As put, the National Park Service is "charged with the trust
of preserving the natural resources of America." Easier said
than done, I thought, as I started my first day as a park ranger
at the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. Reputed to
be the largest national park in America--or at least in the East--
this mainly forested area consists of more than 500,000 acres,
straddling the ridge line of the Great Smokey Mountains as
well as part of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Beyond this, just
to get a feel of how huge this park is, it is situated in parts of
two states: North Carolina and Tennessee! It's no wonder that
the Great Smokey was certified as a UNESCO World Heritage
Site in 1983.
The Great Smokey is so big that it has three entrances. The
park headquarters and Sugarlands Visitor Center is located
near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, whereas the Cades Cove Visitor
Center is located at the western end of the park. I was to be
stationed out of the Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee,
in North Carolina.
As a new park ranger, I had to follow around some senior
rangers like a puppy. Orientation training in the "field" was
about getting out and around, which in this gargantuan park
seemed nearly an incredible task ahead. Nonetheless, at the
time I didn't realize what a wonderful education I was about
to receive. My training at Great Smokey held me in good
stead for the rest of my career.
Right off we hit the trails, around 70 en total, ranging some
800 to 900 miles when put altogether--offering anywhere
from short to arduous treks. Though there we no lodges
or cabins in the park, there were campgrounds--some built
for car-camping, with picnic tables and fire grates. Others
were smaller, but car accessible. And there were horse
camps. All in all one could find all sorts of hikers and
travelers on these different kinds of trails.
Most of the higher elevation trails, nestled more in the
mountains, were located on the Tennessee side of the
Great Smokey; whereas, on the North Carolina side
many of the trails led alongside streams and rivers and
near waterfalls. There was also what is called the
"Smokemont Loop" of the Cherokee entrance, which
was a trail into a wildflower heaven.
I felt relieved, when I realized that I wouldn't be doing
all 70 trails, but rather those located only in the North
Carolina section of the park. No one park ranger could
ever get a complete "handle" on Great Smokey. We had
our partitions, where we developed our expertise.
Working on the trails, I began to realize the tremendous
diversity of life that existed in this great park. To quote
from a National Park Service fact sheet: "No other area
of equal size in a temperate climate can match the park's
amazing diversity of plants, animals, and invertebrates.
Over 10,000 species have been documented in the park...
and scientists believe an additional 90,000 species may
At least I had the good sense to realize that I would not be
expected to "know" all 10,000 recognized species. Still,
I would be expected to know a lot of them--especially those
more up front with visitors, who are always full of endless
questions. We had to be experts, whether knowing answers
off the top of our head or knowing precisely where to go
to find out.
Right off I realized that my education as a park ranger was
not going to be a "snap."