We have a kids friendly swimming pool and great playgrounds. Paddle boats on the lake. Amazing mountaintop overlooks. Best soft serve ice cream in the universe at Jack Horner’s Corner in Seebert. Beautiful mountain valley around nearby Hillsboro, WV.
Experience Watoga’s old growth forest!
Watoga State Park is 10,000 acres. The southwestern section of the Park is unmaintained Wilderness. Hike the Burnside Ridge Trail to access this area. Allow yourself several hours to get out and back. Further south from this area is the Spice Run Wilderness Area of the Monongahela National Forest.
Editor’s Note: The Department of Natural Resources advises all state forest and park visitors to NEVER approach wildlife in an attempt to touch it. The Department of Natural Resources protects the state’s wildlife so that all can enjoy their beauty in West Virginia.
I noticed something bright red on my scuffed Converse tennis shoes. Equally important, the enormity of what loomed above quickly distracted me from the blood on those worn basketball shoes. This is the untold story of the black bear part two.
When I touched the black bear, its fur felt rough, like a worn dish rag. Looking up, I saw the hoist that held the animal aloft. As a matter of fact, the bear’s blood had emptied into the garage’s drain too.
Now, almost 50 years later, this is the never-before-published story of the black bear. First, who killed this bear? Second, why? Third, what happened? Fourth, how? Fifth, when did this occur? Sixth, where did this take place?
Recently, I rediscovered a photo of my brother, Ronnie, and I crouched next to this bear. Notice that neither of us is smiling in this photo. Likewise, this image stoked my need to know more – a journalistic skill fine-tuned as a reporter with The Register-Herald in the mid-1980s.
I could remember parts of that day, but I didn’t know the entire story.
“Humans can make mistakes; memories are notoriously faulty and humans are often biased,” Ken Springer wrote in an article detailing the origins of the name Watoga.
Besides not wanting to rely solely on my memory, I made calls, sent emails and spoke to friends and family members who may have remembered what had happened. As a result, I received some leads and helpful information, but not the “end” story. Also, was there even a story to tell here?
Digging deeper, I contacted Suzanne Stewart, staff writer at The Pocahontas Times, in Marlinton. Similarly, a search of the newspaper’s archives from 1970-79 for information about a bear being killed at the park came up empty. In fact, Bill McNeel, local historian and former editor at The Times, also did not recall a story being published about a Watoga bear death.
Undeterred, I kept searching for answers. Together with the memories of Richard and Jerry Dale, further details about the black bear emerge.
In the early fall of 1971, two men pitch a tent at the rustic campground. Apparently, they begin bragging to other campers about killing a black bear. But, at this time of year, it was not bear season.
During this time, a concerned bystander at the rustic campground hear the man’s account about killing the black bear. Because of concerns that the bear may have been illegally killed, that person promptly reports it to park personnel.
“When we interviewed this guy, he was saying that the bear had attacked him and that’s why he killed it,” Mr. Dale says.
Upon learning of where the bear had been killed, Mr. Dale and a group of four men began the laborious trek to remove the black bear from deep within the adjoining state forest, off a trail at the end of the airstrip. The most likely participants were Mr. Dale, Henry Burr, park employee, Bull Poling, local game warden, and my dad.
The Black Bear — “Quite the Endeavor.”
“It was a huge bear. I am not sure of the exact weight,” Mr. Dale states.
First, a small tree was cut, and the bear’s front and back legs were tied to the ends of the hardwood. Then, with two men on either end, they were able to lift the bear onto their shoulders.
“Well, the first sapling that we cut — it broke because of the weight of the bear. So, we cut another, sturdier one. Getting the bear back to the park was a chore. Quite the endeavor.”
Second, walking a considerable distance, the men carry the bear to the maintenance garage near the assistant superintendent’s residence.
Third, a hoist-type system is used to lift the bear. Jerry Dale remembers that hoist well: “It’s nothing mechanical. Muscle power. Slow moving – a few inches at a time and foot-by-foot going up. You could then lift it up or lower it down. It was strong enough, say, to even lift an engine out of a ’57 Chevy. The hoist was tied to a big wooden beam that went across the garage.”
The Consequences of Killing a Black Bear
Mr. Dale adds: “The man told me he’d always wanted to kill a bear and that he wanted to keep the hide.” Not only is the man fined, but also he pays a replacement fee, Mr. Dale says. Additionally, no one interviewed could recall whether the bear was a boar or a sow, but gambling enthusiasts are placing odds that it was a boar based on the size of the bear in available photographs, most likely weighing in excess of 400 pounds.
“Entrance and exit wounds indicated that the black bear was running away,” Jerry notes. “The entry wound was at the back end of the bear and the exit path was on the bear’s front side. You don’t give anyone an incentive to do anything like this ever again.”
The End of the Black Bear Story — For Now?
As a result of the unfortunate demise of this bear, I had a “hands-on” education about West Virginia’s state animal prior to the black bear’s official designation in 1973.
Finally, Part Three will be selected creative endings from readers to the untold story of this bear. Tune in.
For 16 years, John lived at Watoga State Park until his father, Vernon, retired after 43 years at Watoga State Park. Since 2001, John has been an editor at Puritas Springs Software, a legal software development company in Hinckley, Ohio. Previously, he was a legal editor for a Cleveland, Ohio international law firm. Additionally, John was a reporter for The Register-Herald in Beckley, West Virginia in the mid-1980s. In his spare time, John is writing two novels. You can email John at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.
Seeing a black bear is not always a pleasant experience.
During that magical summer in 1971, there had been endless bicycle rides to the scenic overlook at T.M. Cheek Memorial and carefree plunges into the mountain-fed waters of the Watoga State Park swimming pool.
The deep red leaves on the oak trees were at their peak. My brother, Ronnie, and I learned about West Virginia’sfuture state animal – the secretive and shy, but intelligent black bear. It wasn’t until 1973 that the black bear became West Virginia’s designated mammal.
My dad, Vernon Dean, worked at the park. We lived near the Beaver Creek Campground. Our home was just a stone’s throw away. Dad, along with Richard Dale, park superintendent, and his teenage son, Jerry, taught Ronnie and me about this magnificent species.
As a camper, cabin guest or resident, you may have seen a black bear during a leisurely bike ride, a hike on one of the park’s many trails or even in the backyard of your favorite cabin at Watoga.
In 1971, bears were not as common as they are today. If you chat with residents of Marlinton, Hillsboro, Seebert or Huntersville, you may hear a vivid tale or two about their encounters with a black bear.
“Come here, I wanna show you boys sumthin’,” Dad said. “Maybe you’ll learn a thing or two.”
“What is it, Dad?” I asked.
“You’ll know soon enough. Just come with me. Hurry up, Ronnie and Johnny!”
Quickly leaving the babbling brook next to our home, Ronnie and I ran excitedly toward the park’s maintenance garage, just below the rustic campground.
“See it, Johnny?”
“No, Dad, what is it?”
“I see it, Dad,” Ronnie said, “and would you look at that? Wow! Oh my gosh!”
“Look at what, Ronnie? What is it?”
“You don’t see it, Johnny? Really?”
“No, not yet. What is it? Where?”
“Come closer, Johnny,” Dad instructed. “And you’ll see.”
I did move closer. Much closer. Amazed, shocked and stunned, I didn’t dare move an inch.
WHAT just happened?
Please email me at email@example.com with your creative finale. Any social media contacts may post on my Facebook page. I will share selected endings in a future blog. Part Two will be the never-before-published story of THE black bear at Watoga State Park.
John lived at Watoga State Park for 16 years until his father, Vernon, retired after 43 years of service.
Since 2001, John has been an editor at Puritas Springs Software, a legal software development company in Hinckley, Ohio. Previously, he was a senior legal editor for an international law firm in Cleveland, Ohio. In the mid-1980s, John was a reporter and bureau chief for The Register-Herald in Beckley, West Virginia. He is currently writing two novels, The Deans and The Jack and Max Story … How Two Black Labs Changed My Life Furever.
“Ronnie, Johnny, Vicki,” Dad yelled. “Come with me. I have somethin’ to show ya.”
Of course, we followed. Thus began the story of Mom’s Bandannas for Freckles while I grew up at Watoga State Park.
“Look what I have,” Dad said wryly, pointing to a weathered cardboard box, our eyes shining with excitement, not sure what we were looking at in the bed of the green Chevy park truck.
“Let me pet it,” I said, trying to squeeze between Ronnie and Vicki. We instinctively reached in, simultaneously touching the baby doe.
“What happened, Dad?” Ronnie wanted to know. “Tell us.”
“Well, I had just gone into the park office and a call came in that the deer’s Mom had been killed on a street in town.”
“Can we keep it?” Ronnie wanted to know. “Can we?”
“Yeah, Dad, can we? Pretty please?” I pleaded. Vicki kept petting the spotted fawn as if it were her dog, her blonde hair glistening in the late summer sunlight, her eyes a brilliant blue.
“Of course you kids can. But, we have to find a place to put him ’cause Vadie won’t let ya keep him in the house.”
Devada, or Vadie as she was known by most, did not even weigh 90 pounds soaking wet. Mom’s short jet black hair accented her expressive brown eyes. Her small facial features gave her a serious look most of the time, but when she smiled or laughed, she became the beauty that Vern had met from Lobelia, about 10 miles from the park. Mom and Dad were married March 7, 1937.
Most of the time, Mom’s biggest concerns were to make sure the gardens at Ma’s and Pap’s nearby farm produced enough food to make it through the sometimes brutal winters and that we had school clothes to wear come fall.
Dad’s salt and pepper hair complimented his black plastic-framed glasses that seemed to always slip down his suntanned nose. His friends called him Vern or Vernon.
When it was time to name the fawn, my sister, Della, chose to honor Robert F. Kennedy and his beloved English springer spaniel, Freckles. Bobby, the former U.S. Attorney General, U.S. senator from New York and President John F. Kennedy’s brother, was Della’s teenage heartthrob. It was late summer 1967, less than a year before RFK would be assassinated in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968 by Sirhan Sirhan.
Growing up at Watoga State Park, Freckles lived in the park’s barracks, a long, brown-sided fortress, about 50 yards or so from our home, nestled along a pine-tree laden lane bordered by a small mountain stream. Freckles’ new home was built in the early 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
My grandfather, Aldred G. (“Pap”) Dean, was a part of Watoga’s infancy, assisting in the construction of stone retaining walls along the Island Lick cabin area, and near the Fred E. Brooks Memorial Arboretum, as well as other construction projects throughout the park.
That building near then-Cabin 19 housed equipment, lumber and tools, but we made room for Freckles’ quarters.
Before Freckles could walk, Mom warmed baby bottles of milk, and we would take Freckles his daily nourishment. Freckles became accustomed to drinking from the glass bottle, nipple intact. Mom would sometimes walk with us to check on Freckles. She made sure to hold onto my youngest sister’s delicate hand.
Freckles became the Dean family’s center of attention in the weeks before he could walk. He was our “baby,” and we checked on him several times a day to make sure he had enough to eat and that his box was free of droppings. All hide-and-seek games ceased when we needed a “Freckles” break.
Even when Freckles was asleep, Ronnie, Vicki and I would go to see him. That deer fascinated us — his big brown eyes, the white spots strategically placed on his tan coat, and the black hooves on his feet, to mention a few.
Freckles’ new backyard encompassed 35,000 acres, but he was only safe on the 10,100 acres that encompassed Watoga State Park. A sprawling state forest, aptly named for a local newspaper publisher and national conservationist, Calvin Price, bordered the state’s largest park. It was accessible to deer hunters and not far from our park residence. So, Mom knew the time may come when her children may have to deal with the untold tragedy of Freckles becoming dinner for a hungry family.
The day when Freckles was able to walk, we led him to the back door of the house closest to Beaver Creek Campground. We knew Mom would hear our chatter outside the open kitchen window. Mom’s African violets adorned the weathered sill that picture-perfect fall day with yellow, blue, purple and pink blooms.
“Mom, Mom, Mom,” we chanted in excited unison, knowing she would come outside immediately to make sure we had not been hurt.
“Watch this, Mom,” Ronnie said. Ronnie started walking toward Mom to show her how Freckles would follow us anywhere we wanted. We had become the fawn’s best friends. Such was life growing up at Watoga State Park.
Mom watched for a couple of minutes.
“Wait here. I’ll be right back,” Mom said.
We waited impatiently, fidgeting in anticipation, not knowing what Mom was doing or when she would reappear. Freckles stood nearby, trying out his new legs a step here and a step there, but always staying within a few feet of us.
“Look what I have,” Mom said softly, immediately redirecting our attention away from Freckles.
Mom’s small left hand closed tightly around something blue. We were unable to see what remained inside. Her fingers bore signs of using a hoe in Pap’s many gardens on the 211-acre farm that bordered the state park. Years of scrubbing clothes on a Columbus-made Dubl Handi washboard didn’t help either. Mom’s tiny digits opened to reveal the blue material, white dots scattered throughout. I did not know what it was, but knew that it had a meaning and purpose.
As Mom exposed more of the square cloth, she reached toward Freckles’ neck and touched his pale tan coat ever so gently. Freckles didn’t move. Mom, dressed in a high-collared solid white dress, reached around the fawn’s neck. When Freckles turned back around, he proudly sported an almost-new navy blue and white bandanna, so perfectly tied around his newborn neck.
“Now,” Mom continued, “Freckles will be safe. Everyone will know Freckles is your deer because of this bandanna. I think I have a red one like this somewhere in the house and we’ll change it every week.”
Mom made sure that Freckles always wore his bandanna and that we retrieved the week’s worn one so that it could be washed. The bandanna stayed tied around Freckles’ neck so others would know he was tame while we were growing up at Watoga State Park.
Throughout that fall, winter and the next spring, we would call Freckles’ name and he would come running to us, just like a puppy dog, letting us pet or hug him warmly. I even gave Freckles a kiss a few times. We could whistle for him and he’d come striding out of the nearby strand of trees to shower us with attention. Campers and cabin guests would stop to see Freckles, often taking photos of him with their children. I think they were amazed by Freckles.
A year after entering the Dean home and our hearts forever, Freckles found a permanent and safe playground where he lived “happily ever after” at the French Creek Game Farm near Buchannon, West Virginia.
All these years later, Mom is now Freckles’ caretaker in Heaven. Here’s to Mom, Freckles and many multicolored bandannas!
John Dean is a graduate of The Perley Issac Reed School of Journalism (now known as the Reed College of Media) at West Virginia University.
John lived at Watoga State Park for 16 years until his father, Vernon C. Dean, retired after 43 years of service to Watoga State Park.
John previously was a senior legal editor for a Cleveland, Ohio law firm. His first writing stint was as a cub reporter and later a county bureau chief for The Register-Herald in Beckley, West Virginia.
John keeps busy writing and taking care of Jack and Max, his two rescued black labs, and is an avid Mountaineers fan. He can can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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……
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
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’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.
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.
Jim Meads, Professor Emeritus, Glenville State College, was Park Naturalist at Watoga in 1967 and 1968. Here are Jim’s stories from his time at Watoga.
Judy and I have been married 52 years this July, 2019. Watoga State Park is such a special place for us. We started our wonderful life together here. In June of 1967, I was hired as a seasonal naturalist for Watoga. I was going into my Senior year in the fall at Glenville State College majoring in Biology and Chemistry. Richard Dale (wife Verna) was the Superintendent and Dale Crouser (wife Gwen) was the Assistant Superintendent. Their kindness will never be forgotten. The precusors to Tales from a Watoga Naturalist.
We were married in Parkersburg on July 2, 1967. My lovely wife was a city gal with not much experience in the world of nature. She never had an indoor pet except for a goldfish. Our plan was to leave for Watoga after our wedding in Parkersburg hauling a small Scottie trailer behind. I should tell you that in the trailer was a poodle given to us as a wedding present. No, never buy a pet for someone else. I also had an injured red tailed hawk, a bag of snakes, and an assortment of amphibians. Our plan was to live in the trailer at the Beaver Creek Campground.
I need to stop here and explain the injured red tail hawk. He was discovered before our wedding on the road going from Seebert. We named the hawk, Garth, and Garth took up residence in the trees at our Beaver Creek Campground location. I fed him bluegill. If I wore my green park uniform, I could call his name and he would fly down and perch on my head. I had a scabby scalp that summer. Garth got into trouble when a camper was grilling hamburgers. Garth eyed the juicy meat, swooped down, and flew away with his catch.
I then moved him to the lake by the Administration building to keep him out of trouble. He was always a welcome addition to my nature lectures by the lake. When I called his name he would appear, land on my head, and amaze the park visitors. I had to laugh when one day a fisherman appeared in the office complaining that “the damn eagle had swooped down and grabbed the bass he had just hooked”. I knew it was no eagle but just an opportunistic red tailed hawk. Good ending to this story. Garth found a bride and I am hoping many Garth descendants are around Watoga.
As we entered the park through Seebert, along Island Lick Run, the rhododendrons were in full bloom. Judy told me later that, as we traveled the road toward the Administration Building, she was wondering if she could ever find her way out of that vast wilderness.
We setup our camper beside the Beaver Creek Campground’s bath house and lived there for a couple of weeks. Mr. Dale realized our accommodations were a little cramped and asked if we would like to move to a large room over the restaurant in the Administration Building, which was built in the mid 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corp. Most of the logs and lumber used in the construction was salvaged from blight-killed American Chestnut. Judy was excited to live in the large room with a bathroom on the side.
Mr. Dale gave us access to the storage shed and we found an electric hot plate and a table. We were now ready to live in our new abode. Judy was a trooper. She adapted to the camel crickets that shared our shower. Only two appliances could be used at a time, she realized. Otherwise we would pop the breakers losing power not only to our room but the restaurant beneath us. We did have the luxury of an electric skillet, crock pot, and coffee pot.
Cricket Tales from a Watoga Naturalist.
I loved it when we first moved in to the room and Judy heard tiny squeaks coming from the windows. She said that it is so nice to hear the chirping of baby birds. It was not until we were leaving for the summer that I confessed that those bird sounds were actually bats resting in the cracks of the windows.
I had such a wonderful experience working as naturalist at the Park. I would help with Monday check-ins of cabin guests. We would always plan a marshmallow roast up by the Recreation Hall each week. I learned early on the horrors of flying burning marshmallows launched by the kids of cabin guests. The Rec Hall is where we would show a 16 mm Disney nature classic. Who can forget “Bear Country” or “Squeak the Squirrel”? Tales from a Watoga Naturalist.
Usually after cabin check-ins we would have one cabin complain about finding bats in the cabin. There was no way they were going to believe that this was part of the park experience. I would don my superman suit (green park attire) and arrive at their cabin with a large container of bat repellent spray. Actually it was plain ole water and I would liberally spray the rafters. It worked almost 100% of the time. Plain water equals no bats.
Field Trip Tales from a Watoga Naturalist.
I would schedule motor field trips to Cranberry Glades. Oh, the memories of leading a tour to Big Glade and getting my direction confused in the alder thickets. There was a memorable time where we had several Mennonite ladies hiking through the sphagnum bogs. With their long dresses and buckle shoes, a person would think that it would make the trek difficult. They hiked better than I did. We scheduled trips to Bear Town before it officially became a state park. This unique natural area was finally purchased in 1970 with funds from the Nature Conservancy and a donation from Edwin G. Polan.
I shared Watoga’s unique animal and plant life with Park guests. I collected beautiful Timber Rattlesnakes from an old wood pile located at the end of the old airport runway at Beaver Creek. They were beautiful reptiles indeed. Tales from a Watoga Naturalist.
We always had a botany hike along the trail by the lake. As I was pretty good at plant identification, I learned a technique to use if one of the plants stumped me. “ I am not certain of the proper name of that plant but the locals call it….”. and would make up an Appalachian sounding name. However, that identification technique could not be used more than twice during one field trip! As I was diligently working, my good wife and Gwen Crouser would walk to Watoga Lake and put two reclining lounges in a row boat so they could sun bathe. A beaver tail slap beside the boat often greeted them.
Pre-Riverside Campground Tales from a Watoga Naturalist.
It was such an exciting time for us. Before the construction of Riverside, newest campground, we parked at Cabin Three, a great large cabin that tragically burned. We would hike along the Greenbrier River and enjoy the wonders that we encountered. I recall one evening that we packed our supper. We hauled a coffee pot and large container of water to a waterfall. Sadly, after transporting the heavy items, we discovered we had forgotten the coffee! Tales from a Watoga Naturalist.
It was on this trip that my good city wife had a scary experience. Going around a wet area in the path, she decided to take a detour. She stepped on a pile of limbs and quickly realized she had fallen into a beaver’s lodge up to her hips. Judy thought that the beavers would chew her legs off. I pulled her out and explained that beavers were herbivores and she had nothing to worry about.
Watoga memories continue to be a part of the fabric of our lives -from a night search for a lost cabin guest on Honeymoon Trail to collecting ancient coral fossils at nearby Calvin Price State Forest. As we get older, we realize the importance of life stories and feel so blessed to have Watoga as an amazing part of our story.
Jim Meads, Glenville State College Professor Emeritus of Biology
The 2019 Wild Edibles Festival is Coming Soon to a State Park Near You
Watoga State Park Naturalist, Chris Bartley, is visibly excited about this year’s Wild Edibles Festival. When I stopped at the park headquarters to talk to him last Thursday, he started off our conversation discussing the major, and likely better, changes to the format of the event. “Instead of scheduled classes this year, we are trying an ‘open forum’ approach. The downside to having people sign up for classes when other classes are being conducted simultaneously is that people have to choose between presentations. Often they are forced to miss other classes they would like to attend. With this change, people can move from demonstration to demonstration and have a full experience. “
Chris said this year’s wild edibles festival event will be held at the picnic shelter.T This spacious area allows attendees to visit demonstrations on various aspects of gathering and utilizing wild edibles, including herbal and medicinal uses. Additionally, several naturalists from other state parks will be on hand to conduct guided wild edible walks.
This year’s Wild Edibles Festival kicks off at 3 PM on Friday, May 3 with a guided foraging hike around Watoga Lake. Those interested should assemble at the Activities Building, bring water, wear closed-toe shoes and clothing appropriate for the weather and water.
At 7 PM Friday Geo Derick, Keynote Speaker, will discuss Wild Medicine: The Art and the Science. Geo is a Registered Clinical Herbalist and is the founding owner, practitioner, and formulator of Geo Joys. Geo enjoys formulating custom medicines for clients that are both good tasting and therapeutic. She is no stranger to our Wild Edibles Festival. And her presentations are always well attended and popular. This presentation takes place in the Activities Building near the pool.
Activities commence at 10 AM Saturday until approximately 4 PM. Visit the many vendors, demonstrations and guided walks throughout the day, all focused on wild foods, drink, and medicines. Sample wild foods. Garlic mustard pesto, ramp pickles and chili will be available. Live music is provided by Sugar Run. Watoga Wild Edibles Festival is fun and educational!
For more information on the Wild Edibles Festival contact Christopher Bartley at (304) 799- 4087 or via email at Chris.R.Bartley@wv.gov or Contact Watoga Foundation.
A Short History of Foraging for Wild Foods
The number of people who must forage for their daily sustenance decreases every year. However, some can still be found in some remote areas such as the Amazon River Basin. Agriculture, in existence for about 10,000 years, has replaced virtually all hunting and gathering societies. With the exception of sport hunting and fishing, the knowledge and skills required to procure wild foods and medicines are in danger of being lost in the industrialized world. However, on Native American lands and in Appalachia people have always consumed seasonal plants, berries, nuts, and mushrooms found in nature.
Euell Gibbons came to public attention in 1962 when he wrote best-seller, “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” It is often regarded as the classic of foraging guides. Six more books of the same or similar genre. Mr. Gibbons books were well timed for the “Back to Earth” movement of the ’60s and ’70s. They are appreciated by the growing number of people interested in foraging for wild foods.
Euell Gibbons was also known as spokesman for Post Grape Nuts during this period. His commercials would often start with “Ever eat a pine tree?” “Many parts are edible.” The commercials ended with “the taste of Post Grape Nuts reminds me of wild hickory nuts.” You can see some of these old commercials on YouTube., as well as many funny parodies of Euell. In on he is eating a bowl of Grape Nuts and pauses to say “Of course I don’t usually eat it (Grape Nuts) out of a bowl like this, usually I just eat it out of my shoe. Sometimes I just eat my shoe…”
In the last decade or so there has been a resurgence of interest in collecting wild foods. Some aspects of this pastime have become trendy. Afew years ago upscale restaurants offered such dishes as nettle salad, causing a rush on nettle foraging. Too bad it wasn’t the invasive garlic mustard. Even the term ‘foraging’ has been replaced by ‘wildcrafting’ in many circles. Pocahontas County is thankfully not one of them.
But on the whole the revived interest in wild foods has been a good thing. Bringing attention to environmental concerns such as the damage perpetrated by invasive species, and getting people off their couches and into the outdoors are positive developments. Books on the subject of foraging have become more sophisticated through the years, offering delicious and healthy recipes. An improvement of the standby method of the ’60s which directed foragers to boil everything and then drench it in butter.
Speaking of recipes for wild foods, I set out on a trail last week with the intention of harvesting a handful of ramps and a mess of wintercress, also called creasy greens. I unexpectedly stumbled upon an old apple tree that had a dozen or so morels circling it. On my way back home I gave thought to how I might prepare this trio of wild delicacies.
Dinner that evening consisted of sautéed ramps and creasy greens with roasted walnuts topped with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar reduction. The delicious greens sat alongside a morel po-boy with homemade aioli. This sumptuous plate was paired with a Dogfish Head Watermelon IPA.
That sounded a lot like foodie-speak, didn’t it?
Sorry, I meant to say that I fried up those shrooms and slid em into a bun with a slather of mayo. Then I boiled up those greens, put a stick of butter on em, and washed it all down with a Miller Lite.