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I’m newly smitten with the Great Smoky Mountains.
In late August, I had the great fortune to attend the annual ANCA Summit – the annual gathering of the Association of Nature Center Administrators. This is a rather small and elite group – there are only a handful of these organizations in the nation, and the summit certainly brings out the best of the best. Of these centers, an even smaller number are RELCs (residential environmental learning centers), so having the opportunity to absorb the collective knowledge of these folks is definitely a treat.
Representatives from the North Cascades Institute in the Pacific Northwest to the Ogden Nature Center in Utah to the Marine Science Consortium on Virginia’s Eastern Shore gather and share best practices during the summit. Fortunately for all of us, this year’s event host was the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, one of the top centers in the nation. The folks who are part of ANCA never fail to impress me with their absolutely unwavering commitment to top-notch environmental education and outdoor experiences for kids. As a result of their work, children all over the United States and beyond are learning that there is great fun to be had without an electrical outlet and that the world around is worth exploring and savoring.
Selfishly, one of the best parts of this gathering for me is the chance to pow wow with the young, emerging talent springing up at nature centers throughout the nation. This year I was most fortunate to spend a good deal of time bonding, commiserating and sharing ideas with Tisha from the Cincinnati Nature Center; Jason from the Fenner Nature Center in Lansing, Michigan; Sarah from the Colorado River Foundation in Austin, Texas; John from the John Bunker Sands Wetland Center in Seagoville, Texas and Ben from the Cibolo Nature Center outside San Antonio, Texas. And yes – apparently Texas is ahead of the game in the realm of nature centers! It’s heartening to know the caliber of the individuals I’ll be working with in the coming years, and to have a network of savvy pals to contact for tips and tricks.
I confess, however – I was able to sneak away a few times before, during and after the summit to absorb the Smoky Mountains, and I can’t wait to return with my family. Touting itself as the “peaceful side of the Smokies,” the community of Townsend has only touches of the kind of rampant touristy-ness and commercialism I’m more and more inclined to avoid when I travel. From the sparkling waters of the Middle Prong to the feeling of stepping far, far back in time at Cades Cove, I’m anxious to return and explore the whole area thoroughly.
The 2,160 mile Appalachian Trail runs from Georgia to Maine and cuts through this part of the Smoky Mountains directly. Bike trails snake through the Walker Valley and water access ranges from quiet and idyllic to the raucous families tubing down the busiest parts of the river. Every bend in the road revealed a spot where I wanted to shirk my duties and head down a trail, but I managed to (mostly) control myself and focus on enjoy it all on a return trip. This particular part of Tennessee was settled in the early 1800s, and it’s clear those early residents were on to something good. I love seeing the parts of the U.S. from Lewis and Clark’s Missouri to places like Cades Cove where it is obvious that early pioneers struck upon a place where they could envision spending a lifetime.
There were a few creature comforts as well – we were fortunate to enjoy some absolutely fantastic frosty beverages from Marble City Brewing Company (like MCBC on FB) and can’t wait to go back and sample more of their wares. On my next visit to the area, thanks to a recommendation by the MCBC folks, I’m anxious to check out Blue Slip Winery. I’d also like to check out the Great Smoky Mountain Heritage Center, which was closed on my visit. The Great Smoky Mountains Association is a great trip-planning resource, and the Smoky Mountain Convention & Visitors Bureau has put together a low impact vacation site that’s worth clicking just for the stunning photography and sound effects.
On my last morning, I set out exploring the Cades Cove area and met this friend, which made my entire month!
I’ve not done this part of Tennessee any justice in my description, which is sorely lacking in communicating its grandeur. The songs and the scenes and the people and the mountains continue to follow me. We sang around the campfire “I’ve found a home in Walker Valley…” and heard that if we dipped our toes in the Middle Prong, it was said we’d be compelled to return. Clearly that’s so – I’m counting down until I can go back again.
“I am well again, I came to life in the cool winds and crystal waters of the mountains…” – John Muir