Sunday, January 19, 2014

Murderers, Conspirators, Pirates and Lifesavers

"...And that is why caves are some of the coolest ecosystems on the planet and we're so lucky to be here," my co-instructor finishes. "Do you have guys have any questions before we head in?" A kid in our audience raises his hand. "Yeah, do the cows live in the caves?" He points across Gandy Creek to a small herd of cattle, regarding us with looks of blank awe, an expression we are returning, mirror-like, to them. "Also, do the cows help make the caves and can they see in the dark?"
Up at Spruce Knob Mountain Center, instructors have been taking school groups into the caves since the '70s, and the cavernous topography of limestone-rich Pendleton County is one of the reasons the founders of The Mountain Institute first started exploring the area. For school groups travelling to West Virginia from the city, though, their attention can be distracted from the caves by the herds of cattle that roam the rolling hills around the "modestly celebrated" Sinks of Gandy and nearby Stillhouse Cave.

The cattle are owned by local landowners, the Teters, who own the farm at the upstream entrance, while the Tinglers own the land by the exit. Both families graciously allow cavers to explore the cave. The Teters have been taking cattle to pasture in the mountain valley since the 1880s. Several other farmers in Petersburg and other nearby areas also use the Sinks to graze their cattle in the warmer months, and the cattle drives from the lowlands to the mountain valleys is even the subject of a children's book entitled "Tail, Trails, and Pies" by a local author. Cattle are not the first animals to graze the land, following in the tradition of buffalo and elk who might have once looked curiously at Native American hunters and European settlers before their extirpation in the 19th century.

Before we enter the cave, we point out Yokum's Knob. According to a story published in the Journal of Spelean History, "Next to Yokum Knob is the unpainted cabin of Andy Tingler, a typical West Virginia mountain man. He too loves this wild country and the amber-tinted water which flows in Gandy Creek. These people enjoy their privacy and have been known to shoot at government mail planes flying overhead. Andy states that they don't fly over anymore and neither do the revenuers come around anymore".

The same journal further embellished the legend of the Sinks of Gandy: "The area causes some to feel eery and lonely as the mysteries of the past evade their minds, for within the cave thieves, rustlers, murderers and conspirators all made their rendezvous.  The broken bodies of their victims have also been cared for by the Sinks". As any adventurer knows, a spine-tingling story can sharpen the senses during exploration, and it's the same for the students. We gauge our group, making sure the experience is exciting, but not terrifying. One kid seems nervous, so I tell him he can give me a high-five every time he's scared. He stays close until we enter the big chamber in the heart of the Sinks, where he runs to investigate graffiti on the walls. A perennial favorite is the scrawled, "Batman rules this cave".

While maps of the caves exist, the water level changes throughout the year, sometimes revealing and other times obscuring side passages. The route from entrance to exit is relatively straight-forward, but there are always surprises. Perhaps it is no surprise that Life magazine editors were lost in the cave for a few hours in the '50s. During the '85 flood, the whole cave was flooded, and a VW bug was caught in the current at the entrance, where it swirled in a whirlpool for several days.
Inside the cave, we crunch on lifesavers to produce little fireworks in the dark. We turn back and count our group, their headlamps spread out in the narrow passageway like a starry constellation. We scramble past cave straws, cave bacon, cave popcorn, and other cave formations. We practice listening. We look underneath rocks and catch glimses of salamanders, fish, our own imagination. Just before the turn in the tunnel which takes us out of the one mile stretch of cave passage and into the sunlight, we have folks turn off their lights and spot the halo of light that marks the exit. We tell them pirates wore eyepatches not to hide their disfigurement but to prowl the holds of galleons. Once in the belly of the ship, they'd pull off their eyepatch peer into darkness with an eye accustomed to the dark, able to make out the lumps which might be treasure or danger. The kids spot the light and call out, their voices echoing off the walls of the cave .
White Nose Bat Syndrome has threatened the population of the bats living in the caves of West Virginia, and the disease is spreading. Check out the Smithsonian's recent video on the subject: Killer in the Caves.


Sunday, January 12, 2014

Things I learned

Spring, summer, and fall, school groups come up to the Mountain Institute's Spruce Knob Mountain Center and explore the woods and mountains of the Potomac highlands. Leadership and outdoor education are major themes of their experience, and every student leaves learning something new. Here are assorted reflections from one such school group.

I Learned...
life is not as easy as it seems
… how to wash dishes, pitch a tent
… to cook without hi-tech equipment
… that some people snore
… how to read a map and use a compass
… to trust following other people
I am flexible
… that people that I don’t normally hang out with are nice
… things do not come freely
… to not try something just once and then give up
… what kind of shoes to bring the NEXT time I go hiking
… I can accomplish things better in a group
… to be thankful for toilets
… that Evan and Charlie are really good at orienteering
… to drink water out of a stream after putting iodine in it
… how to climb up a mountain and not be tired (very)
I have the power
… I could walk longer in a day than I slept in the night before
… to pick up something that I’ve dropped on the ground
… that even though people seem so different that
       when I get to know them we have so much in common
… to take what I have, to use it wisely, and to be grateful for it
we don’t need everything we have
… to be open to other ideas
… I am a BIG cook
… I can fit into SMALL spaces
… to laugh more
I am strong
… I can survive without beef and my bed
… some people are good at different things
… when people work together things get done more quickly
… if I stop worrying about what’s going to happen, I have fun
it’s ok to be dirty
… I hate oatmeal and granola
… ALL people are very difficult
… one person can ruin a group, so everyone has to do their part
… how to cook tuna surprise
… to listen
I can hold my own
… how to appreciate the stars
… how to break spaghetti without it shooting all over
… that wool and helmets are my friends
… that Currie kicks people in her sleep
… it’s very easy to get homesick
I am a leader
… to make only as much as I’m going to eat
… the quieter we are, the faster we are
… how things can be right around me
… that if I feel homesick, my friends will be there to help me
… camping is fun
… to do things right or I can get hurt
… that I don’t like uphill, rainy days and little stoves
… to not give Tim my camera
… life is easy for most people I know, but no one is as lucky as me
I am more resourceful than I thought
… that if I have a positive outlook, things will be better
… to become less picky
… how to pick out people with a sense of humor
… the Appalachians are OLD
… how animals change to adapt to their environment
… I don’t argue much
… nice people can get into bad moods when they’re tired and hungry
… to appreciate food
… to eat off the ground
… to enjoy cave formations
… life tastes good
… that people act a lot different in and outside of school
… if I drop food on the ground that I should eat it
… I don’t like tight spaces
… how to play Smog’s Treasure
… to care for the environment because people are killing off the world
… that I can go to the bathroom in the woods
I need patience
… that life goes on if something happens, the world doesn't’t wait for me
… that I remembered how horrible McDonald’s is
… I hate insects
… to not push the red button
… to appreciate bonfires
… people depend on other people
… I can make a spoon out of a log and a rock
who I am really
… sometimes it’s good to be small
… that all people like privacy
… how to compromise with nature
… grouses sound like tractors
… newts can be poisoned by my hand
… how to deal with mud
… I appreciate my mother for cooking
… I would rather be by myself than in a large group of people
… that I need to know people to make an opinion about them
… to like things that I wouldn't’t even have tried
… that if people get split up, there may be lots of panic
… to get someplace without the help of counselors and teachers
to set goals for myself
… that for some, life is really hard
… not everything comes easily and sometimes hard work is involved
… I don’t always have to be cautious; I can have the
        best time when adventurous
… how to plan out a schedule to a given time frame
… there are many different styles to living life
… That I don’t just “stop and smell the roses” very much anymore
I am tougher than I think

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Investigating Energy

During a school field trip to the Spruce Knob Mountain Center in autumn, 6th-graders sketched their ideas with chalk on a blackboard. Some drew trampolines built into bridges, which, they explained to their peers, could store kinetic energy from bouncing pedestrians in generators. Others imagined capturing stars from outer space in portable containers, as personal energy providers. Another group designed people-sized hamster wheels for use in office settings, allowing workers to both exercise and feed the grid. Their prompt was to create sources of alternative energy, and the students rose creatively to the occasion. While some ideas may sound more far-fetched than others, many of them may only need a little tweaking. Compare their ideas with the The New York Times'  piece on alternative energy ideas at their website.

The 6th graders were at Spruce Knob to investigate stream health through the Appalachian Watershed Monitoring (AWSM) program, and also to think about energy and its role in their life and impact on the environment. As energy travels through the supply chain to the consumer, its origin becomes obscure until there is little apparent relationship between raw materials such as coal, wind, water, lumber or natural gas and the motion of a washing machine or the start of a motor engine. During the summer of last year, the Mountain Institute built a collection of solar panels in its backyard at the Spruce Knob Mountain Center, with help from a grant with the Appalachian Stewardship Foundation and the donation of an extra panel by the installers, Mountain View Solar of Berkeley Springs, WV. You can read more about solar power on Spruce Mountain in the most recent addition of our newsletter, page 3.    
Morgantown High students debate energy consumption in the United States.
The solar array at Spruce Knob demonstrates the possibility of backyard energy production. Solar energy has become much more affordable in the past couple of years, and an article at claims that solar energy has hit grid parity with coal:
"In February, a southwestern utility, agreed to purchase electricity from a New Mexico solar project for less than the going rate for a new coal plant. Unsubsidized solar power reached grid parity in countries such as Italy and India. And solar installations have boomed worldwide and here in America, as the lower module costs have driven down installation prices."
Another focus of our education is on using energy efficiently in our homes; turning off water and lights. As this article in the Atlantic points out, energy-efficient appliances won't do much to change energy consumption in the United States unless our energy habits change. At the Spruce Knob Mountain Center, a chain which could eventually lead to a student developing more sustainable energy solutions begins with a tour of the solar panels on top of our office.