Hiking in the mountains teaches you a lot. In three easy, low elevation hikes the importance of an extra pair of socks, the potential liability of blue jeans even on short and supposedly dry trails, the value of accessible trail notes, and the aggravation of unsecured gear have all become crystal clear to me. These mountains hold many more lessons. A few are critical, and hopefully I can learn those without having to make any big mistakes. Most of the lessons are quite enjoyable and free to those willing to truly observe the marvelous surroundings. Some of us, though, find that a little formal instruction first significantly heightens observational effectiveness.
The Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, well-known for its children’s and teachers’ programs, offers eight adult classes in the Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certificate Program. Naturalist Skills, Interpretation, Plants, Reptiles & Amphibians, Southern Appalachian Ecology, Mammals, Birds, and Aquatic Ecology are weekend courses offered throughout the year to acquaint participants with the web of life here. The Birds course in May 2010 will complete the program for me. I’m also taking a course on Lichens in February 2010. These subjects are far too complex to achieve much more than a basic grasp in a couple of days, but the doors of understanding are opened, which makes it much easier to continue learning.
The Smoky Mountain Field School through the University of Tennessee offers one-day courses on topics like geology, mosses, fungi, medicinal plants, salamanders, fly fishing, and orienteering. For a small fee, you can spend the day with an expert and learn something.
The annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage and National Park Experience in late April (Gatlinburg) features a vast selection of hikes over five days, each led by botanists, naturalists, wildlife specialists, and other experts. Wilderness Wildlife Week is a similar opportunity in January (Pigeon Forge) for lectures, workshops, and winter hikes.
Discover Life in America is the organization in charge of the park’s All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory. They help support and encourage scientific research in the park to catalog all its living species. In 10 years, ATBI has discovered over 6,000 species new to the park and nearly 900 species new to science! Their December conference in Gatlinburg was the occasion of my Smokies visit where I officially began this trail quest. Many of the research efforts welcome the contributions of volunteers. Fern Forays have been conducted at least two or three times a year for eight years. I have helped for the last two years and as a result know the ferns better than any other plant group in the park. There is a core group of us who assemble for each Foray and have a lot of fun doing the actual survey work. Some of us extend the fun and camaraderie, arriving early and staying late. We are affectionately known as the Fern Frondlers, and there will be future blog posts detailing our exploits.