On a sunny July morning in the heart of Cades Cove, 25 strangers don waders and tromp through the woods down an old manway to a secluded spot on Abrams Creek. They gather at the edge of the water where Great Smoky Mountains National Park fisheries biologists and seasonal interns are preparing instruments for monitoring stream health throughout the park.
One by one, participants follow park staff downstream where they collect electroshocked fish in buckets. The fish are separated by species then measured and weighed before being released back into Abrams Creek.
This is day one of Experience Your Smokies (EYS), a six-month program of interactive learning experiences facilitated with the aim to “cultivate committed advocates for the mission of Great Smoky Mountains National Park through immersive education and engagement opportunities.”
Lisa Nagurny, supervisory ranger for resource education, believes “it’s important for national parks to have good relationships with their communities. As the park liaison for EYS, I have the privilege of joining the class as they take deep dives into the inner workings of the park. Community members get a chance to see behind the scenes so they can appreciate what it takes to manage Great Smoky Mountains National Park.”
EYS is community supported, and meals were sponsored by local businesses such as
CBBC Bank, Buddy’s BBQ, Aubrey’s, Oldham Hospitality, Eagle Rock, Blackberry Farm, The Lily Barn, and The Abbey, some of whose owners are EYS alumni themselves.
After the day in Abrams Creek, ranger and GSMNP historian Brad Free brought the town of Elkmont to life with an animated retelling of the area’s past. That same day, the small team responsible for managing all historical structures in the park provided a demonstration area where participants learned about window glazing and had the chance to use two-man saws and hand-cranked drills like those wielded by the settlers who once built homes on this land.
Another trip found class members in Cades Cove once again, where they sat on pews in the Primitive Baptist Church to gain an understanding of the role churches played in that community and hear stories about those buried in the nearby graveyard. That same day, Preventive Search and Rescue ranger Josh Albritton talked about rescues that take place throughout the year in the park and discussed safety measures visitors should take while recreating. Wildlife rangers Ryan Williamson and Greg Grieco displayed pelts and skeletons and talked about the management of wild hogs and visitor interactions with the black bear population.
Another opportunity to increase understanding of park management occurred at the air quality monitoring station at Look Rock with technician Grant Fisher. The class learned how air quality changes water quality, which directly affects species that live in streams. The data collected in the park is sent to the Environmental Protection Agency, which can impact legislation related to clean air and water. At the Look Rock Picnic Area, forest ecologist Jesse Webster gave an overview of invasive species management, touching on insect control, monitoring champion trees, and how resilient keystone species can keep invasives from reducing forest biodiversity.
The national park operates with the support of park partners. Smokies Life CEO Laurel Rematore and Friends of the Smokies executive director and president Dana Soehn met with the class at the Twin Creeks Science and Education Center to explain how communities can provide support, such as purchasing books and gifts at visitor centers, having a Friends license plate, and buying a parking tag. Director of Science and Research Will Kuhn and Biodiversity Program Specialist Jaimie Matzko from Discover Life in America, the park’s scientific partner, highlighted preservation of the park’s extensive plant and animal collection, then offered a foray into the nearby stream to carefully look for invertebrates with park entomologist Becky Nichols.
The last day of EYS brought the group to the NPS Collections Preservation Center in Townsend, Tennessee, where Michael Aday, librarian–archivist and author of Letters from the Smokies, facilitated a journey through park history with items such as the pen that signed the park into existence, naturalist Arthur Stupka’s journals, and original architectural drawings for the Clingmans Dome tower. The final stop for the EYS class of 2023 was Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont where participants searched for salamanders, identified trees from winter buds, and learned from Catey McClary, president and CEO, about the future of Tremont’s regenerative campus in Townsend.
A far cry from that first sunny morning in July, the EYS class of 2023 participants gathered one last time on a bitterly cold day in January at The Abbey in Townsend for a graduation ceremony. Class member and national park volunteer Meg Pelley spoke about how EYS influenced the way she communicates with park visitors. She challenged participants to use what they have learned to give back, saying, “If knowledge isn’t shared, we can’t effect change. The more people love the park, the better they want to take care of it. We have a responsibility to affect the areas of influence we all have. How is what you now know going to influence the people you know?”
Fellow participant Brett Humphreys also spoke, highlighting things he now understands about the park that he didn’t know before EYS. Heads nodded in affirmation as he recounted learned experiences. “We all had a connection and fondness for the park before we took the class, and now it’s even stronger,” he said. “For the first time my eyes have been opened to things I couldn’t see before.”
Katie Liming, management assistant for Great Smoky Mountains National Park, offered congratulations and distributed signed certificates and a personal letter from Superintendent Cassius Cash.
The name “Experience Your Smokies” could not be more appropriate. The program instills a deep sense of responsible stewardship while giving participants an experience they will remember for years to come. The application period for the class of 2024 is now open and will close on February 20, 2024.