The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same at Watoga

Hues of orange and red signal the beginning of fall at Watoga Lake. 📸: John C. Dean, October 7, 2020.
Hues of orange and red signal the season’s change at Watoga Lake. 📸: John C. Dean, October 7, 2020.

. . . 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 . . .

Bon Jovi Greatest Hits, 2010

I have hung “in long enough” to say I’m “comin’ back” to Watoga State Park.

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.

At the Mountain State’s largest recreation area, I was surrounded by picturesque, untouched beauty at Watoga, Calvin Price State Forest and Monongahela National Forest. Yeah, I had an expansive backyard with miles to explore as did Freckles, our family’s pet deer. My dad, Vernon, worked at the park for 43 years.

Indelibly Etched Scenes That Never Change

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.

Some things never change at Watoga. These early morning rays are near the Island Lick Cabin area and Bear Pen Trail. Views such as these near the Island Lick Cabin area and Bear Pen Trail. 📸: John C. Dean, October 7, 2020.
Views such as these rays at Watoga State Park near Bear Pen Trail never seem to change. 📸: John C. Dean, October 7, 2020.

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.

The wind whirled loudly at the T.M. Cheek Memorial Overlook while I admired the early fall foliage in the distant Greenbrier River Valley on a 70-degree day at Watoga State Park.

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!”

Taking a break to admire the view of the Watoga swimming pool on a 70-degree fall day are John Dean and his two labs, Jack and Max. 📸: Flora Jane Bott, October 7, 2020
Taking a break to admire the view surrounding the Watoga swimming pool on a 70-degree fall day are John Dean and his two labs, Jack and Max. 📸: Flora Jane Bott, October 7, 2020.
About the Author

John C. Dean is a writer, editor, journalist, and blogger. He lives near Fayetteville, a few miles from the New River Gorge Bridge. You can contact John at .

Two Benches for Two Former Watoga Superintendents

Benches for former Watoga superintendents Richard Dale and Kermit McKeever were set in June in their honor. 📸: John C. Dean, September 16, 2020
Benches for former Watoga superintendents Richard Dale and Kermit McKeever were set in June in their honor. 📸: John C. Dean, September 16, 2020

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.

Situated near the CCC statue is Kermit and Arenna McKeever's bench as part of the Watoga State Park Bench Program. 📸: John C. Dean, September 16, 2020
Situated near the CCC statue is Kermit and Arenna McKeever’s bench as part of the Watoga State Park Bench Program. 📸: John C. Dean, September 16, 2020

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.

Richard Dale, superintendent at Watoga from 1966-1975, enjoys a sun-filled summer day on his bench. 📸: Rose Clark, June 2020.
Richard Dale, superintendent at Watoga from 1966-1975, enjoys a sun-filled summer day on his bench. 📸: Rose Clark, June 2020.

“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.”

Dedication Ceremonies

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 About What Watoga Offers — Our Readers’ Turn

You too can reminisce about this spectactular sunrise at Watoga when you return home. 📸: Brian Hirt, September 3, 2017.
You too can reminisce about this spectacular sunrise at Watoga when you return home.
📸: Brian Hirt, September 3, 2017.

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.

Childhood Reminiscing

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.

Pat Drake

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.

Susan Higginbotham

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.

Sharon Cecil

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.

The grandeur of the Milky Way as seen on a clear night at Watoga Lake. 📸: Jesse Thornton.
The grandeur of the Milky Way as seen on a clear night at Watoga Lake.
📸: Jesse Thornton.

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.

David Price

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watoga Dark Sky Good for Bats

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

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

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

A great way to learn more about bats is to visit the Project EduBat at

Watoga: How Our Grandparents Gave Us This Lifelong Gift

Guest Post by Rachelle Bott Beckner

My sister, Sara (R) and I have continued a family tradition spanning seven decades at Watoga. 📸: David Bott, 1987.
My sister, Sara (R), and I have continued a family tradition spanning seven decades at Watoga.
📸: David Bott, 1987.

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.

We are celebrating my parents’ wedding anniversary on August 19, 1988 in Cabin 14 at Watoga. From L-R, foreground to background: Joanna Joseph Reynolds, my cousin, in highchair; Aunt Barbara Bott Joseph; Uncle Bob Joseph, my dad, David Bott, across from him Grandpa Bott (Leonard S. Bott); and my mom, Donna Bott. 📸: Rachelle Bott Beckner.Rachelle Bott Beckner.
We are celebrating my parents’ wedding anniversary on August 19, 1988 in Cabin 14 at Watoga. From L-R, foreground to background: Joanna Joseph Reynolds, my cousin, in highchair, Aunt Barbara Bott Joseph, Uncle Bob Joseph, my dad, David Bott. Across from my dad is Grandpa Bott (Leonard S. Bott) and my mom, Donna Bott.
📸: Rachelle Bott Beckner.

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.

In 1948, my grandfather, Leonard (pictured here at Cabin 4), began our family's tradition of visiting Watoga every summer with his wife and my grandmother, Flora. 📸: David Bott, circa 1983.
In 1948, my grandfather, Leonard (pictured here at Cabin 4), began our family’s tradition of visiting Watoga every summer with his wife and my grandmother, Flora.
📸: David Bott, circa 1983.

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.

My parents, David and Donna Bott, enjoying a summer day 2007 with their granddaughter, Belle (my daughter), at Watoga Lake. 📸: Rachelle Bott Beckner.
My parents, David and Donna Bott, enjoying a summer day in 2007 with my daughter, Belle (their granddaughter), at Watoga Lake.
📸: Rachelle Bott Beckner.

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.

My mom, myself and my sister, Sara, hiking on one of Watoga’s many trails in 1990. Pictured in foreground: Me. Background is my mom and sister. 📸: David Bott, 1990.
My mom, myself and my sister, Sara, hiking on one of Watoga’s many trails in 1990. Pictured in the foreground: Me. In the background: my mom and my sister.
📸: David Bott, 1990.

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

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.

L - R   Wayne Pollard - Foundation board member,  Jody Spencer - Watoga State Park Superintendent, John Norman - First Energy Foundation, Mary Dawson - Foundation board member, Louanne Fatora - Foundation board member.
L – R   Wayne Pollard – Foundation board member,  Jody Spencer – Watoga State Park Superintendent, John Norman – First Energy Foundation, Mary Dawson – Foundation board member, Louanne Fatora – Foundation board member.

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.

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

Synchronous Fireflies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unique Fireflies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dark Sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pocahontas County Convention and Visitors Bureau

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

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

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

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

From the mountain trails of Watoga State Park,

Arrowhead Discoveries in All the Right Places at Watoga

Have you ever seen an arrowhead at Watoga State Park?

Recently, I spoke to two gentleman (both named Ken) who found arrowheads at the park.

Finding an Arrowhead with your Dad — Priceless

Ken Caplinger, former Watoga Assistant Superintendent (1979-1984), later served as West Virginia State Parks Chief and is now a board member of the West Virginia State Parks Foundation.

“One was by an employee when we were building the Allegheny Trail connector from the Beaver Creek Campground over toward Honeymoon Trail.

“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. “

Arrowhead found at Watoga on the Monongaseneka Trail, 2018. Photo by Ken Springer.
Arrowhead found at Watoga on the Monongaseneka Trail, 2018. 📸: Ken Springer.
1-5/8 inch arrowhead found at Watoga State Park. Ken Springer is illustrating the length of the point. Photo by Ken Springer, 2018.
1-5/8 inch arrowhead found at Watoga with this image illustrating the length of the point. 📸: Ken Springer, 2018.

“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 .

Growing Up at Watoga State Park — The Paved Road Not Taken

A few of the roads Various points of interest at Watoga State Park, including a path "less traveled." Photos include views of TM Cheek Memorial, the airstrip near the Beaver Creek Campground, the wooded Allegheny Trail, Watoga Lake, the swimming pool and a rhodendrom bloom. Photo collage by John C. Dean.
Various points of interest at Watoga State Park, including a path “less traveled.” Photo collage by John C. Dean.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost – 1874-1963

The Farm on Chicken House Run Road

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.

Alfred and Ina Dean's home on Chicken House Road near Watoga State Park, circa 1930s. Photographer unknown.
Alfred and Ina Dean’s home on Chicken House Road near Watoga State Park, circa 1930s. Photographer unknown.

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 .

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.

A Fourth of July Uncola Adventure at Watoga State Park

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

A Fourth of July Uncola Pyramid?

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

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

United We Stand

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

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

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

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

Obsessed with the Uncola

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

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

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

Did We Succeed on that Fourth of July?

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

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

Feel free to share your Fourth of July memories at Watoga by e-mailing me at " target="_blank" rel="noreferrer noopener">.

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.