Watoga Dark Sky Good for Bats

Watoga dark sky good for bats. Cindy Sandeno, District Ranger of the Marlinton/White Sulphur Springs Ranger District, visited Watoga State Park this past Saturday evening to teach an assembled group of campers, park employees and other interested parties why we need bats, and why they now need us. Sandeno discussed light pollution and how bats and humans can benefit by installing downlight fixtures.

Cindy Sandeno discusses bat house with workshop participants at Watoga State Park, a would be Dark Sky Park

Cindy, whose background includes managing regionally threatened, endangered, and sensitive species for the Forest Service spoke about the diminishing population of bats throughout the country and the profound effects that spell for the environment and agriculture.

As the National Cave and Karst Coordinator for the Forest Service, and her experience spelunking in the U.S. and Mexico, she has a deep appreciation for the plight of these fascinating creatures who silently do so much for us.

It’s a thankless job being a bat when you consider that most people still regard them as they did in the Middle Ages; as vermin of the night whose only purpose is to spread disease and worse. Many associate bats with witches and vampires, and as creepy creatures who enjoy becoming entangled in our hair – not a problem for me, of course.

In truth, bats are pollinators, they are distributors of seeds, and they are estimated to save $3.7 to $53 billion dollars per year as non-toxic pest control agents. And, if you take the time to learn about bats, you will learn that they are wonderful parents of their young and, all in all, bats are quite cute.

Watoga Dark Sky Good for Bats

Many bat species are threatened by diseases such as White Nose Syndrome that is responsible for the death of 5.7 million bats since 2006. On top of that, much of their habitat is at threat due to light pollution. Watoga State Park is a candidate Dark Sky Park and is a favorable bat habitat.

But you can help save these beneficial critters just educating yourself, friends, and family members about bats. Bat Week is designated from October 24th to the 31st every year.

I was definitely motivated by Cindy’s presentation; so much so that I decided to build a bat house.

A great way to learn more about bats is to visit the Project EduBat at https://batslive.pwnet.org/edubat/

Synchronous Fireflies, “They Lit Up the Woods Like a Christmas Tree”

Synchronous Fireflies

Photo of synchronous firefly
Synchronous firefly (Photinus carolinus) Courtesy of Tiffany Beachy

This story, like most, has a backstory. What follows is how something extraordinary was recently discovered in Watoga State Park.

A little over a year ago Mack Frantz, a zoologist with West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, was informed by a retired biologist from the same agency that she had observed a rare firefly, a lightning bug if you prefer, within Watoga State Park. She even provided geographic coordinates of where her sighting took place.

A small group of people led by USDA biologist Tiffany Beachy that included Sam Parker from Droop Mountain State Park Mary Dawson of the Dark Sky Park initiative and I hiked out to the location at 10 pm on a clear evening in mid-June of this year. After 20 minutes or so, we were treated to a sight unlike anything we had ever seen.

Suddenly, countless fireflies, all flashing simultaneously, lit up the forest like a string of Christmas lights. As fast as the display of bioluminescent lights had started, they stopped, and in perfect unison.

It’s official now, Watoga State Park has a population of synchronous fireflies.

Never heard of a synchronous firefly? That’s not so unusual, neither did I until this summer. But the appeal of these insects is extraordinary, and they may mean a lot more to the park and Pocahontas County as a whole, than we may think.

Unique Fireflies

So, what are synchronous fireflies, and why are they such a big deal?

Mack Frantz describes the synchronous firefly, as, “unique among most fireflies in that males synchronize their flashing displays to rhythmically repeat ‘flash trains.’ Flash-trains are a species-specific group of flashes reported at regular intervals.”

Photo of WV DNR zoologist Mack Frantz
Mack Frantz, WV DNR zoologist, and friend, “We want to make the fireflies accessible to the public without harming them.” Courtesy of Mack Frantz

This virtuoso display of aerial light by the male is meant to attract a female mate on the ground and lasts from one to three hours each night through the relatively short mating season.

“Males do not live long, so the displays only last a few weeks. Additionally, synchronous fireflies are habitat specialists, typically requiring high elevation moist forests. That means you have to be in the right place and time to find them.” Said Mack.

Mack said that Watoga State Park is one of only two populations confirmed in West Virginia on public lands as of this summer. He added that “The WV Department of Natural Resources will be working closely with state and federal partners to determine the best way to conserve and manage this species. That would include making the park’s population publicly accessible for viewing without disturbing the species.”

Another condition that is a must for maintaining a population of synchronous fireflies is a minimal amount of artificial light; they thrive in the darkest locations.

“Synchronous fireflies are highly sensitive to light pollution such as that from flashlights or vehicle headlights. The State Parks and Wildlife Diversity unit of West Virginia DNR will coordinate best-management practices for guided walks that permit public viewing of synchronous fireflies with minimal impact. “added Mack.

Dark Sky

It is a fortunate coincidence that Watoga State Park entered upon a project to become qualified for a dark sky designation in 2019, a mere year before the synchronous fireflies were discovered in the park.

Louanne Fatora of the Watoga State Park Foundation, who, along with Mary Dawson, is spearheading this initiative, says, “The discovery of the synchronous firefly bolsters our efforts to establish Watoga State Park as a certified International Dark Sky Park.

Watoga State Park and Calvin Price State Forest, comprise 20,000 acres of habitat that will gain protection from artificial light pollution.”

Loss of habitat for the synchronous firefly can be mitigated with this designation, a critical factor in maintaining healthy populations.

“Synchronous firefly populations have been declining, and they are the only species in America that synchronize flashing light patterns. So it is crucial that we guard their forested, dark sky habitat for future generations of visitors to Watoga State Park.” Says Louanne.

Based upon the experience of other parks in the eastern United States that have populations of synchronous fireflies, there is considerable public demand to view their flashing displays.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee is a perfect example of the popularity of these fireflies. Before park officials controlled the viewing sites, hundreds of cars were coming into the park each evening during the relatively short mating period.

As would be expected, the people were parking anywhere they could and trampling through the sensitive areas with flashlights, endangering both the females on the ground and interrupting the flash cycles of the males with their flashlights.

In 2015 park officials created a lottery system and closed the main road into the public viewing areas. During the eight nights of regulated public viewing, 800 to 1000 people are shuttled into the sites per night.

In 2019 there were 29,000 applications to see the fireflies and far fewer openings, further demonstrating the popularity of synchronous fireflies. *

The experience in the Smokies and other locations with fireflies presents a clear implication for us here in Pocahontas County – How are we going to handle the expected influx of visitors to view the synchronous fireflies?

How this considerable problem is to be managed rests entirely upon one individual, Jody Spencer, superintendent of Watoga State Park.

When I talked to Jody, he was clearly excited about the discovery of the synchronous fireflies in the park. So much so, he was not only out there watching them on numerous evenings with his family, he found another population of the fireflies in a different part of the park. **

Jody said, “We want the public to have the opportunity to see these marvelous creatures and do it in a way that will ensure the continuation of their populations at Watoga State Park.

Public access will require certain restrictions and guidelines to protect the fireflies. And, there are a number of considerations beyond that, such as concerns for the evening quietude and darkness that the guests in the cabins come here for.”

Managing a park with a variety of resources and activities is a balancing act for park superintendents. Be assured, Jody and his staff will develop a plan that works well for a public eager to see this extraordinary event of light and protect the fireflies at the same time.

The expected increase of new visitors to Pocahontas County to view the night sky and see the light-show of the synchronous fireflies has the potential to bring more folks to our area. After all, we don’t call our county Nature’s Mountain Playground for nothing.

To look at the broader picture of what these marvelous fireflies might mean to Pocahontas County, we need to get some input from the one person who knows best how to make it work as a popular attraction, not only for Watoga State Park but the county as a whole.

Pocahontas County Convention and Visitors Bureau

Having already partnered with the Watoga State Park Foundation on the Dark Sky Park initiative, Cara Rose, Executive Director of the Pocahontas County CVB was thrilled to hear about the discovery of the synchronous fireflies at Watoga.

She took the time to call me while on vacation last week and said that the two programs, dark skies, and the synchronous fireflies, dovetail with each other in ways that can significantly benefit the park and local businesses. “After all, the wonders of nature are our product here in Pocahontas County,” Cara said.

Cara offered the support of the CVB in marketing the opportunities for public viewing of the fireflies, saying, “I see it as an opportunity to make use of something extraordinary that enhances what we already have here in Pocahontas County.

I hear it from visitors and locals all of the time, “I love it here in Pocahontas County; it is a special place.” Now, we can add one more item to the list of things that make it unique – Synchronous fireflies.

From the mountain trails of Watoga State Park,

Mister Good Wrench of Watoga

Mechanical Milieu

Probably the best advice that was ever given to me by an uncle who freely dispensed advice, much of it unsolicited, was to be good to your mechanic. He was spot on; if you are fortunate enough to find a competent and trustworthy person to entrust the health of your car to, it pays to show your appreciation. We appreciate Mister Good Wrench of Watoga.

Even more so because, like many professions, this one is fraught with unscrupulous operators – but not here in Pocahontas County of course.

Car Talk was a radio show about auto repairs that ran for 35 years on National Public Radio. It was hosted by brothers, Tom and Ray Magliozzi also called “Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers.” The two actually ran an auto repair shop in Boston’s Harvard Square.

People would call into the show with their car troubles and Click and Clack would diagnose the problem with a great deal of hilarity. I never missed a show in all those years for two reasons; yes, they were funny, very funny. But the show explored every possible problem you might encounter with a vehicle – so it was also very practical.

Gone are the days when you could pick up a distributor cap, a set of points and spark plugs at the NAPA store and do your own tune-up. Today’s auto mechanic must be skilled in technical diagnostics and computerized systems, in addition to being handy with a torque wrench.

Car Talk made me realize that a good mechanic has to have a lot of smarts and must think like a detective. A problem with a vehicle may be caused by a multitude of things and the right questions must be asked to pinpoint the actual cause of the problem. Computerized diagnostics also help, but you have to have the skills to operate this technology.

Meet Mister Good Wrench of Watoga

Watoga State Park got a good deal when they hired Arthur Sharp to maintain the fleet of trucks, backhoes, grader, mowers, and chainsaws necessary to keep the park running smoothly.

Arthur Sharp, Mr Goodwrench of Watoga State Park

Arthur, a native of Pocahontas County, came to the job with skills learned as a diesel mechanic for the West Virginia National Guard.

He attended the twelve-week school at Fort Jackson, South Carolina where he graduated an “all wheels” mechanic.

In fact, Arthur wears a lot of hats. In addition to being a full-time mechanic at the park, he is active in the West Virginia National Guard, operates a farm

and is the fire chief at Cass. It tired me out just writing that paragraph.

Where does a guy that busy find time to marry his wife Kristine and produce three great kids; Noah, Evan, and 8-month old Hope? Arthur manages it by taking care of the farm work in the evening when he can also be there with his family.

When visitors return to Watoga State Park this season they will find the Riverside Campground boasting many improvements. Backhoes and graders have been in the campground all winter pulling ditches, putting in new drainage systems, and resurfacing many of the campsites.

In other areas of the park, employees have been preemptively cutting down trees that pose a falling hazard to nearby buildings. The half-dozen mowers required to keep the grass down throughout the park, have been repaired and are awaiting use this spring.

It is Arthur who keeps all of this equipment running.

Part of the goal of the Watoga Trail Report is to make the public aware of how their park is being maintained and cared for. In doing so it is necessary to point out the many dedicated park employees, like Arthur Sharp, Mr Good Wrench of Watoga, who strive each day to make your visit a memorable one.

Other Park News

In a previous dispatch, we talked about the restoration and upgrades being made to many of the cabins. It was mentioned that the money for this project comes from the sale of government bonds and Watoga State Park was the recipient of this windfall.

Work on the cabins has been going on for about two years now, resulting in new decks, remodeled kitchens and bathrooms, and new furniture.

I have been stopping in from time to time to observe the progress, taking photographs and talking with the many skilled workers involved.

One thing became instantly clear to me; this influx of money for the cabins not only benefits the visitors to the park but, for the most part, those dollars are staying right here in Pocahontas County.

As much of the building material as possible is purchased locally. Additionally, the project is also bringing work to local contractors like Stuart Horner of JB Builders and David Smith of Marlinton-based Dream Builders. They, in turn, hire labor so the overall benefits extend well outside the park.

Stuart Horner, JB Builders and David Smith, Dream Builders

Pine Run Cabin Renovations

A recent visit to a couple of the cabins in the Pine Run Cabin Area, found employees refinishing the chestnut floors. It was a great opportunity to see side by side cabins in different stages of removal of the old floor finish.

Keeping in mind that these particular cabins were built over 80 years ago, to get to the original wood surface required sanding through many layers of polyurethane or varnish. How many? No one really knows but it looked to me like the workers were going through a lot of sandpaper.

Arthur showed me a cabin in which the finishing was completed. There was yellow tape across the door like you would see at a crime scene. We only peeked through the open door but the finished floor was dazzling.

Interior of rehabbed cabin on Pine Run, Watoga State Park

Imagine all of the park visitors who strode those floors for over eight decades. Also, imagine what it cost to rent that cabin back in 1937? It turns out that it was $30 per week for a six-person cabin.

It may sound inexpensive, but keep in mind that in 1937, during the Great Depression, the average annual wage was only $1780. The cost of a gallon of gasoline was 10 cents and a loaf of bread was 9 cents.

The average annual wage in the U.S. today is approximately $48,672 and the rate for that same six-person cabin today is $953 per week.

A quick calculation reveals that in 1937 it required 1.6% of your annual wages to rent a cabin at Watoga for you and your family and friends for a week. Today renting that same cabin accounts for 1.9% of your annual wages, not that much difference. So in truth, you are paying just about the same today as you would have in 1937.

Watoga State Park has only raised the cost of renting its cabins attendant with rising salaries throughout the years. It is still a good bargain to rent a cabin and enjoy all of the other amenities and activities found within the park and around Pocahontas County.

From the mountain trails of Watoga,

State of Watoga Park 2020

The State of Watoga Park 2020 is strong!

For the uninitiated, the thought of managing a state park may conjure up visions of spending your days walking on wooded trails and talking to park visitors. The sort of job that many people would call a “dream” job. And to a certain extent, this was true at one time. But in today’s world, you would most likely find yourself behind a desk looking at a computer screen.

You would not have to spend much time at that dream job before realizing that running a park is not that different from running a resort, but with far fewer resources and a much smaller budget.

Successfully managing a large park today requires a whole new set of skills that was not necessary just a few decades ago.

The State of Watoga Park 2020 is strong!

Watoga State Park has 35 cabins, two campgrounds, 50 miles of trail, roads, bridges, work vehicles, water and sewage treatment plants, swimming pool, lake, Recreation Hall and a whole host of other buildings.

All of this infrastructure must be maintained while at the same time providing the visitor with a quality experience; one that makes them want to return over and over.

In addition to the ability to manage employees effectively, today’s park superintendent must have considerable business acumen. Most parks, particularly state parks, have a limited amount of money in their annual budget and it must meet all of the infrastructure and labor needs discussed above.

In short, managing a park in this day and age requires a new breed of management. Jody Spencer, Superintendent of Watoga State Park, represents that new breed of manager.

Jody Spencer, Superintendent Watoga State Park

In a recent conversation with Jody, he explained to me that, “Few parks are actually designed to be self-sufficient, in part because the facilities are spread out over much greater distances than that found at typical resorts. And, unlike large resorts, we have a limited number of lodging and camping sites.”

“Some West Virginia parks”, he said, “have no means of generating revenue so they must be supported by the other parks that do generate revenue.”

Private resorts can afford to invest a good portion of their earnings back into their business. This is not so with West Virginia State Parks where earnings go into a state-wide fund that is then redistributed to all of the parks in the system, even the ones that do not generate revenue. Therein lies the challenge to the modern park superintendent.

In July of 2016, after 14 years as Superintendent of the Greenbrier River Trail, Jody was asked to take the helm of the very park where he had served his college internship, Watoga State Park.

During those years overseeing the Greenbrier River Trail, his office was located in the administration building at Watoga. Jody said that this arrangement afforded him, “An insider’s view of Watoga State Park.”

Unlike the Greenbrier River Trail, Watoga has cabins and campgrounds that bring in visitors expecting certain amenities and standards. And like all modern park managers, Jody takes in-service classes on hospitality right along with the mandated law enforcement training.

Shortly after Jody became superintendent an order went out to five state parks in West Virginia to close their swimming pools due to decreased use by park visitors and the resulting loss of revenue. Watoga was one of those parks.

Jody remembers a time when the pool was packed every day of the summer. He remembers it well because he had worked at the pool as a young man. The pool was a popular attraction at Watoga, and Jody knew that with some work it could be popular again, saying, “If you fix it, they will come.” The State of Watoga Park 2020 is strong!

He appealed for and was granted a chance from his boss to draw those visitors back to Watoga. He asked for ideas from others, a hallmark of his management style, and one of the things that kept coming up was the legendary low temperatures of the water.

Jody knew that this could be remedied with solar panels, so with some help from the Watoga State Park Foundation, an array of panels was purchased and installed. The water is now much warmer and far less appealing to polar bears.

Adding to the improvements was the addition of Wi-Fi, sliding boards and snacks. The park naturalist, Chris Bartley, ran special pool events, bringing young swimmers in by the busload, literally.

Revenue from the pool increased within the first season proving something that Jody shared with me during our discussion, “It’s all about figuring out what the public wants and balancing that with the needs of the park.”

“I look at what makes the resorts that I take my family to successful,” said Jody. “People expect clean facilities; you don’t want to take a shower in a place that creeps you out.”

Improvements slated for 2020

Over the last two years, the shower houses at the Riverside Campground have been fully renovated, as well as major improvements made to the campsites. This year this same effort will be focused on the other side of the park at the Beaver Creek Campground. The State of Watoga Park 2020 is strong!

A welcome infusion of money from oil and gas dollars was responsible for the remodeling of eight of the classic cabins. As well, 24 of the Legacy cabins are undergoing remodeling, including new heating/AC, and decks. All thanks to three million dollars of bond money that found its way to the park.

An added benefit is the opportunity for local contractors to perform the work of renovating the cabins.

As the park continues to be improved there is an increased number of paying visitors. More people are staying in the campgrounds and cabins and using the swimming pool. Plus, the new West Virginia State Park reservation system is making it much easier and more convenient for those wishing to make a reservation.

Gone are the bad old days when you had to send a postmarked application to the park. It had to arrive no earlier than February 15 to get a reservation to camp at the Riverside Campground for the calendar year ahead. Now you can make all camping and cabin reservations online with immediate confirmation. If you prefer calling, you may call the park call center or the park for reservations.

It was recently revealed that the swimming pool has not only been removed from the imminent closing list but will receive the largest upgrade since its original construction. “The swimming pool will be replaced with a new system within the next 18 months,” says Jody.

The swimming pool has deteriorated quite a bit since it was built by the CCC in the 1930s. It was recently examined by a state engineer who humorously commented that “The only thing that we can re-use is the hole in the ground.”

Accordingly, the plans include an entirely new pool structure with a maximum depth of five feet. Being considered is a “Zero-Depth Entry” such as that found at water parks. In other words, you enter the water on a gradual slope like you would at a beach.

This will provide a much safer entry to the pool, particularly for the young and those with physical limitations that would not allow a conventional ladder entry. The State of Watoga Park 2020 is strong!

“We are always looking for ways to make people linger,” says Jody. So he is looking into the installation of the popular splash pad for kids. A splash pad consists of a series of fountains arranged within a slightly concave textured concrete pad. Suffice it to say, youngsters love running around in a splash pad, confirming Jody’s assertion that with the right attractions people will linger.

Also slated for improvement are the 15 plus miles of road within the park. Watoga is on the 2020 list for resurfacing by the West Virginia Division of Highways.

Other projects on the horizon for Watoga include the Dark Sky designation. All outdoor lighting at Watoga will soon be fitted with proper shielding to attenuate artificial light as required for the designation. Further testing of the night sky will be conducted and plans are already underway for educational programs on astronomy for the public.

Plans are underway to expand the popular disc golf course; which may result in a single 18- hole course or two 9-hole courses located in different areas within the park.

The long-awaited bike trail is still in the planning stage and we hope to get moving on its construction soon. This will be a family-friendly mountain bike trail that will be located adjacent to the Ann Bailey Trail. Historic stops along the way will be the Workman Settlement Area and the Ann Bailey Tower.

With Jody’s business-minded approach to managing Watoga State Park, we can expect continued improvements to the park. Jody represents the very best of this new breed of park manager. And for the folks here in Pocahontas County who cherish Watoga State Park, we can be assured it will continue to be the largest and best park in West Virginia.

Jody can often be seen driving around the park checking up on projects and talking with employees and visitors alike. And every once in a while he is known to head out on one of Watoga’s trails. You can be sure that when he walks among the beauty of this park it reminds him of why he chose a career with West Virginia Parks.

From the mountain trails of Watoga State Park,

Ken Springer

Watoga Update November 4, 2019

Current Happenings in and around Watoga State Park via Watoga Update November 4, 2019

The Riverside Campground sits empty now, the gate was closed last week for the 2019 camping season. Riverside will reopen as it does every spring, on April 1, 2020. It is now a winter sanctuary for dog-walkers and beavers that can be seen cruising the shores along the campground.

The Beaver Creek Campground will stay open until December 8, primarily to accommodate deer hunters. It will reopen the Friday before Memorial Day weekend 2020.

Ten of the Classic cabins will remain open throughout the winter months for the hardier Watoga visitors. Cabins remaining open are 3,8,9,14,15,16,18,19,28, and 33.

Volunteerism at work in Watoga
For the 15th year in a row, the members of the DC Taekwondo group came up to Watoga State Park for training purposes. (It’s top secret and I cannot tell you. Remember, they are from D.C.)

They always spend a day doing volunteer work in the park. When asked why they provide this wonderful service, their leader, Brian Wright, said: “We enjoy our visits so much that we want to give back to the park.”

This year they played the role of Sherpas and carried on their backs pieces of one of two benches to go into the Arboretum. The first bench donated by the Wade Family was assembled by the group at the trailhead and the other, donated by the Watoga Crossing Homeowner’s Association, went into the farther recesses of the park on Honey Bee Trail.

These are the first benches to be built in the Arboretum since the Civilian Conservation Corps hand-built 17 chestnut and stone benches in the 1930s.

David Elliott, acting as the base camp manager, did a splendid job of organizing this effort. He outfitted six external frame packs, spreading the disassembled park bench into near-equal weights, and attached them to the packs.

A huge thanks to the seven members of the Washington D.C. Taekwondo Group, David Elliott, and last but not least, Freia, the amazing pack dog who toted the water for the crew up the mountain.

Pi R Squared?, No, Pie Are Round
At least the ones made at the Hillsboro Library yesterday when 22 students showed up to learn the art of pie-making from Emily Sullivan. I do not use the word “art” loosely; cooking can be an art that takes years and a certain skill set to master and Emily possesses those traits in addition to being an engaging instructor.

Emily Sullivan  Art of Pie Making workshop at Hillsboro Library community room.

Under her tutelage, we all made personal size apple pies that we walked away with after class. It was a ‘start from scratch’ course beginning with the most difficult task of making the pie dough. In my humble opinion the crust makes the pie, we learned all of Emily’s secrets yesterday, on pie crusts that is!

Fun was had by all and we started right away planning our next cooking class at the Hillsboro Library. Generally, there is no charge for the class so that’s a big plus. And classes are open to the general public including guests at Watoga State Park.

Stay tuned for information about future cooking classes at the Hillsboro Library.

Dirt Bean To Move One Block Over

Those visitors to our local state parks, including the Greenbrier River Trail, should note that the Dirt Bean has closed its doors at the 812 3rd Avenue location and will reopen in the new location on 2nd Avenue almost directly behind the old location.

The following photo of the owner, Kristy Lanier, was taken just hours before closing the door for the last time at this location. The new store will have the same great coffee, foods and drinks and should be open in the second week of November, if

Kristy Lanier, proprietor of Dirtbean Cafe & Bike Shop Marlinton, WV

Well, that’s it for this edition of the Watoga Update. Watoga State Park is open 365 days a year and there is always something to do in the largest and best state park in the mountain state of West Virginia.

Ken Springer

Dark Sky Park – Watoga

Background

The very first time I saw the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, it was from a distance of 12 miles and approximately 11 hours before I would start the climb to its summit. It rises straight up out of the pine-clad hills, an ostentatious imposition on a terrain that abhors any vertical challenge to its otherwise gentle rolling landscape.

I had pulled my truck off the gravel road that headed straight as an arrow to the basaltic monolith that I would get to know much more intimately upon the next daybreak. I was leaning against my vehicle focusing my binoculars on the great rock when a pickup pulled alongside and a middle-aged man in a Stetson asked in a friendly way if I was lost or broke down. “Neither”, I said, “I am just a bit awestruck by its size.” I did not mention the jitters I was feeling about climbing its dead-vertical face by way of a continuous 2 inch crack on the next day.

He told me that he was a rancher in the area and I commented something to the effect that it would be cool to be able to see such a beautiful landmark every day. He replied, “Well, you would think so, wouldn’t you? but to be honest I go years without really looking at it.” That statement has always stayed with me because I was to learn that his ambivalence is often the rule rather than the exception. We humans sometimes forget to see the beauty around us; it starts to blend in with the surroundings: But only if we allow it to.

Louise McNeill

Our own Poet Laureate of West Virginia, Louise McNeill, never succumbed to the irresolute when it came to her awareness of the beautiful surroundings here in Pocahontas County, particularly the total darkness of the night sky. She often speaks to the exceptional brilliance and multitude of the stars here in this part of the Appalachians.

Referring to the Aurora Borealis of 1941 in The Milkweed Ladies she recounts that “We ran out into the yard and looked up over us. The whole round of the heavens was beginning to quiver with a wild, flickering crown, at first from the north; then the east and south and west joined, and the green-red-blue-gold-purple spear tent was streaming up to the point of the heavens and riving as it came.”

“As I stood there, a kind of awe and fear came to me, as though God had not yet unloosed his might. But he had it, held back somewhere in the banked fires of the Worlds.”

A recent study revealed that 80% of the population in the U.S. are unable to see the Milky Way at night due to light pollution. Most of us here in Pocahontas County have the good fortune of being able to share the joy of Louise McNeill in having a nearly unobstructed view of the nighttime heavens.

However, we should not take this for granted – light pollution is slowly but surely encroaching upon the few remaining ‘dark sky’ regions, not only worldwide, but more particularly here in the eastern part of our country. Pocahontas County is responding to this dilemma by taking the necessary steps to protect and preserve the dark skies for future generations.

Dark Sky Park

Recently Watoga State Park entered into the initial stages of a program administered through the International Dark-Sky Association that will have many potential benefits for our area. The Watoga State Park Foundation, in partnership with the Pocahontas County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, has begun the preliminary steps to getting the park designated as a Dark Sky Park.

Watoga Lake under a starry sky

Mary Dawson and Louanne Fatora, board members of the Watoga State Park Foundation, are spearheading the effort to obtain the dark sky status for the park. They both reiterated that this project is still in the very early stages and that it may take up to two years to obtain the dark sky designation.

Meanwhile, preliminary measurements taken by local astronomers have shown that one of the major requirements seem to be met – the Milky Way can be seen with the naked eye. (Louise McNeill could have told them that) Additionally, measurements are required to be taken on a quarterly basis to determine if the visibility requirements exist year-round.

Also required for Dark Sky status is an inventory of light sources within the park, and if necessary they must be shielded. Interpretive programs for park visitors and the general public is required, which will complement the already excellent naturalist’s program at Watoga.

Stargazing

Benefits are numerous, an obvious one being the draw of amateur astronomers and their families to the park and to other parts of Pocahontas County. Anyone who has observed the annual Perseids Meteor Shower from the Scenic Highway knows what a breathtaking display that it provides. This will be a definite boon to tourism.

Less immediate benefits will include the preservation of another of the steadily decreasing number of locations that can justly be called Dark Sky areas. As education about the alarming loss of these areas spread, sources of light pollution such as towns will be more likely to adopt plans that attenuate pollution, furthering the preservation effort.

We have nothing to lose and much to gain in this project. It is hoped that the entire county will respond in a positive manner to preserving the things that those before us marveled at.

I cannot help but think that Louise McNeill, were she still living on her farm near Buckeye, would be overjoyed and supportive of the notion that we have a duty and the will to protect those things of creation that we hold dear.

I will close this edition of the Watoga Trail Report with one of Louise’s poems from her book of poetry, Hill Daughter.

The night will come, though not the “sable” night,

Though not the dark, not the “wished for balm,” the still……

But deathly brightness, thermo-neutron night,

Until some star mad watcher on a hill,

Across galaxies will peer and cry

That where there was once nothing in the sky,

Now there is flame beyond the southward horn

A small, new planet, risen fully born

In one wild surge of green and glowing birth,

And looking at it, he will name it

EARTH.

From the mountain trails of Watoga,

Ken Springer

Let’s Talk Snakes

Let’s Talk Snakes

Brian Hirt, one of Watoga’s volunteer trail workers had already put a full morning’s work into the Arboretum on Sunday, May 19. Then he decided to finish out the day by continuing his trail marking project on the Allegheny Trail. He had marked several miles of trail when he ran out of trail markers. So he turned around and started back to his car deciding to clear as much debris off of the trail as possible on his return trip.

At one point he reached down, grabbing a large branch, and started to give it a tug when he heard the distinctive and unmistakable sound of a rattlesnake that was hiding under the branch. The rattler did not strike at Brian, nor did Brian provoke the snake, he just walked away. This story has a good ending for both man and snake because Brian did the proper thing when encountering a venomous snake

Copperhead snake
Copperhead Snake Agkistrodon contortrix

We humans seem hard-wired to react to snakes and even something that merely resembles a snake. I remember reading an article in a science magazine about a controlled study in which the subjects were exposed to a series of images on a screen, while an fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) was measuring their brain activity based on blood flow. When body patterns of venomous snakes were shown there was increased blood flow to the amygdala initiating the Fight or Flight Response.

I can relate to this when I remember being startled enough to jump back recently by nothing more than a long, curving section of grapevine lying across the trail. I had reacted physically before my conscious mind confirmed that it was not a snake.

Roy Moose Snakes of West Virginia

Those of you who have attended Roy Moose’s snake program at the Cranberry Mountain Nature Center know that Roy’s level of engagement with the audience is exceptional. He captures the complete attention of adults and children alike. It is somewhat humorous to watch Roy hold forth a garter snake to youngsters who lean forward to accept the snake as the parents simultaneously lean back away from the snake.

Roy Moose Snakes of West Virginia at Cranberry Mountain Nature Center

Roy’s ever-popular Snakes of West Virginia reveals many facts and misconceptions about the two poisonous snakes found in this region; copperheads and timber rattlesnakes. Roy has been bitten by both species of snake which are pit-vipers. He said that the hand that was bitten swelled up over five times the size of his other hand. And he added that if you are bitten by a poisonous snake you will know it immediately. The pain is horrendous.

He stressed that neither poisonous snake is aggressive; both are exceedingly shy by nature and most people who are bitten were attempting to kill the snake. The best thing to do when you encounter a copperhead or rattlesnake is just to walk away. The strike zone from a coiled position is only half the length of the body. And they can only cover ground at a maximum of five miles per hour so most people could easily outrun a rattler or copperhead.

According to the WVDNR publication Snakes of West Virginia, no one has been killed by a copperhead bite in West Virginia for over 30 years. As for fatalities from rattlesnake bites, from 1969 through 1992 only four people were killed by rattlesnake bites in our state. During the same time period over 15 times more fatalities occurred from bee stings, cows and horses.

Dr. Jennifer Shreves, an emergency room doctor, at the Pocahontas Memorial Hospital, assured me that the facility has a protocol in place for snake bites and anti-venom on hand.

Dr. Shreves emphasized that victims should not bring in the offending snake. Their treatment will be based upon evaluation once they have arrived at the emergency room. This will include a blood test for toxins as the venom from both species of snake are hemotoxins as opposed to neurotoxins.

I asked Dr. Shreves about hikers and trail workers who may be some distance from help. If the victim is alone they should walk slowly back to the nearest help, trying not to get their heart beating any faster than necessary. If the victim has a car nearby they should drive only as far as necessary to get help. If in the company of other people it would be ideal to carry him or her out, however, given the type of terrain in our area that would be extremely difficult at best.

As one ER doctor with experience in treating snakebites puts it, “The most important first aid equipment for a venomous snake bite is a set of car keys.”

As for the toxin, over half of the bites are “dry” bites, meaning that the venom sac is empty. After a copperhead or rattlesnake bites its prey it takes approximately a month to replenish the supply of the toxin. As a side note, if you are bitten you better have good health care insurance; the average cost of an anti-venom treatment is $30,000. It is always better to exhibit smart behavior around snakes than getting treated for a bite.

It wasn’t that awfully long ago that the universal method of treating a bite from a poisonous snake was to simply cut a large X across the wound and suck the venom out, then spitting it on the ground.

With that in mind, I beg your patience in allowing me to share with you a once common tale told around campfires. And in the sort of bars that have singing plastic bass mounted on the wall. And, generally by men.

Humorous Anecdote

As the story goes two friends, Charley and Sam were hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail in the Smokies when Charley took off his pack and headed off into the woods telling Sam he had to go to the bathroom. Charley had just dropped trow and sat down on a log when he felt an excruciating pain that made him howl in agony. Sam yelled, “You OK Charley?” Charley replied, “I’ve been snake bit.”

When Sam got to Charley he asked him where he was bitten; Charley told him that a rattlesnake had bitten him squarely on his derriere. (please note that he actually used another less delicate word to describe that particular area of his anatomy). Charley instructed Sam to run to the little town they hiked through less than a mile back the trail and find a doctor. When Sam got to the town he managed to find a small doctor’s office manned by an elderly doctor. Sam told the doctor that his buddy had been bitten by a rattlesnake about a mile down the trail.

The doctor said, “Where was your friend bitten?” Sam told him the bite was right on his behind. (Sam also used an entirely different word in describing the exact location of the injury). The Doc replied, “Listen, you have to run back as fast as you can and suck all of the venom out of that wound if you want to save your buddy.”

Sam departed immediately and headed back at a fast run. Upon his arrival, Charley was lying upon the ground on his side. In a desperate voice inquired, “What did the doctor say?” To which Sam replied, “He said you’re gonna die.”

With that, I leave you with one more very important thing to do if you see a timber rattler. Please do not harm it. Rather, report it on the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources Rattle Snake Report site. Your participation in this survey will help DNR in managing the timber rattlesnake in the Mountain State.

Happy Hiking,

Ken Springer

1. A special thanks to Dr. Jennifer Shreves and Dr. Michael Jarosick, both ER docs who generously shared information on current treatment modalities for venomous snake bites.

2. Photo of timber rattlesnake courtesy of Rosanna Springston. U.S. Forest Service.

3. Photo of Roy Moose frighteningly close to a rattlesnake, courtesy of me from a safe distance using a telephoto lens.

Pine Run Cabin Area Trails

Today’s trail-work was concentrated on the Pine Run Cabin Area Trails. Two of the classic cabins are open in the winter months.  Consequently, I have noticed that the robust folks who rent these cabins, at this time of year, are often hikers.

Pine Run Hiker Advantages


Subsequently, those staying in this area have access to a great number of trails without having to drive anywhere.  Pine Run, Honeymoon, and TM Cheek trails all have trail-heads in the Pine Run Cabin Area. These trails also junction with trails that lead towards the Beaver Creek area, TM Cheek Overlook and the trails around Watoga Lake.

An old blaze on an oak tree on the Allegheny Trail – one that opens up the tree to damaging insects and fungus. Today a single yellow blaze marks the length of the Allegheny Trail, which I am sure the trees appreciate.

So today we cleaned up the Allegheny Trail to Honeymoon Trail.  Meanwhile, after traipsing through the cabin area, continued clearing the Recreation and Laurel Trails. There are several trees down on these sections of trail.  They will be cut with a chainsaw in the near future.

I find winter hiking to be enjoyable and possessing a beauty of its own. The lack of canopy opens up views that are hidden in the warmer months.  As well, fewer people are on the trails so there is a greater sense of solitude.

Beauty of Solid Water

Plus, when water transitions from liquid to solid, the keen eye spots unique and ephemeral sculptures that may very well be seen by “your eyes only.” Something created just for you ! And you can’t beat that.

A light snow on the banks and dock of Watoga Lake. Soon the lake will freeze bringing joy to the ice fisherman who return every year like the swallows to Capistrano.

Take a winter hike my friends,

Ken Springer

Watoga Trail Report June 28, 2018 Update

Watoga Trail Report June 28, 2018 Update.  It felt wonderful to get back out Watoga’s trails.  This morning ended a month- long convalescence from rib fractures sustained on the Bear Pen Loop.  My dog Bongo felt it would be a good idea to go right back out on the same trail.  Sort of a “get back in the saddle” suggestion.  And, as usual, he was spot on.  We cleaned all but 2 trees that will require another visit with rope and pulleys.

First Chanterelle of the  Season!

Whilst working the Bear Pen Loop I found my first ChanterelleFirst chanterelle of the season of the season up on the North Boundary Trail, and as a bonus came upon this trio of Quilted RussulasQuilted Russula just a few yards on down the trail. Both of these species of mushrooms are about as flavorful a wild treat as one can find here in the Appalachians.

These delicacies are destined for a dish called a Spanish Tortilla, which has nothing to do with the flat corn Mexican tortilla associated with tacos. Instead, the Spanish tortilla is an egg, potato, cheese and mushroom dish cooked in a cast iron skillet. Don’t forget the wine Laura and Margot.

Yesterday in another part of the park Mark Mengele was transporting a work crew consisting of David Elliott, Ken Hiser and his friend Matt out the Ann Bailey Trail in Mark’s restored Dodge Power Wagon (sorry no pictures yet, hint, hint) to the Workman Cabin.

They spent the morning hours weed-eating the area around the cabin, and removing the large tree that had fallen across Rock Run in front of the cabin. David remarked that they “left a tidy mountain homestead for visiting hikers to enjoy”.

And that reminds me; we need to get down at the other end of Rock Run and clean up those nasty stinging nettles. Pity the poor hiker that heads up Jesse’s Cove with shorts on.

Finally, I ran into Mac Gray this morning on the entrance road involved in a worthy project: He is photographing all of Watoga’s cabins, inside and out. He is always thinking about something called “posterity”.

Well that’s the news from Lake Wobeg…., Whoops, I mean Watoga State Park.

Happy Hiking,

Ken Springer

May 2018 Watoga Trails Update

May 2018 Watoga Trails Update

Report From Brian Hirt, trail volunteer:

“I finally got some spare time and the weather cooperated. So I spent Friday and most of Saturday doing some trail maintenance and cleanup projects in and around Watoga.  Started out Friday morning clearing fallen trees from the landing strip at Beaver Creek.  Then moved onto the Allegheny Trail.  I removed fallen fallen trees on the mile and a half stretch of trail  parallel to Chicken House Run Road.

Yesterday I was at Laurel Run campground.  A couple of pine trees had fallen on campsite #9 sometime over the winter.  I removed them and moved the slash out of the away of the campsite.  After that went up I went up Kennison Run trail from the campground a mile with lopper’s cutting out saplings and undergrowth along the trail.  Some of the creek crossings were a little tough to manage from recent heavy rains.  A lot of debris had washed down and stream banks had eroded.  Trail’s that follow creeks I guess have an ever changing landscape. There wasn’t any fallen trees to deal with as far as I got before deciding to turning back as a thunderstorm approached in the distance.

The blazes on both the Allegheny and Kennison Run Trails are in fair condition.  Bboth could stand to be refreshed in a few locations.  Fortunately both are yellow so I’ll add this to my list of things to do.  I’ve never painted blazes of yellow circle’s on trees in the past.  It’s been always 2 x 6 rectangles.  Might take some practice. But maybe you can teach and old dog new tricks.”

Other News

Mark Mengele is continuing efforts to conduct a bird survey of the Rock Run watershed at Watoga State Park, also known as the Old Growth Area. The plan is to get experienced birders out there at various times of the year, and over the next couple of weeks they will be surveying breeding birds.

While the birds are breeding the plants and trees of Watoga are pursuing their single-minded agenda of reproduction. Fertility and distribution are a top priority for plant life at this time of the year. With that in mind today’s photographs take a close look at several prominent blooms with an unabashed look at their reproductive parts.

Mountain Laurel BloomThe ephemeral mountain laurel bloom so petite and beautiful looks like a hand painted porcelain miniature.

 

 

 

Black Raspberry BloomThe flower of the blackberry offers promises of a seasonal flavor to grace our morning cereal, or in dishes with names like cobbler, pie, strudel, tart and turnover

 

 

Tulip Tree BloomThe bloom of the tulip poplar is usually viewed high up in the tree, but this time brought down by wind and rain for a closer look.

 

 

 

Hiking allows us the opportunity to stop and take in the finer details of nature. There is not a better way to “be in the moment” than a hike in the woods.