Oconaluftee Visitor Center
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?