The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same at Watoga

Hues of orange and red signal the beginning of fall at Watoga Lake. 📸: John C. Dean, October 7, 2020.
Hues of orange and red signal the season’s change at Watoga Lake. 📸: John C. Dean, October 7, 2020.

. . . The more things change the more they stay the same
The same sunrise, it’s just another day
If you hang in long enough they say you’re comin’ back
Just take a look, we’re living proof and baby that’s a fact . . .

Bon Jovi Greatest Hits, 2010

I have hung “in long enough” to say I’m “comin’ back” to Watoga State Park.

Earlier this month, I came back to where I grew up for more 6,000 wondrous, fun-filled days of my life.

Getting Much-Needed Watoga Hugs

As I drove past the historic swimming pool where I once worked, Watoga accepted me with open arms, reminding me to inhale the exotic mountain air frequently. Unbeknownst to most of the world, Watoga is unique in many ways — its pristine wilderness first and foremost. It stays the same. I love that fact.

Near and dear to my heart are my Watoga friends, co-workers, and the local mountain folks. I grew up with them. I am one of them. They are kind, community-minded and would give you the shirt off their backs.

At the Mountain State’s largest recreation area, I was surrounded by picturesque, untouched beauty at Watoga, Calvin Price State Forest and Monongahela National Forest. Yeah, I had an expansive backyard with miles to explore as did Freckles, our family’s pet deer. My dad, Vernon, worked at the park for 43 years.

Indelibly Etched Scenes That Never Change

But in early October, I came home and stayed at Cabin 11 — marvelously restored and updated in the Island Lick Cabin area. On several occasions, I admired the handicraft and attention to detail in the two-bedroom rustic log cabin.

Some things never change at Watoga. These early morning rays are near the Island Lick Cabin area and Bear Pen Trail. Views such as these near the Island Lick Cabin area and Bear Pen Trail. 📸: John C. Dean, October 7, 2020.
Views such as these rays at Watoga State Park near Bear Pen Trail never seem to change. 📸: John C. Dean, October 7, 2020.

To begin with, Jack and Max, my two, seven-year-old labs, excitedly conquered the 15-step uphill climb to our encampment in a matter of seconds. Their sense of smell went into overdrive for several days.

While at Watoga, a friend told me that coming back “must be like a nostalgia tour.” And it was. Importantly though, I made new memories. Fresh mountain air intoxicated my senses once again. Nostalgic moments with breathtaking views unfurled before my eyes. In essence, those precious scenes are now indelibly etched in my mind.

There’s just something about Watoga that reinvigorates my inner being. After years of rush hour traffic and corporate deadlines, grasping nature’s artwork is the ultimate stress reliever. You see, Watoga’s magic never seems to transform itself into anything other than what is painted so perfectly. This vast paradise was and still is my home.

It’s a mesmerizing place. “The more things change . . .”

Meanwhile, on our first morning leaving Cabin 11, a westerly breeze rustled through the trees as Jack, Max and I trekked along a freshly cleared Bear Pen Trail. Among the century-old stands of birch, maple and oak, we stopped and listened to the familiar call of whippoorwills and the steady drumbeat of woodpeckers. Nearby, a gentle mountain stream flowed ever so softly. The harmony of other songbirds spoke to me in a classic Watoga-style melody.

Yet, when those tell-tale sounds of nature stopped, the tranquility of quietness took over. Some who are used to the constant humming of traffic and music may find this unnerving. However, I savor the stillness. This is the never-changing wilderness that always welcomes me with open arms. After all, Watoga is like Christmas morning as I open thousands of its gifts with childlike excitement. And therefore, at Watoga, I know that “the more things change the more they stay the same.”

As a youngster and teenager, every spring, summer, fall or winter, blooming rhododendron, billions of dazzling stars, spectacular sunsets, a fall tapestry of red, yellow and orange leaves, fresh fallen, pure-white snow greeted me in brilliant fashion. Obviously, Watoga is unique in its own spectacular manner. Once you visit or live there as I did for more than 16 years, this park tugs at your heartstrings, calling your name to return.

Watoga Didn’t Change. I Did.

Now, on this memorable reunion tour, Watoga blessed me with several stunning vistas, unfolding in picturesque format. I am ecstatic to report that those vivid scenes stay the same no matter what else changes. I think Ansel Adams would agree.

The wind whirled loudly at the T.M. Cheek Memorial Overlook while I admired the early fall foliage in the distant Greenbrier River Valley on a 70-degree day at Watoga State Park.

As I walked throughout various areas of the park, a multitude of improvements to the cabins, the trails, signage, the administration building were clearly noticeable. However, Watoga’s backdrop of natural beauty has not changed. The more things change . . .

Watoga aged gracefully all these decades while I was elsewhere in America. She withstood the brunt of Mother Nature’s forces. Still today, Watoga continues to sing her melodies and bless us with her plethora of natural wonders — some new and some old.

In any event, Watoga didn’t change. I did.

The Stories Still to Come . . .

Nestled near a brook flowing to the 11-acre Watoga Lake is Kermit McKeever‘s bench. Jack, Max and I took a few minutes to pay tribute to “Mac” who helped my dad further his career at Watoga. They were good friends working together tirelessly during Watoga’s infancy in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Oh, the stories yet to be told!

Mr. McKeever was Watoga’s superintendent from 1944-1948. He is commonly known as the father of West Virginia’s network of state parks. Many parks came to fruition under his leadership from 1948-1979.

On this occasion, I wondered how ecstatic the legendary Mr. McKeever and dad would be about today’s Watoga. Of course, as long as I can, I am determined to continue their love affair with Watoga.

In any event, take a few minutes to sit on any of the park benches strategically located throughout the park. Visualize what is before you — 10,100 acres of pristine magnificence and dreams yet to be realized.

Watoga, I Love You! See You Soon!

Then, before I am even a whisper in Watoga’s wind, I visualize my next encounter with my forever Wild and Wonderful Watoga State Park. Leaving on that melancholy fall day, I glanced into my car’s rear-view mirror. Cabin 1 was quickly fading into a symphony of colors. I slowed down instinctively. To my left, rays of light glistened off the Greenbrier River.

Then as if on cue, the lyrics to “The More Things Change” started playing again. Jack and Max leaned their heads out the rolled down windows, their noses twitching. I couldn’t resist but yell “Watoga, I love you! See you soon!”

Taking a break to admire the view of the Watoga swimming pool on a 70-degree fall day are John Dean and his two labs, Jack and Max. 📸: Flora Jane Bott, October 7, 2020
Taking a break to admire the view surrounding the Watoga swimming pool on a 70-degree fall day are John Dean and his two labs, Jack and Max. 📸: Flora Jane Bott, October 7, 2020.
About the Author

John C. Dean is a legal editor and former journalist. He lives near Fayetteville, a few miles from the New River Gorge Bridge. You can contact John at .

Two Benches for Two Former Watoga Superintendents

Benches for former Watoga superintendents Richard Dale and Kermit McKeever were set in June in their honor. 📸: John C. Dean, September 16, 2020
Benches for former Watoga superintendents Richard Dale and Kermit McKeever were set in June in their honor. 📸: John C. Dean, September 16, 2020

Benches honoring two former superintendents were installed in June as part of the Watoga State Park Bench Project. Both are situated near the statue honoring the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) with a nearby small stream flowing gently to Watoga Lake. In the background is the park’s administration building.

Bench for Kermit McKeever

Kermit McKeever (1910-1995), oftentimes referred to as the “father of West Virginia’s modern state park system,” was Watoga’s superintendent from 1944-1948.

Situated near the CCC statue is Kermit and Arenna McKeever's bench as part of the Watoga State Park Bench Program. 📸: John C. Dean, September 16, 2020
Situated near the CCC statue is Kermit and Arenna McKeever’s bench as part of the Watoga State Park Bench Program. 📸: John C. Dean, September 16, 2020

For the next 31 years, McKeever was the state’s Parks Director. Furthermore, he was instrumental in expanding the number of parks from 14 to 34. During that time, 100 vacation cabins and nine lodges were built, golf courses and ski slopes were created, naturalist programs were established, and crucial infrastructure such as roads, bridges and utilities were completed. McKeever Lodge at Pipestem State Park is named in his honor.

“All of my family are very appreciative of the bench and also where it’s located,” said Charlotte McKeever Emswiler, McKeever’s daughter. “I think that’s because it was one of the parks built by the CCC.”

Kermit and Arenna McKeever’s bench was donated by Emswiler and her daughters, Jacqueline Hersch, Vicki Evans and Jennifer Abbott.

Bench for Richard Dale

Richard Dale, who turns 95 this month, devoted 32 years of service to other parks within the state including Audra, Cass, Cedar Creek, Holly River, Prickett’s Fork, and Watoga. Likewise, he was the superintendent at Watoga from 1966-1975.

Richard Dale, superintendent at Watoga from 1966-1975, enjoys a sun-filled summer day on his bench. 📸: Rose Clark, June 2020.
Richard Dale, superintendent at Watoga from 1966-1975, enjoys a sun-filled summer day on his bench. 📸: Rose Clark, June 2020.

“I’ve been blessed with a lot more than I deserve,” Dale told The Pocahontas Times, “and I’m thankful every day. I asked the Lord to make me a kind person.”

Mr. Dale’s bench was donated by Jim and Judy Meads of Glenville. In 1967 and 1968, Mead was the park’s naturalist. Thus, the Meads began a friendship that has lasted more than 50 years.

“We setup our camper beside the Beaver Creek Campground’s bath house and lived there for a couple of weeks,” said Meads in a May 2019 article detailing his adventures as Watoga’s park naturalist in 1967 and 1968. “Mr. Dale realized our accommodations were a little cramped and asked if we would like to move to a large room over the restaurant in the Administration Building, which was built in the mid 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corp.”

Dedication Ceremonies

Due to Covid-19, the dedication ceremonies for the Dale and McKeever benches have been postponed until 2021, according to Mac Gray, Watoga State Park Foundation Treasurer.

Plan Your Watoga State Park Bench Now

Want your own bench when you visit Watoga? Whether it’s to remember a loved one or to mark your favorite spot at the state’s largest and oldest park, our professional crew can assist you. And with more than 10,000 acres of pristine wilderness, Watoga has ample room for your bench.

Significantly, the Watoga State Park Bench Project has completed the installation of 31 benches throughout the park’s 10,000 acres – 28 donated by park supporters. Further, three others have been provided by the Foundation.

Click here for more information about the Watoga State Park Bench Project.

Future Blogs About the Dales and the McKeevers

In the meantime, we will be writing more about Richard Dale’s and Kermit McKeever’s time at Watoga, including never-before-revealed details. Stay tuned.

About the Author

John C. Dean, a former journalist, lived at Watoga in the 1960s and 1970s. His dad, Vernon C., worked with Richard Dale and Kermit McKeever. More than 75 years later, the Dale, Dean and McKeever families remain friends.