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.
As 18-year-olds, Judy and Ken Caplinger, II began a 45-year journey of making memories together at Watoga State Park. That first stop: Staying in the aptly named Honeymoon Cabin at West Virginia’s largest state park. This is Part 2.
The Caplingers spent time after their wedding at Cabin 34 in the Pine Run Cabin Area. Like so many couples before and after them, in a dining table pullout drawer, the newly married teenagers inscribed “Kenny and Judy Caplinger, May 19, 1975”.
In Part One, Caplinger explained how he spent some of his “coming of age” years at the park. In the 1960s, Caplinger’s dad, Ken, was assistant superintendent. He also touched on his time in the same role as his dad from 1979 to 1984. Watoga is nestled in mountainous terrain near Seebert in Pocahontas County.
The Next Chapter of the Caplingers Making Memories at Watoga State Park
Coincidentally, just four years later, the couple began another journey making additional memories at Watoga.
Now, the Caplingers are revealing what it was like as a young couple beginning their lives together at Watoga.
“It not only was a park I lived in as a child, but it is also where Judy and I got our start as a team/couple working/living in the park system,” said Caplinger.
Judy said she was excited and enthusiastic. “It seemed like a great adventure.” Her first impressions? “How appreciative I was for the welcome we received from employees, their families, and all the local folks,” she said.
Caplinger said that once they moved into the assistant superintendent’s residence, a new journey had begun.
“We both had officially embarked on the next chapter of our young lives.”
Ken Caplinger, II
Soon the two began writing that first chapter together at Watoga. For fun, they enjoyed swimming at the pool, and playing softball games in the summer with park visitors and staff at the airstrip. Judy’s hobbies included cross-stitching, biking and cooking. Her husband enjoyed hunting, fishing, weightlifting, and running.
Moreover, Caplinger stated that Judy “has a great singing voice, but is too shy to often reveal it. Back in the day, when she would occasionally sing in karaoke venues, she sounded a lot like Patty Loveless, the well-known country music star.”
Transforming Challenges and Obstacles into Memories
Judy’s biggest challenge at Watoga was adjusting to the park’s remote nature and the distance required to travel to obtain basic necessities. Her favorite times and places were “family get-togethers at the park, gathering at the swimming pool, hiking, and Cabin 34, of course.”
Along the way, the Caplingers made lifelong friends, became immersed in the park’s natural beauties, and enjoyed a plethora of Watoga’s activities for five years. While this sounds idyllic, there were adjustments and obstacles to overcome as young parents.
When the Caplingers moved to Watoga in 1979, their son Kenneth Caplinger, III (fondly called KC) was a toddler. Living there had its happy moments, but it also presented challenges as well. Thus begins the story of how the Caplingers make memories at Watoga as a family.
In 1977, while the family lived in Morgantown, doctors diagnosed KC with Kawasaki disease and he barely survived. Even after moving to Watoga, they had to deal with KC’s residual coronary artery damage. Additionally, they traveled several hours one way to West Virginia University Medical Center (now J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital) for KC’s appointments.
But in 1981 when KC was five, they received an unforgettable phone call from that medical facility.
“We were told that KC had finally recovered enough from the damage done by Kawasaki disease,” Caplinger said, “and that he could go off medications and should be able to live a more normal life.”
KC, now 44, is doing just that. He’s a successful businessman who owns an insurance agency in the greater Nashville, Tennessee area.
They Loved Watoga So Much That . . .
When the couple returned to Watoga earlier this year, the Caplingers said they had a “main and recurring conversation about their five years at Watoga.
“Our time at Watoga was among the happiest and most satisfying of our entire lives due to the beautiful park we had the good fortune to live in,” Caplinger said. “The great local folks and park workers welcomed us with open arms, and there were great friendships we developed with superintendent Craig Ackerman and his wife Cindy as well as with conservation officer Dick Morris, his wife Pam and their kids Sam and David who lived next door to us.”
So, what would be the couple’s advice to making memories to first-time park visitors?
“Hike the trails. Make sure you go to the Ann Bailey Lookout Tower. Use the swimming pool. Go explore a bit along the Greenbrier River. Fish the Greenbrier, Watoga Lake, and Laurel Run.”
Nevertheless, the Caplingers echoed a commonly heard sentiment from former park personnel. “We loved Watoga so much we really would have liked to remain there longer.”
Many still do . . .
After Watoga, Caplinger culminated a 35-year career with West Virginia’s state parks system by serving as its parks chief. He retired in 2013. Currently, Judy is Director of Office Operations for a home furniture company.
About the Author
John C. Dean, a former journalist, also grew up at Watoga. Caplinger was John’s supervisor in 1979 at Watoga. From 1962-1964, the Caplingers lived next door to the Dean family at the park. John is a legal editor and writer. He can be reached at .
Long before Ken Caplinger, II reached a career pinnacle as West Virginia’s parks chief, he had his coming of age at Watoga State Park. This is Part One.
During the early 1960s, Ken, Sr. and his wife, Doris, lived next door to my family from 1962-1964. Accompanying them were their four children – Ken II, Dave, Kaye, and Sue. The siblings’ sister Carol already had become independent and brother Mike was not born yet.
When the family moved to Watoga from Babcock State Park, Caplinger was six. At Watoga, his dad was assistant superintendent and Herb Robinson was superintendent. Caplinger’s dad spent 20 years at various parks including Blackwater Falls, Cass Scenic Railroad and Babcock.
So when a young Caplinger grew up at Watoga, he and his dad often fished together at the lake.
“Dad taught me how to fish there in a rowboat,” said Caplinger. “He used to laugh about me hooking him in the lip with a big hook with a nightcrawler on it during one of our first fishing excursions on the lake.”
Caplinger’s Coming of Age at Watoga Using Education, Inspiration and Dedication
Caplinger’s first full-time job: A maintenance worker at Blackwater Falls State Park. Prior to that, he worked seasonally as a desk clerk, recreation attendant, campground attendant, and maintenance worker. Starting his management career, Caplinger spent five years as Watoga’s assistant superintendent. After Watoga, he moved to Pipestem State Park and was its assistant superintendent for two years and its superintendent for six years.
“Dad inspired an understanding of state parks as a legacy held in trust for future generations. Keith Simmons, Blackwater Falls Assistant Superintendent provided me with great examples of how to be businesslike and focused on goals. Henry Burr at Watoga taught me a lot of park maintenance skills and how to lead by example in tackling any challenge ‘hands on’ instead of relying on others to do all the hard work.”
Moreover, Caplinger said he grasped how important education, inspiration and dedication were from his “heroes.”
Sage Advice About Coming of Age
Caplinger’s dad reinforced that “you are just a part of something greater than yourself.”
Keith Simmons advised him to “avoid drama and just do your job.”
Henry Burr recommended that “if something works, give others credit for it. If it fails, be prepared to take responsibility yourself.”
A Slippin’ and a Slidin’ at Watoga Lake
Furthermore, Caplinger recalled a memorable experience that occurred when he received that first park assignment in 1979 at Watoga.
In fact, that residence at the park as a child growing up later became his and wife Judy’s home.
“About a year after I was hired as assistant superintendent, I finally got a box delivered to the house with my ‘official’ full superintendent’s unform,” Caplinger recalled. “I excitedly put it on and drove over to the lake to check the licenses of the many trout fishermen at the base of the dam. And I took one step down the hill and slipped and slid all the way on my back into the water between two fishermen who looked down and asked, ‘want to check our licenses?’ I said ‘No.’”
Coming of Age Sometimes Means Turning Lemons into Lemonade at Watoga
After that humorous misstep at Watoga, Caplinger, however, had more serious hurdles to overcome.
One such obstacle included “dealing with an extremely limited budget compared to the magnitude and size of the park and its extensive infrastructure,” he said. “I recall especially one year when we were only provided $2,000 for building repairs/alterations in a park with almost 60 structures of various types.”
As an assistant superintendent, Caplinger oversaw nine full-time staff, a dozen summer employees and eight seasonal housekeepers.
But overcoming obstacles also led to coming-of-age accomplishments while at Watoga for Caplinger.
“One such success was working with Superintendent Craig Ackerman (now Superintendent at Crater Lake National Park in southern Oregon), Henry Burr and the maintenance crew of Dale, Tom, Wayne, Basil and Letch Pyles, and Charlie McComb to re-roof, paint, and do interior renovations on all 34 cabins over several years and with very little budget. It was done by hard work and ‘elbow grease’ and dedication from all of the named individuals.”
And this is just another example of Caplinger’s coming of age at Watoga that assisted in his career development. With 35 years experience in hands-on and management roles, Caplinger has seen a little bit of everything. However, specifically, what would he tell future assistant superintendents/superintendents at Watoga?
“Make sure you enjoy and remember every day at one of the greatest state parks in the U.S.A. Embrace and get to know the great people in the local community and make them your friends. Go talk to Henry Burr regularly and use his advice.”
Watoga: Then and Now
When Caplinger returned to Watoga with Judy earlier this year, he did notice a couple differences from 1979 and today.
“All the great intrinsic values remain the same. But the cabins and other infrastructure are in even better condition now due to the park system having had more fiscal resources for repair/renovation,” he said. “Also, the forest was impressive and looking mature even when we were there. But it has gotten even more impressive and wonderful in the 35-40 years since we were there.”
Would that be a coming of age at Watoga?
Watoga Through Caplinger’s Eyes
While at Watoga earlier this year, Caplinger had a few observations.
“I would like to see the Arboretum somewhat restored/improved. We need to be vigilant and active in preventing resource exploitation such as the park logging initiative of two years ago. I see Watoga’s core value of nature and the great outdoors always being its biggest and most valuable attraction.
“Looking ahead, how about a 100th anniversary to be held in 2037 to celebrate the park’s opening in 1937?”
Furthermore, Caplinger stated that it would be nice to commemorate Watoga’s past, long-time workers.
“For example, maybe something like the ‘Gaylor Recreation Center,’ the ‘Henry Burr Picnic Shelter’ and the ‘Vernon Dean Trail.’ Honor them somehow for their lifetimes of service,” Caplinger suggested.
To explain, the Gaylor sisters (Nettie and Lillie Mae) lived on Chicken House Run Road that borders the park. They were decades-long cabin cleaners. Likewise, Henry Burr devoted 54 years of service to Watoga. Vernon Dean is my dad. He worked at the park for more than four decades. And like Caplinger, I also had coming of age moments at Watoga.
Caplinger was deputy parks chief from 1991-2006. Then he served for seven years as West Virginia’s parks chief overseeing 35 state parks, recreational use management of seven state forests, five wildlife areas, and two rail trails before retiring. He stays involved with park initiatives as an at-large board member of the West Virginia State Parks Foundation.
Now, Caplinger spends time with his three grandsons. He goes golfing, works on cars and home improvements, and creates artwork with an emphasis on wildlife subjects.
Next up: What was life like during the Caplingers’ five-year stay at Watoga in the late 1970s and early 1980s? Tune in then.
About the Author
John C. Dean is a former journalist. Currently, he is a writer and legal editor. He can be reached at .
. . . The more things change the more they stay the same The same sunrise, it’s just another day If you hang in long enough they say you’re comin’ back Just take a look, we’re living proof and baby that’s a fact . . .
Earlier this month, I came back to where I grew up for more 6,000 wondrous, fun-filled days of my life.
Getting Much-Needed Watoga Hugs
As I drove past the historic swimming pool where I once worked, Watoga accepted me with open arms, reminding me to inhale the exotic mountain air frequently. Unbeknownst to most of the world, Watoga is unique in many ways — its pristine wilderness first and foremost. It stays the same. I love that fact.
Near and dear to my heart are my Watoga friends, co-workers, and the local mountain folks. I grew up with them. I am one of them. They are kind, community-minded and would give you the shirt off their backs.
But in early October, I came home and stayed at Cabin 11 — marvelously restored and updated in the Island Lick Cabin area. On several occasions, I admired the handicraft and attention to detail in the two-bedroom rustic log cabin.
To begin with, Jack and Max, my two, seven-year-old labs, excitedly conquered the 15-step uphill climb to our encampment in a matter of seconds. Their sense of smell went into overdrive for several days.
While at Watoga, a friend told me that coming back “must be like a nostalgia tour.” And it was. Importantly though, I made new memories. Fresh mountain air intoxicated my senses once again. Nostalgic moments with breathtaking views unfurled before my eyes. In essence, those precious scenes are now indelibly etched in my mind.
There’s just something about Watoga that reinvigorates my inner being. After years of rush hour traffic and corporate deadlines, grasping nature’s artwork is the ultimate stress reliever. You see, Watoga’s magic never seems to transform itself into anything other than what is painted so perfectly. This vast paradise was and still is my home.
It’s a mesmerizing place. “The more things change . . .”
Meanwhile, on our first morning leaving Cabin 11, a westerly breeze rustled through the trees as Jack, Max and I trekked along a freshly cleared Bear Pen Trail. Among the century-old stands of birch, maple and oak, we stopped and listened to the familiar call of whippoorwills and the steady drumbeat of woodpeckers. Nearby, a gentle mountain stream flowed ever so softly. The harmony of other songbirds spoke to me in a classic Watoga-style melody.
Yet, when those tell-tale sounds of nature stopped, the tranquility of quietness took over. Some who are used to the constant humming of traffic and music may find this unnerving. However, I savor the stillness. This is the never-changing wilderness that always welcomes me with open arms. After all, Watoga is like Christmas morning as I open thousands of its gifts with childlike excitement. And therefore, at Watoga, I know that “the more things change the more they stay the same.”
As a youngster and teenager, every spring, summer, fall or winter, blooming rhododendron, billions of dazzling stars, spectacular sunsets, a fall tapestry of red, yellow and orange leaves, fresh fallen, pure-white snow greeted me in brilliant fashion. Obviously, Watoga is unique in its own spectacular manner. Once you visit or live there as I did for more than 16 years, this park tugs at your heartstrings, calling your name to return.
Watoga Didn’t Change. I Did.
Now, on this memorable reunion tour, Watoga blessed me with several stunning vistas, unfolding in picturesque format. I am ecstatic to report that those vivid scenes stay the same no matter what else changes. I think Ansel Adams would agree.
As I walked throughout various areas of the park, a multitude of improvements to the cabins, the trails, signage, the administration building were clearly noticeable. However, Watoga’s backdrop of natural beauty has not changed. The more things change . . .
Watoga aged gracefully all these decades while I was elsewhere in America. She withstood the brunt of Mother Nature’s forces. Still today, Watoga continues to sing her melodies and bless us with her plethora of natural wonders — some new and some old.
In any event, Watoga didn’t change. I did.
The Stories Still to Come . . .
Nestled near a brook flowing to the 11-acre Watoga Lake is Kermit McKeever‘s bench. Jack, Max and I took a few minutes to pay tribute to “Mac” who helped my dad further his career at Watoga. They were good friends working together tirelessly during Watoga’s infancy in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Oh, the stories yet to be told!
Mr. McKeever was Watoga’s superintendent from 1944-1948. He is commonly known as the father of West Virginia’s network of state parks. Many parks came to fruition under his leadership from 1948-1979.
On this occasion, I wondered how ecstatic the legendary Mr. McKeever and dad would be about today’s Watoga. Of course, as long as I can, I am determined to continue their love affair with Watoga.
In any event, take a few minutes to sit on any of the park benches strategically located throughout the park. Visualize what is before you — 10,100 acres of pristine magnificence and dreams yet to be realized.
Watoga, I Love You! See You Soon!
Then, before I am even a whisper in Watoga’s wind, I visualize my next encounter with my forever Wild and Wonderful Watoga State Park. Leaving on that melancholy fall day, I glanced into my car’s rear-view mirror. Cabin 1 was quickly fading into a symphony of colors. I slowed down instinctively. To my left, rays of light glistened off the Greenbrier River.
Then as if on cue, the lyrics to “The More Things Change” started playing again. Jack and Max leaned their heads out the rolled down windows, their noses twitching. I couldn’t resist but yell “Watoga, I love you! See you soon!”
Benches honoring two former superintendents were installed in June as part of the Watoga State Park Bench Project. Both are situated near the statue honoring the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) with a nearby small stream flowing gently to Watoga Lake. In the background is the park’s administration building.
Bench for Kermit McKeever
Kermit McKeever (1910-1995), oftentimes referred to as the “father of West Virginia’s modern state park system,” was Watoga’s superintendent from 1944-1948.
For the next 31 years, McKeever was the state’s Parks Director. Furthermore, he was instrumental in expanding the number of parks from 14 to 34. During that time, 100 vacation cabins and nine lodges were built, golf courses and ski slopes were created, naturalist programs were established, and crucial infrastructure such as roads, bridges and utilities were completed. McKeever Lodge at Pipestem State Park is named in his honor.
“All of my family are very appreciative of the bench and also where it’s located,” said Charlotte McKeever Emswiler, McKeever’s daughter. “I think that’s because it was one of the parks built by the CCC.”
Kermit and Arenna McKeever’s bench was donated by Emswiler and her daughters, Jacqueline Hersch, Vicki Evans and Jennifer Abbott.
Bench for Richard Dale
Richard Dale, who turns 95 this month, devoted 32 years of service to other parks within the state including Audra, Cass, Cedar Creek, Holly River, Prickett’s Fork, and Watoga. Likewise, he was the superintendent at Watoga from 1966-1975.
“I’ve been blessed with a lot more than I deserve,” Dale told The Pocahontas Times, “and I’m thankful every day. I asked the Lord to make me a kind person.”
Mr. Dale’s bench was donated by Jim and Judy Meads of Glenville. In 1967 and 1968, Mead was the park’s naturalist. Thus, the Meads began a friendship that has lasted more than 50 years.
“We setup our camper beside the Beaver Creek Campground’s bath house and lived there for a couple of weeks,” said Meads in a May 2019 article detailing his adventures as Watoga’s park naturalist in 1967 and 1968. “Mr. Dale realized our accommodations were a little cramped and asked if we would like to move to a large room over the restaurant in the Administration Building, which was built in the mid 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corp.”
Due to Covid-19, the dedication ceremonies for the Dale and McKeever benches have been postponed until 2021, according to Mac Gray, Watoga State Park Foundation Treasurer.
Plan Your Watoga State Park Bench Now
Want your own bench when you visit Watoga? Whether it’s to remember a loved one or to mark your favorite spot at the state’s largest and oldest park, our professional crew can assist you. And with more than 10,000 acres of pristine wilderness, Watoga has ample room for your bench.
Significantly, the Watoga State Park Bench Project has completed the installation of 31 benches throughout the park’s 10,000 acres – 28 donated by park supporters. Further, three others have been provided by the Foundation.
Click here for more information about the Watoga State Park Bench Project.
Future Blogs About the Dales and the McKeevers
In the meantime, we will be writing more about Richard Dale’s and Kermit McKeever’s time at Watoga, including never-before-revealed details. Stay tuned.
About the Author
John C. Dean, a former journalist, lived at Watoga in the 1960s and 1970s. His dad, Vernon C., worked with Richard Dale and Kermit McKeever. More than 75 years later, the Dale, Dean and McKeever families remain friends.
Reminiscing has a way of putting things into perspective, especially during a pandemic.
With the pool closed and Labor Day in the rearview mirror, it’s time for our readers’ perspective of their times at Watoga State Park.
Where do I start? Watoga was my adolescence. It’s the place a significant number of my memories begin and where I grew up.
The pool was my place of refuge where I went to get away. We would either walk ourselves or bum a ride to make it there, but we made sure to get there every day before it opened and stayed until closing. We would gather together to round up our money to make sure we had enough to get in and some extra money for the vending machines.
As kids we always found ways to make the day even more exciting than the day before. Back then, the pool didn’t have the solar panels to warm it, so the water was always freezing. But that didn’t matter to us. We made a game of who would jump in first and who would be the first to chicken out.
Spending Everyday There
We spent every day of our childhood there. Even when it was raining and storming we still went; it didn’t matter to us if we weren’t allowed to swim. It gave us an excuse to hang out in the Rec Room and play numerous games of life and listen to the “Funky Cold Medina” or “Wild Thing” over and over on the old jukebox.
Every day brought a new adventure and every day we became avid swimmers. We learned to hold our breath longer and swim a little harder which was a great accomplishment as a child. Even when my best friend passed away during my 8th grade year of middle school, and we all grew up and went our own ways, the memories we made at Watoga will always hold a special place in my heart. And the stories I can tell will always keep those memories alive. So, it’s the place we created relationships of best friends and grew as children.
Alyssa Hall, 1997-2003
Reminiscing as a Former Employee
If you look at the window on the second story of the building [at the swimming pool], you’ll notice it has a curtain in it. That section of the building was actually a dormitory for the male summer workers at Watoga. The lifeguards and utility workers were housed there.
Moreover, I spent two wonderful summers there in the early 60s. What fun we had. The female workers were quartered over the dining room in the Administration Building. They were waitresses in the dining room. About 10 total summer employees. Great group. Fun times.
Gary Mitchell Hershman
Reminiscing About What Watoga Offers
Love, love Watoga! Beautiful place to spend time. So peaceful and lots of wildlife.
Recalling the Cold
When mom asked if we were cold [after swimming], we always said, “No,” through chattering teeth!
Mary Beth Norman
Every 4th of July swimming in that cold, cold swimming pool and the best ever picnic with juicy watermelon as desert! Fond memories.
Judy Brown Cooksey
Refreshing! Not Cold!
I worked there in 1957 through the early 60s. I don’t remember the water being that cold. We were there most days between serving lunch and dinner. I know we sunbathed, but I just don’t remember the issue being that the water was too cold. Those were wonderful times. I lived at home and went to college so Watoga was my coming of age time.
I worked at Watoga 1956 thru 1959 and also lived at Watoga as a child while my father was superintendent so I am very familiar with the Watoga pool. I called it refreshing.
Charlotte McKeever Emswiler
Cabin 20 Reminiscing
My family rented the cabin next door years ago. Great vacation. We went several times.
Talk About Something “Near and Dear to my Heart”
I lived there for one summer, either 1984 or 1985. Two college students lived over the pool building, and every Wednesday night was poker night. Me and two other girls lived over top of the restaurant, and worked there during the day. So Watoga was ours for one summer. Best summer ever! Lots of great memories.
That summer was the year of my first job, my first apartment on my own. . . . I was so young, 19, with all my life ahead of me. I explored every inch of that park and hiked every trail that summer, but you could usually find me floating in the lake on a paddle boat, reading a book.
Later, I would bring all my children back to that park, and all of them learned to swim in that pool.
So Watoga State Park, has always been near and dear to my heart. My children grew up visiting this beautiful place. Listening to me tell them all about nature, the trails, the CCC camp builders. We all love this park!
Cherie Williams Hall
Hark Back to the Future?
Like going back in time.
About the Author
John C. Dean is a former journalist who grew up at Watoga State Park. His father, Vernon, worked at Watoga for 43 years. John is a freelance editor and can be reached at .
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, 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.
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.
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.
For more than seven decades, the Botts have stayed in various cabins at Watoga State Park. The family fished, swam, hiked, and rode horses at the stables. This is Rachelle Bott Beckner’s memories about growing up spending summer vacations at Watoga.
Cabins Have Personality Too
It’s difficult to choose my favorite cabin at Watoga State Park. I think, over the years, we’ve stayed at nearly all of them. In particular, I have fond memories in Cabins 2 (River Cabin Area), 3 (Island Lick Cabin Area), 14 (Bucks Run Cabin Area), 20 (next door to the swimming pool) and 21 (Pine Run Cabin Area).
Of course, the years that Grandma and Grandpa Bott (who started this tradition when my father, David Bott, was a child) stayed at Cabin 20 were great. We would visit the pool daily and Grandma would give us money to buy treats from the vending machines inside the pool.
I loved Cabin 14 because my sister, Sara, and I would fly down the driveway on our bikes and ride down the hill with no hands until we reached the commissary. We’d visit the commissary nightly after dinner to buy an ice cream treat.
Finding Hidden Artwork in Wood Knots
Perhaps some of my favorite memories, though, are from Cabin 3, which was large enough to hold the extended family. Both of my aunts, Barbara Bott Joseph and Flora Jane Bott, would stay with us with their spouses or significant others. My sister and I would share a room. Some of our favorite pastimes were laying in our beds and finding pictures and stories in the wood knots in the paneling. I remember laying in bed one afternoon for an hour or more and my grandmother became worried what we were up to because we were so quiet. She expected some mischievous act, but we were just using our imaginations to find art in the walls.
Our family was devastated when it burned down one year and we couldn’t stay there again. Cabin 3 had the space to accommodate the extended family.
One year, there was a mix-up with the reservations in the office and we all had to stay in Cabin 14. The office gave us cots to use for everyone to sleep there. Sara and I were kids at the time so it didn’t bother us and we wouldn’t have thought anything about having nine people stuffed into a cabin built for four. As an adult, I can’t imagine how everyone survived that week.
Watoga is Near and Dear to Our Hearts
Growing up, my grandparents were mine and my sister’s best friends. I’m not gonna lie. We were spoiled. We were the only grandchildren at that time on my father’s side of the family. I was the first grandbaby on both sides of the family. We could do no wrong in my grandmother’s eyes. We loved to spend Friday nights at their house, so a week at Watoga was like a weeklong sleepover. We’d stay up late and build fires, roasting marshmallows. A running family joke we have is the year it was too hot to build a fire in the cabin, but my mother did anyway. She built a scorcher of a fire and roasted my grandfather out of the house. He stood on the porch until it died down.
Creating a Lifetime of Memories with the Gift of Watoga
For all of the Botts, but especially me and my sister, Watoga holds a lifetime of memories. We will cherish our memories forever because they remind us of our grandparents.
Their love for us was shown by giving us the gift of Watoga and the beauty of West Virginia. During the week, Grandpa would take us down to the Greenbrier River across from Cabin 1 and teach us how to skip rocks. Sometimes, we’d drive down to Seebert to the little convenience store there. What’s more, on every trip, Grandpa would make his classic Dad joke and ask us if we knew where Seebert got its name. “There was a man named, Bert,” he said, “and he’d wandered off. The townspeople started asking, did you see Bert?” Thus, the town became named Seebert.
Grandpa wanted us to know our state and appreciate nature. Of course, he’d take us on hikes around the lake and sometimes the whole family would go on the planned nature hikes on one of the many trails in the park. One year, most of the family (not my grandmother or mom) took a night hike with the park ranger.
The Allure of Watoga
During the day, we’d swim at the pool or go horseback riding at the stables. We’d stay at Pine Run when we were preteens. Grandma would bring her jar of quarters she saved all year for us to use at the rec center near the pool. We’d walk the trail from Pine Run around the lake and to the rec center, where we’d spend our quarters on the jukebox, arcade games and rounds of ping pong.
Later in the evening, the entire family would visit the rec center for the family movie night, which was usually Woodsy the Owl or Smokey the Bear. In particular, it didn’t matter how many times we had watched the films at Watoga or the nearby Cranberry Glades; it was so familiar to us it felt like home. We’d sing along with the song, “Give a hoot—don’t pollute!”
In the evenings, we’d go down to the lake at dusk to catch a few more bluegills with our trusty crickets for bait. Later, we’d drive through the park spotting deer. When we returned to the cabin, we’d wait and watch for the raccoons to come out.
Watoga—A Most Precious Gem
In this slower quarantine time, your mind can easily float back to the slower days at Watoga, which weren’t so rare then. In today’s crazy-paced, high-tech life, the real beauty that Watoga offers families is a rare opportunity to unplug; to take a deep breath and smell the pine trees; to switch off the phones and TVs and cut a switch off a bush to roast marshmallows; to find yourself and connect with your family and one of the state’s most precious gems.
Generations of the Bott family have enjoyed the quiet reprieve of Watoga. Without doubt, it is important to me for that tradition to carry on, which is why when my girls were infants we stayed at Cabin 20 for a week. Like me, they were bathed in the kitchen sink. Like me, they swam in the freezing waters of Watoga pool. Like me, Belle and Lilly fished with crickets to catch bluegills from Watoga Lake.
Now, our family has a cabin near Green Bank and the family cabin has become our home away from home. In fact, it’s Watoga that was the impetus for my grandparents to build our family cabin. It’s Watoga that the Botts have to thank for a love of nature, the state and her people.
In conclusion, I invite all West Virginians to reconnect with their families and rediscover all that Watoga has to offer. You won’t be sorry you did.
About the Author
Rachelle is a West Virginia native and former journalist. She now lives in Clemson, S.C., with husband, Andrew, daughters, Belle and Lilly, and their dog, Whittaker. Rachelle works with Tigers United, which is dedicated to preserving natural habitat around the world to save wild tigers.
First Energy contributes to Watoga Dark Sky Project. On July 28th, 2020 Watoga State Park Foundation received a $5000 grant from First Energy for the Dark Sky Project to cover the cost of light fixture replacements in the park.
What can you do to reduce your impact on light pollution? Install fully shielded downlight fixtures at your house. These fixtures direct light downward, rather than out to the side and up into the sky. Fixtures need to have light bulbs that are less than 3000 kelvins (color temperature) and 800 lumens (brightness). Disconnecting dusk to dawn lights will better preserve the dark sky. An alternative to dusk to dawn lights is installing motion sensor flood lights.
Watoga State Park Dark Skies
Watoga State Park, in Pocahontas County West Virginia is located in one of the darkest regions in the East, with very little light pollution. Light pollution has detrimental affects on the natural life cycles of many animal and insect species as well as human health. Since 2018, Foundation members Mary Dawson and Louanne Fatora have been working on implementing the guidelines established by the International Dark Sky Association to certify Watoga as an IDA certified park. One major portion of the certification process is to convert the existing light fixtures and bulbs in the entire park to be dark sky friendly. At this time, a great majority of the fixtures have been purchased and installed for the cabins, campgrounds, administration building, pool and activity hall.
First Energy contributes to Watoga Dark Sky Project. Board members express their gratitude to First Energy for their generous support of Watoga State Park Foundation and our Dark Sky Project.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“The other was when my Dad was visiting me and he accompanied me on a work task to the picnic area over across from Pine Run cabin area. We were walking along the little creek that comes down from the picnic shelter and he spotted an arrowhead in the edge of the creek.”
Finding an 11,000-Year-Old Arrowhead
Ken Springer, Vice-President of The Watoga Foundation, relayed the following:
“I found the arrowhead approximately three years ago on the Monongaseneka Trail. See more of Ken’s find including the history of arrowheads here.
Ken stated that the “design indicates it may be Archaic, a group of Native Americans who lived in settlements in our area in the period from 9000 BC to 4500 BC. “
“If it were a projectile point, it would have been used with a spear and atlatl [a spear-throwing lever], not a bow and arrow as they were yet to be invented in North America.”
Ken Springer’s arrowhead is on display at the Watoga Nature Center. Please note that it is illegal to remove any object, such as an arrowhead, from any park in West Virginia.
Finding Your First Arrowhead With Your Brother
I was with my older brother, Ronnie, when I discovered my first arrowhead, but I was not allowed to keep it. Our dad, a park ranger at Watoga, taught us at a young age not to keep what nature left for us and others to admire and enjoy.
However, it was always an adventure searching for these flint-like creations. The expansiveness of Watoga and nearby Calvin Price State Forest provided Ronnie and I ample opportunities to search for arrowheads. And, getting to see one up close and personal proved to be exhilarating for an 8-year-old.
The Airstrip and Calvin Price State Forest
There were a couple of spots where Ronnie and I found those treasured items. Specifically, we had the most success on our exploration missions at the expansive airstrip near the Beaver Creek Campground.
At least once a week, Ronnie and I would venture into the secluded wilderness that surrounded us. Notably, the first time that I ever spotted an arrowhead was along the path leading into the forest, close to a small mountain stream oftentimes reduced to a trickle during the heat of the summer. Just seeing one and not even having picked it up yet caused my heart to beat faster.
Excitedly, I jumped up and down with joy.
“Ronnie, Ronnie, look what I found! Come over here. I think it’s an arrowhead.”
Of course, Ronnie was wiser about these matters than me, and upon closer inspection, he said: “You sure did, Johnny. Wow, that’s a nice one too!”
Remembering What Dad Taught Us
Before crossing that small creek to head home, Ronnie stopped. He showed me what Dad had taught us about not removing or keeping historic artifacts that we may discover at the park. Ronnie slowly bent down and carefully placed the tan-colored arrowhead neatly under a nearby rock.
“There,” Ronnie said, “I wonder who will discover this next?”
During your stay at Watoga, explore and take in the wilderness surrounding you. You may even see the arrowhead that Ronnie and I returned to its rightful place more than 50 years ago. In the meantime, please give any discoveries to personnel at the park office for display at the nature center or simply leave it where you found it. The next park visitor will be glad that you did.
About the Author
John C. Dean lived at Watoga from for 16 years until his father, Vernon, retired after 43 years of service with the Division of Natural Resources. On John’s “bucket list” is returning to the airstrip and seeing an arrowhead one last time. You can reach John at .