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

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

More Wild than the Zoo

Two hundred miles away from Spruce Knob, WV, at an elevation of around 500 feet, sits the small town of Cottageville, WV on the banks of the Ohio River. Every year, the small class of graduating 5th graders has gone on a field trip to celebrate their time at the close-knit elementary school. In past years, the school visited the zoo, but in 2014 thirteen 5th-graders made the trip from Cottageville to The Mountain Institute's Spruce Knob Mountain Center for the first time.

The teachers were excited to add science education, team-building activities, and exploration of West Virginia's natural resources to their annual field trip. The 5th graders from Cottageville Elementary School arrived in matching tie-dye t-shirts reading "Mountain Institute Class Field Trip 2014" and backpacks monogrammed with their names. They also arrived eager to have fun, despite the unfamiliar surroundings.

We spent two days with the students, hunting for salamanders, exploring the Sinks of Gandy, and orienteering to the summit of Spruce Knob. Students laughed and learned to be flexible when real life situations did not match their expectations. Students who climbed Spruce Knob on the first day told their friends of epic vistas where they could read evidence of geologic history in the ridges and valleys to the east and scattered knobs and knolls to the west. Students who climbed on the second day were greeted by towering thunderheads and sheets of rain rolling in fast from the west. Students jumped in our vans parked at the summit just as the sky above opened up to release buckets of heavy rain and thunder boomed overhead. Instead of enjoying a picnic in the boulder field, we had "vanwiches" and watched the storm pass before returning to Spruce Knob Mountain Center. Both groups enjoyed valuable experiences that were challenging in different ways because of our dynamic mountain environment.

At the end of the program, teachers and students had great things to say. One teacher believed the "trip taught the importance of perseverance". Another student summed up his experience,

"This course showed me that there are new things in the world that are tough but you can get through them and it showed me how beautiful the world is".

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Spend the night in a yurt!

We've recently finished renovations on a few of our guest yurts, and they are now available for short-term stays. You can contact us directly at 304-567-2632 and speak with Dave Martin, or you can rent online through our new AirBnb listing.

All of the profits from the rentals go back into our programmatic funds.

We're pretty excited about the renovations, which will help keep our '70s era yurts in good condition.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

"I learned not to squeeze salamanders!"

“I learned not to squeeze salamanders,” wrote a 4th grader from Webster Springs Elementary on their evaluation for a recent school course. “I learned that my friends are brave and strong,” read another. In one short day, we’d taken the group of curious, rambunctious kids on a salamander hunt and a tour of Spruce Knob.
Paula Waggy, a retired teacher and friend of The Mountain Institute, joined us for the day and presented the salamander lesson. The 32 students gathered just over 30 salamanders, including the red-backed salamander, the spotted newt, the dusky salamander, and a special guest star. Mrs. Waggy gasped when one student showed her a black salamander dusted in coppery spots. She grabbed her guidebook and confirmed we’d uncovered the rare Cheat Mountain salamander on our property. After the exciting discovery, we combed through the underbrush to study what salamanders eat: mites, beetles, flies, springtails and ants.
After lunch, we trotted up the boulder field at Spruce Knob and discussed the formation of Spruce Knob and the Allegheny Plateau and Ridge and Valley Province. After a lesson on proper spotting technique, we let the kids tackle the giant boulders near the summit. For one teacher, the boulder field was a favorite: "I especially enjoyed watching the students overcome their fears during the "play" time at the Boulder Field. They are often discouraged from taking any risks."
When we gathered up by the school bus to wave goodbye, we asked the student to describe the day’s experience in one word.