He has spent his professional and personal life leaping from one challenge to another.
Now, in his retirement years, Ken Springer has leapt into another exciting chapter – this time, in Pocahontas County.
Equally at home talking quantum physics, underwater body recoveries and mountain climbing techniques, Springer is the very definition of a Renaissance man.
This is a man – part thrill-seeker and part philosopher – who transitions with ease from explaining how quantum physics has proven that “time is an illusion” to recounting hair-raising, international, outdoor adventures.
Originally from Ohio, Springer first came to this part of the world in 1999 when he built a cabin beside Summersville Lake.
In the fall of 2012, he came through Pocahontas County on a motorcycle trip, spent a few days camping in Watoga State Park – and fell in love.
“I camped that week in Watoga,” Springer said, “and that was it. I knew I wanted to live here.”
“It is so beautiful.
“But it’s not just the natural beauty, it’s also the people – and the spirit of community.
‘The people of Pocahontas County really love it here, and they really care about their community.
“You don’t find that tight knit community spirit just everywhere,” he adds.
Springer started looking for land and ended up buying property behind Watoga State Park in Watoga Crossing.
He and his contractor built a house with lots of glass walls, offering a view of the park.
“Although I’ve lived in apartments, and once owned a haunted Victorian house, I’ve often lived in little cabins in the woods,” Springer said.
And he’s always loved outdoor work and adventuring.
You could say that Springer has made a living out of what a lot of us would call “risky occupations.”
And you could also say that Springer got, what a lot of people would call, “a rough start in life.”
Some people might have held onto that as an excuse for not doing much with one’s life – but not Springer.
He grew up in Ohio in foster homes, after his mother died when he was six years old.
Some foster homes were good, some not so much.
He’s been on his own since he was 16.
“I’ve always been open to new experiences,” he said.
“Someone told me a long time ago: ‘don’t try to avoid difficult experiences, and be open to all kinds of experiences.’ And I have tried to follow that advice.”
Right out of high school, Springer took on an informal job doing surveying work, then put himself through night school at Ohio University while he was working as a surveyor for the U.S. Department of Natural Resources.
After the surveying job, he became a district park ranger. He did that for three and a half years in Southwest Ohio at Rocky Fork State Park and Paint Creek State Park, while taking classes in criminal investigation and law enforcement.
In the 1970s, he was asked to join a newly formed group in the DNR called the “Division of Watercraft” which was formed to address the ever-increasing incidence of drownings on public and private lands, a phenomenon somewhat attributed to the popularity of the movie, “Deliverance,” Springer said.
He, along with about two dozen other DNR “peace officers” were in charge of enforcement of boating laws and education.
He took intensive training from 1973 to 1981, including a stint at the BOSDETT School, the U.S. Coast Guard School in Yorktown, Virginia.
His title was Investigator.
He was taught to operate every type of watercraft, from large yachts to jet skis.
Springer studied OSHA protocols on how work in extremely cold and extremely hot climates affects the human body and took a lot of pre-med courses in cold water immersion and hypothermia.
Besides being a park ranger and criminal investigator for the DNR, Springer’s specialized watercraft and diving training brought him a certain amount of fame in the area of underwater recovery.
He “recovered” everything from stolen bicycles to discarded guns and dead bodies.
But his passion was mountain climbing.
That passion has taken him around the world.
Springer has mountain climbed, ice climbed and rock climbed in the Grand Tetons – on the border of Wyoming and Idaho – as well as in Canada, Alaska, China and South America.
“But I think we have some of the best climbing in the world right here in the U.S.,” he said.
He’s also a kayaking, open canoeing and wilderness canoeing expert, having paddled on many North American rivers, including the Gauley and the New, and many Western and Canadian rivers.
And he’s a diver. Besides recovery diving in lakes, rivers and farm ponds, he’s enjoyed recreational diving and spear fishing in Hawaii, Florida, South America and Mexico.
Altogether, Springer spent 31 years in government service.
While still living in Columbus, Ohio, he began using his search and recovery skills privately – to find missing persons.
He has travelled across the country from one coast to the other and lived in Hawaii and Alaska.
He studied Mandarin Chinese.
In fact, his study of the Chinese language was his ticket into China.
He was once hired to find the long-lost daughter of a woman from China who had been separated from her little girl during a chaotic incident while people were fleeing the communist takeover in 1949.
He was allowed to travel to China in his capacity as a language student studying at the Beijing Language Institute.
He finally found the missing daughter, and mother and daughter were briefly reunited.
And, just as a bit of fun, he free-climbed the Great Wall of China and then rappelled back down. Yes, it was very illegal and risky. He just narrowly missed being apprehended by Chinese guards on the Wall – but that didn’t stop him.
Taking risks seems to come naturally to Springer.
Besides the many athletic and daring accomplishments required to advance in his professional life, Springer was also pursuing his love of the outdoors by mountain climbing, ice climbing, kayaking, cross country skiing, surfing, diving, driving motorcycles and flying a 172 Cessna.
But he would disagree with anyone who might say that he has a death wish.
“No, I absolutely love life,” he said. “I fully embrace everything about life.
“I take calculated risks. Climbing is kind of like a dance on rocks. It doesn’t take brute strength, it just takes a lot of practice.”
He’s mountain climbed all over the world, and can tell endless exciting climbing stories.
Some of his most harrowing close calls took place while climbing in the Grand Tetons in Wyoming and Seneca Rocks in Pendleton County.
“One time, on a hard climb in the Tetons, we were bivouacked with a view 2,000 feet straight down, sleeping overnight on a ledge about a foot wide, and our team has already had a hard time – one climber had a broken foot,” Springer recalls.
“Well, all of a sudden, we saw St. Elmo’s Fire.
“It was crazy. It looked like electricity that had a mind of its own.
“It came up the rock wall of the mountain where we were camped and jumped around on the metal tools and stakes.”
He’s had a few close calls.
“I’ve taken some bad falls,” he said. “Once I fell seventy-five feet onto a ledge at Seneca Rocks. It was just lucky that the ledge was there and I wasn’t killed.”
And he survived an avalanche in Alaska while he was mountain climbing there.
He taught climbing in the New River Gorge and did body recovery and underwater recoveries there.
And he’s always been interested in people.
He loves meeting people.
He once spent a week with a Navajo family and wrote about it.
He’s done all kinds of jobs for the experience of meeting the people who work them.
He once took a job with America West Airlines as a baggage handler, even cleaning restrooms, because he wanted to experience life as one of the invisible people who so often go unnoticed in life.
“When you get to talking with people, even “invisible people,” they often have extraordinary stories to tell,” Springer explains.
And Springer has hundreds of fascinating stories to tell himself.
There’s definitely a book there.
He’s written scientific articles and has been keeping journals all his life, so one could imagine there’s no end of adventures he could recount in his interesting writing style.
Springer writes like he talks. He paints pictures with words.
And he’s started sharing his Watoga Trail Report with The Pocahontas Times.
His way with words will make you feel as though you’ve been out there with him on the trails at Watoga.
In February 2011, Springer retired from professional life for good and has been “working for free” ever since.
His original retirement plan was to be a bush pilot, but, fortunately for us, he decided to put down roots here in Pocahontas County.
Springer has taken up the cause of clearing trails in Watoga State Park the past few years.
And he runs.
“Every morning for the last 48 years – well, almost every morning, I get up and go running,” he said.
“Living so near the park, I started running the trails in Watoga, and I saw what needed to be done.
“Mark Wylie was supervisor when I started there, so I asked him if I could clean up the trails.
“I had a small handsaw, and I went to work.”
Wylie suggested that Springer adopt a trail, so he adopted Bear Pen Loop.
“In 2015, the Watoga Foundation was formed, and I joined,” Springer said.
“Jody Spencer was named superintendent, and he started talking about how to bring more people to the park. It’s been a wonderful group, and we’re getting a lot done for the park.
“And we’re taking care of the trails with volunteers.”
His running and trail-clearing partners are two West Highland White terriers – Bongo, the lead dog, and Daisy, the tailgunner.
Springer has always been partial to “Westies.” He’s adopted six or seven of them over the years.
Philosophy and running must make a good combination.
“I think while I’m running,” he said. “I take a notebook and a camera with me.
“In fact, I write my Watoga Trail Report right from the notes that I take during my runs along the trails.”
“I came here for the natural beauty. But I also found an extraordinary community spirit here.
“The first organization I got involved with was the Hillsboro Friends of the Library. They’re a fundraising organization which meets every month.”
He has also joined the Humane Society of Pocahontas County.
“Pocahontas County is a lot like that old TV series, Northern Exposure,” he said. “Quirky, but fascinating people.
“It’s been great getting to know people here. Often you’ll find they have such varied backgrounds, and they really love their community.”
Among his current projects is the repair and restoration of the Workman cabin in Watoga.
And he’s been learning more about the old stone house behind his property.
“I learned that it belonged to Vernie Lee Bolden, who came to Pocahontas County sometime in the 1920s. He built the cabin, and it’s really beautiful.
“Bolden could make everything for himself – from his clothes to Greyhound bread.”
Springer certainly has led an exciting life.
“But now it’s time to give back,” he said.
Staying in shape mentally and physically is important to Springer. He does pilates, yoga and is serious about his meditation.
Springer and fellow outdoor enthusiast and friend, Jim Bullard, have a bucket list.
Springer used to be the climbing guide, but he’s decided that, to be on the safe side, this summer, when he and Bullard climb Seneca Rocks, they’ll go with another climbing guide.
With a guide or not, it’s no small feat, as neither man is exactly young – okay, they’re young at heart, but they’re definitely not young.
But now, instead of planning high altitude adventures, Springer likes to take what he calls “food trips.”
He recently took a tamale tour through the Southwest and is looking forward to a chile relleno tour. After that he’s planning a hunt for the “best piece of pie in the country.”
For that, he can stay right here Pocahontas County.
And I think that is his plan.
“This is the last stop for me,” Springer said, “unless I get into something else.”