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Get Schooled on All Things Smokies at Smoky Mountain Field School

The classroom doesn’t get any prettier. Students at the Smoky Mountain Field School do their learning in wildflower meadows, sparkling streams, fragrant fern groves and evergreen forests.

Explore. Learn. Enjoy.

That’s the mantra of this institution dedicated to showcasing the natural beauty, history, and culture of our corner of Southern Appalachia.

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In its 37th season, the Smoky Mountain Field School has provided 16,000 learning experiences to people from all 50 states. Every year more than 700 participants select classes from a roster of 60 offerings.

Many things make the SMFS a winner. It’s interesting and fun. Classes are taught by people who love to share their knowledge. Their enthusiasm is contagious.

For me, SMFS classes are one way to connect to the outdoors and sharpen my backwoods skills. Where else, but on an owl prowl can I learn to hoot in the moonlight? And, get a hoot back from the real deal.

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I’ve taken birding and wildflower identification classes and come away with a greater understanding for the natural world around me. I’ve delved into the cultural heritage of the mountain folk. I’ve learned how to use a compass in an orienteering class and how to set shutter speed in a shady rhododendron thicket.

Most of all I’ve grown in my appreciation of the beauty and wonders of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. What a privilege it is to live so close to 900 miles of hiking trails, some of the nation’s top fly-fishing streams, and one of the world’s most diverse ecological habitats.

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Joel and Kathy Zachry

Joel and Kathy Zachry, SMFS program managers, sing the praises of this award-wining program. “Participants always bring a sense of adventure and leave with a feeling of accomplishment by day’s end,” says Joel.

He and Kathy have served as field school instructors and hike leaders since the early 1980s. Their wildflower walks in the spring have a huge following, as do their backcountry hikes. This year Joel will scout for black bears and host a show-and-tell session on “Understanding the Black Bear” in Cades Cove. Together with Kathy, he wrote the book “Bears We’ve Met ─ Short Stories of Close Encounters.”

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One reason the Zachrys are so good at their job is they’re connected to a fraternity of friends with vast knowledge of various outdoor pursuits and an eagerness to share. They’ve added new classes and put a fresh spin on the ever-popular annual offerings. “For a nominal fee, participants can spend a day with an expert and ask all the questions they want. What a bargain!” says Kathy.

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Each year 30 seasoned naturalists, retired park rangers, biology professors, fly-fishermen, historians, musicians, photographers, and outdoor experts present about 80 workshops, hikes and adventures.

Pickin’ in the Mountains—guitar, fiddle and banjo music—is new this year. Bill Landry, host of “The Heartland Series”, will share stories of Cades Cove, Greenbrier, Chilhowee and the Tennessee Overhill region. Author Sam Venable and his wife, Mary Ann, will explain mountain ways, traditions and local dialects.

In addition to these entertaining offerings, plenty of workshops focus on moths, salamanders, and snakes. The fireflies of Elkmont produce a blinking light show that attracts a huge crowd. SMFS also has a generous assortment of “how to” classes for people who want to learn nature sketching, spin-fishing, tree identification, orienteering and animal tracking.

SMFS is a cooperative effort of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the University of Tennessee. The majority of the classes convene on Saturdays and originate at Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg. Registration for classes is done via the Web, by telephone, fax, mail, or in person.

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Hi! I’m Linda Lange. As a travel writer living in Knoxville, I fully appreciate barbecue, bluegrass and Dollywood. My story...Read on

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