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!