Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Finding My New Tribe in the Wilderness

            Do you have these problems: your friends don’t want to hike anymore? Complaints of knees, feet or exhaustion follow your invitations. They prefer wine tastings to GORP. Cooking classes to camping. Bar-be-ques to bird watching. Call them when you’re in the mood for quiet fun but go find a new tribe like I did at Wilderness Wildlife Week. Pigeon Forge, Tenn. is a strip of go-carts, laser tag, an Elvis museum, a gem mine, a “tastefully decorated year-round” Christmas hotel, growling dinosaurs, flashing billboards and themed arena dinners. Incongruously it’s also the gateway to The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, our country’s most visited (and one of only a few admission-free) national parks. Approx. 24,000 people attend this free event each January which celebrates the wonders of the park through walks, talks, workshops and exhibits. 
            Over breakfast at the Music Road Hotel and Convention Center conversations are about bears, hikes and arcane gardening tips. Overheard snippets are about “the size of its antlers” and “what do you think a bear might look like without its fur”? Artie Hodgson has been coming for fourteen years. “As long as I can get my bones out, this is what I’m gonna do”, she says. Typical of the mid-week crowd at Wildlife Week, she is a spry senior citizen with a thirst for learning and engaging with nature. Weekend workshops draw children and families.
            There are hundreds of one-hour workshops led by experts where I learned about whistle pigs, courting rocks and fly ginnies; about how teachers were driven from their classrooms by the bad breath of the children during ramp season; that possums have bifurcated sex organs and that Little Debbie oatmeal cookies float. Fascinating stuff. We played mountain dulcimers, heard wonderful storytellers, watched slide shows of trips to the Dolomites and learned camera and compass skills. All of the workshops had large attentive audiences. With so many offered, it was hard to choose. History, gardening, camping, concerts, fishing, travel, mountain climbing, conservation, trees, bears, birds... In every case, I found interesting information about subjects I may not have ever considered interesting before. 
                  The free hikes, with transportation provided, are a big draw. Forty-eight hikes are offered during the week and typically attract over 600 participants who collectively hike more than 3700 miles. On the Porter’s Creek hike I was part of a group of about 20 who signed up for the eight hour, seven and a half mile moderate trek. Among us is a group from Georgia that met 17years ago when they all took a continuing education class on hiking. After that class they continued to hike three times a week up to 12 miles a day. “We joined to meet people and learn the hikes to do ourselves but we met so many wonderful people we just kept coming” Our guide Martha Smith is a grandmother who set a quick pace. Her backpack is adorned with patches, especially one that she is most proud of. “I hiked them all” she says of the 800 miles of trails in the park. In order to reach all 150 trails, she had to walk a total of 2700 miles over nine years. Only 300 people can claim this feat. When she worked in the tourist office people sometimes thought Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Smoky Mountains Park, was a waterslide. It turned her into a self-styled ambassador for the park. She is intent on getting people out of their cars and into the wild. At occasional stops along the trail she educates for example pointing out pock holes on trees made by yellow bellied sap sucker birds, not to get the sap, but to get the bugs that eat the sap.  
            Wilderness Wildlife Week was begun twenty-two years ago by the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism as an effort to fill the hotel rooms that go empty there in the off-season. As a marketing idea it has been phenomenal, growing every year. I was surprised to learn that the January weather is usually more moderate than I expected for the mountains in winter. The hotel has spacious rooms where my Jacuzzi tub was a welcome sight after the hike. The park is just a few minutes away. 
            During a speech called “Watching and Being Watched” Ken Jenkins, one of the originators of the event, inspired the large crowd with incredible close-up photos of wildlife he’d taken as he quietly explored the area. “Watch like you are being watched: with wide-eyed wonder and childlike wisdom.” he instructed. The reverence for the area, its history and natural beauty is evident among the thousands who attend Wilderness Wildlife Week. So if you find fewer friends to have active fun with as you get older, you can join my new tribe too. Our motto is “I’m going to leave this life exhausted.” 

If you go:
Wilderness Wildlife Week is Jan. 12 to 19, 2013 in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. For more information:
The workshops and hikes are free.