Each episode of Tennessee Uncharted documents the experiences of Erick and his crew across the State of Tennessee. Below is the full text of the short story that resulted from their adventure in Birchwood. 

As we slowly draw the curtains on Fall and watch as the mercury fails to rise, there is but one certainty…Winter is coming. And with the cold on the way, we firmly hold on and try to make the most of the last few warm days of the season in preparation for that time of year when we the world freezes.

I always feel very disconnected from the outdoors in the winter time. It’s a hard time of year for me.  Mainly because I am not a fan of the cold. I was born with very thin skin and the hair on my chest can only keep me so warm. Often, my only exposure to the outside world is the dash from house to car, car to place, place to car, and car back to house. And as the winter days drag by and I sit watching the outside world from inside the warmth found behind a windowpane, I usually start to get the feeling of being trapped, wishing for something to do. Searching for a way to fight back against that frosty air. So today we’re off to show that even though the ground is frozen, the world is not standing still.  There’s still a lot to do, learn, and experience.  Today on TN Uncharted we’re putting on our puffy coats and mothball-scented sweaters and stepping out into the cold in Birchwood, TN at the 24th Annual Sandhill Crane Festival to take a look at a few winter activities to help battle the winter blues.

Sandhill Crane Festival:
Birchwood, TN is a rural area Northwest of Chattanooga. On the surface, it looks like the kind of place you usually just pass through on your way to somewhere else. Surprisingly, though, each year, people from all over the country come flocking to Birchwood for the Sandhill Crane Festival, which provides one of the most spectacular wildlife watching opportunities in the state. In fact, this annual crane migration has been called “one of the greatest spectacles of nature in the southeast”.  So today we’re stopping in to take a look.  

Now I’ll be the first to admit that I am not an observant person. And on top of that, some might say I have a bit of a deficit in attention. So, you’re probably right if you have a sneaking suspicion that there are a lot of things in my life that I fail to notice.  A lot of things that I overlook.  For example, I still don’t really pay that much attention to birds. Even though we did an episode on birding back in Season 1, I’ve failed to master how to identify them, or know what call belongs to which bird.  When you add all of that up, I think you can guess how excited I was to go sit and watch a bunch of birds in the dead of winter. However, that all changed when I saw and heard my first sandhill crane.

These birds are huge.  Like prehistoric huge. The sandhill crane stands over 4 feet tall, with a wingspan stretching more than 6 feet wide, making it one of the largest birds found in TN. But you don’t really know how big that is until you see a flock of them flying right towards you. And they’re loud too. It’s said that the call of a Sandhill Crane can carry more than a mile.

In fact, Aldo Leopold, the father of wildlife management, wrote, “When we hear his call, we hear no mere bird.  We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution.”

However, as magnificent as the birds are, this species was nearly decimated in the east by breeding habitat loss and overhunting in the 1800s.  Today, thanks to the efforts of folks like the TWRA and places like the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge the population of eastern sandhills is rebounding from an estimated 50 birds during the mid-1920s to a current population of more than 89,000.  

Beginning in the early 1990s, the recovering population of eastern sandhill cranes began stopping at the Hiwassee Refuge on their way to and from their wintering grounds. TWRA has been managing this refuge and it’s 6,000 acres for waterfowl for more than 60 years, and thanks largely to their work, this refuge has become a winter haven.

Whether you’re an avid birder or you’ve never seen a sandhill crane before, the festival represents an extraordinary opportunity to witness a natural phenomenon that is truly unforgettable. Looking out over the waves of white wings that carpet the refuge this time of year, there’s no denying that the grounds here hold more meaning than just the frosty faces of the hills that fill them. Luckily, back at the auditorium, there are dozens of vendors, charitable organizations, and artisans arranged to tell the tales of the history that is housed here at Hiwassee. From crafts to facts, their booths offer more than just a chance to cheat the chill. In fact, one presentation, in particular, painted the significance of past populations in black and white.

Cherokee Removal Memorial Park:
While the festival is a celebration of the thousands of cranes that visit this area each year, a portion of the refuge is also set aside as a sanctuary for safeguarding the memory of migration of a different sort.

This area lies near the center of the ancestral land of the Cherokee Nation and has served as a significant crossroad in Native cultures for centuries. today, it is also the location of the Cherokee Removal Memorial Park. Dedicated to those that traveled, toiled and perished along what is known as the Trail of Tears, this park is a multipurpose facility. And from the educational exhibits to the winding walkways that illustrate the journey these families faced, the park provides visitors with the opportunity picture the past in the present. One feature, in particular, a memorial wall engraved with the names of the families forced from their homes, stands as a humble headstone for the over 4,200 who perished as part of this massive migration back in 1838. Running your fingers along the endless etching, the names put a personality to a past we would often like to forget.

There are some chapters in our history books that many of us would just rather skip over. Pages left unturned as if they never happened. But the farther we get from history, the more it can seem like fiction rather than a true account of our yesterdays. And while the paths these people carved into the crust of Tennessee are quickly covered and reclaimed, this refuge remains as a reminder of their story, far different from the supposed savages we see on a Hollywood screen. It tells a tale of businessmen, mechanics, farmers, families and friends, much like you and I. To many, the tale of the Trail of Tears is not common knowledge, but in a world where human rights have never meant more, The Cherokee Removal Memorial Park is a sacred site preserving a part of our past we can’t afford to set aside.  As you look across the state, there are other parks with grand views and waterfalls, with fried fair food and fast amusement park rides, but few of them are as important to TN as this one. And as the cold wind cuts through my down coat, I know that the chill I feel today is just a fraction of what they had to endure on their long journey west.  

It’s an educational experience, giving people an opportunity to stop, reflect, and connect with our history.

Sometimes a different point of view of something you’ve spent your life staring at can redefine your appreciation for it.  

The land in this area is a rich refuge that’s shown me so much more than I first expected, but there’s only so much you can see standing on the ground.

So I figured if anyone could help me get a grasp on the grand views and winding waterways that keep the cranes coming back each year, it would be Ron Lowery.  With his award-winning aerial work, Ron is a pilot and photographer, who has been providing the Southeast region with the finest in aerial photos for over thirty-five years. His book “Tennessee River: Sparkling Gem of the South” is a testament to his dedication to aerial artistry and passion to raise awareness about not only the beauty but also the importance of the TN River and how it affects our lives.

Today was unlike any plane ride I’ve ever taken. It wasn’t really about high and fast, but instead, it was all about low and slow. There were times I felt like I could reach out and run my fingers through the river.  As I mentioned earlier, for me, things have a tendency to go unnoticed, but today, with a limitless look at the land, this flight made sure that nothing was overlooked and made me feel more in touch with Tennessee. Today I didn’t feel like I was chasing clouds, more like, I was one of them.

Sweetwater Valley Farm:
Cheese. Cows. Wows! For me, that says it all. I love cheese.  I believe that cheese makes just about any food better. From American singles to the stinky gourmet stuff, I’m in. Grilled cheese and tomato soup...Yep. A glass of cabernet paired with a bold cheddar…Don’t mind if I do.  As a self-proclaimed connoisseur, I’ve put a lot of thought into my cheese selections and their many culinary contributions, however, I’ve never really thought about how cheese is made.

While today’s Sweetwater Valley Farm cheese is produced in a state of the art facility, they’ve preserved the fine art and craft of making cheese in the traditional farmstead manner, controlling the process from cow to consumer in order to create the highest quality of cheese.

And in a time when more and more people want to know where their food comes from, Sweetwater Valley Farm has the answer. There’s nothing artificial in their cheese.  Just high-quality milk and an old fashioned approach.

Today not only gave me a lot of food for thought but changed my perspective on cheese.  I now see why Chester Cheetah is always saying, “It ain’t easy being cheesy”.  There are over 1,000 cows on this farm and each one gets milked every day.  So basically, every second of the day, a cow is getting milked here. That is UTTERLY amazing! Needless to say, a lot of work goes into “making that chedda’” here at Sweetwater Valley Farm.  

If I learned anything today, it’s that there truly IS an art to cutting the cheese.

As we check the morning weather report with fingers crossed for higher temperatures and watch as the greens outside our windows slowly turn to grays, this week has shown me that we don’t have to feel like prisoner’s this polar season. Even in the winter, the outdoors of TN has a story to be told, offering spectacles to be seen and experiences to be had. This week has shown me that no matter the season, the outdoors is dynamic. Ever changing.  Filled with multiple vantage points, perspectives, and variables that change the experience of the same place with each visit.

But more than anything, I’ve discovered that there is a beauty in bundling up. An appreciation gained in the effort of getting there. And amidst the runny noses and chapped lips is a deeper feeling, a feeling of connection to the world around you. In the space between the trees and the silence of the cold stone and dirt, you can feel the power of the past and behold the beauty of the present. But I can only show you so much through this TV screen. It’s up to you to get out and see it for yourself.  To feel if for yourself.  To hear the call of a sandhill crane as it comes back home. To run your hands over the names of those forced to vacate the hills we now call home. To get out and write stories among the streams and carve curves in the clouds for your children’s children to one day recreate on a chilly day themselves.

Yes, I believe there is a beauty in bundling up. So, this year, give Jack Frost a true TN welcome, double up your socks, and step outside. You just might experience a winter moment that you’ll have forever…frozen in time.