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Great Smokey Mountains National Park. Courtesy Wilderness Wildlife Week
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Dulcimer class. Courtesy Wilderness Wildlife Week.
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Courtesy Wilderness Wildlife Week.
"Dollywood?” Our friends’ raised-eyebrows said it all when my husband, Tom, and I announced we were heading to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, last year. The Great Smoky Mountains town known for its Appalachian-themed amusement park and other touristy attractions wasn’t a place our empty-nester friends — who are into birding, organic gardening and composting — had figured as our choice of destination.
Into the wild
Our response piqued their interest: We were going for Wilderness Wildlife Week, a celebration of mountain culture through seminars, interactive experiences, performances, hikes, field trips, bus tours and, yes, bird watching, including owl prowls. All events and activities are free.
According to its founder, nature photographer Ken Jenkins, it’s a week “committed to the education and enjoyment of the public as to the wonders of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.”
This festival was held in January, but it’s been moved this year, and shortened to five days, May 18 to 22. The highlight will be a new program, Appalachian Homecoming, to be held Saturday, May 21, at Patriot Park. It will include storytelling, an antique tractor show, hayrides, music and a picnic. It all begins at 6 p.m., which means there’s plenty of time to make the six-and-a-half-hour drive from Richmond.
The festival’s wide-ranging programs empowered us to be hams last year. We tried our hands (and breaths!) at the American Indian flute and our feet at clogging (we couldn’t fit the clawhammer banjo class into our schedule). Tom had tried acrylic painting once before; but the three-hour workshop by Smoky Mountains artist Dick Ensing (in which Tom painted a Smoky Mountain waterfall from a photograph) was successful in retaining his interest when we got home to Midlothian.
This year, a “kids’ track” offer includes Fred & Ted the Fish, which follows two fish through local waters to see how pollution and storm water runoff ruins the journey; and Pioneer & Historical Toys, where participants learn to make simple toys from past eras. John Rose, the “Snuffy Smith” cartoonist who lives in Harrisonburg, will lead a kids’ workshop, Bodacious Cartooning for Kids, and also an intergenerational program with his drawings. Another intergenerational workshop, Build a Woodpecker Feeder, requests one-family-per-table in constructing a bird feeder to take home.
Popular lectures, slide/video presentations and panel discussions are also offered, including Digital Photography & Editing: From Amateur to Pro and Hiking & Backpacking: Getting Started With the Right Gear, Essentials and Minimal Impact.
Retired Virginia Tech professor Don Linzey presents an engaging PowerPoint titled Evidence of Mountain Lions in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He covers the biology of mountain lions and cougars, their range, and their calls as demonstrated on his tape recorder, and shows how people mistake bobcats and coyotes for lions and cougars.
Plan your visit
Registration is limited for classes and excursions. You should be at the registration desk at LeConte Center by 8 a.m. each day to ensure a space in your desired session. We perused the festival website before our trip and mapped out our activities for each day.
Our favorite excursion was a visit with the American Eagle Foundation, the 30-year-old, Dollywood-sponsored, nonprofit organization that protects eagles and supports their habitat. We watched, amazed, in close proximity to the free flight of an American bald eagle. Among other birds of prey in the staff presentation — hawks, falcons, owls, vultures and crows — was the raven named Poe, whose cognitive antics flew in the face of any ‘bird-brained’ stereotype.
We found so many appealing choices among the excursions that we added a day to our stay. We used it to make a short trip to Elkmont, a ghost town owned by Smoky Mountains National Park and site of the old Little River Logging Camp, which transported its harvested trees to Townsend, an old mill town we also visited. This year marks the National Park Service centennial, so it’s featured in much of the festival’s programming.
Staying & Eating
We found Willow Brook Lodge (willowbrooklodge.com) — a 10-minute walk on the opposite side of the Little Pigeon River from the LeConte Center — to be an ideal, economical lodging ($110 per night, all-inclusive, for queen room with refrigerator, microwave and coffeemaker along with Continental breakfast, Internet and indoor-pool access).
We liked The Old Mill restaurant (old-mill.com), where an 1830 gristmill anchors a complex of two country-cooking eateries plus pottery, candy and toy shops. Wherever we ate in Pigeon Forge, we ate early — or ordered takeout — to avoid the crowd during the festival. Check out mypigeonforge.com for comprehensive lodging, dining and sightseeing information.