a simultaneous crack of thunder shook the ground underneath my feet. A lightning strike had hit a spruce in the woods just up slope from me. As the storm moved through, I was left staring from the adjacent meadow amongst a mist, the air still buzzing around me.

During dinner, the summer staff sat on the deck and gazed at the setting sun, discussing the storm and its incredible power. Just after dark as we returned to wash dishes in the kitchen, Mike burst into Ulan Bator, beckoning us to come back outside. As we followed him to the railing, we realized that something amazing was occurring on the high plains. Thousands and thousands – millions? – of lightning bugs had assembled, and as one fantastical orchestra, they had begun a light show. In harmony, in front of us and stretching back across the hills, one flashbulb lit and burned and then the next came afire, each dazzling on and off, as if a stop-action film was rolling in front of our eyes. We gawked with mouths open, staring dumbstruck at the electricity emanating across the plains.

Eventually, my sleepy eyes pulled me back towards bed. As I walked up the driveway, I shook my head in amazement at the events of the day. I thought of the displays I had seen of this place, so imbued with life and vigor, and of the energy that pulses in this summer mountain air. As I pondered, my gaze lifted towards the stars, and I stopped, suddenly. Above me was rising the stunning orb of a just-after-full solstice moon. It shone rays of light straight on through the thickets of hawthorn and onto my face. I staggered backwards, and almost laughed – it seemed to me that the mountain was powering itself quite independently of the sun. 

I thought back to the solar panels, this time without fear of using up daylight, but instead in reverence; these mountains – and this Earth – hold within them so very much energy. What else have we yet to discover about this place? Solar panels are merely a starting point; how else can we use what is already in front of us to meet our needs without taking from those resources that are not limitless? What can we learn about the ways that this mountain is already powering itself?

Summer on the high plains.

The Earth Shelter’s solar panels are currently doing their part in generating energy and inspiring thought among the students of Spruce Knob (myself included). Stay tuned for updates on the Mountain Center’s solar project as we work to integrate the panels into our energy planning and educational programming in coming weeks. For more information on The Mountain Institute’s Energy Program, you can visit http://www.mountain.org/appalachia-sustainable-energy.
 -Andy Notopoulos

Sunday, June 16, 2013

A Week in the Laurel Fork

This post is guest written by Lily Bailey, 17, a veteran summer camper and a student in last week's Mountain Trail Monitor summer trail maintenance program.

Trees? Sawed. Branches? Lopped. Camping? Wet. Experience? Like none other. The second week of Mountain Trail Monitors has come to a close after a week of rewarding work. Nine volunteers from middle school to high school, and from West Virginia, Virginia, and Illinois spent the week hard at work on the trails lopping, building cairns to mark the trails, and contributing to the upkeep of trails in the Laurel Fork Wilderness Area. Although the weather was not always agreeable, we managed to get over eight miles of trail work completed and still have a great time.

Mountain Trail Monitor participants pose in the bubble.
Each day we worked hard to fulfill our goals on the trail, while having fun campfires and learning important survival activities like knot tying and fire building by night. The soggy boots and torrential downpours we worked in were offset by fun games of camouflage, stream crossings that became stream playing, and tasty lunches in the field. But what kept us going was the environment and the people.

Not many have the chance to experience a week in the woods, and even though the work can be taxing at times, being surrounded by the pure sounds and sights of the West Virginia wilderness is also incredibly relaxing and gratifying. Working in trying conditions such as these also results in really getting to know people. What begins as small talk gradually builds up to funny anecdotes, and eventually paves the way to new friendships. You learn about each others' strengths and weaknesses and accept them. These friendships are what made the week so special. We all knew how to enjoy the company of one another, how to lift our spirits as a whole when the weather made us gloomy, and how to work together effectively in a group.

On our last morning on the trails we awoke to a deluge that made packing up quite the challenge, but it was met with optimism that pushed us to complete our last section of trail before heading back to the Spruce Knob Mountain Center. We all rallied our strength and lopped branches and cut away downed trees in record time before hauling our heavy pack out of the trails for the final time. 

The week concluded with a time of reflection. We reminisced of the funny moments and triumphs on the trails, and although we all agreed that the rain was a drag, the positivity that both the campers and instructors brought to the work was unyielding. Looking back at the cleared trails we took part in filled everyone with a sense of pride and a visual reward to the week of work we had completed, a unique satisfaction that made this week one to remember.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Is this a rose?

Our first log cut!
On June 5th, we finished our first week of Mountain Trail Monitors, our summer trail maintenance program. We had spent four nights in the Seneca Creek Backcountry, with two groups of high-schoolers from Morgantown. After full days lopping, building rock bridges, and removing downed trees, we covered seven trails and over 15 miles of work. The going was tough and the weather was rainy, but we still had time to spend our evenings doing wilderness skills such as camp craft, survival, fire building and map and compass reading, as well as fun campfire activities.

On our last night, Michael Escol, my co-instructor, and I led our group through a traditional Mountain Institute closing activity: “Rose, bud and thorn”. Each member of the group shared their "rose," a moment that they found beautiful or inspiring, their "thorn," a moment that was tough or challenging, and a "bud," or moment which sparked their curiosity in a new subject. Our group mentioned a number of thorns – the rain, the manual labor, and wet feet - but also many roses – the night sky, a tough log they’d cut through with a little tenacity, and a stream crossing they’d enjoyed. Their buds included a desire to learn more about forest ecology and history, stream biology, and the other tiny details of the outside world that they had previously overlooked.

We all went to bed with high spirits, but the next morning brought a torrential downpour which made packing up our campsite and putting on our backpacks more of a trial than a tribulation. After a breakfast of soggy oatmeal, we headed up a steep section of trail before reaching the last 1.6 miles of trail we were meant to clear before we headed out of the woods and back to the yurts of the Spruce Knob Mountain Center. The students looked resigned as we descended the muddy trail, but they mustered enough strength to lop branches and clear logs covering the trail. The rain made us quiet, but after four days we didn’t have to say much to know what to do. We worked with familiar ease and moved quickly.
We spent one night sleeping under the stars.

A break in the tree line told us that we were near the trailhead, and our pace quickened. We set down our packs by the van, pulled out what we needed for lunch and paused. We were by a bridge overlooking a wide stretch of Gandy Run, with a perfect swimming hole at our disposal. It might have been raining, but it would have been a shame to pass up a shining opportunity for our only swim after four days of trail work. Some of the students pulled off just their rain gear, while others got down to their boxer shorts. In a moment, the joyous sound of kids jumping into icy water and whooping with delight filled the air. As we swam and explored the smooth rocks of the stream bed in the rain, one of the students looked up. “Is this a rose?” he asked with a broad smile on his face. I think it was.

Over the Gandy Run swimming hole.

Thanks to all who came out for first week of trail crew! We still have spaces available for the weeks of July 7th, and July 21st. If you want to explore some wilderness, give back while you get your hands dirty, and do some summer swimming contact Melinda Brooks at 304-567-2632 or mbrooks@Mountain.org. More details at http://mountain.org/mtm. -Braja Smith