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  1. Balsam Mountain Trial

    Balsam Mountain Trial

    After traversing its lower section three times, I dreamed for the next three years of finally hiking the upper section of Balsam Mountain Trail. I finally got my chance this past July.

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  2. Park Maintenance and Historic Preservation with Experience Your Smokies

    Park Maintenance and Historic Preservation with Experience Your Smokies

    Over the next several months, my Locally Grown column will feature details related to my sessions with Experience Your Smokies, an educational program that receives essential funding and scholarships each year from Great Smoky Mountains Association.

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  3. The most important Smokies author you’ve probably never heard of

    The most important Smokies author you’ve probably never heard of

    You may be familiar with Ron Rash, the author of the novels Serena and The Risen, as well as Charles Frazier who wrote Cold Mountain.But have you heard of Mary Noailles Murfree? How about Charles Egbert Craddock? The last was a trick question since Charles Egbert Craddock was actually the pseudonym used by Murfreesboro, Tennessee native Mary Noailles Murfree (1850-1922).

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  4. Hazel Creek Trail – Gentle and Wild

    Hazel Creek Trail – Gentle and Wild

    A lot can be said about hiking the easy grade of Hazel Creek, so named for the abundance of hazel trees that line its banks. But first you have to get there. Hiking Hazel Creek Trail requires equal parts planning, execution and trust. Planning is easy. You and your fellow hikers just need to agree on a date and time to commence your adventure. With that minor detail settled, execution begins when you catch the boat shuttle for the 30-minute ride across the western edge of Lake Fontana.

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  5. Gunter Fork Trail – A Very Long Haul

    Gunter Fork Trail – A Very Long Haul

    I looked up the weather, phoned a friend, and planned our vehicle shuttle for a pick up at Balsam Mountain Trail. We were about to embark on 15.9 miles of backcountry hiking to complete 4.1 miles of trail that is notorious for difficult water crossings in the spring. Knowing our mileage would be long, we hit Big Creek Trail at dawn and started a fast pace along the gently ascending Big Creek Trail 6.1 miles, passed Low Gap Trail in the blink of an eye and left Camel Gap Trail in our dust.

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  6. Smokies Life Redux: Rhododendron Revisited

    Smokies Life Redux: Rhododendron Revisited

    Did you know that there are more than 1,000 species of rhododendron in the world? Can you name the four species we have in the Smokies?

    I learned these things and more when I edited an article by Courtney Lix for publication in the current issue of Smokies Life. Courtney's story provides insight into this ubiquitous and resilient plant—one that might easily be taken for granted by locals and repeat visitors to the park.

    “The most common is the rosebay (R. maximum), which grows most abundantly at lower elevations but can be found nearly everywhere throughout the national park,” Courtney wrote. “Small-leaved rhododendron (R. minus) occurs frequently as well, although in smaller numbers than rosebay. The other two rhododendron species grow in mid- and high elevations, mostly above 3,500 feet: the Carolina rhododendron (R. caroliniana), and Catawba rhododendron (R. catawbiense).”

    A native of eastern Kentucky, I am most familiar with the Catawba variety, which was discovered in North Carolina by French botanist and explorer Andre Michaux in the late 1700s. Thanks to Courtney, I’m beginning to recognize the other types while hiking.

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  7. The Civilian Conservation Corps Art Program in the Smokies

    Many visitors to the Smokies are familiar with the Civilian Conservation Corps. This Depression-era government program was one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s most popular and successful relief programs. Millions of young men were fed, clothed and housed, and in return they planted more than 3 billion trees, worked on soil conservation projects in the western United States, and helped construct hiking trails and other infrastructure in state and national parks. Their toil helped shape the modern state and national park system we enjoy today. The Smokies are no exception.

    To find evidence of CCC handiwork, visitors today need look no further than the park headquarters building in Gatlinburg, numerous features along Highway 441, including various bridges, tunnels and the Rockefeller Memorial, not to mention the hundreds of miles of hiking trails in the park.

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  8. The Benefits of Spiders – An Interview with Kefyn Catley

    Spiders tend to get a bad rap, but they are actually critical to the balance of our ecosystems. Kefyn Catley will explain how on Friday, July 20, as part of Discover Life In America’s Science at Sugarlands series, a free public event at Sugarlands Visitor Center at which participants will get to go on a spider hunt.

    Catley, a biology professor at Western Carolina University, teaches and conducts research in the evolutionary biology of spiders. He holds a Ph.D. in arthropod systematics from Cornell, was a research scientist at the American Museum of Natural History, and has taught Spiders of the Southern Appalachians at Highlands Biological Station in North Carolina since 2004.

    FF: It’s not every day you meet someone who has studied spiders on four continents. Why do you find them so fascinating?

    KC: Spiders have an ancient lineage originating some 400 million years ago. They are the largest and most important group of predators on the planet and are considered a mega-diverse taxon with more than 47,000 described species with an estimated total number in the range of 75,000-190,000. Spiders are excellent models for studying ecology, behavior, biochemistry, competition, speciation, sexual selection and biogeography, among other fields. They contribute to research in biological pest control, venom chemistry and the cloning of silk.

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  9. Fireflies and Bioluminescence - An Interview with Will Kuhn

    One of the most exciting and fabulously popular events each year in late May and early-to-mid June is the flashy mating ritual of the synchronous fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains. This year’s peak dates for firefly viewing are June 7-14 and thousands of visitors will be gathering, just as they have for years, near the Elkmont Campground to observe this naturally occurring phenomenon. 

    Why does Photinus carolinus attract not only its mate but also a large human fan club through its rhythmic flashing? We asked Dr. William R. Kuhn, a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Tennessee, to illuminate this topic.

    FF: First of all, how are you involved with Great Smoky Mountains National Park and what makes it exciting for you? 

    WK: I am a member of Discover Life in America's board and have recently become chair of the Science Committee. In addition, I've helped with the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory's sampling effort, including collecting assassin bugs (predatory insects related to stink bugs and cicadas) in the park, as they were considered under-studied here. So far, this work has resulted in a new species record for the park. Every time I work in the Smokies, I think to myself what a privilege it is to be in such a beautiful and diverse place! 

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  10. Linnaea borealis, found—then lost

    Linnaea borealis, found—then lost

    The year 1934 – when Great Smoky Mountains National Park was officially established – was a dark year for Tennessee botanists. The gloom was due not to the creation of the park, which provided a permanent home for thousands of species of wild plants, but to the fire at the University of Tennessee that destroyed one of the state’s best herbariums. The UT collection, housed at Morrill Hall, contained more than 30,000 specimens, including many unusual plants collected in the Great Smoky Mountains.

    Yet this dark cloud had one silver lining. Dr. A.J. Sharp, a world-renowned botanist and UT professor (as well as former GSMA Board Member Emeritus), rallied his botanist troops and called for the creation of a new, improved UT herbarium. Botanists all across the country responded by collecting new specimens and donating plants from existing collections. One of the latter specimens was a plant collected by Albert Ruth on August 13, 1892, and labeled, somewhat vaguely, Mitchellarepens[partridgeberry] collected in “Sevier County—in mountain woods.”

    When Dr. Sharp looked at this particular specimen, his jaw dropped. Not because partridgeberry is uncommon (it is extremely common along sunny trail sides), but because the plant had obviously been mislabeled. Sharp was looking at Linnaeaborealis(twinflower), one of the most delicate and beautiful flowers of the far north woods.

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