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 the Great Smoky Mountains.

The Great Smoky Mountains. Not only are they the home of the most visited national park in the US, but they’ve served as the host destination of too many summertime Baker vacations to count. I’ve spent hours enjoying the wonders of nature through the windshield of our old Escort at Cades Cove and collected air-brushed t-shirts from the endless avenues of downtown Gatlinburg. In fact, we’ve amassed so many family photos from the top of the Gatlinburg SkyLift, you can almost arrange them as a flipbook of my tumultuous journey through puberty.

But over the years, like too many Tennesseans, I’ve grown familiar with all the fanfare and lost my fascination, taking for granted what’s in my very backyard. In fact, as a parent myself these days, I’d neatly filed away “Visits to the Great Smokies” as something for summertime… the same time when all the other 10 Million annual visitors tend to schedule their trips as well. And with a biodiversity unmatched by any temperate forest of its kind, it’s not difficult to see what draws the visitors in May through October. But, if you’re like me, you may have overlooked this area past Fall. Because, while a light white may dust this destination come winter, the features are anything but frozen in time. In fact, just like the rather famous black bears of the park have hibernated this time of year, so have some of the higher prices and larger crowds you find during the peak season, making it that much easier to enjoy all the area has to offer. Which is a lot, a whole lot in fact. Luckily, each year the fine folks at the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism host Wilderness Wildlife Week, a full week of programming dedicated to the adventures and anecdotes of the Appalachians. And from group hikes in the outdoors, to sessions for beginners in wildlife photography, even area artisans and everything in between, this event serves to connect and educate both budding and experienced outdoor enthusiasts on the many ways to enjoy the Smoky mountains.

Having celebrated 75 years of serving the State of Tennessee, few can speak to the over 80 varieties of mammals, 240 species of birds, and 60 species of fish living within the park quite like the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency. For TWRA, this week provides an opportunity to educate a wide variety of visitors on the wildlife they work to protect, as well as some of the techniques they have used to revitalize species that were not long ago nearing extinction within the state. While sometimes mistaken as simply law enforcement, in reality, the agency consists of hundreds of biologists who serve as stewards of the state’s natural resources through everything from acting as educators to managing limits.

One of the many regional success stories of this management are the 1,500 black bears that call the Smokies home. With right at 800 square miles of old-growth forest comprising what we know as the Great Smoky Mountains, that works out to almost 2 bears per square mile of the park. Needless to say, it’s not difficult to understand why spotting a bear in these parts is a fairly common occurrence. And while all but a very rare few of these encounters end well, Kim Delozier is one of the many presenters educating in order to keep animal interactions safe.

The black bear has grown into a well-known symbol of all the amazing wildlife that abounds here in the Smokies. However, for many, what to actually do if you come across a black bear in the wild, isn’t as widely known. Today not only allowed me to test-drive a costume for Halloween 2016, it also provided some steps to stay sensible should I stumble across a black bear in my adventures.

Ober Gatlinburg:
In all the times I’ve been to this area, this is the first time I’ve made the trip up the mountain to Ober Gatlinburg. You see, first of all, since I set eyes on my first slopes, I’ve been a bit of a ski snob. I suppose that, more than anything, it just so happens to be the first snow sport I discovered as a child, and with years and years of fond memories carved into the snow, I found it hard to believe any other mode of transportation down a fresh slope could fill me quite as much joy. Secondly, like far too many folks who’ve lived nearby their entire lives, I couldn’t fathom that something so close to home could rival the resorts you find out West.

Established in 1962, Ober Gatlinburg has powdered the peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains for a few decades now and along the way have regularly added to their long list of attractions. From shopping and dining to rides for all ages, not to mention the full menu of services for skiers and snowboarders alike, Ober has an option for everyone.

But, as you may have gathered by this point in the series, my goal is to seek out the uncharted and since, in MY few decades, I’ve never hit the slopes on anything other than skis, today I’ve been talked into snowboarding. And to start me off right, I’m meeting with one of the long-time instructors on staff, Pete Joker.  

While Pete’s easy attitude helped me make a joke of today’s lesson and find myself doing some smooth sliding in no time, as fate would have it for all of my past pretention, my confidence got the better of me, and I ate it. I guess it was just the mountain’s way of settling the score.  

As I look around, I can’t believe that I’ve never been here, and I can’t help but wish that I had visited sooner. Even though I’m only an hour from my front door step, Ober Gatlinburg is one of those few places that makes me feel like I’m far away.

However, just down the mountain, there’s a great place that specializes in making folks feel like family. In fact, you might say they get a lot of amusement out of it. While most parks pride themselves primarily on their wild rides, Dollywood offers up a rich swath of the craftsmen traditions of Tennessee. And as you accompany these master craftsmen back to how these trades were practiced over a century ago, the story of artistry they bring to life is made all the more special by the Smoky Mountain Christmas festivities they feature this time of year.

For me, one of the things I look forward to the most in winter is the joy of Christmas time.  Each year I’m tasked with the honor of putting the lights on the family tree.  All told it’s probably only 6 or 7 strands, however, inevitably, something always goes wrong.  Compared with the over FOUR MILLION lights the festival features each year, with decoration starting all the way back in July, my struggles are seriously humbled. And between the scents of the cinnamon bread and the songs of the season, even the most serious case of “bah-humbugs” will be set straight in no time.

Since opening in March of 2014, Sugarlands Distilling Co. has set about sharing shine in a special way. From preserving a process that’s true to the past to connecting visitors to guided adventures in the park historically known as a “moonshiners paradise”, Sugarlands has set out to do more than just sell. Instead, they try to tell the tales of tradition and on a cold day I can’t think of a better place to stop in and get warmed up.

Sugarlands Distilling Co. offers visitors the complete TN moonshine experience, sharing in the story of this area one jar at a time.

Just like the summer trips of my tender youth, our tradition now is every Fall my mom insists on driving through the Smokies to look at the leaves. We spend hours, pulling off at the same overlooks to take in, all the same, views as the year before. Too many times I’ve tried to talk her out of the trip, telling her about the tourists and traffic. This trip however, has helped me rediscover that, if we’re being honest, all the tourists and traffic are rather telling. These mountains are magical. They’re filled with wonder and beauty, and for me, so many amazing memories with my family.

As mother nature settles down for some slumber at the end of each summer season, she offers the visitors wise enough to come witness her winter weeks a glistening glimpse at how “Great” she really is. This may have been my first time to experience the Smokies in the winter, but I assure you, it won’t be the last. And now instead of looking forward to another Spring once the leaves start to fall, my family and I can look forward to all the fun found in the falling snow.