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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
While growing up at Watoga State Park, there were many roads to take or not to take. Sometimes the road not taken might be the quickest route to the swimming pool.
My grandfather, Alfred G. Dean (1890-1973), known as “Pap,” and my grandmother, Ina C. Smith Dean (1894-1990), known as “Ma,” owned a farm that bordered Watoga in scenic Pocahontas County. Moreover, Pap was a superintendent of the Civilian Conservation Corps that helped build the park’s cabins, the swimming pool, and other infrastructure projects in the 1930s.
Ma and Pap’s 211-acre farm was at the end of Chicken House Run Road. The visual of that picturesque road comes to mind whenever I hear John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
Gardens, Animals, Hay, Kate the Horse, and the 1800s
In the late 1960s and the early 1970s, my older brother, Ronnie, and I spent several summers working and playing at the farm where we learned how to harvest the bounty of large gardens, how to raise cattle, chickens, and hogs, and how to hoist bales of hay into the barn’s loft. Pap also taught us how to ride Kate, the farm’s workhorse.
Every evening, Ronnie and I brushed Kate’s glistening brown hair. Afterwards, we sat near Ma’s well-tended dahlias and peonies in the front yard shaded by the 60-year-old sugar maple tree. We were mesmerized as Pap and Ma told stories about the 19th Century (yeah, that would be in the 1800s) and the early 1900s.
The Road Not Taken to the Swimming Pool
In particular, in the mid-afternoons of one hot summer of 1972 (after the Big Boy tomatoes or the Kennebec potatoes were hoed), Ronnie and I were rewarded by being allowed to go to the park’s swimming pool about three miles away.
So, how did we get there? As a matter of fact, it wasn’t on Kate’s back.
Imagine this: We walked. However, most of the time, we ran more than we walked. And this is where the “road not taken” came into play.
When the dirt road a couple of miles from Ma and Pap’s home intersected with the park’s asphalt pavement not far from the north entrance to the park close to Beaver Creek Road, Ronnie and I had a decision to make: Continue to walk on the asphalt surface or venture along Laurel Trail, a narrow path veering off to the right. This trail was lined with elderberry bushes, thickets of briars, fallen trees, and mountain laurel (thus the trail’s name).
We could have chosen the easy way and avoided several leg scratches caused by thorns and further irritated by the pool’s chlorinated water. Yet, we chose a different road.
Laurel Trail’s Intoxicating Allure
Laurel Trail beckoned Ronnie and I to walk where the terrain, flora and fauna were more interesting. We sampled wild blackberries and elderberries, and oftentimes stopped to catch our breath, watching deer playing freely in the lush forest. The sounds of birds chirping and twigs snapping filled the air.
At the end of that road “less traveled” was our reward—the crystal-clear invigorating water of the swimming pool. Importantly, not once during that unforgettable summer did we ever say that the pool’s water felt cold!
Laurel Trail is a small part of 40 miles of trails nestled in the pristine wilderness of Watoga. What’s your trail adventure or “Road Not Taken” story during your visit to the park? Feel free to share those by emailing me at email@example.com.
About the Author
For 16 years, John C. Dean lived on-site at Watoga until his dad, Vernon, retired after 43 years of service with the Division of Natural Resources. In 1976, the Deans moved to Ma and Pap’s farm on Chicken House Run Road.
With the Fourth of July just a few days away, I was thinking about our country’s 200th birthday in 1976. What was I doing as a teenager growing up at Watoga State Park? Sure, there were picnics, hot dogs, baseball, firecrackers, and the swimming pool. But just why was a pyramid being built at the pool?
Obviously, we were not building a pyramid like the one the Egyptians constructed. Our mission and adventure during that bicentennial celebration was to find and then stack 7 Up (also known as the Uncola) cans into a triangular shape. End result? Read on.
United We Stand
Just what was it about those cans? Well, 7 Up’s clever advertising team designed them to have a wide appeal across the U.S. For that matter, the strategy also worked at the state’s largest park.
Known as the “United We Stand” collection, 7 Up debuted its 50-can set in 1976. As shown in the photo above, West Virginia’s can revealed more specific details (for example, 1863 as the year admitted to the Union; 35th state; capital of Charleston; and nickname of The Mountain State). The other 49 states followed the same pattern.
So how did these cans go together? Each was numbered 1-50. On the back of Can No. 1 were instructions how to build the display. Can No. 50 had the words “United We Stand.” Once completed, the other side portrayed an image of Uncle Sam (remember those iconic Uncle Sam “I Want You” recruitment posters?)
Obsessed with the Uncola
Before, during and after the Fourth of July, finding 7 Up cans became a months-long adventure and obsession.
While catchy tunes like Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” often blared on an 8-track tape player at swimming pool, we sometimes found a missing can park guests had left behind. Our stack of red, white, blue, and 7 Up’s signature green cans began forming something unique.
After all, myself, my sister, Vicki and our cousins, Deb and Kim, and even the lifeguards were on a mission find those cans — at the pool, at the grocery store in Marlinton or at empty campsites at the Beaver Creek Campground. And when we found a can, we learned interesting details about that specific state.
Did We Succeed on that Fourth of July?
In 1976, my family’s Fourth of July celebration at Watoga featured the standard picnic food, but also some of that lemon-lime-flavored refreshment. Rest assured that no cans were harmed or dented during consumption. In case you were wondering about our success or failure: Yes, by summer’s end, we had found all 50 cans.
For more than seven decades, the Botts have fished, swam, hiked, and oftentimes stayed at Cabin 20 at Watoga State Park. This is Flora Jane Bott’s memories about the swimming pool, that cabin next door and the park.
“It was next to impossible to contain our excitement as we drove closer to park boundaries. With the windows down, the fresh smell of the forest wafted into our car. Driving to the park office to get the cabin key seemed to take forever. Once there, it became a challenge for my sister and I as we would navigate the wall and steps that went up two sides to the building like the letter “U.” We would finish off the step challenge with a drink of fresh cold water from the water fountain at the bottom.
“Alas, finally, we see the sign identifying Cabin 20. Most amenities were provided for us in the cabin, but that still meant unloading our suitcases, groceries, and other items my mother deemed as necessities for our week-long stay. Opening both doors to the cabin, running around, laying on the beds, and digging out our swimsuits and towels were all part of the initiation process.
“My family visited Watoga every summer long before I came into the scene. While we enjoyed Cabins 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, and 14, my mom and dad preferred Cabin 20 when we were young because of its proximity to the swimming pool and the recreation center.”
Fish, Deer and Raccoons
“Each cabin is unique for different reasons, but Cabin 20 watched three generations of the Bott family grow up and grow old. In that respect, Watoga helped form my endless love for our state.
“Cabin 20 was a short trail’s walk to the lake and an added bonus for my older brother, David. I’ll always remember the slightly smokey smell in the cabin. Then there was the banging noise of the wooden screen door hitting the door frame when it closed. We loved going fishing at the lake or the low water bridge crossing the Greenbrier River into Seebert. My mother amazed us by making fishing poles out of safety pins and long sticks. She was clever that way.
“In the evenings, we always went for a drive looking for wildlife – seeing the deer that came out to feed and the raccoon families scampering across the road.”
The Swimming Pool Next Door
“Upon arrival, I was always in a hurry and impatient to get to the pool which was right next door. Its water was sparkling and refreshing. Swimming was my thing. And taking us swimming was my dad’s job. From June to August, the water was quite chilly, but we would get used to it.
“As a young child the baby pool as I called it was my hangout. It was the perfect place to practice my skills of learning how to swim. I would kick my feet while holding on to the concrete edge with my hands, and finally the bravery of practicing going under water. My mom would sit by the edge of the pool as I played. My mom was terrified of water because of a traumatic childhood memory. That’s why swimming was my dad’s job. As we got older, my mom would come over from Cabin 20 and sit on the wooden fence surrounding the pool and watch us swim. In spite of her fear, we all learned how to swim and loved the water.
“Swimming always gave us ferocious appetites. Dinner usually consisted of grilled chicken or steak, baked potatoes, and fresh local corn and sliced tomatoes. The pool closed at 6 p.m. so dinner was always close to that time. Bathing suits and towels hung on the line to dry. Time for a relaxing evening or a drive to look for deer.”
The Swimming Pool Called My Name
“The next day, we would go fishing at the lake or rent a paddle boat. But, at some point during the day, the pool always beckoned me back. As my sister and I got older, our aquatic skills improved, and we got braver. Being able to successfully swim around someone and grab the edge at the other side was a true testament of an improving swimming technique.
“To a small child, the diving board at Watoga was ginormous. The ultimate test of bravery was jumping off the diving board into my father’s arms. Then, he would give me a push to propel me to swim to the side. Swimming has been a lifelong passion of mine and I’m sure my memories and good times at Watoga are partially responsible for that passion.”
“What made Watoga so special? We would swim, fish, paddle boat, horseback ride, and play pool or ping pong. There were arranged hikes and a weekly softball game with cabin guests and staff at the airstrip near Beaver Creek Campground. If we didn’t feel like cooking, we could go to the restaurant and enjoy a meal.
“At Watoga, the possibilities were endless and for that idyllic week, the swimming pool and Cabin 20 became our home and the magic of the woods was our playground.”
Four generations of the Bott family have stayed at Cabin 20, nestled in the pines next to the swimming pool at Watoga State Park.
For 72 years, the Botts have fished, swam, hiked, and along the way have made countless memories at the state’s largest recreation area. Specifically, from 1957-1967, these kinfolks called this particular cabin their home away from home.
And this is David Bott’s story about the swimming pool, the cabin next door and the park.
Discovering Watoga, Cabin 20 and the Pool
“My parents began traveling to Pocahontas County in 1948, staying at Graham’s Motel in Buckeye, fishing the Greenbrier River. Discovering Watoga, they soon began staying in the cabins. I began my love affair with Watoga at two-years-old.
“We stayed at Cabin 20 for at least ten years when my sisters [Barbara and Jane] were young. Before they were born, we generally stayed in the Pine Run area. Later we stayed in Cabin 1 and 2 down by the Greenbrier River. After I got married and had children, we stayed in Cabin 3 until it burned down.
“When Barbara and Jane were young, it was a logical choice for kids with a lot of energy and a need for activities. Mom liked the convenience of everything plus it allowed us to be entertained most of the time.
“Swimming during the day, exploring Island Lick Creek in the evenings, and catching crawdads to fish the lake. My parents almost always stayed the last week of August because they wanted to give us one last summer hurrah before school started.”
The Majesty of Cabin 20
“I think the layout was one of the features my mother enjoyed the most. The front door was almost center of the cabin. Walk into the living room/dining area. On either side of the fireplace were single beds. Mom and dad slept here. It was a magnificent fireplace. To the right was a hallway, first on the left, the kitchen, across the way, a bedroom. Down the hall on the right the other bedroom and bathroom across the hall. Backdoor to the woodshed and the little back porch was the raccoon dining area.”
Swimming Pool Humor
“I was in grade school; Barbara was in preschool and Jane was a toddler. My mother would require us to take a break from swimming in the afternoon. Barbara had to nap, but I got to run around. Instead, I jumped the fence and went back to the pool. Well, my mother went to the front desk and spoke with the lifeguards. They promptly came out and made me get out of the pool. They made a big show of it and banned me from swimming the rest of the day. Of course, all of this was contrived by my mother.”
Still Making Cabin 20 Memories Decades Later
“One of my favorite memories is a more recent one. My daughter, son-in-law and granddaughters stayed with us at Cabin 20 in 2007, the year of the extreme drought. We saw black bears venturing into the park. I spent a lot of time enjoying my granddaughters, helping them learn how to swim, teaching them how to dive. They had to do numerous trivial things for me that week because they lost a bet that I could not swim the length of the pool underwater.”
More to Come
In the next installment, Jane Bott, David’s sister, tells us about her days at the swimming pool, Cabin 20 and Watoga. Stay tuned.
The pool officially opens for the season on Saturday, May 30, according to Jody Spencer, park superintendent.
Mr. Spencer stated that prior to entering the swim area, each person must have a temperature less than 100 and answer several COVID-19-related questions. The number of admitted swimmers will be limited, and you may wish to call 304-799-7459 to check availability. The pool will be open Wednesday through Sunday.
Ahh, Memorial Day weekend is here! And, while growing up at Watoga State Park, the swimming pool is the place to be!
This is the last year for the pool (a new one is in the works), but not the last year for memories about this legendary swimming spot. In particular, many readers, visitors and park guests have relayed stories of how cold that water was. This is mine.
Recently, I spoke with my cousin, Debra Dean Murphy, to ask how she remembers the pool. As a matter of fact, Deb was a lifeguard at the pool from 1979-1984. Likewise, I was a lifeguard from 1977-1979. It’s a long-standing Dean tradition to always get in the pool on this holiday weekend no matter the weather.
“The water in the Watoga pool was so cold it would literally take your breath away and make your lips turn blue,” Deb said. “But it was the pool and we loved it and we couldn’t imagine not swimming and diving and playing games in it. There were also those rare occasions when, during or after a rain, the water would feel surprisingly warm.”
Furthermore, Coach Tom Sanders: lifeguard at Watoga (1973-1975) recalls: “I think the water was from a spring. It was really cold, cold water. When the air temperature was cold, swimmers could not stay in the pool awfully long after taking a swim. The pool was always known to be cooler than the nearby swimming holes in the local rivers.”
AFrosty Morning at the Pool
So, on that memorable Memorial Day weekend, here’s what happens next:
Date: Sunday, May 28, 1972
Morning temperature: 30 degrees. Afternoon high: 76 degrees. Weather data courtesy of the National Centers for Environmental Information – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Brrr, to say the least, right?
As can be seen from that subfreezing temp, this opening day weekend is not what you would call ideal swimming conditions (not that any weekend until mid-August at the pool ever is).
However, in the 1970s, solar power meant the actual sun. On hot days, the cluster of pine trees above the pool would provide welcome shade, but on this frosty morning, they keep any glimpse of the sun away. Moreover, even on a warm summer day, the water is chilly. In reality, the water is freezing cold!
The Swimming Pool Bone-Chilling Plunge
You may be wondering if anyone went swimming that day, right?
At 10 a.m.? Absolutely not!
The lifeguards have on jeans, sweat shirts, winter headgear and coats. Undeniably, it is so cold that you can see your breath. I have on my swimming trunks under my jeans. Deb is bundled inside a heavy blanket covering her black Speedo suit. In particular, no other brave souls have ventured to the pool. Meanwhile, we gather inside the bathhouse, near the front entrance, hoping for a sudden tropical warmup.
All of a sudden it begins snowing. It’s like a whiteout – gusty, swirling winds with arctic blasts bringing a steady stream of snowflakes onto the crystal-clear waters of the swimming pool.
However, Deb and I are not going to let a little snow halt a family ritual at the swimming pool. The lifeguards look on in astonishment as Deb and I jump into deep end of the pool, even though it is only for about 30 seconds.
Quickly swimming to the edge faster than an Olympic freestyle gold medalist, Deb and I get out before we are frozen in time. We are shaking and shivering uncontrollably, teeth chattering loudly. We hurriedly grab our nearby towels as hot showers await us.
That is my bone-chilling snow day at the pool. What is yours? Please email your pool memories to firstname.lastname@example.org. Near Labor Day, I will be publishing a blog(s) to commemorate readers’ memories at the swimming pool.
About the Author
John C. Dean lived at Watoga for 16 years from 1960-1976, until his dad, Vernon C., retired after 43 years of service with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.
For 80 years at the Watoga State Park Swimming Pool, countless sunbathers and swimmers have graced its water and tread on its time-worn concrete decks.
Tentatively, this will be the last summer for the pool as we now know it. Plans are underway for the construction of a “new and improved” facility for future generations. As more details become available, I will provide timely updates. And, in that vein, I also look forward to telling you the differences between life at the pool — then and now.
But, today’s musing focuses more on a personal thrill at the pool at West Virginia’s largest state park. Since this is a continuing blog, we will talk to others about their days at the pool, and we will also get the inside scoop from behind-the-scenes personnel for continuing updates.
The swimming pool is legendary for its ice-cold, frigid, Siberia-like water temperatures. Just pick a winter-like adjective and it fits nicely when talking about going for a dip. I too vividly recall those arctic waters while growing up at Watoga. No matter how cold the water, this pool is and always will be my favorite swimming pool in the whole wide world!
Current Swimming Pool Opening Day Plans
Detailed plans for opening dates at state park swimming pools have not been released. For the most up-to-date information, please utilize the following resources:
West Virginia-specific information: Call the toll-free hotline 1-800-887-4304 or visit:
When you learn how to swim at a young age, oftentimes you are called “a fish.” As a result of days, weeks, months and years of “living” at the pool, I dream of being the next Mark Spitz and winning multiple Olympic gold medals. Imagine a mentor instructing you how to perfect a dive from the pool’s springboard.
Remember “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” from ABC’s Wide World of Sports? And, it is nice to say that those memories at Watoga’s pool are dominated more by the “thrills” than they are the “defeats.”
Likewise, it is still a thrill to know that where I learned to swim is part of the majestic expanse of natural beauty and wonders nestled in the expanse of 10,000-plus acres. Certainly, I didn’t give it much thought when I was younger, but the foresight and planning to build the pool where it is amazes me.
Learning How to Dive
In 1973, “Coach” Tom Sanders is one of the lifeguards at the swimming pool. I am 12 and can swim well, but I have not conquered the art of diving yet.
“Ok, John, remember to tuck your chin,” Coach says. “Feet together. Bend your knees a little. Lean forward. Don’t look up. I am going to help you fall in. Ok, you ready?”
“Yeah, I’m ready, Coach.”
“You sure? Get set? Here we go!”
And with that, Coach ever so slowly nudges me forward into the deep end of the pool. I do not keep my chin tucked and subsequently complete what is commonly known as a “belly smacker.” Ouch!
At this instant, I think that this process may take longer than the time it took to walk the few miles to the pool from our home near Beaver Creek Campground at the north entrance to the park.
“All right, John, let’s try it again. It is going to take some practice just like those corner shots you like to take at the gym. Remember why we practice basketball for two hours after school, right?”
As a matter of fact, I did practice that dive for several days. I would arrive at the pool early each day before park guests had arrived for the day. The pool opens at 11 a.m. and closes at 6 p.m. When Coach had time or the pool wasn’t crowded, he would provide much needed guidance.
“Remember to keep your head down when you go in the water. Toes together. Don’t look up.”
After the third day, I have the technique down, thanks to Coach’s encouragement, cheers, hand claps and positive reinforcement techniques.
Coach, This Dive’s for You!
In conclusion, Thomas “Coach” Sanders was a teacher for a decade and a principal for 31 years in Pocahontas County.
Until now, I never conveyed to Coach how instrumental he was in not only my aquatic development, but also in my educational and career choices. Undoubtedly, absent Coach’s guidance, I would not have been able to do what some consider a simple maneuver. Above all, Coach Sanders instilled in me to always try my best in life no matter what the task. So, it pays dividends to never give up, to give it your all, and as the proverb states “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.”
Without a doubt, Coach, this dive’s for you!
Throughout the next few months, John will be compiling stories, memories, facts, and tidbits about readers’ experiences at the swimming pool. Near Labor Day, he will publish that collection for posterity’s sake. Please share your swimming pool experiences with John at email@example.com or post on his Facebook writing page by clicking this link to go to John C. Dean, Writer.
About the Author
John C. Dean lived at Watoga for 16 years from 1960-1976, until his dad, Vernon C., retired after 43 years of service with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.
“We are the Copperheads — the mighty, mighty Copperheads. Everywhere we go, people wanna know, so we tell them.”
This chant is still the battle cry for Marlinton Middle School today as it was at my ole stompin’ grounds in the 1970s. Regardless, I am not a fan of snakes! Without a doubt, those copperheads are “mighty,” but the chants remind me of a not so pleasant day at Watoga State Park.
Nonetheless, it did not help my fear of snakes that my junior high school’s logo and cheers revolved around the copperhead snake. During this era, everyone is proud (except me and maybe a few others who wouldn’t admit it) that “we are the Copperheads.”
“The fight or flight response, or stress response, is triggered by a release of hormones either prompting us to stay and fight or run away and flee.”
Freeze! It’s the Mighty, Mighty Copperheads
Just a quick note about the copperhead snake and I’ll get right back to that scary encounter with one at West Virginia’s largest state park.
Found in the eastern U.S., the northern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen) is a venomous pit viper subspecies. The copperhead’s average length is between two and three feet, and its diet consists of rodents, insects, small birds, and amphibians. In the Mountain State, the copperhead’s home is in wooded and rocky areas, and it does not actively seek human contact. Copperheads often lie still (like “freezing”), but will strike if people unknowingly step near them or on them (like I almost did).
TheTrouble Writing About Copperheads
Since some experts suggest that writing about your fears helps allay them, this is my feeble attempt at accomplishing that. However, my previous attempt writing about black snakes didn’t cure me. I double-checked; yep, still scared.
In particular, I think that almost being stricken at such a young age by a copperhead may have been the traumatizing event that triggered this deep-seated lifelong fear. And, I am not so sure that I would be writing this story if not for my mom.
Until now, I have never written about this topic. I could blame writer’s block (such an easy excuse to avoid the real reason), but that’s not really the case. So, in essence, here’s my best recollection about that twisted copperhead.
The Jumpman Pose Before Michael Jordan
Ronnie and I are tossing a baseball in the front yard of the conservation officer’s residence, near the north entrance to the park. This cabin is nestled next to a narrow mountain stream where we often caught tad poles, minnows and frogs. Specifically, we are enjoying the chance to run carefree and relieve some of that winter’s cabin fever.
In the meantime, mom is sitting in the brown wooden rocker on the front porch. All of a sudden, mom instinctively spots a copperhead and issues a warning cry that a viper is about to strike me!
“Johnny, watch out. There’s a copperhead! Run!”
Rather than doing what mom instructs, I instead look down and see what lurks below. And, somehow, someway, I leap up and outward.
When I first saw the Michael JordanJumpman logo for Nike decades later, it conjured up images of me leaping skyward over the dreaded copperhead. All right, maybe that was more related to my basketball days as a Marlinton Copperhead!
On the other hand, mom’s well-timed alert about the copperhead snake may have not only saved my life, but it also taught me to pay closer attention to my surroundings – beneath, above, beside, in front of, and behind, and above.
At least, that is how I like to recall that warm spring day in the late 1960s. Years later, Ronnie would still tease me by comparing my screams that day to the wheel screech of a Shay No. 5 making a sharp turn on the downward descent from Bald Knob at Cass Scenic Railroad State Park.
On the positive side and fortunately for me, I did not feel the viper’s sting that day and, needless to say, I avoid ALL snakes at ALL costs. Oh, I said that already, didn’t I?
It’s Your Choice — Fight or Flightthe Coopperheads?
What do you do when you see a copperhead snake? Run like the wind? Stand your ground and fight?
While trying to write about this fear of snakes (Ophidiophobia or ophiophobia), I came across what happens to your body during a stressful situation — be it your memorable encounter with a coiled and ready-to-strike copperhead snake at Watoga, a road rage incident about to intensify during your morning rush hour commute or a vicious dog ready to pounce during your peaceful morning stroll.
Regardless of the specifics of each encounter, you now must decide: fight or flight.
“The fight or flight response, or stress response, is triggered by a release of hormones either prompting us to stay and fight or run away and flee,” explains psychologist Carolyn Fisher, PhD. “During the response, all bodily systems are working to keep us alive in what we’ve perceived as a dangerous situation.”
Your heart beats faster and your blood pressure goes up.
Your pupils dilate.
You have a muted response to pain.
Your skin is flushed or pale.
You may lose control of your bladder.
You are more observant of your surrounding and your senses kick into high gear.
Stress hormones flow throughout your body, causing trembling or twitching.
Your memories can be affected – not recalling details accurately or even blacking out vivid memories.
And If You Smell Cucumbers . . .
While some of my vivid copperhead snake memories may be difficult to remember in 2020, I do recall with specificity the sage advice my mom repeatedly imparted upon me when venturing into the expanse of Watoga’s 10,000 acres of pristine beauty.
“Johnny, if you smell cucumbers, it means there is a copperhead nearby, and you need to run!” And run I do – even to this day!
P.S. While I do have an intense fear of all snakes, it never has and never will stop me from enjoying my favorite place in the World — Watoga State Park!
About the Author
John C. Dean lived at Watoga for 16 years from 1960-1976, until his dad, Vernon C., retired after 43 years of service with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.