Monday, December 15, 2014

Professional Photographer Visits SKMC

Warm Springs Middle School art teacher and owner of Mountain Mama Photography Rachel Brown-Wilson took a number of wonderful photographs during her school's trip to the mountain last month. Here are a few samples - the entire collection can be viewed here.

Warm Springs' field trip was made possible with support from NOAA's B-WET (Bay Watershed Education and Training) program

Sunday, November 23, 2014

TMI Recognized with Pendleton County Chamber of Commerce Award

The Mountain Institute received Pendleton County's Environmentally Conscious Business Award from the Chamber of Commerce at the annual award ceremony on Friday. Among the other 10 or so awards given out, our friends at the Pendleton Community Care clinic received the Cornerstone Award and TMI founder and longtime supporter Daniel Taylor received the county's Leadership Award.

We, in turn, would like to thank Pendleton County for being such a supportive community over these past 42 years.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Langley Students Return to Spruce Mountain

A student waves the group's flag at the top of Spruce Knob.

A few weeks ago, we were happy to host forty or so 7th grade students from Langley School for their annual camping trip. The instructors divided the kids into three groups and geared them up with backpacks, sleeping bags, and sleeping mats before setting off into the windswept wilderness. 

Langley School had requested that we work on group dynamics in particular with their students, so in addition to stream studies, caving, and geology discussions, we also talked about group interaction and kindness and compassion. The first night, me and my co-instructor developed a group contract with our ten students, which they wrote onto a repurposed pillowcase with a sharpie. Rules of the contract that the students came up with during our brainstorming session included: 

"Celebrate the animals we see in the woods!"
"Check in with other group members and give them help if they need it."
"Keep a lighthearted attitude."
"Say what you mean, but in a kind way."

The students signed their pillowcase and attached it to a branch, turning it into a flag. The students took turns throughout the trip being the flagbearer. The kids did a great job of remembering and referring back to the contract, and the rules sparked lots of thoughtful conversations during the trip. In particular, they helped focus conversation after activities like a blindfolded walk. We were able to bring the flag all the way with us to Spruce Knob, and the flagbearer became a convenient sighting target for our orienteering. At the end of the trip, the students took home the flag, planning to put it up in their math classroom as a reminder of how they could shape their own communities for the better.

Students have a powwow by the Catchment campsite.
Braja Smith

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

St. Paul's School

Last week we had the privilege of working with the 8th grade boys from St. Paul's School in Brooklandville, MD for the first time. Two charter buses arrived on Tuesday, packed with 51 students and 7 faculty members dressed for the elements. The group embarked on a traditional "spruce course," the kind TMI has been running for nearly 40 years. Students and faculty split into five groups and set out for their camps - Spruce, Catchment, Back Ridge, Five Corners, and the Beaver Ponds. Over the course of the next three days, they summitted Spruce Knob, traversed the Sinks of Gandy cave, and learned the ins and outs of camping, cooking, and living as a group in the backcountry.

At the end of the week, students, teachers, and Instructors converged at the gearshed in the inky darkness before sunrise to wash pots, put away gear, and change back into civilian clothes by headlamp. Despite the early wake-up, everyone came out of the woods with smiles on their faces. Here are some comments from students and teachers:

"This was an extremely valuable experience for our students. A program I certainly hope our school will continue."

"I learned that all of us have some kind of hidden ability."

A teacher that was here years back with a different school commented, "I have never had a group respond to all of the activities so well. [This course is] better than I even remembered."

"I learned that all my classmates aren't afraid to face their fears."

"I learned that we have a great community at our school and we can come together really well."

"Both Instructors are great teachers - their enthusiasm is contagious - they were honest about their strengths and weaknesses and set a perfect tone between seriousness and fun."

While this is the first time TMI has worked with St. Paul's boys' middle school, the girls' school came to Spruce for many years in the 1980s. It's always a treat to get to work with a new school and have the opportunity to create a great first impression. I can't imagine this week having gone much better and all of us here are excited to work with St. Paul's for years to come.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

"I Did That!"

It wasn’t the twelve-mile paddle down the Potomac River, complemented by some hilariously tipped canoes and an awesome rope swing. It wasn’t the morning of zip-lining from tree to tree through the lush canopy above Nelson Rocks. It wasn’t braving the dark damp of the Sinks of Gandy cave and squeezing triumphantly out of the wormhole. It wasn’t bonding over late-night conversations with tentmates, or gazing at a country sky full of stars, or even s’mores. For one high school senior from Winston Preparatory School in NYC, the highlight of his recent course with TMI was preparing a delicious dinner for the group one night. At our closing circle, when everyone was asked to share a special memory or a lesson they would take home from the week, this formally sardonic student suddenly put on a sincere face, almost as if he couldn’t help it, and said with pride, “I would take a photo of that meal I made and put it in my wallet. I wouldn’t even show it to anyone else. It would be just for me, so I could pull it out later and look at it and say, I did that.” - Katy Medley

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Naturalist Joel Greenberg Recaps Visit to Spruce

Naturalist and author Joel Greenberg recently spoke at the Spruce Knob Mountain Center. Here's a recap of his visit in his own words:

I connected with Kellee Waddell, The Mountain Institute’s Education Coordination, through our mutual interest in passenger pigeons. Passenger pigeons were once the most abundant bird in North America but were hunted to extinction 100 year ago this September. I wrote my book A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction about the subject.

Kellee invited me to speak about the fate of the passenger pigeon for a watershed education conference being held at The Mountain Institute. When we arrived the only people we encountered were staff. The facility is a lovely place that successfully blends in with the wooded hills and grasslands that surround it. We chose the yurt closest to the bathroom and parking lot and brought our gear inside.

In the late afternoon we visited Spruce Knob, the highest point in West Virginia with an elevation of 4,863 feet. The day before we left on the trip, I had acquired a new camera with a 35-300x lens so I had plenty of opportunity to try it out on all the gorgeous scenery. Spruce Knob does have an alpine aspect with red spruce the dominant tree. Though not particularly birdy, it was beautiful. One downside to mountain driving, at least for those not used to it, is that it takes longer to get to places than you expect. Thus we were a bit late for dinner when we arrived back but had a leisurely conversation with the talented and fascinating staff.

Next day some of the teachers began showing up. The basic emphasis of the workshop was watershed issues, and Kellee had invited experts from Washington, DC and elsewhere to help teach the class. Cindy and I immediately hit it off with Roy Boyle, an avid birder. He had just found a grasshopper sparrow in the grassland, and we heard one later from the same area. Later we spotted a newt in its juvenile stage as a red eft.

Two local attractions that we wanted to visit that day were Gaudineer Knob Spruce Forest and the Green Bank Science Center at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Gaudineer is one of the few uncut spruce forests in the state. Like most virgin forests in the Midwest or East, there was a specific reason it was never logged. In this case a surveyor's mistake prevented anyone from claiming it. The oldest red spruce here are about 250 years old, which is about the upper life span of the trees. Thus many of the most dramatic specimens are dying. But there are also fine examples of ancient beech and maple growing in slightly drier portions of the tract. We didn’t get a chance to see two rare specimens associated with the environment: the Cheat Mountain Salamander and the West Virginia Northern Flying Squirrel.

One of the many grand views for the Spruce Knob Mountain Center.

Old growth red spruce forest on Gaudineer Knob.

We were back at the Spruce Knob Center in time for a fine dinner and then my talk. About thirty people were present and there was a nice series of questions. This was the cherry on the topping of an experience that both Cindy and I enjoyed very much. Thank you so much to Kellee and the TMI staff for making our stay so pleasant and informative. I am waiting for the next invitation to the Institute's Andean or Himalayan facility.
Learn more about Joel Greenberg and his work at

Friday, August 29, 2014

Almost Heaven Star Party at Spruce Knob Mountain Center

We had a great time at the Almost Heaven Star Party (AHSP) at The Mountain Institute, 22-26 August, 2014.  Although the weather did not cooperate for the first two nights, there was plenty to do with good food, science presentations, and great camaraderie among the attendees.
Once the skies cleared, we were able to enjoy one of the darkest skies in the Eastern US. People wandered around in the dark and it was fun to show strangers the best objects in the heavens. Folks from across the USA were in attendance, and I even talked to people from as far away as Bulgaria and Japan!
One of my favorite moments happened when a fellow of college age appeared out of the darkness at 3am on Tuesday. Wandering around without even a flashlight, he startled me, but we were soon talking and looking at the sky. Then I showed him how to operate the small refracting telescope we were using, and he was off exploring on his own! He spent around 90 minutes independently "discovering" some of the famous objects of the sky, like the Double Cluster in Perseus and the Andromeda Galaxy. He left just as Orion and Gemini were coming up over Spruce Knob in the east.
You see, the Star Party was not really so much about the sky. It was about the people who had gathered there on the mountain. I do not remember when I was last around such a fine and agreeable group of people. Many small acts of kindness were seen, such as when a neighboring camper gave me a can of Progresso soup - which he had warmed on the exhaust of his SUV! The people at the Star Party were friendly and genuine in a way which is not often seen these days, and many new friendships were formed amongst the attendees.
The Spruce Knob Mountain Center of The Mountain Institute is an ideal location for a Star Party. There is a feeling there on the mountain which is quite spiritual, and many of the attendees mentioned it. I felt so bad when the Party was over and I had to drive back down the mountain and rejoin the "real world."

I look forward to next year's Almost Heaven Star Party.
Glen Ward is a member of NOVAC, the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club. For more information on the 2015 AHSP, please go to

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Warmer Summers Benefit Red Spruce Trees

Despite having spent only a couple of seasons as a Field Instructor at Spruce nearly a decade ago, the spirit and ideals embodied in the place have been with me ever since. As a geographer I am particularly sensitive to the importance of place. In the years since my time at Spruce I have been fortunate enough to spend time in a number of spectacular places in the world, but West Virginia, and Spruce, remain solidly atop my list of favorites. This past spring I was happy to share this place with students from the biogeography course that I teach at Colgate University. 

 One of my favorite things to do as a science educator is to actually do science with my students. By this I mean that we use science to address questions that none of us, including me, know the answer to, as opposed to me simply explaining processes and concepts, or having the students completing a laboratory assignment that I know the answer to. In biogeography we focused on the distribution of life on earth (i.e. plants and animals). Perhaps more importantly, we try to understand how physical and biological things like temperature, precipitation, or the availability of food, impact where different kinds of plants and animals are located. The red spruce forests that adorn Spruce Knob and other mountaintops throughout Appalachia have a geographic distribution that is interesting to biogeographers, and we humans are in the midst of a large experiment involving global climate.

This has led me to wonder how these red spruce ecosystems might respond to climate change. Red spruce forests are restricted to mountaintops in Appalachia because they like relatively cool and moist conditions. Further north, in places like New England and eastern Canada you can find such forests at lower elevations. My initial hypothesis was that more southerly red spruce forests, in places like West Virginia or North Carolina, will not fare well as the climate warms. We intended to test this hypothesis on our visit by taking tree cores from the red spruce stand just next to the yurts to look at changes in growth over time. Most people have probably seen the annual growth rings that trees produce on a piece of firewood or a recently cut stump. Tree coring involves using what is essentially a hollowed out drill bit to extract a ‘tree core’ in order to be able to count the rings without damaging the tree. By measuring the width of the rings, and then comparing the widths to things like average summer temperature it is possible to figure out if trees are growing more or less in warm years.

We collected thirty cores from fifteen trees while at Spruce. The largest trees were between 95 – 100 years old. By comparing the widths of the tree rings with climate data we found that the trees have been growing more during warmer summers. This suggests that changes in climate have benefited these forests. In the forest we also noticed quite a few seedlings and saplings, indicating the trees are reproducing and germinating well. It is important to note that the apparent positive benefits of a warmer climate are not unlimited, that is continued warming may eventually be harmful to red spruce trees. But for the time being I am happy to say it appears that the forest at Spruce is doing well. I am also happy to report that, despite the long van ride, the students thoroughly enjoyed a weekend away from campus (and cell phone service!) doing science. I’m already looking forward to our next visit. 

Mike Loranty is an Assistant Professor of Geography at Colgate University and former TMI Field Instructor. For more information about his research, visit his site,

Friday, July 18, 2014

Reflections from Mountain Trail Monitors 2014

A happy trail crew poses at lunch, MTM Week 2
The Mountain Trail Monitors program provided by the Mountain Institute is an excellent program that I highly recommend. I was a part of the trail monitors group last summer, 2013, and twice this summer.

My first time in MTM, I had no idea what to expect. I knew how to make a fire, set up a tent, and identify plants and animals but trail work and backpacking were new to me. I had no idea how much of a culture shock it would be.
After we got settled into our backpacks, we were on our way. Almost immediately we were drenched by rain, which lasted the rest of the week. We spent the rest of the week tired, wet, smelly, and ready for a shower. Despite this, I realized more about myself.  One day, while we were out hiking and my feet were blistered, I looked up and stopped in my tracks. I was surrounded by forest next to a stream and, beyond that, a field. Closing my eyes, I heard rain hitting the leaves, birds singing, and the wind blowing through the trees. When I opened my eyes, the sun was peeping through the clouds and lit up the raindrops, making the field sparkle. Since that moment, I’ve loved being outside in rain or shine (preferably shine).
Trail crew ready to lop, Week 2
Trail work is hard but at times I didn’t even notice because of the good attitudes of my new trail family. Braja, our leader, always told us that attitudes are contagious and that is the truth. If anyone starts having a bad attitude everyone has a bad attitude. Luckily for me, all three times I went I was blessed to have incredible leaders (Braja, Mike, Katy, and Sara). I have made so many life friends. There’s no better way to see someone’s true personality than to spend a week with them in the woods, when they’re tired and dirty.
The second time I did MTM I was the only girl along with Braja and Katy (our instructors). That week it only rained half the time which made things a lot better. There were personal struggles for me along the way. One of the trails we hiked was uphill the whole way. It was very tiring and seemed to never end. I was struggling until we played a game where you would basically leapfrog the person and encourage them. This made the hike better and got your mind off of the hill itself.
The end of Week 1
Our last night camping in the woods, there was a full moon.  As I stood there looking at it, I thought to myself how amazing our world is. We were so small compared to everything around us. The moon, the vast forest, it seemed like you could relax worry free in the middle of the woods leaving your phone, stress, and everything that brought you down just out there.
The next day we hiked out relaxed and ready to look at life at a different angle.
I got back from my third trip a couple weeks ago and can honestly say it was my favorite.  The people I went with were hardworking and kind people overall. We made so many good memories and created a bond that we won’t forget. The weather this time was incredible, it didn’t rain once! My favorite part of that trip had to be the social aspect and how everyone came together and supported each other.
The Mountain Institute has incredible instructors who are so kind and friendly. As soon as I came to the Mountain Institute I was greeted by kind faces. They are so knowledgeable and I thoroughly enjoyed working with each instructor and getting to know them on a one on one basis. 
Trail crew, Week 3
They have inspired me so much I've started doing trail work in Dorsey Knob Park in Morgantown, WV and hope to eventually do more work in different parks. The Mountain Institute (TMI) is a place that I can come to relax and enjoy the hardworking and incredible people that are here. TMI is trying to figure out how  to continue to fund MTM now that its grant has ended. This is really sad to me and hits home because this program has made such a difference in my life and how I look at things now. Being out in the woods gave me an idea of what I want to do for college. I can’t describe how much something like this impacts teenagers. The Mountain Institute does a great thing and I will support them all the way.
Alyssa with a robin's nest
Happy camping! Alyssa Boback is a Junior at Morgantown High School in Morgantown, WV. She's also a great trail crew member! We just ran our last week of MTM for 2014. This summer, over thirty students participated in MTM to clear more than 15 miles of trail in the Monongahela National Forest. MTM is likely to continue in 2015, please keep an eye out for updates on our blog.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Getting on Board

The Appalachian Program hosted The Mountain Institute's annual meeting this past week. Staff members from TMI's international programs traveled from the Andes and the Himalayas to converge with Headquarters staff from DC and board members from around the world. 

Each program works independently to address the needs of its local mountain communities so it's not often that we're all in the same place. It's fulfilling to come together and be reminded that each of these mountain ranges, as far apart as they are, share a startling number of similarities. In many ways, Appalachian communities have more in common with those in the Himalayas than they do with cities and towns in the American lowlands. Our portfolio of projects is diverse - watershed education, medicinal plant cultivation, glacial lake monitoring - but our mission is the same everywhere we work. We're all inspired by the mountains.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Overland Travel

Earlier this month, the guys from Mountain State Overland traveled up to the Spruce Knob Mountain Center to record an episode for their web series that explores the lesser known places of West Virginia. The goal of the series is to "encourage adventure within the Appalachian Mountains while balancing the preservation of local cultures and natural ecosystems." They spoke with Vicki Fenwick-Judy, our new program director, walked around the campus, and spent the rest of the weekend fishing the creeks that pour down from the mountain. The final product of their visit is Educating the High Country, a nine minute video that features TMI and its bucolic surroundings. Previous episodes of the Mountain State Overland series feature Bethlehem Farm and our friends over at White Grass.

It was great to spend time with fellow West Virginians talking about how great this state is to live, work, and play in. This project will surely introduce TMI to a whole new group of people and encourage the West Virginia pride that we all share.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Week out in the Seneca Creek Backcountry

This previous week, we took a trail crew of eleven students and two staff out into the Seneca Creek Backcountry for a week of trail maintenance, camp craft, survival activities, and, of course, fun. Our service-learning summer program is offered at no cost to interested high-school students. The week-long experience is rugged, physically challenging, but ultimately very rewarding.
The eleven students on our trail crew included two brothers from South Carolina, and students from two different high schools in Morgantown, WV. Five of the students on trail crew were familiar faces, who’d participated in the program in 2013, and they proved to be valuable veterans, stepping up into leadership positions or offering good-natured advice to first-timers.
After an especially arduous cut through a big cherry tree stacked on top of a birch, which had fallen haphazardly into the trail, our clear sky immediately turned into torrential rain. “Looks like we angered the tree spirit,” quipped one of our students. I was expecting complaints, but instead the students got busy pulling lunch from their packs, tortillas, cheese, hummus, and carrots. “I know this sounds silly, but I think this is actually the best lunch I’ve had in a while.”
Besides a few intermittent storms, the other big challenge of the week was becoming adjusted to wearing a backpack, especially on rugged terrain. At the end of a long work day, we encountered a steep hill to test ourselves against. We’d split up into two groups, and one of our group practiced “caterpillaring”, a technique which is a little bit leap-frogging and gives everyone a chance to cheer each other on, while another group made the time pass by playing trivia games. Later on, after an evening of hot dogs, mac and cheese, and fun games, it was the steep hike up the hill which most of the students remembered as their high point, since they’d overcome a challenge many of them might not have felt up to at the beginning of the trip.
At our evening reflection, we took a moment to observe our surroundings and see what we could feel that was different from being at home; the heat of the fire on our foreheads, the distinct sounds of the wind through trees and brush, the smell of summer wildflowers and honeysuckle. At our reflection that night, one of the students commented, “I don’t think I’ve ever noticed so much before. I was expecting it to be a really hard week, but now that I'm out here, I really like it.”
Our crew headed back to the Spruce Knob Mountain Center campus after clearing over nine miles of trail. At the yurts, they delighted in their showers, the fine cooking, and the chance to put on a clean pair of clothes. We spent a day caving in the Sinks of Gandy (and found a secret passageway!) before regrouping in the "bubble" our aerie perched at the top of our main yurt.

We asked students to share what had brought them out into the woods. For some, it was the feeling of being more connected to each other, without the interruptions of cell phones and computers. Another student shared his satisfaction with doing manual labor, "I think I discovered I don't ever want a desk job, because this work makes me feel so good". Another student commented that doing something for people who used the trails made him feel like a better person. One of our returning students seemed especially moved when he commented, “Before last year, I’d never been camping. I left last year with a positive impression, and this year I’m so glad I did it again. If it hadn’t been for this program, I never would’ve gone camping or backpacking.”
This might be out last year of Mountain Trail Monitors. We are looking for alternative ways to fund the program, now that our grant has ended. We’ll keep the blog posted as we figure out what the program will look like next year. In the meantime, the next two weeks of MTM are still open! To sign up for a spot the week running June 29th or July 6th, contact Melinda Brooks at (304) 567-2632 or by email at