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A Bathtub of Stars

Our first trip to the River Mountain site was in late January 2019. It was the perfect winter day in the mountains -- beautiful blue skies and fresh snow on the ground. I don’t remember our group’s exact, initial reaction as we drove down the gravel driveway, but I do remember we all collectively muttered something to the effect of “oh man” and “wooow”. I couldn’t get out of the car fast enough. We had found our retreat site.

River Mountain is nestled deep in a valley between two towering ridge lines divided by picturesque meadows and a large creek. I had been to the Smoky Mountains with my Dad, camping and fishing many times growing up, but I had never seen Appalachian Mountains like this.

At that time of year, a spring-fed wetland, sitting below what we now call “Main Campus,” was an oasis of green in a sea of white, with a simple black willow rising in the middle. The former owner of the property, Kurt Bonello, a stone mason, artist, steward of the land, and a great guy, turned to us from his “special spot” where he had spent many days and nights and said plainly, “This place has a great energy.'' I knew exactly what he meant.

Before we entered any building on the property -- the 1807 log cabin, the Menonnite-constructed 1860s barn, the farmhouse, the pole barn -- Kurt asked us if we wanted to take a hike around the property. Meg, Brandon, and I eagerly agreed. For the next 2 hours, we walked through 12 inches of fresh snow, jumped creeks, hiked up a ridgeline, investigated old growth trees, and ended our tour walking around the pristine wetland area. It was our first time experiencing the land like our young guests will in coming months and years.

I’ll always be grateful to Kurt and Christi Bonello for introducing us to the wonderful peacefulness, nature, and history of the ridges and valleys in this beautiful part of the world. 

Fast forward a few months to our first overnight stay at the property, and we’re sitting around our campfire, under the high branches of a walnut tree. I don’t remember why we decided to leave the fire and take a mule ride to the far pasture, but we did. When we got to the very middle, Brandon turned off the mule -- we were surrounded by tall ridges to the east and west of us, and dark, old-growth woods to the north and south. And then we looked up. “We’re in a bathtub of a billion stars”, I said to my partners who were in mutual awe. We were seeing the Milky Way -- an incomprehensible number of stars. These are the moments that are so important for young people to experience -- to put one’s self in the context of the natural world.

Our love of this land has connected us with some remarkable experts -- including Kevin Caldwell, a conservation biologist from Mountains-to-Sea Ecological and a fantastic person. Kevin came to River Mountain this spring to do an ecological inventory -- which has been a wonderful guide for our team, giving us direction for enhancement and preservation of the land. He has helped us realize environmental education opportunities for young people -- particularly related to Sweet Root Creek and its importance in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

What follows is excerpted from his report that some of you may enjoy.

Our hope at River Mountain is that every young person visiting our retreat will walk away having had a FUN time here --  but also with a deep desire to experience wild places more often. 

Hope to see you in Black Valley soon!


Ecological Inventory: River Mountain - Sweet Root Creek


On May 25-26, 2019, ecological inventories were conducted on the ~145-acre River Mountain property in south-central Bedford County along Sweet Root Creek, north of Chaneysville, PA. The property is an exceptional conservation target with its mosaic of natural resources. The following summary highlights major findings in regard to conservation, with more details related to River Mountain’s education mission to follow. Note that scientific names used only referenced for rare species for ease of reading.

The inventory focused on identification all plant and wildlife species and habitats detectable within a 2-day inventory. Rare species and habitats, as listed by Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program (PNHP, 2019), as well as high quality common natural communities, breeding bird species, water resources were primary inventory targets. Management recommendations are included in Section III, noting a detailed management plan would be an additional project beyond the scope of inventory. 


The River Mountain property is a diverse mixture of native, forest communities (~76 acres), early successional areas (~65 acres), and various and diverse wetlands (~2 acres, overlapping). Wetlands include ~1.7 miles of perennial streams, seeps, wet-meadows, and small farm-pond. The main channel of Sweet Root Creek comprises 46% (4,025 linear feet) of all perennial streams onsite. 

A total of 194 plant and wildlife species were observed including 135 plant and 59 wildlife species. 

Six native forest & wetland communities detected onsite include Sycamore-Mixed Hardwood Floodplain Forest, Mixed Mesophytic Forest, Dry Oak / Mixed Hardwoods, Dry Oak-Heath Forest, Mixed Forb-Graminoid Wet Meadow, and Golden-Saxifrage/Bittercress Seep (an S2 state “imperiled” seep community). Successional habitats include managed hayfields, bottomland meadows (formerly grazed), and hedgerows. 

The majority of forests onsite are excellent (A-quality; 10.5 acres) to very good or good (B/BC-quality, 65 acres) as mature, intact forests. Threats to these forests are primarily extensive deer over-browse and exotic invasive (EI) plant invasion in floodplain & riparian areas, and hedgerows which appears to preclude tree, shrub, and some herb regeneration. Hayfields, bottomland meadow, and hedgerows are not ranked (“NA”) though they are still high-quality habitat for open-area species, particularly birds, small mammals, and their predators.

Eight PNPC rare-list plant and wildlife species occur, including five plant and two wildlife species, as designated by the PA Division of Conservation & Natural Resources (DCNR) and PA Biological Survey (PBS). 

A total of 45 breeding bird species were detected including PNHP-listed great blue heron (foraging habitat only; no rookeries occur onsite) and eastern whip-poor-will. An assessment of Partners-in-Flight, Appalachian Joint Ventures, and other federal and NGO program conservation designations for bird species is forthcoming. 

Other wildlife typical species include white-tailed deer, black bear (scat and track), American beaver (fresh chew), raccoon, gray squirrel, and eastern coyote. Amphibians and reptiles include the PNHP listed box turtle, gray tree-frog, American toad, green frog, spring peeper, bullfrog, and what may be the rare ornate tree frog detected audibly, but not observed. 

II.A. PNHP Rare Species 

Eight PNHP Rare Species were detected on-site, including five plant and three wildlife species (Table 1). Many other rare plant and wildlife species likely occur on the property. Species are listed from plant to wildlife and then alphabetically by scientific name. 

Table 1: Rare Plant & Wildlife Species, River Mountain 2019.

Common Name  Scientific Name
Purple Bedstraw Galium latifolium
American Ginseng Panax quinquefolius
Virginia Rose Rosa virginiana
Lettuce Saxifrage Saxifraga micranthidifolia
Thick-leaved Meadow-rue         Thalictrum coriaceum
Eastern Whip-poor-will Antrostomus vociferus    
Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias
Eastern Box Turtle Terrapene carolina carolina

Becca G – Faces of River Mountain

By Meghan | April 1, 2020

Meet Becca Gurney, Founder of Design Choice, a boutique graphic design studio in Washington, DC. Becca and her team work with progressive clients to make the world a better place, by encouraging entrepreneurial endeavors, advancing social justice and women’s causes, and supporting women in leadership positions. She’s also the creative genius behind our print designs and an absolutely awesome human.

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National Day of Unplugging

By Meghan | March 5, 2020

Tomorrow is National Day of Unplugging. Take time to unplug from your phone and reconnect with each other and the world around you at River Mountain Digital Wellness Retreat!

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Field Trips at River Mountain

By Ryan | February 11, 2020

River Mountain’s school programs teach screen time management and digital citizenship to help students flourish in school and at home.

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The Benefits of Camp

By Ryan | February 6, 2020

There’s a lot of great research about the benefits of camp experiences for young people. Over the past 12 months, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting several of those researchers, including our own team member Pete Allison from Penn State, and I’m grateful for their work establishing a greater understanding of camps’ impacts on child development.

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Restorative Vision – Nature and Wellness Retreat Design

By Meghan | February 3, 2020

Every element of River Mountain Retreat is intentionally designed to add to the restorative experience of our guests. One key aspect of this is in the design of our cabins and wellness retreat facilities.

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Summer Camp near Washington D.C., Yet a World Away

By Ryan | January 17, 2020

Conveniently near Arlington County, Montgomery County, and Fairfax County families, River Mountain summer camps are ideal for DC parents’ busy schedules.

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Best Summer Camp for Active Pittsburgh Kids

By Ryan | January 9, 2020

Only 2 hours away from the Steel City and featuring all the outdoor activities that kids love, River Mountain is the best summer camp for active Pittsburgh kids.

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A Decade of Technology

By Meghan | December 31, 2019

Looking back on the past decade of technology – rapid developments, rapid adoption and rapid optimization. It all happened so fast.

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Reconnecting Over the Holidays

By Meghan | December 20, 2019

As a parent, the holidays are hectic. Parties, presents, and of course, the kids being off from school. With all of the running the season brings, it’s easy to forget that this is a time of year where we can pause, exhale, and find joy in what surrounds us.

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The Benefits (and Accessibility) of Nature

By Ryan | November 23, 2019

A lot has been written in recent years about the “benefits of nature” — fantastic books like Florence Williams’ The Nature Fix and ground breaking research like the work being done by Utah professor David Strayer.

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