The Black Bear Story at Watoga — Creative Endings

Large black bear turns the corner of Cabin 12 at Watoga State Park near Marlinton, West Virginia in June 2014. The black bear is West Virginia's state animal. Photo by Stanley Clark.
Black bear meandering the corner near Cabin 12 at Watoga. | 📸: @clark.stan

Ever eat a peanut butter sandwich right before coming face-to-face with a black bear? And how about seeing a bear with Paul McCartney eyes? With this in mind, the following are readers’ creative endings to earlier posts (Part 1 and Part 2) about the black bear at Watoga State Park.

Peanut Butter Sammie, Anyone?

The black bear lifts his head, moving his snout inches from my face. Now, I feel his breath as he sniffs and snorts. Lastly, I did not consider the peanut butter sandwich I had recently eaten.

— David Bott

The Bear with Paul McCartney Eyes

There I stood with my feet frozen to the ground like I was standing in water and Lake Watoga froze right around them. Of course, I didn’t try to break free and run; instead, I relax to go with the flow.

The first thing I notice are this bear’s eyes. While he’s standing on his hind legs and looking right at me, I am so close to him that my nose is hardly a foot from his. I can smell his hot bear-breath. Up this close, his eyes seem larger than normal, and there is a distant light behind the brown color. Keep in mind that these aren’t the vacuous eyes of a wild animal. And this mammal’s eyes are windows to something I cannot put a word on. Simultaneous love and sadness? Something like that.

Meanwhile, there the four of us stood — for how long I don’t know. Be that as it may, you may think that the woods are a quiet place where you can hear a pin drop. News flash! What’s more, the Watoga woods are not as quiet as you’d expect if you’re from the city. In short, birds are tweeting, insects are chirping, flies are buzzing, woodpeckers are pecking, and there are a thousand other members of the forest’s orchestra.

A September afternoon in the woods is anything but quiet. And that’s something else I remember very clearly about this moment. Not only are we mesmerized by this bear with Paul McCartney eyes, but we also cannot hear any of the noises we have come to expect.

Nothing. In fact, if you’ve heard the expression “deafening silence,” this was it.

That is up until the bear says, “Follow me.”

— Ernie Zore

And the Moral of the Story is . . .

I notice the biggest black bear I have ever seen climb up and into the bed of Henry Burr’s maintenance truck.

Moreover, this huge animal is having himself a big ole feast, ripping into a number of trash bags that Henry had thrown into the park vehicle earlier from the campsites at Beaver Creek Campground.

After discovering this mess later that same day, Vernon says: “Ok, Johnny and Ronnie. The lesson in this is to never put off ’til tomorrow what you could’ve done today. Particularly, Mr. Burr is gonna have a mess to clean up in the mornin’.

— Brenda Waugh

All You Need is a Little Love

Nestling with the sow bear and her cub is a fawn. Apparently, the fawn has lost its mother. This gentle giant has adopted the fawn as her own.

Many times, through the years, I would see a black bear playing in the woods with a deer. Surprisingly, they were not fighting; just playing, chasing and enjoying the special bond they developed as babies.

I will never forget their special friendship. Undoubtedly, it taught me to always be understanding of individuals no matter their background.

With this in mind, don’t we all need a little love?

— Donna Dilley

Drawing of black bear killed near Watoga, circa 1970; L-R: Ronnie, Johnny and Vernon Dean. Artistic impression by Debra Lynn Kimball.
Drawing of black bear killed near Watoga, circa 1970; L-R: Ronnie, Johnny and Vernon Dean. Artistic impression by Debra Lynn Kimball.


In conclusion, while researching the untold aspects of the black bear, I came across an interesting paragraph in The Pocahontas Times. Significantly, was this the animal killed at Watoga almost 50 years ago? Maybe it was.

Fifty Years Ago … The Pocahontas Times

Thursday, January 8, 1970


George Schoolcraft saw a large bear track on Pyles Mountain. He reported it to A. G. Dean. The bear traveled to Beaver Creek – from Beaver Creek into Burr Valley, bedded down on Briery Knob. The next day Eldridge McComb heard his dog barking and went to investigate. The dog had the bear in a large fallen tree. They returned to W. S. Smith’s for information about shooting bears. When they returned, the bear and dog were gone – heading for Anthonys Creek.

Mister Good Wrench of Watoga

Mechanical Milieu

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet Mister Good Wrench of Watoga

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

Arthur Sharp, Mr Goodwrench of Watoga State Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is Arthur who keeps all of this equipment running.

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

Other Park News

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

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

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

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

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

Stuart Horner, JB Builders and David Smith, Dream Builders

Pine Run Cabin Renovations

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

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

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

Interior of rehabbed cabin on Pine Run, Watoga State Park

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

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

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

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

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

From the mountain trails of Watoga,

Growing Up at Watoga — Fishing for Wild Rainbow Trout

A West Virginia angler displays a wild rainbow trout caught with a fly rod on November 8, 2018 at Whites Run, a tributary of Seneca Creek, Pendleton County, WV | 📸: @mountainstatenatives
A West Virginia angler displays a wild rainbow trout caught with a fly rod on November 8, 2018 at Whites Run, a tributary of Seneca Creek, Pendleton County, WV | 📸: @mountainstatenatives

How did West Virginia Become Known as “Wild and Wonderful”?

Have you ever gone fishing for wild rainbow trout? Do you have a “Wild and Wonderful’ rainbow trout fishin’ story to share? Well, I have. And here is my fishing story.

From a pet deer to a black bear, those carefree days in the late 1960s for Ronnie and I were “Wild and Wonderful” action-filled adventures while Growing Up at Watoga State Park. In reality, my mom, my brother and I used those words before then-Gov. Arch A. Moore, Jr. did so at a 1969 speech at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs.

In 1975, the phrase “Wild and Wonderful West Virginia” became part of West Virginia’s welcome signs, marketing materials and license plates, and stayed put until 1991. After a 16-year absence, that slogan was instituted once again in 2007 after it beat out the popular taglines “Almost Heaven” and “The Mountain State.”

Back to 1969, when sometimes mom would refer to Ronnie and me as “wild!” Neither of us knew that “Wild and Wonderful” would become synonymous with our home state. At the same time, we were too occupied with “Wild and Wonderful” activities enveloping us at Watoga State Park and Calvin Price State Forest near Marlinton to pay much attention to such words. With this in mind, here’s one of my “Wild and Wonderful” rainbow trout fishing adventures.

Snakes, Arrowheads, Fortresses, and Freckles, our Pet Deer

On that overcast spring day, Ronnie and I create names for the various cumulus cloud formations. We see dandelions too, but mostly feel them squish between our toes, as we run “wild” discovering “wonderful” treasures like snakes, arrowheads and old fortresses hidden deep within the woods past the airstrip near the state forest.

“Johnny, look at that huge trout way up there!” Ronnie exclaims. “See it?”

“Yeah, but do you see Freckles?” In this case, Freckles was our pet deer in 1968, and now a popular resident at French Creek Game Farm (later renamed the West Virginia State Wildlife Center) near Buckhannon.

Wherever Ronnie ventures this April day, I try to follow. Sometimes I am successful; other times not so much. After all, he’s my big brother, my hero, my teacher. Ronnie is 11. I am three years younger. So, one rainy evening near dusk, at the Beaver Creek Campground, we dig into the damp soil to collect about two dozen night crawlers, and then drop them in a blue, white and orange Maxwell House coffee can.

The “Wild and Wonderful” Fishin’ Pole

The next day, Ronnie asks “Hey Johnny! Wanna come with me?”

“Yeah, sure. But, what we gonna do?”

Naturally, I am excited to tag along no matter where it is or what we might do. As a matter of fact, it isn’t often that Ronnie invites me to go on one of his journeys throughout the park.

“We’re goin’ fishin’ then! C’mon, let’s go to Laurel Run.” Laurel Run is one of Ronnie’s favorite spots to journey off to by himself and leave me standing at the intersection to either Burr Valley or the park superintendent’s residence.

“Johnny, go git that ole coffee can we had last night. Those are our fishin’ worms. You’re gonna catch a big, ole trout today!” Of course, I ran full steam ahead to our secret hiding place behind the maintenance garage, close to the rustic campground.

To begin this “Wild and Wonderful” rainbow trout fishin’ story, Ronnie and I find two fallen branches from an oak to serve as that day’s fishing poles.

First, Ronnie finds some dirty tennis shoe strings to be our bait lines. Second, he coaxes me into snagging some safety pins from Mom’s sewing box, neatly tucked beside her Singer sewing machine. Third, some aging yellow twine becomes our fishing lines. Fourth, Ronnie ties a knot a few inches from the limb’s base and then winds the string along the four-foot branch to the end of my brand-new fishing apparatus. Finally, he secures a small pebble to the end of the string as a weight. Mom’s safety pins are our hooks.

Learning how to Reel in a “Wild and Wonderful” Rainbow Trout

To begin with, Ronnie shows me how to drop my improvised fishing line into Laurel Run. I hear a subtle splash as the stone and the night crawler enter the sparkling mountain waters. We wait for our lines to sink deeper. Not only does Ronnie help me to move the pole slowly back and forth, but also he teaches me how to bring the rod closer to my body, and then to lift it out of the water.

“Ok, do it again, Johnny. Throw the line back out there in the middle of that hole. You’ll git the hang of it. I know ya will.” And I repeat this several times. After a few minutes, Ronnie asks if there’s been a bite yet.

“No, I don’t think so. How would I know?”

“Oh, you’ll know all right. When a trout that’s bigger than you pulls, you’ll be learnin’ how to swim all the way to the pool and back again!”

So, we wait. And then wait some more. I notice Ronnie looking into the nearby cluster of oak and pine trees. I look too, noticing a few deer cautiously observing us standing in one of their water sources. Naturally, I wonder if Freckles is making new friends at the game farm.

Seeing my First “Wild and Wonderful” Rainbow Trout

Then it happens. I feel a tug at last. Without delay, Ronnie calmly wades over, tells me to firmly hold my pole and to guide it toward me, and finally to lift the catch up and out of the water.

“See it, Johnny? Would ya look at that? Look, it’s beautiful and check out those colors!”

“Oh my gosh, Ronnie. I can’t believe it. I caught a fish! Look, I caught him!”

“Yeah, Johnny, you got one all right. You just caught your very first wild rainbow trout! Way to go! Would you look at that? Talk about a beaut!”

At this point, I continue to admire the “Wild and Wonderful” rainbow trout’s subtle blues and greens. Those hues on its slender body mesmerize me.

“You wanna keep it? It’s up to you.”

To say the least, I am ecstatic to catch my first fish with Ronnie’s help. Even though it isn’t a trophy-sized catch, and most likely a baby, that “Wild and Wonderful” rainbow trout lives to swim another day in the crystal-clear waters of Laurel Run. I never became an expert angler like Ronnie, but whenever I see a rainbow, the array of colors reminds me that fishing for wild rainbow trout is just one of my many colorful “Wild and Wonderful” Watoga adventures.

Ronnie Dean trout fishing at Laurel Run, Watoga State Park, circa 1980 | 📸: John Dean
Ronnie Dean trout fishing at Laurel Run, Watoga State Park, circa 1980 |📸: John Dean

Where Will Your “Wild and Wonderful” Adventure Take Place?

The West Virginia Department of Natural Resources stocks all four types of trout at Watoga Lake (rainbow, golden rainbow, brook, and brown trout) at some point throughout the year. Trout are not stocked at Laurel Run. Visit the DNR website for to decide where you will catch your next “Wild and Wonderful” trophy-sized fish.

Let’s go fishing for wild rainbow trout! It’s sure to be “Wild and Wonderful.”

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. He can be reached at " target="_blank">

The Untold Story of the Black Bear — Part Two

A black bear is hanging by its feet on a 1970s type hoist at a maintenace garage at Watoga State Park near Marlinton, West Virginia. This black bear was shot by a man out of season in the fall of 1971 at Calvin Price State Forest which adjoins Watoga State Park.. Brothers Ronnie and Johnny Dean are crouched on each side of the bear which appears to weigh close to 500 pounds.. Bllood from the bear is dripping into a garage drain next to the brothers' shoes. Photographer: Unknown. Date: Circa 1971.
Brothers Ronnie and Johnny Dean crouched beside a black bear killed at Calvin Price State Forest near Watoga State Park, circa 1971. | Photographer unknown.

Editor’s Note: The Department of Natural Resources advises all state forest and park visitors to NEVER approach wildlife in an attempt to touch it. The Department of Natural Resources protects the state’s wildlife so that all can enjoy their beauty in West Virginia.

The Black Bear’s Blood Drains Near Me

I noticed something bright red on my scuffed Converse tennis shoes. Equally important, the enormity of what loomed above quickly distracted me from the blood on those worn basketball shoes.

When I touched the black bear, its fur felt rough, like a worn dish rag. Looking up, I saw the hoist that held the animal aloft. As a matter of fact, the bear’s blood had emptied into the garage’s drain too.

“Who killed this bear, Dad?” Ronnie asks.

“A hunter.”

My dad was Vernon Dean (1912-2001). Moreover, he also served in various roles for 43 years at Watoga State Park, nestled in the panoramic mountains of Pocahontas County.

The Search for Answers About the Black Bear

Now, almost 50 years later, this is the never-before-published story of the black bear. First, who killed this bear? Second, why? Third, what happened? Fourth, how? Fifth, when did this occur? Sixth, where did this take place?

Recently, I rediscovered a photo of my brother, Ronnie, and I crouched next to this bear. Notice that neither of us is smiling in this photo. Likewise, this image stoked my need to know more – a journalistic skill fine-tuned as a reporter with The Register-Herald in the mid-1980s.

I could remember parts of that day, but I didn’t know the entire story.

“Humans can make mistakes; memories are notoriously faulty and humans are often biased,” Ken Springer wrote in an article detailing the origins of the name Watoga.

Besides not wanting to rely solely on my memory, I made calls, sent emails and spoke to friends and family members who may have remembered what had happened. As a result, I received some leads and helpful information, but not the “end” story. Also, was there even a story to tell here?

Digging deeper, I contacted Suzanne Stewart, staff writer at The Pocahontas Times, in Marlinton. Similarly, a search of the newspaper’s archives from 1970-79 for information about a bear being killed at the park came up empty. In fact, Bill McNeel, local historian and former editor at The Times, also did not recall a story being published about a Watoga bear death.

Undeterred, I kept searching for answers. Together with the memories of Richard and Jerry Dale, further details about the black bear emerge.

The Watoga State Park Superintendent and His Son

In 1971, Richard Dale was superintendent at Watoga and served in that role from 1966-75. Furthermore, Mr. Dale’s son, Jerry, grew up at Watoga during that time. Jerry is a former sheriff of Pocahontas County. In addition to being a therapist for Pocahontas County schools, Jerry teaches psychology and criminal justice courses as well at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia.

Even now, at 94, Mr. Dale is sharp-witted and provides the final clues as to what most likely happened to that gigantic black bear.

The Untold Story of the Black Bear Unfolds

Many hunters camp at Beaver Creek Campground during small game season. Moreover, the 9,400+ acres of nearby Calvin Price State Forest provide hunting enthusiasts easy access to an abundance of squirrels, turkeys, deer, pheasants, and more.

In the early fall of 1971, two men pitch a tent at the rustic campground. Apparently, they begin bragging to other campers about killing a black bear. But, at this time of year, it was not bear season.

During this time, a concerned bystander at the rustic campground hear the man’s account about killing the black bear. Because of concerns that the bear may have been illegally killed, that person promptly reports it to park personnel.

“When we interviewed this guy, he was saying that the bear had attacked him and that’s why he killed it,” Mr. Dale says.

Upon learning of where the bear had been killed, Mr. Dale and a group of four men began the laborious trek to remove the black bear from deep within the adjoining state forest, off a trail at the end of the airstrip. The most likely participants were Mr. Dale, Henry Burr, park employee, Bull Poling, local game warden, and my dad.

The Black Bear — “Quite the Endeavor.”

“It was a huge bear. I am not sure of the exact weight,” Mr. Dale states.

First, a small tree was cut, and the bear’s front and back legs were tied to the ends of the hardwood. Then, with two men on either end, they were able to lift the bear onto their shoulders.

“Well, the first sapling that we cut — it broke because of the weight of the bear. So, we cut another, sturdier one. Getting the bear back to the park was a chore. Quite the endeavor.”

Second, walking a considerable distance, the men carry the bear to the maintenance garage near the assistant superintendent’s residence.

Third, a hoist-type system is used to lift the bear. Jerry Dale remembers that hoist well: “It’s nothing mechanical. Muscle power. Slow moving – a few inches at a time and foot-by-foot going up. You could then lift it up or lower it down. It was strong enough, say, to even lift an engine out of a ’57 Chevy. The hoist was tied to a big wooden beam that went across the garage.”

The Consequences of Killing a Black Bear

Mr. Dale adds: “The man told me he’d always wanted to kill a bear and that he wanted to keep the hide.” Not only is the man fined, but also he pays a replacement fee, Mr. Dale says. Additionally, no one interviewed could recall whether the bear was a boar or a sow, but gambling enthusiasts are placing odds that it was a boar based on the size of the bear in available photographs, most likely weighing in excess of 400 pounds.

“Entrance and exit wounds indicated that the black bear was running away,” Jerry notes. “The entry wound was at the back end of the bear and the exit path was on the bear’s front side. You don’t give anyone an incentive to do anything like this ever again.”

Vernon Dean "posing" with his personal weapon alongside a black bear killed at Calvin Price State Forest near Marlinton, West Virginia, circa 1971 | Photographer unknown.
Vernon Dean “posing” with his personal weapon alongside a black bear killed at Calvin Price State Forest near Watoga State Park, Marlinton, West Virginia, circa 1971 | Photographer unknown.

The End of the Black Bear Story — For Now?

As a result of the unfortunate demise of this bear, I had a “hands-on” education about West Virginia’s state animal prior to the black bear’s official designation in 1973.

Finally, Part Three will be selected creative endings from readers to the untold story of this bear. Tune in.

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. He can be reached at .

Growing Up at Watoga State Park — The Untold Story of the Black Bear

Part One

This is the untold story of the black bear. While it may be true that watching a black bear can be fascinating, seeing one up close and personal is not always a pleasant experience.

Untold Story of the Black bear at Watoga State Park

The Secretive, Shy, Intelligent Black Bear

During that magical summer in 1971, there had been endless bicycle rides to the scenic overlook at T.M. Cheek Memorial and carefree plunges into the mountain-fed waters of the Watoga State Park swimming pool.

Later that fall, I met THE black bear.

To begin with, the deep red leaves on the oak trees were at their peak. Similarly, the smell of fall was in the air.

Consequently, my brother, Ronnie, and I learned about West Virginia’s future state animal – the secretive and shy, but intelligent black bear. However, it wasn’t until 1973 that the black bear became West Virginia’s designated mammal.

My dad, Vernon Dean, worked at the park. We lived near the Beaver Creek Campground. Moreover, our home was just a stone’s throw away. Dad, along with Richard Dale, park superintendent, and his teenage son, Jerry, taught Ronnie and me about this magnificent species.

Additionally, we learned that black bears average between 125 and 550 pounds. They mainly eat acorns, pine nuts, fruits, berries, grasses, and other vegetation. Another key point is the black bear has a lush playground in which to thrive in at Watoga State Park, nearby Calvin Price State Forest and Monongahela National Forest.

As a camper, cabin guest or resident, you may have seen a black bear during a leisurely bike ride, a hike on one of the park’s many trails or even in the backyard of your favorite cabin at Watoga.

Basically, in 1971, bears were not as common as they are today. When you chat with residents of Marlinton, Hillsboro, Seebert or Huntersville, you may hear a vivid tale or two about their encounters with a black bear.

The Untold Story of the Black Bear Begins

“Come here, I wanna show you boys sumthin’,” Dad said. “Maybe you’ll learn a thing or two.”

“What is it, Dad?” I asked.

“You’ll know soon enough. Just come with me. Hurry up, Ronnie and Johnny!”

At this instant, leaving the babbling brook next to our home, Ronnie and I ran excitedly toward the park’s maintenance garage, just below the rustic campground.

“See it, Johnny?”

“No, Dad, what is it?”

“I see it, Dad,” Ronnie said, “and would you look at that? Wow! Oh my gosh!”

“Look at what, Ronnie? What is it?”

“You don’t see it, Johnny? Really?”

“No, not yet. What is it? Where?”

“Come closer, Johnny,” Dad instructed. “And you’ll see.”

I did move closer. Much closer. Amazed, shocked and stunned, I didn’t dare move an inch.

So WHAT just happened?

To conclude, please email me at with your creative finale. To this end, any social media contacts may post on my Facebook page. I will share selected endings in a future blog. Part Two will be the never-before-published story of THE black bear at Watoga State Park.

About the Author

John C. Dean is a graduate of West Virginia University, 1984, BSJ. Additionally, John lived on-site at Watoga for 16 years until his dad, Vernon C., retired after 43 years service with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. He can be reached at .

Writer of The Untold Story of the Black Bear bio pic
John C. Dean embracing the captivating view at T.M. Cheek Memorial overlook, Watoga State Park, October 2012. Photo by Jennifer Pierson.

Growing Up at Watoga State Park—Mom’s Bandannas for Freckles

The Day We Met Freckles

The following is one of my many memorable experience growing up at Watoga State Park.

“Ronnie, Johnny, Vicki,” Dad yelled. “Come with me. I have somethin’ to show ya.”

Of course, we followed. Thus began the story of Mom’s Bandannas for Freckles while I grew up at Watoga.

“Look what I have,” Dad said wryly, pointing to a weathered cardboard box, our eyes shining with excitement, not sure what we were looking at in the bed of the green Chevy park truck.

“Let me pet it,” I said, trying to squeeze between Ronnie and Vicki. We instinctively reached in, simultaneously touching the baby doe.

“What happened, Dad?” Ronnie wanted to know. “Tell us.”

“Well, I had just gone into the park office and a call came in that the deer’s Mom had been killed on a street in town.”

“Can we keep it?” Ronnie wanted to know. “Can we?”

“Yeah, Dad, can we? Pretty please?” I pleaded. Vicki kept petting the spotted fawn as if it were her dog, her blonde hair glistening in the late summer sunlight, her eyes a brilliant blue.

“Of course you kids can. But, we have to find a place to put him ’cause Vadie won’t let ya keep him in the house.”

Vadie and Vern

Devada, or Vadie as she was known by most, did not even weigh 90 pounds soaking wet. Mom’s short jet black hair accented her expressive brown eyes. Her small facial features gave her a serious look most of the time, but when she smiled or laughed, she became the beauty that Vern had met from Lobelia, about 10 miles from the park. Mom and Dad were married March 7, 1937.

Most of the time, Mom’s biggest concerns were to make sure the gardens at Ma’s and Pap’s (my grandparents) nearby farm produced enough food to make it through the sometimes brutal winters and that we had school clothes to wear come fall.

Dad’s salt and pepper hair complimented his black plastic-framed glasses that seemed to always slip down his suntanned nose. His friends called him Vern or Vernon.

How Freckles Got His Name and Where He Lived

When it was time to name the fawn, my sister, Della, chose to honor Robert F. Kennedy and his beloved English springer spaniel, Freckles. Bobby, the former U.S. Attorney General, U.S. senator from New York and President John F. Kennedy’s brother, was Della’s teenage heartthrob. It was late summer 1967, less than a year before RFK would be assassinated in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968 by Sirhan Sirhan.

Growing up at Watoga State Park, Freckles lived in the park’s barracks, a long, brown-sided fortress, about 50 yards or so from our home, nestled along a pine-tree laden lane bordered by a small mountain stream. Freckles’ new home was built in the early 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

My grandfather, Alfred G. (“Pap”) Dean, was a part of Watoga’s infancy, assisting in the construction of stone retaining walls along the Island Lick cabin area, and near the Fred E. Brooks Memorial Arboretum, as well as other construction projects throughout the park such as the barracks.

That building near then-Cabin 19 housed equipment, lumber and tools, but we made room for Freckles’ quarters.

Growing Up with a Pet Deer

Before Freckles could walk, Mom warmed baby bottles of milk, and we would take Freckles his daily nourishment. Freckles became accustomed to drinking from the glass bottle, nipple intact. Mom would sometimes walk with us to check on Freckles. She made sure to hold onto my youngest sister’s delicate hand.

While growing up at Watoga, my family kept a deer rescued by my dad. Pictured, circa 1967 (L-R): My younger sister, Vicki Lynn, my dad and my brother-in-law, Mickey. Photographer unknown.
While growing up at Watoga, my family kept a deer rescued by my dad. Pictured (L-R): My younger sister, Vicki Lynn, my Dad and my brother-in-law, Mickey. Photographer unknown; circa 1967.

Freckles became the Dean family’s center of attention in the weeks before he could walk. He was our “baby,” and we checked on him several times a day to make sure he had enough to eat and that his box was free of droppings. All hide-and-seek games ceased when we needed a “Freckles” break.

Even when Freckles was asleep, Ronnie, Vicki and I would go to see him. Obviously, this deer fascinated us — his big brown eyes, the white spots strategically placed on his tan coat, and the black hooves on his feet, to mention a few.

Freckles’ new backyard encompassed 35,000 acres, but he was only safe on the 10,100 acres that encompassed Watoga State Park. A sprawling state forest, aptly named for a local newspaper publisher and national conservationist, Calvin Price, bordered the state’s largest park. It was accessible to deer hunters and not far from our park residence. So, Mom knew the time may come when her children may have to deal with the untold tragedy of Freckles becoming dinner for a hungry family.

Our New Best Friend

The day when Freckles was able to walk, we led him to the back door of the house closest to Beaver Creek Campground. Meanwhile, we knew Mom would hear our chatter outside the open kitchen window. Mom’s African violets adorned the weathered sill that picture-perfect fall day with yellow, blue, purple and pink blooms.

“Mom, Mom, Mom,” we chanted in excited unison, knowing she would come outside immediately to make sure we had not been hurt.

“Watch this, Mom,” Ronnie said. Ronnie started walking toward Mom to show her how Freckles would follow us anywhere we wanted. After all, we had just become best friends with a fawn. Such was life growing up at Watoga State Park.

Mom watched for a couple of minutes.

“Wait here. I’ll be right back,” Mom said.

We waited impatiently, fidgeting in anticipation, not knowing what Mom was doing or when she would reappear. Freckles stood nearby, trying out his new legs a step here and a step there, but always staying within a few feet of us.

“Look what I have,” Mom said softly, immediately redirecting our attention away from Freckles.

Bandannas Forever

Mom’s small left hand closed tightly around something blue. We were unable to see what remained inside. Her fingers bore signs of using a hoe in Pap’s many gardens on the 211-acre farm that bordered the state park. Years of scrubbing clothes on a Columbus-made Dubl Handi washboard didn’t help either. Surprisingly, Mom’s tiny digits opened to reveal the blue material, white dots scattered throughout. I did not know what it was, but knew that it had a meaning and purpose.

As Mom exposed more of the square cloth, she reached toward Freckles’ neck and touched his pale tan coat ever so gently. Freckles didn’t move. Mom, dressed in a high-collared solid white dress, reached around the fawn’s neck. When Freckles turned back around, he proudly sported an almost-new navy blue and white bandanna, so perfectly tied around his newborn neck.

“Now,” Mom continued, “Freckles will be safe. Everyone will know Freckles is your deer because of this bandanna. I think I have a red one like this somewhere in the house and we’ll change it every week.”

Mom made sure that Freckles always wore his bandanna. We always retrieved the week’s worn one so that it could be washed. The bandanna stayed tied around Freckles’ neck so others would know he was tame while we were growing up at Watoga State Park.

Happily Ever After

Throughout that fall, winter and the next spring, we would call Freckles’ name and he would come running to us, just like a puppy dog, letting us pet or hug him warmly. I even gave Freckles a kiss a few times. We could whistle for him and he’d come striding out of the nearby strand of trees to shower us with attention. Campers and cabin guests would stop to see Freckles, often taking photos of him with their children.

A year after entering the Dean home and our hearts forever, Freckles found a permanent and safe playground where he lived “happily ever after” at the French Creek Game Farm near Buchannon, West Virginia.

All these years later, Mom is now Freckles’ caretaker in Heaven. Here’s to Mom, Freckles and many multicolored bandannas!

My mother taught us how to feed Freckles from a baby bottle while growing up at Watoga. Circa 1967. Photographer unknown.
My Mom taught us how to feed Freckles from a baby bottle while growing up at Watoga. Photographer unknown; circa 1967.

About the Author

John C. Dean lived at Watoga for 16 years until his Dad, Vernon C., retired after 43 years of service with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. John is a former journalist. Currently, he is a freelance editor and writer. John can be reached at .

Watoga Update November 4, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dirt Bean To Move One Block Over

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

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

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

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

Ken Springer

Tales From a Watoga Naturalist

Jim Meads, Professor Emeritus, Glenville State College, was Park Naturalist at Watoga in 1967 and 1968. Here are Jim’s stories from his time at Watoga.


Judy and I have been married 52 years this July, 2019. Watoga State Park is such a special place for us. We started our wonderful life together here. In June of 1967, I was hired as a seasonal naturalist for Watoga. I was going into my Senior year in the fall at Glenville State College majoring in Biology and Chemistry. Richard Dale (wife Verna) was the Superintendent and Dale Crouser (wife Gwen) was the Assistant Superintendent. Their kindness will never be forgotten. The precusors to Tales from a Watoga Naturalist.

We were married in Parkersburg on July 2, 1967. My lovely wife was a city gal with not much experience in the world of nature. She never had an indoor pet except for a goldfish. Our plan was to leave for Watoga after our wedding in Parkersburg hauling a small Scottie trailer behind. I should tell you that in the trailer was a poodle given to us as a wedding present. No, never buy a pet for someone else. I also had an injured red tailed hawk, a bag of snakes, and an assortment of amphibians. Our plan was to live in the trailer at the Beaver Creek Campground.

Hawk Head

I need to stop here and explain the injured red tail hawk. He was discovered before our wedding on the road going from Seebert. We named the hawk, Garth, and Garth took up residence in the trees at our Beaver Creek Campground location. I fed him bluegill. If I wore my green park uniform, I could call his name and he would fly down and perch on my head. I had a scabby scalp that summer. Garth got into trouble when a camper was grilling hamburgers. Garth eyed the juicy meat, swooped down, and flew away with his catch.

I then moved him to the lake by the Administration building to keep him out of trouble. He was always a welcome addition to my nature lectures by the lake. When I called his name he would appear, land on my head, and amaze the park visitors. I had to laugh when one day a fisherman appeared in the office complaining that “the damn eagle had swooped down and grabbed the bass he had just hooked”. I knew it was no eagle but just an opportunistic red tailed hawk. Good ending to this story. Garth found a bride and I am hoping many Garth descendants are around Watoga.

As we entered the park through Seebert, along Island Lick Run, the rhododendrons were in full bloom. Judy told me later that, as we traveled the road toward the Administration Building, she was wondering if she could ever find her way out of that vast wilderness.


We setup our camper beside the Beaver Creek Campground’s bath house and lived there for a couple of weeks. Mr. Dale realized our accommodations were a little cramped and asked if we would like to move to a large room over the restaurant in the Administration Building, which was built in the mid 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corp. Most of the logs and lumber used in the construction was salvaged from blight-killed American Chestnut. Judy was excited to live in the large room with a bathroom on the side.

Mr. Dale gave us access to the storage shed and we found an electric hot plate and a table. We were now ready to live in our new abode. Judy was a trooper. She adapted to the camel crickets that shared our shower. Only two appliances could be used at a time, she realized. Otherwise we would pop the breakers losing power not only to our room but the restaurant beneath us. We did have the luxury of an electric skillet, crock pot, and coffee pot.

Cricket Tales from a Watoga Naturalist.

I loved it when we first moved in to the room and Judy heard tiny squeaks coming from the windows. She said that it is so nice to hear the chirping of baby birds. It was not until we were leaving for the summer that I confessed that those bird sounds were actually bats resting in the cracks of the windows.

I had such a wonderful experience working as naturalist at the Park. I would help with Monday check-ins of cabin guests. We would always plan a marshmallow roast up by the Recreation Hall each week. I learned early on the horrors of flying burning marshmallows launched by the kids of cabin guests. The Rec Hall is where we would show a 16 mm Disney nature classic. Who can forget “Bear Country” or “Squeak the Squirrel”? Tales from a Watoga Naturalist.

Usually after cabin check-ins we would have one cabin complain about finding bats in the cabin. There was no way they were going to believe that this was part of the park experience. I would don my superman suit (green park attire) and arrive at their cabin with a large container of bat repellent spray. Actually it was plain ole water and I would liberally spray the rafters. It worked almost 100% of the time. Plain water equals no bats.

Field Trip Tales from a Watoga Naturalist.

I would schedule motor field trips to Cranberry Glades. Oh, the memories of leading a tour to Big Glade and getting my direction confused in the alder thickets. There was a memorable time where we had several Mennonite ladies hiking through the sphagnum bogs. With their long dresses and buckle shoes, a person would think that it would make the trek difficult. They hiked better than I did. We scheduled trips to Bear Town before it officially became a state park. This unique natural area was finally purchased in 1970 with funds from the Nature Conservancy and a donation from Edwin G. Polan.

I shared Watoga’s unique animal and plant life with Park guests. I collected beautiful Timber Rattlesnakes from an old wood pile located at the end of the old airport runway at Beaver Creek. They were beautiful reptiles indeed. Tales from a Watoga Naturalist.

We always had a botany hike along the trail by the lake. As I was pretty good at plant identification, I learned a technique to use if one of the plants stumped me. “ I am not certain of the proper name of that plant but the locals call it….”. and would make up an Appalachian sounding name. However, that identification technique could not be used more than twice during one field trip! As I was diligently working, my good wife and Gwen Crouser would walk to Watoga Lake and put two reclining lounges in a row boat so they could sun bathe. A beaver tail slap beside the boat often greeted them.

Pre-Riverside Campground Tales from a Watoga Naturalist.

It was such an exciting time for us. Before the construction of Riverside, newest campground, we parked at Cabin Three, a great large cabin that tragically burned. We would hike along the Greenbrier River and enjoy the wonders that we encountered. I recall one evening that we packed our supper. We hauled a coffee pot and large container of water to a waterfall. Sadly, after transporting the heavy items, we discovered we had forgotten the coffee! Tales from a Watoga Naturalist.

It was on this trip that my good city wife had a scary experience. Going around a wet area in the path, she decided to take a detour. She stepped on a pile of limbs and quickly realized she had fallen into a beaver’s lodge up to her hips. Judy thought that the beavers would chew her legs off. I pulled her out and explained that beavers were herbivores and she had nothing to worry about.

Watoga memories continue to be a part of the fabric of our lives -from a night search for a lost cabin guest on Honeymoon Trail to collecting ancient coral fossils at nearby Calvin Price State Forest. As we get older, we realize the importance of life stories and feel so blessed to have Watoga as an amazing part of our story.

Jim Meads, Glenville State College Professor Emeritus of Biology

Jack Horners’s Corner

For the last 21 years visitors to Watoga State Park have driven by Jack Horner’s Corner as they make their way through the village of Seebert, the gateway to the park and a major trailhead on the Greenbrier River Trail. Longtime visitors have observed the steady growth of the building and parking areas; the old building removed, decks added for dining with a view of the river and bike path. Horner’s Corner is strikingly colorful with stacks of kayaks, floatation devices and bicycles.

Stewart & Chissie Horner proprietors of Jack Horner's Corner Seebert, WVStewart and Chrissie are at the helm of this growth, anticipating the needs of the community and the thousands of visitors who stop by every season, which for Horner’s corner is sometime in April until November. This large, well designed building houses a pizza and sub parlor, a huge array of souvenirs touting Watoga State Park and the Greenbrier River Trail as well as basic groceries and drinks.

Kayak Rental and more…

You can stop in to rent a kayak for a river trip on the Greenbrier River and arrange a shuttle. The same service is offered for those wishing to ride a bike on the 80 mile Greenbrier River Trail.

Their ice cream cones have become legendary; I have never been in there in the summer months without a queue waiting for a cool treat. One chap who wanted to remain anonymous told me he cannot go past the place without getting an ice cream cone. OK you have twisted my arm; it is Mac Gray. Mac lives just a few doors down so that amounts to a heck of a lot of ice cream. Sorry Mac, I am terrible at keeping my sources confidential.

Memories of Horseback Riding at Watoga State Park

Some of you generously shared your recollections of riding the trail at Watoga State Park.  Others also shared information about who ran the operation and some ideas about its demise.  Memories of Horseback Riding at Watoga State Park

I am told the riding operation was run by Stuart Horner’s father.  Stuart and his wife Kristy currently run the iconic Horner’s Corner, a familiar sight to visitors as they pass through the village of Seebert en-route to Watoga.

It has also been confirmed that the high cost of liability insurance finally brought this popular activity to a close. The horse trails have been resurrected as the Busch Settlement and The Bonnie Trails and are now serving the public as wonderful hiking trails.

Well, we still have our memories of things that are no more, and here are yours.

Memories of Horseback Riding at Watoga State Park

“I remember the horseback riding very fondly!  Went a few times when I was little during one of our Spencer Family Reunions.  It was a real treat back then. We often would also just go over to visit the horses at the fence line if we were walking the trail between there and the Rec Center. We were so so sad when the horses left but happy to have the memories” Krin Goodwin Hupp

“I remember going to my Grandmas house in the summer when school was out and went swimming and horseback riding. Always like doing that with Grandma Burr. My uncle buck (Henry), his son Dewey and my Cousin Mike Pyne all work there and Dewey still does” Thomas Purdy

A Newly Wed’s Story

“ I do have a Watoga horseback riding story. My husband and I spent our week long honeymoon in a cabin at Watoga. I am the “horse person” between us two, but talked him into doing the “one hour” trail ride one day. A couple days later, I wanted to go again, but he wasn’t quite as interested. When we got to the stables, we were still discussing it, and the 2 men that worked the stables then overheard us. They knew from our first ride that I was an experienced rider, and said that they hadn’t been on the “two hour” trail yet that early in the year (it was May) and if I wanted to go, they’d charge me less, since some clearing of the trail, or going around downed trees might be involved.

My husband saw I wanted to do it, and gracefully let me know he’d be fine with it, but he didn’t want to go. So, on my honeymoon, I went on a 2+ hour trail ride, just me and the 2 “stable hands”. I should have known I’d never live it down, as it turned out, I got pregnant on our honeymoon, and my husband joked that our firstborn son belonged to a stable hand! He blamed the other 2 on the mailman and the UPS driver…but he can’t deny a single one of them, as they all 3 look like him, But I did enjoy the trail ride! And miss horseback riding being available like it used to be, but as a horse owner myself now, I understand the difficulties” Sheila Murphy Weakley

More Memories of Horseback Riding at Watoga State Park

“I still remember my favorite horse to ride back then. His name was Blaze! What fun it was back then.” Meg Goodwin Berger
“In the 1950’s horseback riding was very popular. The first summer (1956) I worked at Watoga there was a very bad accident. A couple on their honeymoon was riding and the horse the man was spooked by a snake and threw the man. The fall broke his back, we never heard if he was able to walk again.

One night a week there was square dancing in the upstairs with a live band and on other nights we had a jukebox and cabin guests came up and we danced. I believe the reason horses are not there now is because the insurance is so expensive. Lost River still has horseback riding. Had some good times in that barn. After the guests left for the evening the help learned how to trip the jukebox and danced later”. Charlotte McKeever Emswiler

“I believe the horseback riding stopped due to continued budget cuts. In the end, the state was contracting with individuals and their horses and it was just too costly. As far as the trail name, I think your name sounds much fancier than plain old “Possum” Trail”. Lisa Miller Rich