A Fourth of July Uncola Adventure at Watoga State Park

A West Virginia 7 Up cA West Virginia 7 Up can released in advance of the Fourth of July, 1976. Photo courtesy of ebay.comPhoto courtesy of ebay's Image Majick. The name West Virginia is comprised of a square pattern that contains white circular dots blanded over a solid red border. United We Stand is highlighted at the bottom of the square (in white letters) over a red color. The colors are the standard red, white and blue overlaying 7 Up's standard green color.
A West Virginia 7 Up can released in advance of the Fourth of July, 1976. Photo courtesy of ebay.com.

A Fourth of July Uncola Pyramid?

With the Fourth of July just a few days away, I was thinking about our country’s 200th birthday in 1976. What was I doing as a teenager growing up at Watoga State Park? Sure, there were picnics, hot dogs, baseball, firecrackers, and the swimming pool. But just why was a pyramid being built at the pool?

Obviously, we were not building a pyramid like the one the Egyptians constructed. Our mission and adventure during that bicentennial celebration was to find and then stack 7 Up (also known as the Uncola) cans into a triangular shape. End result? Read on.

United We Stand

Just what was it about those cans? Well, 7 Up’s clever advertising team designed them to have a wide appeal across the U.S. For that matter, the strategy also worked at the state’s largest park.

Known as the “United We Stand” collection, 7 Up debuted its 50-can set in 1976. As shown in the photo above, West Virginia’s can revealed more specific details (for example, 1863 as the year admitted to the Union; 35th state; capital of Charleston; and nickname of The Mountain State). The other 49 states followed the same pattern.

In anticipation of the Fourth of July for America's BicentenniaThese 50 7 Up cans featured state-specific information. Photo courtesy of ebay.com. Photo courtesy of ebay's Image Majick. Each state name is comprised of a square pattern that contains specific state information like year admitted, its capital and state motto. White circular dots blanded over a solid red border. United We Stand is highlighted at the bottom of the square (in white letters) over a red color. The predominant color on the cans is the standard red, white and blue overlaying 7 Up's standard green color.
These 50 7 Up cans featured state-specific information. Photo courtesy of ebay.com.

So how did these cans go together? Each was numbered 1-50. On the back of Can No. 1 were instructions how to build the display. Can No. 50 had the words “United We Stand.” Once completed, the other side portrayed an image of Uncle Sam (remember those iconic Uncle Sam “I Want You” recruitment posters?)

Obsessed with the Uncola

Before, during and after the Fourth of July, finding 7 Up cans became a months-long adventure and obsession.

While catchy tunes like Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” often blared on an 8-track tape player at swimming pool, we sometimes found a missing can park guests had left behind. Our stack of red, white, blue, and 7 Up’s signature green cans began forming something unique.

After all, myself, my sister, Vicki and our cousins, Deb and Kim, and even the lifeguards were on a mission find those cans — at the pool, at the grocery store in Marlinton or at empty campsites at the Beaver Creek Campground. And when we found a can, we learned interesting details about that specific state.

Did We Succeed on that Fourth of July?

In 1976, my family’s Fourth of July celebration at Watoga featured the standard picnic food, but also some of that lemon-lime-flavored refreshment. Rest assured that no cans were harmed or dented during consumption. In case you were wondering about our success or failure: Yes, by summer’s end, we had found all 50 cans.

Known as 7 Up's "United We Stand" collectKnown as 7 Up's "United We Stand" collection, the 50 state cans (photo courtesy of ebay.com), reveals a depiction of the iconic Uncle Sam's "I Want You" recruitment poster.Shades of red, white and blue reveal the image of Uncle Sam's face pointing as if to say "I Want You."
Known as 7 Up’s “United We Stand” collection, the 50 state cans (photo courtesy of ebay.com), reveal a depiction of the iconic Uncle Sam’s “I Want You” recruitment poster.

Feel free to share your Fourth of July memories at Watoga by e-mailing me at jcamerondean@gmail.com.

About the Author

John C. Dean lived at Watoga for 16 years from 1960-1976, until his dad, Vernon C., retired after 43 years of service with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.

One Family’s Love Affair with Watoga, the Swimming Pool and Cabin 20

Watoga Sate Park. Nestled in the background is Cabin 20. | 📸: @john.c.dean
Side view of the swimming pool at Watoga Sate Park. Nestled in the background is Cabin 20. | 📸: @john.c.dean

For more than seven decades, the Botts have fished, swam, hiked, and oftentimes stayed at Cabin 20 at Watoga State Park. This is Flora Jane Bott’s memories about the swimming pool, that cabin next door and the park.

Cabin 20

“It was next to impossible to contain our excitement as we drove closer to park boundaries. With the windows down, the fresh smell of the forest wafted into our car. Driving to the park office to get the cabin key seemed to take forever. Once there, it became a challenge for my sister and I as we would navigate the wall and steps that went up two sides to the building like the letter “U.” We would finish off the step challenge with a drink of fresh cold water from the water fountain at the bottom.

“Alas, finally, we see the sign identifying Cabin 20. Most amenities were provided for us in the cabin, but that still meant unloading our suitcases, groceries, and other items my mother deemed as necessities for our week-long stay. Opening both doors to the cabin, running around, laying on the beds, and digging out our swimsuits and towels were all part of the initiation process.

“My family visited Watoga every summer long before I came into the scene. While we enjoyed Cabins 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, and 14, my mom and dad preferred Cabin 20 when we were young because of its proximity to the swimming pool and the recreation center.”

Fish, Deer and Raccoons

“Each cabin is unique for different reasons, but Cabin 20 watched three generations of the Bott family grow up and grow old. In that respect, Watoga helped form my endless love for our state.

“Cabin 20 was a short trail’s walk to the lake and an added bonus for my older brother, David. I’ll always remember the slightly smokey smell in the cabin. Then there was the banging noise of the wooden screen door hitting the door frame when it closed. We loved going fishing at the lake or the low water bridge crossing the Greenbrier River into Seebert. My mother amazed us by making fishing poles out of safety pins and long sticks. She was clever that way.

“In the evenings, we always went for a drive looking for wildlife – seeing the deer that came out to feed and the raccoon families scampering across the road.”

The Swimming Pool Next Door

“Upon arrival, I was always in a hurry and impatient to get to the pool which was right next door. Its water was sparkling and refreshing. Swimming was my thing. And taking us swimming was my dad’s job. From June to August, the water was quite chilly, but we would get used to it.

“As a young child the baby pool as I called it was my hangout. It was the perfect place to practice my skills of learning how to swim. I would kick my feet while holding on to the concrete edge with my hands, and finally the bravery of practicing going under water. My mom would sit by the edge of the pool as I played. My mom was terrified of water because of a traumatic childhood memory. That’s why swimming was my dad’s job. As we got older, my mom would come over from Cabin 20 and sit on the wooden fence surrounding the pool and watch us swim. In spite of her fear, we all learned how to swim and loved the water.

Flora Jane Bott and her dad, Leonard, spent hours together at the swimming pool. This is Flora and her dad in Morgantown, West Virginia in 1969. | 📸: Barbara Bott Joseph.
Flora Jane Bott and her dad, Leonard, spent hours together at the swimming pool. This is Flora and her dad in Morgantown, West Virginia in 1969. | 📸: Barbara Bott Joseph.

“Swimming always gave us ferocious appetites. Dinner usually consisted of grilled chicken or steak, baked potatoes, and fresh local corn and sliced tomatoes. The pool closed at 6 p.m. so dinner was always close to that time. Bathing suits and towels hung on the line to dry. Time for a relaxing evening or a drive to look for deer.”

The Swimming Pool Called My Name

“The next day, we would go fishing at the lake or rent a paddle boat. But, at some point during the day, the pool always beckoned me back. As my sister and I got older, our aquatic skills improved, and we got braver. Being able to successfully swim around someone and grab the edge at the other side was a true testament of an improving swimming technique.

“To a small child, the diving board at Watoga was ginormous. The ultimate test of bravery was jumping off the diving board into my father’s arms. Then, he would give me a push to propel me to swim to the side. Swimming has been a lifelong passion of mine and I’m sure my memories and good times at Watoga are partially responsible for that passion.”

Watoga’s Magic

“What made Watoga so special? We would swim, fish, paddle boat, horseback ride, and play pool or ping pong. There were arranged hikes and a weekly softball game with cabin guests and staff at the airstrip near Beaver Creek Campground. If we didn’t feel like cooking, we could go to the restaurant and enjoy a meal.

“At Watoga, the possibilities were endless and for that idyllic week, the swimming pool and Cabin 20 became our home and the magic of the woods was our playground.”

One Family’s Love Affair with Watoga, the Swimming Pool and Cabin 20

Watoga Sate Park. Nestled in the background is Cabin 20. | 📸: @john.c.dean
Side view of the swimming pool at Watoga Sate Park. Nestled in the background is Cabin 20. | 📸: @john.c.dean


Seventy-Two Years at Watoga

Four generations of the Bott family have stayed at Cabin 20, nestled in the pines next to the swimming pool at Watoga State Park.

For 72 years, the Botts have fished, swam, hiked, and along the way have made countless memories at the state’s largest recreation area. Specifically, from 1957-1967, these kinfolks called this particular cabin their home away from home.

And this is David Bott’s story about the swimming pool, the cabin next door and the park.

Discovering Watoga, Cabin 20 and the Pool

“My parents began traveling to Pocahontas County in 1948, staying at Graham’s Motel in Buckeye, fishing the Greenbrier River. Discovering Watoga, they soon began staying in the cabins. I began my love affair with Watoga at two-years-old.

“We stayed at Cabin 20 for at least ten years when my sisters [Barbara and Jane] were young. Before they were born, we generally stayed in the Pine Run area. Later we stayed in Cabin 1 and 2 down by the Greenbrier River. After I got married and had children, we stayed in Cabin 3 until it burned down.

“When Barbara and Jane were young, it was a logical choice for kids with a lot of energy and a need for activities. Mom liked the convenience of everything plus it allowed us to be entertained most of the time.

David Bott in flight from the diving board at the swimming pool, circa 1968. | 📸: Leonard Bott
David Bott in flight from the diving board at the swimming pool, circa 1968. | 📸: Leonard Bott

“Swimming during the day, exploring Island Lick Creek in the evenings, and catching crawdads to fish the lake. My parents almost always stayed the last week of August because they wanted to give us one last summer hurrah before school started.”

The Majesty of Cabin 20

“I think the layout was one of the features my mother enjoyed the most. The front door was almost center of the cabin. Walk into the living room/dining area. On either side of the fireplace were single beds. Mom and dad slept here. It was a magnificent fireplace. To the right was a hallway, first on the left, the kitchen, across the way, a bedroom. Down the hall on the right the other bedroom and bathroom across the hall. Backdoor to the woodshed and the little back porch was the raccoon dining area.”

Swimming Pool Humor

“I was in grade school; Barbara was in preschool and Jane was a toddler. My mother would require us to take a break from swimming in the afternoon. Barbara had to nap, but I got to run around. Instead, I jumped the fence and went back to the pool. Well, my mother went to the front desk and spoke with the lifeguards. They promptly came out and made me get out of the pool. They made a big show of it and banned me from swimming the rest of the day. Of course, all of this was contrived by my mother.”

David Bott's daughters, Rachelle (Bott) Beckner and Sara Bott peer between the pine trees at Cabin 20 near the swimming pool. | 📸: Leonard Bott
David Bott’s daughters, Rachelle (Bott) Beckner and Sara Bott peer between the pine trees at Cabin 20 near the swimming pool, circa 1985. | 📸: Leonard Bott

Still Making Cabin 20 Memories Decades Later

“One of my favorite memories is a more recent one. My daughter, son-in-law and granddaughters stayed with us at Cabin 20 in 2007, the year of the extreme drought. We saw black bears venturing into the park. I spent a lot of time enjoying my granddaughters, helping them learn how to swim, teaching them how to dive. They had to do numerous trivial things for me that week because they lost a bet that I could not swim the length of the pool underwater.”

More to Come

In the next installment, Jane Bott, David’s sister, tells us about her days at the swimming pool, Cabin 20 and Watoga. Stay tuned.

What are your memories of the pool and Cabin 20? Please e-mail those to John at jcamerondean@gmail.com.

For more information on Cabin 20 or any other cabins at Watoga available for reservations, please click here.

Watoga Swimming Pool Update

The pool officially opens for the season on Saturday, May 30, according to Jody Spencer, park superintendent.

Visitors enjoying a summer afternoon in the Watoga State Park Swimming Pool. | Photographer unknown
Visitors enjoying a summer afternoon in the Watoga State Park Swimming Pool. | Photographer unknown

Mr. Spencer stated that prior to entering the swim area, each person must have a temperature less than 100 and answer several COVID-19-related questions. The number of admitted swimmers will be limited, and you may wish to call 304-799-7459 to check availability. The pool will be open Wednesday through Sunday.

The Swimming Pool at Watoga — The Day It Snowed!

A Continuing Series

Ahh, Memorial Day weekend is here! And, while growing up at Watoga State Park, the swimming pool is the place to be!

Watoga Sate Park. Nestled in the background is Cabin 20. | 📸: @john.c.dean
Side view of the swimming pool at Watoga Sate Park. Nestled in the background is Cabin 20. | 📸: @john.c.dean

This is the last year for the pool (a new one is in the works), but not the last year for memories about this legendary swimming spot. In particular, many readers, visitors and park guests have relayed stories of how cold that water was. This is mine.

Recently, I spoke with my cousin, Debra Dean Murphy, to ask how she remembers the pool. As a matter of fact, Deb was a lifeguard at the pool from 1979-1984. Likewise, I was a lifeguard from 1977-1979. It’s a long-standing Dean tradition to always get in the pool on this holiday weekend no matter the weather.

“The water in the Watoga pool was so cold it would literally take your breath away and make your lips turn blue,” Deb said. “But it was the pool and we loved it and we couldn’t imagine not swimming and diving and playing games in it. There were also those rare occasions when, during or after a rain, the water would feel surprisingly warm.”

Furthermore, Coach Tom Sanders: lifeguard at Watoga (1973-1975) recalls: “I think the water was from a spring. It was really cold, cold water. When the air temperature was cold, swimmers could not stay in the pool awfully long after taking a swim. The pool was always known to be cooler than the nearby swimming holes in the local rivers.”

A Frosty Morning at the Pool

So, on that memorable Memorial Day weekend, here’s what happens next:

Date: Sunday, May 28, 1972

Morning temperature: 30 degrees. Afternoon high: 76 degrees. Weather data courtesy of the National Centers for Environmental Information – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Brrr, to say the least, right?

As can be seen from that subfreezing temp, this opening day weekend is not what you would call ideal swimming conditions (not that any weekend until mid-August at the pool ever is).

However, in the 1970s, solar power meant the actual sun. On hot days, the cluster of pine trees above the pool would provide welcome shade, but on this frosty morning, they keep any glimpse of the sun away. Moreover, even on a warm summer day, the water is chilly. In reality, the water is freezing cold!

The Swimming Pool Bone-Chilling Plunge

You may be wondering if anyone went swimming that day, right?

At 10 a.m.? Absolutely not!

The lifeguards have on jeans, sweat shirts, winter headgear and coats. Undeniably, it is so cold that you can see your breath. I have on my swimming trunks under my jeans. Deb is bundled inside a heavy blanket covering her black Speedo suit. In particular, no other brave souls have ventured to the pool. Meanwhile, we gather inside the bathhouse, near the front entrance, hoping for a sudden tropical warmup.

All of a sudden it begins snowing. It’s like a whiteout – gusty, swirling winds with arctic blasts bringing a steady stream of snowflakes onto the crystal-clear waters of the swimming pool.

However, Deb and I are not going to let a little snow halt a family ritual at the swimming pool. The lifeguards look on in astonishment as Deb and I jump into deep end of the pool, even though it is only for about 30 seconds.

Quickly swimming to the edge faster than an Olympic freestyle gold medalist, Deb and I get out before we are frozen in time. We are shaking and shivering uncontrollably, teeth chattering loudly. We hurriedly grab our nearby towels as hot showers await us.

That is my bone-chilling snow day at the pool. What is yours? Please email your pool memories to jcamerondean@gmail.com. Near Labor Day, I will be publishing a blog(s) to commemorate readers’ memories at the swimming pool.

Roadside perspective of the Watoga State Park Swimming Pool before trees were thinned to allow more sunlight. | Watoga Sate Park. | 📸: @john.c.dean
Roadside perspective of the Watoga State Park Swimming Pool before trees were thinned to allow more sunlight. | Watoga Sate Park. | 📸: @john.c.dean

About the Author

John C. Dean lived at Watoga for 16 years from 1960-1976, until his dad, Vernon C., retired after 43 years of service with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.

The Swimming Pool at Watoga — A Continuing Series

Visitors enjoying a summer afternoon in the Watoga State Park Swimming Pool. | Photographer unknown
Visitors enjoying a summer afternoon in the Watoga State Park Swimming Pool. | Photographer unknown

My Favorite Swimming Pool in the Whole Wide World

For 80 years at the Watoga State Park Swimming Pool, countless sunbathers and swimmers have graced its water and tread on its time-worn concrete decks.

Tentatively, this will be the last summer for the pool as we now know it. Plans are underway for the construction of a “new and improved” facility for future generations. As more details become available, I will provide timely updates. And, in that vein, I also look forward to telling you the differences between life at the pool — then and now.

But, today’s musing focuses more on a personal thrill at the pool at West Virginia’s largest state park. Since this is a continuing blog, we will talk to others about their days at the pool, and we will also get the inside scoop from behind-the-scenes personnel for continuing updates.

The swimming pool is legendary for its ice-cold, frigid, Siberia-like water temperatures. Just pick a winter-like adjective and it fits nicely when talking about going for a dip. I too vividly recall those arctic waters while growing up at Watoga. No matter how cold the water, this pool is and always will be my favorite swimming pool in the whole wide world!

Current Swimming Pool Opening Day Plans

Detailed plans for opening dates at state park swimming pools have not been released. For the most up-to-date information, please utilize the following resources:

West Virginia-specific information: Call the toll-free hotline 1-800-887-4304 or visit:

www.coronavirus.wv.gov
West Virginia Department of Health & Human Resources: www.dhhr.wv.gov/COVID-19
Centers for Disease Control & Prevention – www.cdc.gov
World Health Organization – www.who.int

The Swimming Pool and the Thrill of Victory

When you learn how to swim at a young age, oftentimes you are called “a fish.” As a result of days, weeks, months and years of “living” at the pool, I dream of being the next Mark Spitz and winning multiple Olympic gold medals. Imagine a mentor instructing you how to perfect a dive from the pool’s springboard.

Remember “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” from ABC’s Wide World of Sports? And, it is nice to say that those memories at Watoga’s pool are dominated more by the “thrills” than they are the “defeats.”

Likewise, it is still a thrill to know that where I learned to swim is part of the majestic expanse of natural beauty and wonders nestled in the expanse of 10,000-plus acres. Certainly, I didn’t give it much thought when I was younger, but the foresight and planning to build the pool where it is amazes me.

Learning How to Dive

In 1973, “Coach” Tom Sanders is one of the lifeguards at the swimming pool. I am 12 and can swim well, but I have not conquered the art of diving yet.

“Ok, John, remember to tuck your chin,” Coach says. “Feet together. Bend your knees a little. Lean forward. Don’t look up. I am going to help you fall in. Ok, you ready?”

“Yeah, I’m ready, Coach.”

“You sure? Get set? Here we go!”

And with that, Coach ever so slowly nudges me forward into the deep end of the pool. I do not keep my chin tucked and subsequently complete what is commonly known as a “belly smacker.” Ouch!

At this instant, I think that this process may take longer than the time it took to walk the few miles to the pool from our home near Beaver Creek Campground at the north entrance to the park.

“All right, John, let’s try it again. It is going to take some practice just like those corner shots you like to take at the gym. Remember why we practice basketball for two hours after school, right?”

As a matter of fact, I did practice that dive for several days. I would arrive at the pool early each day before park guests had arrived for the day. The pool opens at 11 a.m. and closes at 6 p.m. When Coach had time or the pool wasn’t crowded, he would provide much needed guidance.

“Remember to keep your head down when you go in the water. Toes together. Don’t look up.”

After the third day, I have the technique down, thanks to Coach’s encouragement, cheers, hand claps and positive reinforcement techniques.

Coach, This Dive’s for You!

In conclusion, Thomas “Coach” Sanders was a teacher for a decade and a principal for 31 years in Pocahontas County.

Until now, I never conveyed to Coach how instrumental he was in not only my aquatic development, but also in my educational and career choices. Undoubtedly, absent Coach’s guidance, I would not have been able to do what some consider a simple maneuver. Above all, Coach Sanders instilled in me to always try my best in life no matter what the task. So, it pays dividends to never give up, to give it your all, and as the proverb states “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.”

Without a doubt, Coach, this dive’s for you!

Editor’s Note:

Throughout the next few months, John will be compiling stories, memories, facts, and tidbits about readers’ experiences at the swimming pool. Near Labor Day, he will publish that collection for posterity’s sake. Please share your swimming pool experiences with John at jcamerondean@gmail.com or post on his Facebook writing page by clicking this link to go to John C. Dean, Writer.

Entrance to bathhouse and swimming pool at Watoga State Park. | Photographer unknown
Entrance to bathhouse and swimming pool at Watoga State Park. | Photographer unknown


About the Author

John C. Dean lived at Watoga for 16 years from 1960-1976, until his dad, Vernon C., retired after 43 years of service with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.

The Copperheads — Fight or Flight? Maybe Fright?

“We are the Copperheads — the mighty, mighty Copperheads. Everywhere we go, people wanna know, so we tell them.”

This chant is still the battle cry for Marlinton Middle School today as it was at my ole stompin’ grounds in the 1970s. Regardless, I am not a fan of snakes! Without a doubt, those copperheads are “mighty,” but the chants remind me of a not so pleasant day at Watoga State Park.

Copperheads mostly lie still, oftentimes in a curled or twisted position. The northern copperhead is a venomous pit viper subspecies in the eastern U.S. | 📸: U.S. Centers for Disease Control
Copperheads mostly lie still, oftentimes in a curled or twisted position. The northern copperhead is a venomous pit viper subspecies in the eastern U.S. | 📸: U.S. Centers for Disease Control

Nonetheless, it did not help my fear of snakes that my junior high school’s logo and cheers revolved around the copperhead snake. During this era, everyone is proud (except me and maybe a few others who wouldn’t admit it) that “we are the Copperheads.”

“The fight or flight response, or stress response, is triggered by a release of hormones either prompting us to stay and fight or run away and flee.”

Freeze! It’s the Mighty, Mighty Copperheads

Just a quick note about the copperhead snake and I’ll get right back to that scary encounter with one at West Virginia’s largest state park.

Found in the eastern U.S., the northern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen) is a venomous pit viper subspecies. The copperhead’s average length is between two and three feet, and its diet consists of rodents, insects, small birds, and amphibians. In the Mountain State, the copperhead’s home is in wooded and rocky areas, and it does not actively seek human contact. Copperheads often lie still (like “freezing”), but will strike if people unknowingly step near them or on them (like I almost did).

The Trouble Writing About Copperheads

Since some experts suggest that writing about your fears helps allay them, this is my feeble attempt at accomplishing that. However, my previous attempt writing about black snakes didn’t cure me. I double-checked; yep, still scared.

In particular, I think that almost being stricken at such a young age by a copperhead may have been the traumatizing event that triggered this deep-seated lifelong fear. And, I am not so sure that I would be writing this story if not for my mom.

Until now, I have never written about this topic. I could blame writer’s block (such an easy excuse to avoid the real reason), but that’s not really the case. So, in essence, here’s my best recollection about that twisted copperhead.

The Jumpman Pose Before Michael Jordan

Ronnie and I are tossing a baseball in the front yard of the conservation officer’s residence, near the north entrance to the park. This cabin is nestled next to a narrow mountain stream where we often caught tad poles, minnows and frogs. Specifically, we are enjoying the chance to run carefree and relieve some of that winter’s cabin fever.

In the meantime, mom is sitting in the brown wooden rocker on the front porch. All of a sudden, mom instinctively spots a copperhead and issues a warning cry that a viper is about to strike me!

“Johnny, watch out. There’s a copperhead! Run!”

Rather than doing what mom instructs, I instead look down and see what lurks below. And, somehow, someway, I leap up and outward.

When I first saw the Michael Jordan Jumpman logo for Nike decades later, it conjured up images of me leaping skyward over the dreaded copperhead. All right, maybe that was more related to my basketball days as a Marlinton Copperhead!

Photo Courtesy of @AFT-West Virginia
This is where the Copperheads live. Marlinton Middle School students gather in the gym below the viper logo. | 📸: @AFT-West Virginia

On the other hand, mom’s well-timed alert about the copperhead snake may have not only saved my life, but it also taught me to pay closer attention to my surroundings – beneath, above, beside, in front of, and behind, and above.

At least, that is how I like to recall that warm spring day in the late 1960s. Years later, Ronnie would still tease me by comparing my screams that day to the wheel screech of a Shay No. 5 making a sharp turn on the downward descent from Bald Knob at Cass Scenic Railroad State Park.

On the positive side and fortunately for me, I did not feel the viper’s sting that day and, needless to say, I avoid ALL snakes at ALL costs. Oh, I said that already, didn’t I?

It’s Your Choice — Fight or Flight the Coopperheads?

What do you do when you see a copperhead snake? Run like the wind? Stand your ground and fight?

While trying to write about this fear of snakes (Ophidiophobia or ophiophobia), I came across what happens to your body during a stressful situation — be it your memorable encounter with a coiled and ready-to-strike copperhead snake at Watoga, a road rage incident about to intensify during your morning rush hour commute or a vicious dog ready to pounce during your peaceful morning stroll.

Regardless of the specifics of each encounter, you now must decide: fight or flight.

“The fight or flight response, or stress response, is triggered by a release of hormones either prompting us to stay and fight or run away and flee,” explains psychologist Carolyn Fisher, PhD. “During the response, all bodily systems are working to keep us alive in what we’ve perceived as a dangerous situation.”

What Happens to You Physically?

According to The Cleveland Clinic, during the stress response, the following may occur:

  • Your heart beats faster and your blood pressure goes up.
  • Your pupils dilate.
  • You have a muted response to pain.
  • Your skin is flushed or pale.
  • You may lose control of your bladder.
  • You are more observant of your surrounding and your senses kick into high gear.
  • Stress hormones flow throughout your body, causing trembling or twitching.
  • Your memories can be affected – not recalling details accurately or even blacking out vivid memories.

And If You Smell Cucumbers . . .

While some of my vivid copperhead snake memories may be difficult to remember in 2020, I do recall with specificity the sage advice my mom repeatedly imparted upon me when venturing into the expanse of Watoga’s 10,000 acres of pristine beauty.

“Johnny, if  you smell cucumbers, it means there is a copperhead nearby, and you need to run!” And run I do – even to this day!

P.S. While I do have an intense fear of all snakes, it never has and never will stop me from enjoying my favorite place in the World — Watoga State Park!

"We are the Copperheads -- the mighty, mighty Copperheads" This copperhead twists its way around and around a basketball. | 📸: @Marlinton Middle School Facebook Page, 01.27.2019
“We are the Copperheads — the mighty, mighty Copperheads.” This copperhead twists its way around and around a basketball. | 📸: @Marlinton Middle School Facebook Page, 01.27.2019

About the Author

John C. Dean lived at Watoga for 16 years from 1960-1976, until his dad, Vernon C., retired after 43 years of service with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.

Opening a Can of Black Snakes at Watoga — Hiss!

You may be familiar with the idiom “opening a can of worms,” but what about “opening a can of black snakes”?

Profile of the head of a black snake, Durham County, North Carolina. | 📸: Patrick Coin
Profile of the head of a black snake, Durham County, North Carolina. | 📸: Patrick Coin

In fact, this is the story about a can of black snakes rearing their heads and hissing!

For reptile lovers, copperheads, rattlesnakes and black snakes can be found at Watoga State Park. However, this post concentrates on just one species: the seemingly harmless black snake — the Northern black racer: (Coluber c. constrictor).

“This snake is slender, glossy black in color and may attain a length of six feet. The dorsal scales are smooth and the chin and throat are white. Black Racers occur throughout the state in moist woodlands and fields, where they feed on birds and mammals, as well as amphibians and reptiles. Approximately 25 off-white, elliptical eggs are deposited in loose soil or sawdust piles. Hatchlings have 30 or more reddish brown blotches on a gray background. The banded juvenile pattern slowly disappears as the snake grows larger, and the snake is completely black by the time it reaches 30 inches in length.”

Snakes of West Virginia,” published by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, Wildlife Resources Section.

Ophidiophobia

So, do snakes scare you too?

Before opening that can of black snakes, let me confess that snakes scare me! All snakes. This phobia is known as Ophidiophobia, or ophiophobia. Furthermore, I don’t care if they are venomous or not. For example, just researching and reading a blog post about snakes at West Virginia‘s largest state park creeps me out. Maybe you have nightmares about these reptilians too. In that regard, a future blog will delve into the vivid details of how I became so terrified of snakes.

Let’s Talk About This Can of Black Snakes

Now that you know one of my greatest fears in life, let’s begin to open (ever so carefully) that can of black snakes.

The year: 1963. The place: Near Beaver Creek Campground. The participants: My brother, Gilbert, my sister, Della, and my mom. Gilbert is 9. Della is almost a teenager. Mom is pregnant with my youngest sister, Vicki Lynn.

However, I am just a toddler in the early 60s, Freckles, our pet deer has yet to be rescued by my dad, and the black bear with Paul McCartney eyes has yet to be seen near Calvin Price State Forest.

To begin with, my brother Gilbert is behind the adventurous and daring display that leads to those snakes becoming the topic of Dean conversations for decades to come. When snowstorms knock out our electricity for days on end at the park, we sometimes tell ghost stories and, of course, this snake story too, as we sit huddled together with kerosene lanterns casting an eerie glow about the living room at Watoga.

I recall mom (1921-1998) telling us about Gilbert’s antics, but I wanted to hear Gilbert’s and Della’s versions of those events once more.

The Black Snakes are Hissing

“C’mon mom, I wanna show you something,” Gilbert says.

Even though mom is tired after a day of working in the fields at my grandparents’ 211-acre farm that borders Watoga, she follows Gib that hot summer day at the park. Della, 12, walks beside mom.

At 9, Gib is excited to reveal his “surprise” to Mom. As with most Deans, adventures at Watoga oftentimes lead to interesting and mischievous adventures and practical jokes.

The trio walk to the trash cans situated between our home and the brown wooden sided maintenance garage near the campground.

“Look, Mom, look what I found!” Gilbert excitedly says. “Look inside the garbage can.”

Opening the shiny metal lid, Mom sees about 20 black snakes of various sizes and shapes encircling the bottom of the 30-gallon trash container trying to slither their way to the top of the can.

“The black snakes are all curled up. They are trying to climb up the side of the garbage can. Their heads rear, their mouths open, and they hiss loudly.”

— Della Dean Johnson

A New Version of Afternoon Sickness

After peering inside the trash receptacle, Mom lets out a scream that can be heard as far away as Kennison Mountain, about 16 miles from the park.

Obviously, Mom is not a fan of snakes either.

“Git rid of those snakes right now, right away,” she sternly tells Gib. Della remembers that Mom got sick after seeing the snakes, and it is not your typical morning sickness either. So, instead, a new version of afternoon sickness is unleashed that day.

A Few Slithery Details

A curling black snake on a fall day at Cacapon State Park, Berkeley Springs, West Viriginia. | 📸: @clark.stan
A curling black snake on a fall day at Cacapon State Park, Berkeley Springs, West Viriginia. | 📸: @clark.stan

So, just how do those reptiles get in the trash can?

Gib discovers a nest of the black snakes in a couple piles of saw dust between our home and the nearby maintenance garage about 200 yards from the campground.

“I find quite a number of them,” Gib recalls. “These are not baby snakes either. They range in size from about 2 or 3 feet to about 5 feet. Because I didn’t have a stick or anything to catch them with, I grab them with my hands; I put two fingers at the base of the snake’s neck to where it cannot bite me. I didn’t get bit once. They did climb up my arm and squeeze it though.”

I wanted to know if Vicki also had a fear of snakes. She says emphatically: “I hate them!”

Needless to say, I am leery of opening any garbage can lids.

In conclusion, I like a good laugh or two or enjoy pulling a prank too — just none involving black snakes, copperheads or rattlers. To put it another way, and as my mom screamed that day, “Git rid of those snakes right now, right away!”

About the Author

John C. Dean lived at Watoga for 16 years from 1960-1976, until his dad, Vernon C., retired after 43 years of service with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. He can be reached at jcamerondean@gmail.com.

The Black Bear Story at Watoga — Creative Endings

Large black bear turns the corner of Cabin 12 at Watoga State Park near Marlinton, West Virginia in June 2014. The black bear is West Virginia's state animal. Photo by Stanley Clark.
Black bear meandering the corner near Cabin 12 at Watoga. | 📸: @clark.stan

Ever eat a peanut butter sandwich right before coming face-to-face with a black bear? And how about seeing a bear with Paul McCartney eyes? With this in mind, the following are readers’ creative endings to earlier posts (Part 1 and Part 2) about the black bear at Watoga State Park.

Peanut Butter Sammie, Anyone?

The black bear lifts his head, moving his snout inches from my face. Now, I feel his breath as he sniffs and snorts. Lastly, I did not consider the peanut butter sandwich I had recently eaten.

— David Bott

The Bear with Paul McCartney Eyes

There I stood with my feet frozen to the ground like I was standing in water and Lake Watoga froze right around them. Of course, I didn’t try to break free and run; instead, I relax to go with the flow.

The first thing I notice are this bear’s eyes. While he’s standing on his hind legs and looking right at me, I am so close to him that my nose is hardly a foot from his. I can smell his hot bear-breath. Up this close, his eyes seem larger than normal, and there is a distant light behind the brown color. Keep in mind that these aren’t the vacuous eyes of a wild animal. And this mammal’s eyes are windows to something I cannot put a word on. Simultaneous love and sadness? Something like that.

Meanwhile, there the four of us stood — for how long I don’t know. Be that as it may, you may think that the woods are a quiet place where you can hear a pin drop. News flash! What’s more, the Watoga woods are not as quiet as you’d expect if you’re from the city. In short, birds are tweeting, insects are chirping, flies are buzzing, woodpeckers are pecking, and there are a thousand other members of the forest’s orchestra.

A September afternoon in the woods is anything but quiet. And that’s something else I remember very clearly about this moment. Not only are we mesmerized by this bear with Paul McCartney eyes, but we also cannot hear any of the noises we have come to expect.

Nothing. In fact, if you’ve heard the expression “deafening silence,” this was it.

That is up until the bear says, “Follow me.”

— Ernie Zore

And the Moral of the Story is . . .

I notice the biggest black bear I have ever seen climb up and into the bed of Henry Burr’s maintenance truck.

Moreover, this huge animal is having himself a big ole feast, ripping into a number of trash bags that Henry had thrown into the park vehicle earlier from the campsites at Beaver Creek Campground.

After discovering this mess later that same day, Vernon says: “Ok, Johnny and Ronnie. The lesson in this is to never put off ’til tomorrow what you could’ve done today. Particularly, Mr. Burr is gonna have a mess to clean up in the mornin’.

— Brenda Waugh

All You Need is a Little Love

Nestling with the sow bear and her cub is a fawn. Apparently, the fawn has lost its mother. This gentle giant has adopted the fawn as her own.

Many times, through the years, I would see a black bear playing in the woods with a deer. Surprisingly, they were not fighting; just playing, chasing and enjoying the special bond they developed as babies.

I will never forget their special friendship. Undoubtedly, it taught me to always be understanding of individuals no matter their background.

With this in mind, don’t we all need a little love?

— Donna Dilley

Drawing of black bear killed near Watoga, circa 1970; L-R: Ronnie, Johnny and Vernon Dean. Artistic impression by Debra Lynn Kimball.
Drawing of black bear killed near Watoga, circa 1970; L-R: Ronnie, Johnny and Vernon Dean. Artistic impression by Debra Lynn Kimball.

Postscript

In conclusion, while researching the untold aspects of the black bear, I came across an interesting paragraph in The Pocahontas Times. Significantly, was this the animal killed at Watoga almost 50 years ago? Maybe it was.

Fifty Years Ago … The Pocahontas Times

Thursday, January 8, 1970

BEAR

George Schoolcraft saw a large bear track on Pyles Mountain. He reported it to A. G. Dean. The bear traveled to Beaver Creek – from Beaver Creek into Burr Valley, bedded down on Briery Knob. The next day Eldridge McComb heard his dog barking and went to investigate. The dog had the bear in a large fallen tree. They returned to W. S. Smith’s for information about shooting bears. When they returned, the bear and dog were gone – heading for Anthonys Creek.


Growing Up at Watoga — Fishing for Wild Rainbow Trout

A West Virginia angler displays a wild rainbow trout caught with a fly rod on November 8, 2018 at Whites Run, a tributary of Seneca Creek, Pendleton County, WV | 📸: @mountainstatenatives
A West Virginia angler displays a wild rainbow trout caught with a fly rod on November 8, 2018 at Whites Run, a tributary of Seneca Creek, Pendleton County, WV | 📸: @mountainstatenatives

How did West Virginia Become Known as “Wild and Wonderful”?

Have you ever gone fishing for wild rainbow trout? Do you have a “Wild and Wonderful’ rainbow trout fishin’ story to share? Well, I have. And here is my fishing story.

From a pet deer to a black bear, those carefree days in the late 1960s for Ronnie and I were “Wild and Wonderful” action-filled adventures while Growing Up at Watoga State Park. In reality, my mom, my brother and I used those words before then-Gov. Arch A. Moore, Jr. did so at a 1969 speech at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs.

In 1975, the phrase “Wild and Wonderful West Virginia” became part of West Virginia’s welcome signs, marketing materials and license plates, and stayed put until 1991. After a 16-year absence, that slogan was instituted once again in 2007 after it beat out the popular taglines “Almost Heaven” and “The Mountain State.”

Back to 1969, when sometimes mom would refer to Ronnie and me as “wild!” Neither of us knew that “Wild and Wonderful” would become synonymous with our home state. At the same time, we were too occupied with “Wild and Wonderful” activities enveloping us at Watoga State Park and Calvin Price State Forest near Marlinton to pay much attention to such words. With this in mind, here’s one of my “Wild and Wonderful” rainbow trout fishing adventures.

Snakes, Arrowheads, Fortresses, and Freckles, our Pet Deer

On that overcast spring day, Ronnie and I create names for the various cumulus cloud formations. We see dandelions too, but mostly feel them squish between our toes, as we run “wild” discovering “wonderful” treasures like snakes, arrowheads and old fortresses hidden deep within the woods past the airstrip near the state forest.

“Johnny, look at that huge trout way up there!” Ronnie exclaims. “See it?”

“Yeah, but do you see Freckles?” In this case, Freckles was our pet deer in 1968, and now a popular resident at French Creek Game Farm (later renamed the West Virginia State Wildlife Center) near Buckhannon.

Wherever Ronnie ventures this April day, I try to follow. Sometimes I am successful; other times not so much. After all, he’s my big brother, my hero, my teacher. Ronnie is 11. I am three years younger. So, one rainy evening near dusk, at the Beaver Creek Campground, we dig into the damp soil to collect about two dozen night crawlers, and then drop them in a blue, white and orange Maxwell House coffee can.

The “Wild and Wonderful” Fishin’ Pole

The next day, Ronnie asks “Hey Johnny! Wanna come with me?”

“Yeah, sure. But, what we gonna do?”

Naturally, I am excited to tag along no matter where it is or what we might do. As a matter of fact, it isn’t often that Ronnie invites me to go on one of his journeys throughout the park.

“We’re goin’ fishin’ then! C’mon, let’s go to Laurel Run.” Laurel Run is one of Ronnie’s favorite spots to journey off to by himself and leave me standing at the intersection to either Burr Valley or the park superintendent’s residence.

“Johnny, go git that ole coffee can we had last night. Those are our fishin’ worms. You’re gonna catch a big, ole trout today!” Of course, I ran full steam ahead to our secret hiding place behind the maintenance garage, close to the rustic campground.

To begin this “Wild and Wonderful” rainbow trout fishin’ story, Ronnie and I find two fallen branches from an oak to serve as that day’s fishing poles.

First, Ronnie finds some dirty tennis shoe strings to be our bait lines. Second, he coaxes me into snagging some safety pins from Mom’s sewing box, neatly tucked beside her Singer sewing machine. Third, some aging yellow twine becomes our fishing lines. Fourth, Ronnie ties a knot a few inches from the limb’s base and then winds the string along the four-foot branch to the end of my brand-new fishing apparatus. Finally, he secures a small pebble to the end of the string as a weight. Mom’s safety pins are our hooks.

Learning how to Reel in a “Wild and Wonderful” Rainbow Trout

To begin with, Ronnie shows me how to drop my improvised fishing line into Laurel Run. I hear a subtle splash as the stone and the night crawler enter the sparkling mountain waters. We wait for our lines to sink deeper. Not only does Ronnie help me to move the pole slowly back and forth, but also he teaches me how to bring the rod closer to my body, and then to lift it out of the water.

“Ok, do it again, Johnny. Throw the line back out there in the middle of that hole. You’ll git the hang of it. I know ya will.” And I repeat this several times. After a few minutes, Ronnie asks if there’s been a bite yet.

“No, I don’t think so. How would I know?”

“Oh, you’ll know all right. When a trout that’s bigger than you pulls, you’ll be learnin’ how to swim all the way to the pool and back again!”

So, we wait. And then wait some more. I notice Ronnie looking into the nearby cluster of oak and pine trees. I look too, noticing a few deer cautiously observing us standing in one of their water sources. Naturally, I wonder if Freckles is making new friends at the game farm.

Seeing my First “Wild and Wonderful” Rainbow Trout

Then it happens. I feel a tug at last. Without delay, Ronnie calmly wades over, tells me to firmly hold my pole and to guide it toward me, and finally to lift the catch up and out of the water.

“See it, Johnny? Would ya look at that? Look, it’s beautiful and check out those colors!”

“Oh my gosh, Ronnie. I can’t believe it. I caught a fish! Look, I caught him!”

“Yeah, Johnny, you got one all right. You just caught your very first wild rainbow trout! Way to go! Would you look at that? Talk about a beaut!”

At this point, I continue to admire the “Wild and Wonderful” rainbow trout’s subtle blues and greens. Those hues on its slender body mesmerize me.

“You wanna keep it? It’s up to you.”

To say the least, I am ecstatic to catch my first fish with Ronnie’s help. Even though it isn’t a trophy-sized catch, and most likely a baby, that “Wild and Wonderful” rainbow trout lives to swim another day in the crystal-clear waters of Laurel Run. I never became an expert angler like Ronnie, but whenever I see a rainbow, the array of colors reminds me that fishing for wild rainbow trout is just one of my many colorful “Wild and Wonderful” Watoga adventures.

Ronnie Dean trout fishing at Laurel Run, Watoga State Park, circa 1980 | 📸: John Dean
Ronnie Dean trout fishing at Laurel Run, Watoga State Park, circa 1980 |📸: John Dean

Where Will Your “Wild and Wonderful” Adventure Take Place?

The West Virginia Department of Natural Resources stocks all four types of trout at Watoga Lake (rainbow, golden rainbow, brook, and brown trout) at some point throughout the year. Trout are not stocked at Laurel Run. Visit the DNR website for to decide where you will catch your next “Wild and Wonderful” trophy-sized fish.

Let’s go fishing for wild rainbow trout! It’s sure to be “Wild and Wonderful.”

John C. Dean lived at Watoga for 16 years from 1960-1976, until his dad, Vernon C., retired after 43 years of service with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. He can be reached at jcamerondean@gmail.com