FRIGID FUN: Weekend festival celebrates Townsend and the Smokies in winter
By Steve Wildsmith (email@example.com)
Winter in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a wondrous season.
Bare branches reach to the skies in frozen posture, awaiting spring’s renewal and giving way to views that can only be appreciated in the absence of their leaves. Although sloppy and slippery, trails can be deserted in the colder months, allowing hikers to feel as if they’re the first settlers setting foot in this wild region. At higher elevations, snow blankets evergreens and open meadows, the crystalline landscape a place of otherworldly beauty.
This weekend, the Townsend Winter Heritage Festival will celebrate that beauty, and those who know the Smokies well want potential visitors to know that winter is just as good of a time to visit the park as any.
“When I’m talking to people about winter in the Park, I’m selling them on winter,” said Ken Voorhis, executive director for the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. “It’s a great time to be up here, typically. Yes, it’s chancy with the weather, but it’s chancy in March as well. Some things I love about winter in the Park is that without the foliage on the trees, you can see the mountains. You can see the rocks and the geology and the landforms more, when you really don’t because of the jungle that develops in the summer.
“It’s just a different world. It’s also peaceful and quiet, and there aren’t as many Park visitors. It’s a great time to be in the mountains in that regard.”
As part of the festival, Voorhis will conduct a session on Winter woody plant identification on Friday at the Smoky Mountain Visitor’s Center — “a primer of what to look for in the winter time; people know trees well with the leaves on them, but they’re a lot harder to look at in the winter,” he said — one of many activities taking place through the weekend. This will mark the seventh Winter Heritage Festival, which kicks off with a reception at the Townsend Artisan Gallery tonight (Jan. 31).
Taking place primarily on Friday and Saturday at the visitor’s center and the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center, the festival — presented by the heritage center, Blount Partnership and the Great Smoky Mountains Association — will also include hikes, a photography workshop, live music, dowsing classes, book signings and special presentations about East Tennessee history, Appalachian traditions and the natural beauty of Townsend, Cades Cove and the Park.
Park Ranger Mike Maslona, who’s been with the National Park Service for 33 years and with the Smokies for 16, will lead one of the hikes, to Elijah and Polly Oliver’s cabin in Cades Cove. Last year, he led a hike to secluded Gourley Pond, and this year, the hour-and-a-half hike (over mild terrain) will include some history of the Olivers and their still-standing homestead.
“Elijah Oliver was the son of the first European settler here in Cades Cove, and it’s a neat area because it’s one of the few in the Park where all of the support buildings are there,” he said. “It’s not just a cabin or a barn; it’s a cabin, an add-on cabin, a spring house, a meat house, a corn crib and a barn, and they’re there and exist as they were when he was there.
“We’ll talk about the Olivers and their five kids, and how they grew up and survived the seasons in Cades Cove, including the Civil War, which had an interesting effect on this whole region. We’ll go to each of the structures and see how the park keeps preserving them.”
Discovering signs of civilization is one of Maslona’s favorite things about the Park in the winter. Winter hiking — with plenty of layers of clothing, he emphasized — can reveal old cabin foundations and chimneys and long-ago roadbeds that are hidden when the Park’s foliage is in full bloom.
“Reading the landscape can be fun from a historical perspective,” he said. “If you’re out looking for old chimneys and rock walls and depressions, you can see that more readily in the winter time. And of course, the bugs can be gone in the winter. It’s more visual.”
“It’s just a great time, because there aren’t the crowds or the heat,” Voorhis added. “I’m a big hiker, but hiking in July on a 90-degree day in the Smokies, you’re doing a lot of sweating. This time of year, you can get out and go on a walk, hike up one of these trails and get some great vistas.
“If there has been snow on the mountain tops, you can look out and see that, and you can walk up that transition zone and find these heavily frosted trees. Last week with the ice storm, it was gorgeous up here with ice dripping off the tree branches and the hemlocks kind of drooping. They looked like they’d been candled in ice.”
Elevation, Maslona said, is everything. Cades Cove may seem like it’s high up in the mountains, but the elevation isn’t that changed from Knoxville. But every few hundred feet in elevation can make a significant difference.
“Elevation is everything here in the Cove,” he said. “That’s why you can see snow-capped mountains all around, but there will be absolutely nothing on the valley floor.”
This weekend’s festival won’t just be about the Park’s flora and fauna, however. Appalachian traditions are part and parcel of every Townsend festival, and this one is no different. Charlie Monday, who’s been organizing the music for the various heritage festivals since the beginning, will lead two classes on dowsing on Saturday at the visitor’s center. His great-grandfather was a dowser, he said, and the folk tradition lives on in him. Although he grew up around it all of his life, it wasn’t until his father died that he decided to further explore the family tradition.
“In 1981, when my father died, I went to the cemetery where we had an old family plot, and I told the caretaker that I wanted to bury my father (in a particular spot),” Monday said. “He told me there might be somebody already buried there, and I said, ‘But there’s no marker.’ He told me that didn’t mean anything, and that he was going back to the house to get his machine to figure it out, and he’d be right back.
“Well, he came back with two coat hangers and went across that spot and said, ‘Yeah, there’s nobody buried right here.’ After everything calmed down from the funeral, I got me some dowsing rods and started.”
Most people associate dowsing with finding water, but it can also be used to find unmarked graves, Monday said. During his demonstration, he and his wife, Sandy, will give background information on dowsing and let those who participate try it for themselves. He tells them up front, however — “You’re going to leave with more questions than you arrived with!”
“Even for people who see that it works, they’re still confused as to why it can’t be explained,” he said.
Like many things about those fog-shrouded hills, it’s a mystery — a link to times long gone and places that no longer exist, except as stone foundations and chimneys visible only in winter.
“There’s a lot of history here, and a lot of natural history to go along with all of the biodiversity,” Maslona said. “There are four distinct seasons, each of them kind of unique, which makes the Park different four times a year.”
Voorhis, who’s lived in the Tremont area for almost three decades, agrees — but there’s a special sort of uniqueness that makes winter in the Smokies a time of magic.
“About halfway up the mountain, there will be a band, where you can see the line of snow and frost,” he said. “You can start out on a hike from the valley floor, where it can be grey with not much going on, and gain a little bit of elevation, and all of the sudden you’re in a winter wonderland. The Smokies are great every season, but a lot of people miss out on the wonders of winter.”