Great Smokies Experience 2016 is live!

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Bringing it home

Afternoon of Day 11: The Great Smoky Mountain Heritage Center

After leaving our friends at Tremont, we started driving back to Maryville College.  First, though, we stopped by the Great Smoky Mountain Heritage Center to talk more about the ecological history of this region and specifically to discuss the Native American experience in Appalachia.  After touring both the inside and outside portions of the museum, we were given the opportunity to hurl darts using an atlatl.

Target practice with an atlatl, a device that uses leverage to increase velocity and distance of spear-like projectiles.  Atlatls were used by Native Americans in Southern Appalachia, as well as by many other peoples around the world.

Target practice with an atlatl, a device that uses leverage to increase velocity and distance of spear-like projectiles. Atlatls were used by Native Americans in Southern Appalachia, as well as by many other peoples around the world.  Our attempts to hit a plastic deer met with limited success.

Day 12: Exploring the Ocoee River

One of the running themes in the Great Smokies Experience is to compare and contrast different philosophies and institutional approaches to the management of natural resources.  For this reason, we understood from the beginning that our time outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in other parts of Appalachia are as important as our time within the Park.  On Day 12, we looked at two other U.S. Government agencies, the U.S. Forest Service and the Tennessee Valley Authority and examined how they attempt to reconcile and balance a wide variety of environmental, economic, social, recreational, and other interests.

Entrance to the Cherokee National Forest on the Ocoee River

Entrance to the Cherokee National Forest on the Ocoee River.  Unlike the National Park Service which is administered by the Department of the Interior, the U.S. Forest Service is managed by the Department of Agriculture and allows limited harvesting of its resources.

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We kayaked down a flat water section of the Ocoee River.  This river and the surrounding area in Ducktown was almost completely deforested by the copper mining industry.  The region was depleted of its topsoil, poisoned by sulfur, and so bare as to be described by a desert by many observers.  According to the TVA, astronauts in the 1960s could see this damage from space and used this “scar in the Appalachians as a navigational aid.”  Today, some 90% of the area has been reforested through a pairing of government and private initiatives.

Flat water kayaking on the Ocoee

Flat water kayaking on the Ocoee

Mountain Challenge's Bruce Guillaume demonstrates kayaking techniques.  (Bruce is considerably faster when his kayak is in the water.)

Mountain Challenge’s Bruce Guillaume demonstrates kayaking techniques. (Bruce goes considerably faster when his kayak is in the water.)

Exploring the ruins of Caney Creek Village.  The Tennessee Power Company built this town in 1912 to house workers to build Ocoee Dam #2.  The community thrived for 21 years until the TVA took over the Tennessee Power Company's operations in 1943, at which point they closed the village.

Students explore the ruins of old Caney Creek Village. The Tennessee Power Company built this town in 1912 to house workers constructing Ocoee Dam #2. The community thrived for 21 years until TVA took over the Tennessee Power Company’s operations in 1943 and closed the village.

Investigating artifacts from Caney Creek Village

Investigating artifacts from Caney Creek Village

Days 13-14: Saying goodbye

Students spent the morning studying for the final examination.  Though taking a two-hour examination may not be as fun (or photo-opp worthy) as hiking by a waterfall or kayaking, the students knew from the beginning that they were earning college credit and that the final exam was the last significant academic challenge of the Great Smokies Experience.  As with every other challenge they faced, the students rose to the occasion and did top-notch work; we couldn’t be prouder of them.  I simply could not have imagined the pilot year of the Great Smokies Experience having gone any better.

Climbing a large magnolia tree at Maryville College after the final exam was over

Climbing a large magnolia tree at Maryville College after the final exam was over

Eating at a restaurant on the last night of the Great Smokies Experience

Eating at a restaurant on the last night of the Great Smokies Experience

A final game of cards in Crawford House as students waited to be picked up for the journey home

A final game of cards in Crawford House as students waited to be picked up for the journey home

Looking forward to 2014

That’s it for 2013.  Bruce, John, Mark and I going to miss these students and we hope to see them again in the future.  (Feel free to drop by when you’re in the neighborhood!)  Meanwhile, it’s time to start preparing for the second year of the Great Smokies Experience.  If anyone reading this would like more information about this program, please feel free to email me at doug.sofer[at]maryvillecollege.edu and thanks for checking us out.

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Last Days at the Park, 2013

The final five days of our program’s pilot year were both enriching and fun.  Students visited Cades Cove and nearby historic sites, prepared and delivered top-notch presentations about what it means to have a sense of place.  There was a long hike in the rain, and said goodbye to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  We visited the Smoky Mountain Heritage Center and learned about how different peoples made their livings in the Smokies.  We kayaked down a flatwater section of the Ocoee River and heard about how the Tennessee Valley Authority manages its dams.  The academic part of the program culminated with a two-hour final examination, after which we unwound at a cool restaurant down the street from the college and reflected on what we’d gotten out of our time here.

Last Days at Tremont, Days 9 through 11

John DiDiego, Director of Education at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, talks to students about Cades Cove

John DiDiego, Director of Education at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, talks to students about Cades Cove

This class is about humans’ role within the complex, interconnected web of natural relationships that make up our environment.  Cades Cove’s history tells us a great deal about how different peoples supported themselves through their connections to the land.

Students walking in front of one of the buildings at Elijah Oliver’s 19th century homestead at Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Elijah Oliver's House

Elijah Oliver’s House

Spring house on the Elijah Oliver homestead.  This old-school refrigerator uses spring water to preserve foods for storage

The spring house on the Elijah Oliver homestead. This ‘refrigerator’ uses spring water to preserve foods for storage.

A day-long hike in the rain that included a significant solo-hiking component.  Some of the students said that they found this activity especially profound.

A day-long hike in the rain that included a significant solo-hiking component. Some of the students said that they found this activity especially profound.

On the morning of our final day in the Park, John helped students mull over what they’d gotten out of their experiences living, studying and playing around Tremont.  Tremont’s core objectives include encouraging a love of the natural environment in the Smokies and fostering a sense of stewardship of nature.

Contemplating our time at the Tremont and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Contemplating our time at the Tremont and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Tremont practices what it preaches when it comes to environmental stewardship.  The measurement of food waste in the cafeteria is just one way it lives this commitment.

Tremont practices what it preaches when it comes to environmental stewardship. The measurement of food waste in the cafeteria is just one way it lives this commitment.

 

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Mount Le Conte

Ascending Mount Le Conte

Ascending Mount Le Conte

Day 8: A Big Hike

We put Eric and Mia, the two staff leaders and veterans of the Mountain Challenge program, in charge of planning this day’s events.  They ambitiously chose to lead us up to the top of Mount Le Conte, one of the highest peaks in the Appalachian Mountains, and third-tallest mountain in the Smokies.  We trusted their years of expertise hiking in rugged terrain, but we knew we had our work cut out for us.  My wife and I had hiked up to the Mount Le Conte lodge a decade ago, but I had never attempted to ascend and descend the peak in the same day.  What I had forgotten, though, was how utterly inspiring this hike could be; the terrain is challenging but this climb simply has some of the most breathtaking views in the Southeast United States.  At the end of the day we were all exhausted, but we had all made it to the top and returned without regrets.

Starting the ascent

Starting the ascent

One of the many bridges in the first quarter of the trail

One of the many bridges in the first quarter of the trail

Transition zone between the deciduous forest below and the coniferous forest above

Traveling from the deciduous forest below into the coniferous forest above

Mia inspired the entire team throughout the journey

Mia kept up student morale during the entire hike

Getting to the top

Getting to the higher elevations

Alum Cave

Alum Cave

Taking a rest in Alum Cave

Taking a rest in Alum Cave

Fragile forest in the highest elevations

Fragile forest in the highest elevations

A brief stop at Mount Le Conte Lodge

A brief stop at Mount Le Conte Lodge

Resting at the cliff tops at the summit

Our heads were literally in the clouds

Our heads were literally in the clouds as we ate lunch

A garter snake greeted us on the way down

A sated garter snake greeted us on the way down

Descending through Arch Rock

Descending through Arch Rock

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From Maryville College to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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One one hand, it seems like the passage of time has slowed to a crawl at times; we’re doing so much each day it’s hard to keep track of everything.  On the other hand, it’s hard to get my head around the fact that the pilot year of the Great Smokies Experience is already two thirds through.  Even trying to remember back to everything we did on the day before heading to the Park is getting difficult at this point.  In short, I’m glad I took a lot of pictures and I have this blog available so I can try to remember what we’ve been up to lately.

Day 4: Forests and The Maryville College Woods

Among the highlights of Day 4, Dr. Drew Crain, Professor of Biology at Maryville College, took students on an interpretive hike through the College Woods.

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Dr. Drew Crain points out some of the different species in the Maryville College Woods

We also got to look at the fruit tree orchard which Dr. Crain helped to establish on the fringes of the College Woods.

The Orchard at Maryville College

The Orchard at Maryville College

Students learned a good deal about ecology and the challenges to maintaining and managing a woodland property.  We also got to meet a box turtle, we took some spore prints of some fungi (a bolete and a coral fungus), and used some state-of-the-art water quality analysis hardware to examine water quality in the creek.

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Box turtle in the College Woods

Making spore prints of mushrooms

Making spore prints of mushrooms

Measuring water quality in the College Woods

Measuring water quality in the College Woods

Day 5: Welcome to the Park, Learning to See

In many ways, this week at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the keystone of the entire Great Smokies Experience and students were extremely excited to get to the park.

Students arrive at the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Students arrive at the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Maryville College staffers and faculty at the Park entrance

Maryville College staffers Eric Kearney and Mia Sundstrom sitting on the wall; faculty members Mark O’Gorman and Doug Sofer at the Park entrance

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Crossing the bridge to the Great Smokies Institute at Tremont

In the Park, we went to the Great Smokies Institute at Tremont where we met with John DiDiego, Director of Education and Interim Director.  He helped settle everyone in and introduced them to Tremont’s policies and procedures.

Days 6 & 7: Salamanders and a world-renowned diversity of species

The next two days were spent visiting different kinds of forests at different altitudes in the Park.  Here is just a sampling of the kinds of things we got to see.

Low country salamander inventory

Low country salamander inventory

One of the many salamanders we met in one of the streams near Tremont

One of the many salamanders we met in one of the streams near Tremont

Waterfall hike on Day 6

Waterfall hike on Day 6.  The students painted their faces by grinding colorful rocks from the stream.

Getting instructions on the high country salamander survey

Getting instructions on the high country salamander survey

To be continued

Sometimes it was hard to tell who was surveying whom

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The First Three Jam-Packed Days

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Starting the journey

It’s the morning of July 21, 2013: Day four of the first Great Smokies Experience, the students are out in the College Woods with Dr. Mark O’Gorman learning about woodland ecology and management policies and I have a rare opportunity to sit down and try to describe what has happened over the last three days.  Frankly, it’s hard to know where to begin; we’ve done a lot in a very short time.  Here, then, is a photo essay that gives a small taste of what we’ve been up to lately.

Day 1: Beginnings

We began with a fun ice-breaking event run by Mountain Challenge on the College Ropes Course.

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First photo from the Great Smokies Experience

By the afternoon, we introduced the course in a classroom and then did a library exercise to get more familiar with some of the terminology we’ll be using over the next two weeks.  Yes, this is really a three-hour college course and yes, there’s really reading and academic work to be done.   Fortunately, the students have been up to the challenge and are clearly taking things seriously.

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Library exercise, Day 1

Day 2: Rethinking our relationship to nature

Many generations of Maryville College students continue to talk about their first time up the tower.  Bruce Guillaume and the Mountain Challenge program have been safely helping people overcome this and other obstacles for a quarter century now.  Bruce is at the bottom right of the next photo, helping some students up the tower and teaching others to support the climbers.

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At the top of the tower!

At the top of the tower!

We also took a tour of some of the ecological initiatives that Maryville College has made in recent years.  Here students listen to Dr. Adrienne Schwarte talking about the solar Dok picnic tables.

Discussing features of Solar Dok picnic tables

Discussing Solar Dok picnic tables

 

When you think of hiking, you’re generally imagining a walk in the woods or up a mountain or in an idyllic field somewhere.  We started our hiking experience by going to a strip mall in downtown Maryville, TN.  How do we organize our commercial spaces?  Why are there some places that most people simply don’t walk to?  Why is it strange to hike to a strip mall?  What does this tell us about our relationship to nature?  In addition to these and other questions, we also wanted to provide students with contrast to their upcoming experiences in more natural settings.

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Who hikes to a strip mall? We do.

Day Three: Tellico Reservoir

Environmental studies classes around the United States talk about the Tennessee Valley Authority and the issues that emerged in the debate over the Tellico dam.  We got to discuss these same questions while canoeing on the reservoir itself.

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Canoe skills and safety exercise at Tellico

Canoeing at Tellico

Canoeing at Tellico

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A break for lunch on the Tellico Reservoir

Honing our listening skills by making a sound map on the water

Honing our listening skills by making a sound map on the water

Coming up…

So this is how we got to Day 4.  The rest of today is about woods and a wide variety of management policies and philosophies towards woodland environments.  Tomorrow we head out the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Things are going very well so far and there will be more updates to come.  Thanks for stopping by!

— Doug Sofer

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Launching the Great Smokies Experience

We are now within a week of launching the Great Smokies Experience at Tremont and Maryville College and we could not be more excited.

I want to tell you a little bit about how we got here, but it’s hard to know where to begin.

Beginnings: The professional history geek version

Even though I’m a historian and I love talking about the past, I probably don’t need to go all the way back to 1819 with Isaac Anderson’s founding of Maryville College.  It might be better to jump ahead to 1969 when Maryville College helped establish the Tremont Environmental Education Center in partnership with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  For ten years the college administered Tremont, but in 1979 MC discontinued its management of the center for variety of reasons that are still not entirely clear (at least not to me).

Thankfully, Tremont continued to serve as a bastion of environmental education in the early 1980s, and in 1986 it reinvented itself as the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, where it flourished under the leadership of Ken Voorhis and became the favorite field trip destination for thousands of school children throughout east Tennessee and beyond.

That same year, Bruce Guillaume, fresh from working with Outward Bound in North Carolina, founded a new outdoor recreation program called Mountain Challenge.  A year later, he moved the program to the MC campus where it continues to thrive to this day.  Mountain Challenge has had many corporate clients over its quarter-century of operation, but like Mountain Challenge, it may have the greatest impact on the school-aged children who have taken part in its ropes course, boating, hiking, spelunking (that’s the exploration of caves if you missed that piece of power vocab when studying for the ACT), among many other outdoor activities.

A New Partnership

Cutting to the chase, here’s what happened next.  In Fall 2011, the college began a process of rekindling its relationship with Tremont, this time as an equal partner.  It became immediately clear that the college, Tremont and Mountain Challenge all share a whole host of fundamental values: a belief in the importance of environmental education, a conservationist/environmentalist ethic, an interest in learning through experience, and a conviction that physical wellness comes through the development of both mind and body.

The next summer during a summit at Tremont, I started to ask whether it might be possible to draw on the talents and experience of all three partners in building a special summer class for high school students.  To this new experiential course, Maryville College would bring its expertise in higher education and its care and respect for the individual student; Mountain Challenge would bring its love of outdoor recreation and its deep knowledge of Southern Appalachia; and Tremont would bring its years of experience sharing the Smokies with students from all over the world.

After a year of planning, sweating, and coordination of multiple moving parts, we find ourselves within a week of beginning our pilot year.  Thanks to everyone who’s played a part in this experience, and I look forward to takeoff next week!

— Doug Sofer, Coordinator of the Great Smokies Experience

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