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Sanctuary in woods a home to wilderness nature center

January 22, 2007|by DAVE McMILLION

CHARLES TOWN, W.VA. - Carol Robbins and her daughter, Angela Case, are walking along a trail deep in the Blue Ridge Mountain when they reach their destination: a big treehouse.

The two go up a spiral staircase to the top of the structure while waiting for a reporter who is tagging along.

"Isn't this neat?" asked Robbins, as the view behind her stretched across blue-colored mountain ranges.

It's where the Friends Wilderness Center has established its home, back so far in the woods that hardly a sign of man can be seen or heard. The group likes it that way.

The Friends Wilderness Center is a place where individuals or groups can go to escape the hustle of everyday life and enjoy nature and spiritual growth.

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Friends Wilderness Center, off Mission Road in the southeastern corner of Jefferson County, is based on the belief of Quakers, a religious group that started in England in the 17th century.

Quakers were not satisfied with existing denominations, and their organization had little structure and no creeds, according to research.

Various branches had different beliefs, but central to the concept of Quakers was often the "Inner Light" or "that of God within."

But you don't have to be a Quaker to enjoy Friends Wilderness Center, said Robbins, a member of the group's board of directors.

The center is open to anyone, and groups or individuals may visit the property and stay overnight in a cabin or other accommodations.

Robbins is a member of the Shepherdstown Allowed Meeting, a small Quaker worship group of about 20 people. Robbins said part of the Quaker belief is being good stewards of the earth, and the Bolivar, W.Va., resident said she became interested in the center because she is a hiking and canoeing enthusiast and liked the idea that the Appalachian Trail ran close by.

"I very much enjoy hiking, the birds and the natural environment," said Robbins, who works for the federal government.

The center was founded more than 25 years ago to provide a place where people can meditate and "feed their spirituality," according to the group's Web site.

The center traces its foundation to Henry and Mary Cushing Niles, Quakers from Baltimore who gradually began purchasing 1,700 acres of forested land in the area in the 1950s, according to center officials. The couple told friends they wanted to transfer ownership of a big part of the land to a foundation they were setting up that would be called the Rolling Ridge Foundation. The foundation would give long-term leases to charitable groups that would provide "a perpetual spiritual use" of the land, center officials said.

The Friends Wilderness Center uses 50 acres in the area and two other groups that operate there are For Love of Children and Retreat Study Community of Rolling Ridge.

For Love of Children is overseen by a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that helps at-risk students get on the right track. The group operates an outdoor education center for children on the property.

Besides serving as a spiritual purpose, the Friends Wilderness Center offers other activities, like camping trips for children and star gazing.

Visitors to the center can enjoy a trail system that winds through the wooded area and campers can enjoy staying in the large treehouse that reaches about 15 feet into the air, a cabin that was built by the Niles' or a "yurt," a circular structure that was initially used by nomads in Mongolia.

Robbins and her daughter lead an impromptu tour of the center's grounds and they headed up a gradual incline, stepping on stones across a stream known as "Krishna Brook."

Old logging operations and early dwellers of the area once existed on the land, and during a tour of the property, Robbins arrives at a large stone fireplace that was once part of a farmstead.

"That's what I like about this (land), what has happened and gone by," Robbins said.

Anyone interesting in using the center should contact Sheila Bach, resident manager, by calling 304-728-4820 or by e-mailing her at center@friendswilderness.org.

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