March 2015 - Where in the park are wePosted by | 03.25.2015
By Lisa Duff
Marketing and Membership Director
The day was one of those in late winter/early spring that teases of days to come. A Carolina-blue sky and a soft, barely chilly breeze greeted us, the 2015 Experience Your Smokies NC participants, as we arrived at Oconaluftee Visitor Center at mid-morning on March 17.
“You better be glad you’re wearing green,” Ranger Linda Doucette joked, “or you might get pinched.” It was, after all, St. Patrick’s Day.
Experience Your Smokies got its start in the late 1990s with a mission to help community leaders get more involved with the national park through an inside look and hands-on experience. The program in its infancy was conducted mostly on the Tennessee side of the park, with programs covering wildlife management, fisheries, archaeology, exotic plants, air quality, historic preservation and native plants.
The popularity and success of the TN program was enough to convince park officials that offering a similar experience highlighting North Carolina park management issues and achievements would be worthwhile. And so the EYS NC program launched in 2013.
I had only a vague sense of what to expect from Day 1, though I imagined my classmates and I would be visiting the Mountain Farm Museum and learning something about the work needed to preserve the many historic structures found in this outdoor setting. And while we learned a little of that, mostly we learned that “historic” doesn’t mean “mothballs” here in the Smokies. In fact, the park’s interpretative rangers put these structures through their paces at various times during the year.
“This is our fourth-grade program we do each spring for area schools,” Doucette told us. “So don’t be surprised if the ranger go back and fourth between treating you like 10-year-olds and like adults.” Luckily, a 10-year-old joined our group, so we could turn to her when the questions got really difficult.
“What would it have been like for a blacksmith 120 years ago?” Ranger Will Butler, who looked nothing like a park ranger and everything like a working blacksmith, asked us. “What are some of the things he or she might be asked to make in the blacksmith shop?”
Let me stop right here and say how impressed I was with Ranger Will’s knowledge – of period attire, of blacksmith chores and, most importantly, of gender roles and the fact that it took all members of the family doing what was necessary for survival in the 1880s. And once more for the record I’d like to say that it takes a special person to invite a dozen hyper fourth-graders on the field trip to beat all field trips into a working blacksmith shop – complete with dirt floor, iron tools, 200-pound anvil, a double bellows and 500-degree fire - and ask each of them to make a dinner bell and ringer.
Finishing up our dinner bells, our group was warmly welcomed into the Davis House, where I can now cleverly revealed the answer to the original question. This glowing hearth surrounded by tools that would have been crafted in the blacksmith shop served as the location of our next lesson: How do you cook for your family without a stove or refrigerator or oven or running water or electricity or any of today’s modern conveniences? In this historic tutorial, Ranger Beth Wright tells us (with no shortage of glee in her voice) that the students learn without even knowing it. Our task – as is theirs when they visit the kitchen – is to read a set of instructions, measure out ingredients, and end up a couple dozen or more sugar cookies for the class to share.
As was the case with Ranger Butler, Ranger Wright and her two capable assistances were outfitted in period clothing, all the way down to their button up, patent leather shoes. “This program years ago was done by one ranger,” Beth explained. “I don’t know how she did it!” Neither do I. Our small class size of eight adults (and one fourth-grader) required less in the way of supervision, but can you imagine the outpouring of excitement when the room is full of 10-year-olds? Spring fever on top of a mind-blowing field trip to the national park on top of flour, lard and sugar? It’s all too much to comprehend. Kudos to the rangers brave enough to step up and meet this assignment head on.
With dinner bells thoroughly and proudly rung and cookies gobbled down by all, because life on the farm works up an appetite, we ended our day with great expectations to our next session in Cataloochee Valley. But before we leave, Ranger Doucette chuckles and says: “I’m always amazed when a visitor comes back from seeing the farm and tells us, ‘I wish I could live like that.’ My response each time is: ‘You CAN!’"