Oconaluftee Visitor Center
What are the odds of meeting someone from my birthplace on top of Clingmans Dome? Actually, pretty good, since you can meet people from all over the world on "top of old Smoky"?
After two hours behind the desk at Oconaluftee Visitor Center, I drove up to Clingmans Dome. It was a long ride on a crowded road, so crowded that I had to wait for a while in the left turn lane on Newfound Gap Rd. Traffic had backed up on the Dome Rd. It was also busy on top, but that's what you want. Lots of shoppers in the Clingmans Dome Information Center.
At the end of the parking lot, kids and adults were climbing the rocks, right on top of the "Climbing Prohibited" sign. What part of the sign didn't they understand? I asked visitors to get down off the rocks and that they were welcome to walk to the tower as many times as they wanted.
If you've been a regular reader, you know that I think that people in parks look for artificial thrills, like climbing rocks in full view of the parking lot or climbing slippery waterfalls because they don't really want to go into the woods. I encouraged a family with very energetic children to hike down to Andrews Bald. It's a rocky trail and the kids will get their thrills.
Most questions centered around the dying balsams; spruce and firs, together, are referred to as balsams.
"Are they doing anything about the trees?" The trees on top of Clingmans Dome (see the top photo) have been attacked by the balsam woolly adelgid since the 1950s. The park has moved some firs to Purchase Knob near Cataloochee to save the genetic pool. Also, they are studying balsams on top of Mt. LeConte, which have not been affected as much from the adelgid.
Dogs are not allowed on Clingmans Dome Trail even though it's paved. Ranger Julie warned me about confronting visitors because in 1999, a ranger was killed in a National Park in Hawaii over dogs. Julie found the original posting on the case - a man with three dogs who grabbed the ranger's gun and shot him multiple times. Who says that being a Volunteer in the Parks (VIP, they call us) is not exciting.
I don't expect to see a bear on my walks, especially not on Clingmans Dome because there are too many people. The Cherokee Statue Bears are the only thing I saw.
The most "exciting" thing that happened was that a child threw his show over the railing. It landed on a tree top and "No, I was not going to retrieve it for him."
Wind and rain will bring the shoe down soon enough and someone will pick it up as garbage. Speaking of garbage, I pick up a lot of that, as well, on the trail.
I talked to 72 visitors today. And, ultimately, visitor contacts is what's it's all about.
I'm back at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center after missing two weeks. The big news was that Clingmans Dome road was opening at noon. That was the most asked question at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center.
The road was repaved this year with stimulus money - it usually opens on April 1. Construction is not finished and some sections of the road are only one lane. Even though the drive is slow-going, hundreds of visitors drove the road as soon as it opened - and I added to the traffic.
I was checked out on the park radio, just in case I met an emergency I couldn't handle myself and went up to Clingmans Dome to rove. I believe I was the first person in uniform to rove the trail up to the tower. Not much in the "first" category but I was quite pleased about that.
Clingmans Dome on the North Carolina/Tennessee border, at 6,643 ft., is the highest point in the park, in Tennessee and on the Appalachian Trail. Most visitors walk the half-mile paved trail (330 ft. ascent) to the observation tower. It's a steep trail but parents push strollers or carry babies in a backpack, determined to get to the top.
On clear days, the effort is rewarded with a 360 degree view of the Smokies and beyond, including five states. Plaques in the four compass directions explain the landmarks below. Sometimes, air pollution reduces the magnificent views by as much as 80%.
Because of its height and exposure, the weather and environment on Clingmans Dome is similar to spruce-fir forests of eastern Canadian. Fraser firs, planted and sold as Christmas trees, grow wild on the mountain. Unfortunately, from the top of Clingmans Dome, visitors also see an ocean of dead Fraser firs that look like matchsticks. The trees were killed by balsam wooly adelgid, an aphid-like insect accidentally imported from European nursery stock. This process started in the 1950s - acid rain didn't help either.
A little way up the paved trail, a Civilian Conservation Corp structure housed the comfort stations. While Clingmans Dome Road was closed, the building was remodeled into an information center which holds a bookstore and park literature. The bookstore opens today - it was controlled chaos when I popped in the building and I left quickly in case they asked me to shift some boxes.
Now you'll be able to buy books (including Hiking North Carolina's Blue Ridge Heritage), maps and bottled water on the way to the tower. Great Smoky Mountains Association, the cooperating partner in the Smokies which manages the bookstores in the Park, funded the remodeling. The bathrooms were moved below to the parking area.
The most common question I was asked was "How many times do you do this a day?"
"Well," I answered. "It depends on how many nice visitors like you I talk to." The point is not to exercise on Smokies time but to interact with visitors. Yesterday, I went up and down twice.
"What's with the trees?" See above.
"Am I in North Carolina or Tennessee?" "Where's the A.T.?" And my favorite, "How do I get to volunteer?"
I talked to 70 people on the trail and the parking area. It will be a busy summer on "top of old Smoky".
When we were punching a clock back in New Jersey, the three big summer weekends were sacrocanct. By New Year's, we had plans, usually hiking, and nothing was going to interfere with them. But now, Monday, Memorial Day, was just another day and I went into Oconaluftee Visitor Center, hoping to make someone else's Memorial Day a little special.
But first, I went through Cherokee to pick up a passport. They want to remind tourists that Cherokee is a separate nation and that tourists will need a passport. The "passport", free and available in many shops, is a handsome document which contains tourist information and a map.
The weather was not cooperating. So the usual question. "It's raining. What do we do?" I suggested to one guy that he put on a raincoat and walk the Oconaluftee River Trail. He thought it was a good idea and he and his wife took off.
A young family came in with a very eager five-year old who was working on his Junior Ranger badge. This is a National Park Service program to encourage children ages 5 to 12 to explore the park. They have to attend a ranger-led program or equivalent, pick up a bag of garbage and do other activities from a booklet.
This boy had seen both an elk and a bear from the car the day before. He probably didn't know how lucky he was. But the Junior Ranger booklet he had didn't list elk as an animal he could see. He wrote it in but those booklets have to be updated.
After I asked him a couple of questions, I gave him his badge and certificate while his father took pictures. It was a good day.
Smokemont Campground is finally open!
I roved Bradley Fork Trail, in threatening weather. It seemed like it was just about to rain the whole time.
I talked to eight people, six briefly. The Danish couple crossing Bradley Fork on the left walked with me for a while.
They were on their big OE - Overseas Experience, a New Zealand term for going overseas for an extended trip. This couple had quit their jobs and were traveling the world for 10 months. I told them that this was a foreign concept to most Americans.
Most spring wildflowers had disappeared but the mountain laurel was glorious. See above.
Second day of training for me at Sugarlands Visitor Center in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Besides being a volunteer at the Visitor Center, I'm trying to qualify to give an interpretive hike. It isn't easy.
Today we concentrated on preparing and giving formal interpretive programs.
From the National Park Service website, interpretation is the process of providing each visitor an opportunity to personally connect with a place.
Mike Maslona, supervisory interpretive ranger at Cades Cove, shown on the right, is studying a finger puppet. Mike enjoys acronyms. To start, he had EIEIO. In another order, EIEIO becomes
Orient the visitor - Where is the bathroom?
Inform the visitor - How many bears are there in the park?
Educate - More deeply than just inform with the facts?
Enlighten - beyond education
Instill - Instill stewartship
This concept of stewardship "To preserve and protect for future generations" is a holy word. We need to make visitors feel that these are their resources. So we need to inspire more than just educate. Mike sees mere education as just dry facts. Rather we need to imbue our programs with internal meanings so that visitors can see connections and want to protect the resources. This is a very optimistic view of the world - just educate and people will protect the parks and not litter, carve their names on a cabin or a tree or harass a bear.
Another acronym - a formula, really.
(Kr + Ka) * AT = IO
Kr - knowledge of the resources
Ka - knowledge of the audience - ask "where are you from? What do you expect from this program?"
IO - Interpretive Opportunity
AT - Appropriate techniques
So we go beyond a talk with appropriate techniques such as Q&A, pictures, quotes, audience participation, jokes and even silence. "When you get there, let the resource talk to the person".
Mike emphasized that you need to show passion for the program. You can start with a tangible item - thing, place or event.
A bell could be a dinner bell, cow bell, school, garden bell (to warn the gardener that a bear was in the garden)
Intangible (hidden) meaning
Old, utilitarian, home ...
Every program needs a conclusion. Here's mine
Every trail tells a story. When you hike on another trail, look for the stories.
Mike then introduced his wife's favorite movie, The Wizard of Oz. From the characters, we can learn the various aspects of our program.
Scarecrow wanted a brain. So we need information
Tin Man wanted a heart. We have to have an emotional connection with our subject.
Lion wanted courage - We give visitors opportunities to do things they wouldn't do by themselves, like walk a trail.
Dorothy wanted home - connection between what the visitor knows (home) and what they experience in the park
Wizard - That's us presenting a program
We're providing interpretainment
Brad Free, shown on the left, took us on a walk to Cataract Falls, a program they offer several times a day in the summer. Though there was a bridge, he got a bunch of us to cross the creek through the water - see the picture above. I got several techniques from him.
Stand in such a way to make sure the sun is not in the visitors' eye.
Audience needs to be all on one side of the trail, especially when other visitors walk by. It's very off putting to go through with people on both sides.
I asked Brad about trail breaks and he suggested organized trail breaks. He proudly comes from LA, Lower Alabama, which gives him a license to make fun of people not born in the South. Everyone else is a Yankee. Do you know what a Yankee fern is?
Yankee fern - "because it pops up where it doesn't belong"
Then our presentations
Each of us had prepared a 3 - 5 min. presentation. The programs ranged from night sky to Cades Cove as a state of mind, fishing, the Mountain Farm Museum and, bird songs.
I did a 5 minute version of my Kephart Prong Walk, talking about the Civilian Conservation Corps. I put a water bottle on the outside of my pack, and wore a GSMA baseball cap. It seemed to go over well, though the only comment I got from Mike was "Did you have fun?"
Wooky, above, showed how a bear walks.
The presentations, in fact all the sessions, were really geared to seasonals and interns, the folks in college or right out of college. I was very impressed with the group. Putting aside my Park volunteer hat for a while and looking at them from the perspective of a college professor, I noticed that they were all prepared, eager and not afraid to show how excited they were about this opportunity to work in the park. They were not interested in mixing with volunteers, maybe because we were so much older than them. They were in their early 20s and most of us were past 50s and maybe we reminded them of their parents.
I also noticed that none had come from academically selective universities. I heard Western Carolina University, E. Stroudsburg Univ in Pennsylvania, Tuskegee in Alabama. University of Tennessee. But it didn't matter. Many had not majored in forestry or recreation, the subjects I associate with working for the National Park Service. The newcomers obviously had tremendous drive, ambition, and the willingness to plan ahead. And that will carry them forward more than a degree from Yale University. I wish them well!
The seasonal rangers have arrived in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They're starting with a week of training, also open to volunteers. Most of the volunteers were leaders in the Elk Bugle Corps but there were also visitor center volunteers, like me.
I left Asheville before 7 A.M. to get to Sugarlands Visitor Center outside of Gatlinburg by 9 A.M.. I stopped just long enough to take an early morning picture on the Foothills Parkway.
Here are some of the highlights of the day.
Mike Meldrum, a ranger at Cades Cove, talked about enhancing the visitor experience.
The visitor wants to know "What's in it for me!" and that's what we have to answer.
Visitor contact is highly personalized. An interpreter (ranger or volunteer) must be able to evaluate the visitor and use a "well-crafted response", a visitor center approach. We need to:
1. Provide quality customer service
2. Exceed visitor expectation
3. Pay attention to detail.
Like Disneyworld, we're in the business of exceeding expectation. We heard several audio quotes from Michael Eisner, head of Disneyworld. Meldrum loves Disneyworld and goes there yearly.
Earlier this year, I wrote a piece for National Park Traveler on marketing the parks like Disneyworld and I got many heated responses but here Meldrum was applying Disney techniques to the park.
Also from Eisner, "you need to be committed and passionate. You're like a Jehovah's Witness with a day job."
- Make eye contact and smile
- Greet and welcome every visitor
- Seek out visitor "Can I help you?"
- appropriate body language
- Preserve the positive visitor experience
- Thank each visitor for coming to the park.
- No personal conversation with other park people when visitors are around. (I wish some of my Visitor Center coworkers would adhere to that, especially when they complain - about anything. That's not what visitors come to hear.)
Visitors are always watching you. So if you have a uniform, be careful. You're on stage.
Another Eisner truism
TEAM, get it.
Questions that some visitors ask.
What time do you feed the bears?
When do deer turn into elk?
What is there to do and see?
Kent Cave, Sugarlands Supervisory Interpretive Ranger, focused on stereotypes. Visitors may come to the park with stereotypes of Southern Appalachian residents.
Kent played a song about inbreeding which was exactly like "Shame and Scandal in the family. I first heard that song on our honeymoon in the Bahamas decades ago.
Ranger Kent played a video about a moonshiner called MOONSHINE. with Jim Tom Hendricks.
The two above examples were amusing. The next, The True Meaning of Pictures by Shelby Lee Adams was not funny but meant to be disturbing. I just added that video on my Netflix queue.
Adams is accused of perpetuating Eastern Kentucky Southern Appalachian stereotypes. The photographer and videographer goes to the houses at the top of a hollow to find the most isolated families. We saw just a little clip of an old woman smoking a pipe, a family with several handicapped children with the strong hint that these folks were inbred.
There's another stereotype of Southern Appalachian - the self-made man, the "Hell of a Fellow", the Daniel Boone mountain man type. We can see that in Sergeant York, with Gary Cooper, another addition to my Netflix list.
But I suggested that there's a third type of visitor. He and she come here thinking that since this is a national park, it was plopped here by the federal government and has nothing to do with the people around the park. They ask questions like:
- Why were so many battles fought in National Parks?
- Was the Cherokee reservation put here so they could benefit from tourists visiting the park?
Then we walked to the Ownby Cabin on a nature trail at the back of Sugarlands Visitor Center. Lisa Free, a ranger, was dressed as resident of the cabin over 100 years ago and weaving a basket.
We were supposed to find problems with her setting. Some were very easy: plastic water bottle, modern sneakers, modern scissors and screw driver with plastic handles.
Others were not so obvious. Look at the photograph at the top. Lisa has rolled up her sleeves above her elbows. Just like religious Jewish women, that's a no, no.
Ranger Lisa started out by doing first person interpretation, i.e. playing the character, also called Living History. But that's not done much in the Smokies. There's not enough training in that and it makes it tough to answer visitor questions when you can't break character.
Instead, Lisa quickly switched to third-person where she could talk about the owners of the house and the times. This way, it is easier to interact with visitors. Lisa feels a strong sense of responsibility for the people of who lived here.
Today they're discussing the natural resources. Tomorrow, I'll be back at Sugarlands to learn about formal programs. We'll have to give a two to five minute presentation on a topic we're passionate about. I'm going to talk about the Civilian Conservation Corps in the park. But I pity these newbies who are going to cram tonight to figure out what to talk about.
Yesterday, I helped my friend Janet get some more Smokies miles. She's very close to becoming a 900 miler. Her itinerary was:
This hike was16.5 miles and 4,000 ft. ascent. Janet, left, had arranged to get in at the Cooper Creek Trout Farm, which butts up against the park. When we arrived, the gate was locked and we couldn't get the rusty gate open. The owner came down and decided that it was time to open up for business.
The picture below is of Cooper Creek Trout Farm.
Cooper Creek Trail, in my opinion, is the worst and scariest trail in the park. It is lined by old, private shacks and trailers. This is my third time on this trail and each time, I expect dogs to run down and challenge my right to be on this trail. But no one was there, either first thing in the morning or when we walked out about 6 P.M.
These are Smokies miles so the hike was not as difficult as the numbers (mileage and ascent) would indicate. But I had an altercation with a root. I didn't see it coming out of the ground, tripped and almost fell on my face. Instead, my right hand and wrist took the brunt of the fall. I sprained it and it hurts.
I stayed in Cherokee last night and went into the Oconaluftee Visitor Center today. This is the busiest it's been since I started. We're getting a wider range of visitors. I designed a backpack for a guy in Hazel Creek. I sent a group of German hikers up to the Appalachian Trail and I sent others to the Mingus family cemetery.
Still, we had to field complaints about lack of signage for various attractions. One guy complained that he missed the turn to Cades Cove. His wife pointed out that he missed the sign to the Sugarlands Visitor Center. They found themselves at Oconaluftee before they stopped.
The guys above are the trail maintenance crew. Several of them just started today. They cleaned cemeteries and mounted graves.
I could have added "Smokies on Tuesday" to the title of this entry since I'm going to go to the Sugarlands site tomorrow for training. Then maybe, they'll let me take out visitors on a walk.
Yesterday I got a brown ball cap to wear with my Smokies volunteer uniform. No more green hats. It's a further attempt to distinguish volunteers from National Park Service staff.
Uniforms are a big, big part of the whole National Park Service ethos, much like the military. What exactly constitute the proper uniform is dictated by the Superintendent. Volunteers got a directive from him yesterday.
So, again, how to tell a volunteer from an employee. NPS staff wear green pants, gray shirts and a "Smoky the Bear" hat with a wide brim. Their emblem is the arrowhead.
Volunteers wear UPS-color brown pants which we provide. We're lent a khaki button-down shirt with a name tag over the breast pocket. Our round patch says "volunteer" and so does our brown hat. No pins or other badges are approved, except for a Presidential Service Award pin. That pin is given for many, many volunteer hours. I'd have to get another lifetime to get one of those.
There are at least two types of volunteers.
Interns "volunteer" for college credit or in the hope of getting a NPS position. They get a stipend and usually work five days a week for a few months. Sometimes, they get housing in the park.
Then there are true volunteers like me who get nothing but the satisfaction of helping an underfunded park. Our uniforms are exactly the same but it's easy to tell interns from volunteers. Interns are much younger. I have yet to meet a true volunteer younger than 40 years old.
Interns also seem to get more responsibilities more quickly but that's harder to measure. Since they're working five days a week, if only for a few months, they don't spend much time at the visitor desk. An internship has to be an educational experience, so the park has to give them lots of meaningful work.
Mingus Creek Trail - two cemeteries
I roamed Mingus Creek Trail to check out if there was still a sign to the Mingus family cemetery. I want to recommend this easy hike to a destination in the future.
I walked 1.2 miles from the trail head and made a right turn on an unofficial trail with a sign that said "cemetery". Another 0.8 mile took me to another "cemetery" sign on the right. Then a little scramble up to the Mingus family cemetery.
It's a large flat area with stumps for grave sites. On several stumps, rocks have been placed to show that people have visited the cemetery, very much like the Jewish custom.
Coming back, I checked out the slave cemetery only a few feet from Mingus Mill Parking.
This cemetery was much smaller and had a few well-groomed mounted graves.
I suggested to a family that I met in the parking lot to check it out. I saw no one on the trail but that may soon change when I start suggesting Mingus Creek Trail as an alternative to the Kephart Prong Trail.
And the firepinks above? I saw them on the trail, my first summer flowers.
It's still quiet when I arrive at Oconaluftee Visitor Center at 10 A.M. and I wonder how I'll spend the next four hours. Then people trickle in and ask some tricky questions. Sometimes, they don't ask but in my conversations with them, I ask myself some questions.
At the desk, we have three stamps for visitors to stamp in their National Park stamp books. These stamp books, put together by Eastern National, help you to record where you've been within National Park units along with the current date. We have an Oconaluftee Visitor Center stamp in the Smokies which is where they are and a Blue Ridge Parkway stamp, only a couple of miles away. I kid some stampers that they can't stamp their book with a Parkway stamp unless they've been there.
But the third one is the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. This trail commemorates the forced march of Eastern Indian tribes to Oklahoma in 1838. The Cherokees were one of several tribes which were forced to move from their homeland in the southeast. Many lives were lost. About 1,000 Cherokee escaped in the Appalachian mountains. In 1868, they gained recognition and established their tribal government. We now know them as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Their reservation is just outside Oconaluftee Visitor Center.
That's the history. But where's the trail? The trail is not a walking path like the Appalachian Trail. It's a mix of auto and water routes that follow the historical trail - a trail in progress. The closest place that you can say you're on the Trail of Tears is in Murphy, North Carolina - I think.
I went to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and the people at the desks said that they didn't have a clue. I couldn't get anyone on the phone either but I'll keep trying.
In the meantime, I won't tell stampers that they have to go on the Trail of Tears before getting a stamp. But I did kid some that to get a complete set, they'd have to go to the National Park of American Samoa - that's miles west of Hawaii.
I walked the Oconaluftee River Trail again to see if there were anymore spring flowers. They're dying and summer flowers have not yet come up.
What is coming up is the new Oconaluftee Visitor Center - we can now see some walls. See the picture above.
It was pouring when I woke up this morning. WLOS news had dire predictions of flood warnings and possible thunderstorms. Not good.... I drove in the pouring rain but every once in a while, the mountains would peak through the clouds. Would anyone show up at Oconaluftee Visitor Center?
Of course. Though it was quiet for about the first hour, visitors started showing up in bunches by 11 o'clock.
Three motorcyclists from New Brunswick, Canada wanted to know about some challenging roads - the Blue Ridge Parkway was too tame for them. I didn't know about rough roads but I suggested Lake View Rd. out of Bryson City to the "Tunnel to Nowhere". I told them about a little about the history of this section of road and they were quite interested.
A woman had found a small daypack at Newfound Gap and brought it in. I was about to put it in our Lost and Found when Leigh Ann, an experienced intern, told me about the Lost and Found procedures. I needed a witness, Leigh Ann, as we inventories the bag - wallet, glasses (were they prescription or plain), pills (were they prescription or over the counter).... Then we pulled out the credit cards and driver license and photocopied them. The owner was from Germany. We messed up the first photocopy and had to tear it up in small pieces and throw the piece of paper in the garbage, not the recycle bin.
We counted the cash and travelers checks and put all of that information on a form. This is the government; there's a form for everything. After I signed and dated the form, we could put the bag in the Lost and Found drawer and the form in the Lost and Found book. We called Sugarlands Visitor Center to let them know about the bag. Sure enough, an hour later, the woman called to let us know that she was on her way.
Two backpackers were planning a backpack on the Appalachian Trail (about 71 miles). They were not happy to hear that there were no facilities and no places to resupply. The only service that Newfound Gap offered was a garbage can. Don't laught! That's important after you've been hiking for several days.
No pictures today. I didn't rove since I had to get home early.
It was a momentous weekend in and around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Cades Cove opened up this past weekend and so did I-40. Visitors should have been happy and satisfied. But still there are those that came in with,
"Everything is closed. What can we do around here?"
"Well,", I point out, "there are over 800 miles of trail and you can get to all of them, somehow." But what to do from the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, if you've come without any ideas:
- Mountain Farm Museum with its old buildings and animals
- Oconaluftee River Trail. It's flat and well-maintained. Local mothers from Cherokee take their babies in a stroller down this trail.
- Mingus Mill, a working mill with a miller that will explain how it all works.
- Mingo Falls, on Big Cove Road.
Shall I continue? There's plenty of stuff to do, right around OVC. You don't have to go to Cades Cove, even if it is open.
It was raining when I started out for Kephart Prong Trail but I wanted to see it again, since I'm hoping to do a program on the trail.
I handed in a draft proposal to lead a hike to the shelter. It's amazing how much more I saw of the Civilian Conservation Corps remains, now that I'll be guiding people on the trail.
Most people note the stone sign board since it's right on the trail. But what about the water fountain, to the left?
Imagine - these guys had a water fountain that probably worked all the time. Try to find a water fountain now.
Walking further up the trail, on the left, was a large square stone structure which I assume was their water tank. Yes, even back then, they had to treat the water.
If anyone knows what this is, in a more definite manner, I'd appreciate hearing from you. I need to go to the Smokies library to check it out for sure.
I also made a flower list. The newest ones were the showy orchis, shown at the top of this post - only a few of them.
Since it was raining, there were no visitors on the trail when I started out. But as soon as it stopped, people started popping up, like ephemerals. I talked to five people.
Visitation is definitely picking up. Not just the numbers but where they travel from.
One of my first "customers" was a couple from Saranac Lake, New York in the Adirondacks. They were part of the New England 111 club, that is, they had hiked all the mountains over 4,000 ft. in the North East. I know that some Western North Carolina readers laugh about hiking over 4,000 ft. when they might live at that altitude but in the Northeast, that's quite a challenge. The mountains include the New Hampshire 4,000 footers, the New England 4000-footers, the Catskills 3500 (don't laugh) and the Adirondacks 46. Lenny and I finished everything on that list but about 20 Adirondack mountains before we moved to Asheville.
This couple were backpacking to finish their South Beyond 6000 by climbing Marks Knob, a trailless mountain in the Northeast corner of the Smokies. I congratulated them ahead of time for their great accomplishment, especially coming from such a distance. I also told them about hiking all the trails in the Smokies, the Smokies 900 club. There's always more hiking to do in the East.
Several visitors asked me to suggest "something to do" in the time they had. I don't think we have a publication that suggests:
If you have two hours
If you have a day ....
I made up my own itinerary, based on what they told me they wanted to do.
I met international visitors from Australia, Spain, China and Germany. Lots of Germans - they are great travelers and they want to hike. I wondered if I'd ever have any French visitors, I could actually be helpful. I didn't have to wait long.
A couple of stumpers:
"My husband has a carry permit and he wants to make sure it's legal". A carry what?? My first gun question.
"It's up to the gun owner to know the law in each state. But you can't bring in a gun in a visitor center". That much I knew.
"Why is the flag at half-mast? Another woman asked.
Yesterday was the National Day of Service and Remembrance for Victims and Survivors of Terrorism. It also was the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma bombing. And you, dear reader, thought I just told people where the restrooms were.
After 2 P.M., I headed out to the Oconaluftee River Trail to check out the flowers. A big group of teenagers were hanging around the Mountain Farm, along with several women speaking French. This was my chance. They were a group of high school musicians from the center of France, playing with American high school orchestras. I told them I was a volunteer, though I didn't know the French word for volunteer. If I don't know the French word for something, I just describe it.
The trail was chock full of flowers. Lynda Doucette, who is leading a wildflower program on Wednesday for the Wildflower Pilgrimage, will have no problems keeping the audience busy and entertained.
I also met a fishing group from Healing Waters, a program that helps veterans by taking them fly fishing.
You meet a lot of interesting people on the trail.
So tomorrow, I head back to the Smokies for the Wildflower Pilgrimage.
The good times never stop.
If you open the Smokies newspaper, you'll see all kinds of programs for visitors - fllowers, birds, history. If you take a program, you'll casually follow a ranger or volunteer as she/he talks about what you're seeing.
But the program is not put together casually. It's the result of working on themes, objective and goals of what ends up to be an hour's walk.This interpretive program needs to be "place based", i.e. it can't be done anyplace else. It then has to be approved and maybe dry run. This all sounds like a lesson plan that you may have learned in your college education course. The only difference is there's no formal assessment; you're not going to give your visitors a test.
As a (retired) computer science professor at Kean University, I never had to write lesson plans though I certainly took many workshops on how to improve my teaching. Well, I'm going to create a "lesson plan" now if I want to do a program on a trail. Somewhere in the National Park Service, there are educators and interpreters (probably not the right word) who work on these guidelines. I'm sure there are Ph.D. dissertations on Park interpretation.
From the NPS website, interpretation is the process of providing each visitor find an opportunity to personally connect with a place.
After my four-hour stint at the Visitor desk, I roamed Mingus Creek Trail. Fantastic flowers, no visitors - not a one. If you want solitude, go on the Mingus Creek Trail. I'm going to start suggesting that when people ask for a hike.
I then walked to Mingus Mill where I met several visitors who had questions before they got to Dave, the miller. Dave grinds corn as he talks to visitors but the flour he grinds is not sold because it is not FDA-approved. The Great Smoky Mountains Association sells corn from Pigeon Forge, which is pretty local.
Some people mistake me for a park ranger. I only wish.
I am a park volunteer, one of over 4,000 in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. So how can you tell a park volunteer from a ranger from a Great Smoky Mountains Association staff member? Look at the uniform.
Chuck on the left is a volunteer, just like me. He has a tan National Park Service-issued shirt with brown pants. His patch on his left sleeve says "volunteer".
Dan, in the middle, is a park ranger. He wears the green pants with the gray shirt. His patch is an arrowhead with a bison.
Ila works for the Great Smoky Mountains Association, the non-profit that runs the bookstores in the park. She has a beige shirt with the GSMA logo and tan pants.
Lots of visitors today from the moment I came in to the moment I left. I picked up my short-sleeve shirt and patch, which I had sewn on later.
Lynda, the supervisory ranger at Oconaluftee Visitor Center, was back after two weeks away. A fifteen minute chat with her on park issues is worth all the time behind the desk telling visitors where the bathrooms are.
But there were some more interesting questions.
One woman came in very flustered. She had driven from Gatlinburg and didn't like mountain driving. "I'm from Michigan," she said "and I want it flat." She was not happy when I told her that the only way to get back was back over Newfound Gap.
"Well, no", I said. "Technically you can drive to Asheville and around the mountain but it will take you over three hours." I showed her the map. She said that she didn't care; that's the way she was going to do it.
A well-dressed woman walked in with two school age girls, holding Junior Ranger booklets. She told me that her daughters didn't have time to do all those activities in the park. "Could they do them online?"
Now the purpose of the Junior Ranger program is to get children to learn about their parks on the ground. Some of the activities include going on a ranger-led walk, picking up trash, noticing animals and flowers... I told her that these activities were meant to get children outdoors. I hope she found time to let her daughters get their badges properly.
After 2 P.M., I roamed Kephart Prong Trail. Trillium were in bloom - see above - as well as hepatica, spring beauties and purple violets.
I had 28 visitor contacts. I mostly told them about the Civilian Conservation Corps and the conscientious objector camps that were located at the start of Kephart Prong trail. I walked up to Kephart Shelter and back down.
It was a beautiful afternoon and the river was really flowing.
I was hot in my uniform. But the purpose of roaming is to talk to as many people as possible.
On the way down, I met Tobias Miller, Smokies Trails Supervisor. His uniform is a T-shirt. Why not ours?
When I arrived at the visitor center at 10 A.M. on Monday, it was quiet. The only people were those working in the building. I thought it was going to be a slow day.
Less than an hour later, the visitor center was hopping.
Families looking for a short hike got sent to the Oconaluftee River Trail.
Folks looking for a few hours of hiking were advised to try Kephart Prong Trail and go up as far as they wanted.
Those looking for a view got sent to Charlie Bunion but only if they got up there before noon.
Those were the easy questions. But the difficult questions kept it interesting.
A family came in with two children and two Junior Ranger booklets. "Is there a ranger-led trip today?" the mother asked. "It says here that they need to go with a ranger." Or other appropriate activity.
So I sent them on the Oconaluftee River Trail and asked the children to read and understand at least two signs on the trail and to summarize them in the booklet. Dan, the seasonal ranger at the desk, says that he sends them to the Mountain Museum and asks them to read the signs and report back.
That was easy compared to other questions.
"My aunt loves the park. She's going to get cremated and wants to have her ashes spread over the park. How can she do this?"
I was stumped but sent her to the Public Affairs officer. Later at lunch (yes, we do get a lunch break), I found out that there's a special permit for this. I might think about arranging this for myself.
"Where can you go prospecting in the park?" Maybe I should have classified this as an unusual question but not a hard one. No place in the park. Period.
"Can you buy postcards of the slide?" I have never seen such postcards but what a great idea. I'll pass it on to the Great Smoky Mountains Association.
And then sometimes you make someone's day or even longer.
A middle-aged man asked me about the large portrait of Mary Winchester (1848-1942). She lived in the area and was painted by Rudolph Ingerle, a famous artist who loved the Smokies. I had never really paid attention to the portrait but this visitor told me that he was distantly related to her. I looked her up in the "Answer book" and photocopied the page about her. He left very happy.
At 2 P.M. Grable, a Student Conservation Association intern, and I went roaming. I wanted to see exactly where the Smokemont closure was. We drove up there and had to park as soon as we crossed the bridge. First, I took Grable to the Bradley Cemetery but that didn't take long.
We walked on the Bradly Fork Trail and met a couple coming back who wanted to do some more hiking. We took them back up on Bradley Fork up to the bridge across the creek. They then continued on the Smokemont Loop.
Daffodils were blooming everywhere, a sure sign of homesites.
It's getting warm and I'm getting my short-sleeve shirt next week. Florie told me that I'd have to sew on the patch myself. Are you kidding? Would you give a man a shirt without a patch already sewn on?