They come from across the Southeast, the Midwest and as far away as Colorado and Alaska to the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage. This year, more than 1,000 "pilgrims" will gather in and around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for five days of wildflower and birding walks, talks on medicinal plants and green living, and several strenuous hikes (see box).
It's "the largest wildflower pilgrimage in the country, with over 150 events," explains Judy Collins of the Great Smoky Mountains Association. Now in its 60th year, the event was started by the Gatlinburg Garden Club, the University of Tennessee and the city of Gatlinburg.
Ken McFarland, a UT biology professor who's been with the program since 1976, picks the trails and the leaders for the outdoor programs. "We have lots of wildflower walks. Most people come for two or more days, and the majority do a wildflower hike and a birding program," he notes. There's also a full slate of walks and talks on mosses, liverworts, salamanders, insects, bears and hogs. UNCA botanist Dave Clark will lead a hike in Cataloochee, and Lynda Doucette of the Oconaluftee Visitor Center will lead a flower walk along the Oconaluftee River Trail.
"The challenge," says McFarland, "is finding people who are willing to come and are qualified to lead. The outdoor leaders volunteer and pay their own travel expenses; we provide them with housing and meals. One leader has been involved since the start in 1951."
For McFarland, the highlight is "walking the trail, talking to people and getting visitors engaged. They ask interesting questions. I like to have the public understand and be more aware of the environment they live in."
The leaders, he says, "give pilgrims a different perspective and encourage them to take a scientific look at the environment. Walks are casual and slow-paced. We have two or three leaders per event so they can engage with the public. We go rain or shine, so people should come prepared."
Indoor programs are also popular. Headliner Joe Wiegand will present "A Theodore Roosevelt Salute to the Great Smoky Mountains." Wiegand, who's even performed at the White House, will tell stories of the early conservation movement and the growth of our national parks.
"I portray T.R. because his life and his stories speak to Americans today in a worthwhile way," Wiegand explained via e-mail. Roosevelt's "dedication to family and country, his values and ideals, and his policies for conservation, a 'square deal' and a 'Speak softly and carry a big stick' foreign policy are very relevant to our current circumstances.
"I enjoy traveling this beautiful country and entertaining in the persona of T.R., of whom his daughter Alice famously said, 'Father wanted to be the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral and the baby at every christening.'"
Wildcrafter Ila Hatter will present several programs on traditional medicine. A Greener Living Expo will offer information on composting, attracting insect-eating birds and becoming your own greengrocer.
But it's mainly about the flowers. "The last two years, we had spectacular wildflowers," McFarland recalls. "In general, flowers are coming out a week earlier than they did 50 years ago. But this year, the cold winter will delay the bloom, so they should be on schedule."