The story below is an excerpt from our Jan./Feb. 2014 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, view our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!
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Steve Garrett heard the call of the wilderness deep in his soul. While many may hear it, he acted on it. He first hiked a major portion of the Appalachian Trail and then when the corporate world started eating at his serenity, he looked for a change in career and lifestyle. He knew from his time on the AT that he would enjoy getting others back to nature. A Google search for “hiking businesses for sale” led him straight to Smoky Mountain Llama Treks and the Great Smoky Mountains.
On first glance, Garrett ruled out the llama hiking business, but the idea kept creeping back into his mind. He asked his wife to look at the website and she gave the new venture a “thumbs up.”
They ultimately loaded up their then 14-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter in Michigan and headed to East Tennessee to begin a new life. They took over the business in April 2012. At that time Garrett was 41 and his wife was 40. The business currently includes 11 llamas and one alpaca.
“I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that some people think you ride the llamas, but you don’t,” says Garrett. “You walk with them. It’s a very cool experience. You don’t have to carry anything. The llamas carry everything.”
Exploring the Natural World
Garrett is one of the presenters at this year’s Wilderness Wildlife Week (WWW), now in its 24th year. He first attended as a spectator in 2012 and then became a presenter in 2013 where he says, “people flocked to the llamas.”
This year WWW is set to run Saturday, January 25 through Saturday, February 1, 2014 at the brand-new LeConte Center at Pigeon Forge.
For those who love the outdoors and wildlife, this eight-day conference seems too good to be true. The packed schedule, which begins each day at 8 a.m. and goes straight through 9 p.m. or later in some cases, includes hands-on workshops, seminars, lectures and guided hikes led by a fascinating line-up of experts and speakers who volunteer their time. It’s offered without an admission fee. Yes, you read that right – this conference is free and open to anyone who wants to learn about the natural world.
It all started when famed wildlife photographer Ken Jenkins, who owns Beneath the Smoke Gallery in downtown Gatlinburg, presented a plan to Pigeon Forge officials for a Wilderness Wildlife Day. They embraced the idea and about 60 people showed up that first year. Interest was so strong it quickly evolved into a weeklong program and has grown to numbers well beyond Jenkins’ expectations. Last year, 24,000 people took part.
“It’s astounding,” says Jenkins. “The indication is people are hungry for information about the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and ways to enjoy it. We don’t charge for this. There’s no gimmick involved.”
He congratulates Pigeon Forge officials for running with the idea and having the vision to see the great return on offering something for free.
“The more you tell people about this park, the more they will enjoy it,” says Jenkins. “It’s a common sense approach to getting people involved and having them visit more often.
“There’s a really great atmosphere,” he continues. “It’s not just the speakers, but individuals sharing information with each other. It creates a family atmosphere. It’s a clean, wholesome environment.”
Plenty of Choices
Butch Helton, director of special events for Pigeon Forge Tourism, says he’s been involved with WWW since 2000.
“When I first started, we had 10 to 12,000 people coming. This year we’re offering 335 classes. That’s up 50 or 60 over what we did last year. We will also have 51 hikes and field trips of varying lengths and abilities as well as 60 on-site vendors.”
The programming is designed to appeal to all ages, including a special kids’ track of choices, which includes such offerings as “Tall Tales for Young & Old,” “Learn about Life as a Civil War Soldier” and “Wild World of Animals: Knoxville Zoo’s Zoomobile” to name a few.
For the adults, here’s a brief, random sampling of this year’s topics: “Fly Fishing the Smokies,” “Wildflower Folklore,” “Beginning Mountain Dulcimer,” “Creative Nature-Enhanced Photography,” “A House Divided: The Civil War in Knoxville and East Tennessee,” “Advanced Possumology” by Doug Elliott, “Learn to Play Spoons and Washtub Bass,” “Building a Backyard Bird Habitat,” “The Art of Dowsing,” “Wire Wrapping a River Stone Pendant,” “Beginning Clogging” and “Giving Bears a Second Chance.” The entire schedule is online at: mypigeonforge.com/events/wilderness-wildlife-week/
“You can pick and choose what you want to do and come and go as you please. You can come for a day or two or attend all eight days,” says Helton. “Once you get people to come one time they are hooked on it. A lot of people plan their vacation around this week.
“I don’t know of anything else like it in the U.S.,” he adds. “You’d be hard pressed to find something like this for free. We call Ken Jenkins the father of Wilderness Wildlife Week because it was his idea that sparked the whole thing.”
A New Home
The year 2014 is one of transition for WWW. Fear of the event changing from its warm, cozy atmosphere has caused some regular attendees to voice concern, but Jenkins and Helton insist the move will maintain the spirit of the conference that people have come to know and love.
This year marks a move into the new $50 million LeConte Events Center at Pigeon Forge. This city-owned facility, built on an old lodge theme, encompasses 232,000 square feet including a 100,000-square-foot exhibit hall. It officially opened in October 2013 and also includes new offices for the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism.
“This will be our fourth move,” says Jenkins. “Everywhere we’ve been, people have been amazingly accommodating. We’ve simply outgrown the previous locations. But people don’t have to worry about it. We’re going to keep the same atmosphere. We don’t want to lose what we’ve got.”
Helton echoes Jenkins’ sentiments. “This will be a learning year for us,” he says, “but we’re just going to a new home. We’re not going to change this event. We’ll remain true to the spirit and purpose of it, which is educating and entertaining people. The city is committed to keeping it a free event. I can’t envision that changing.”
Want to Go? (It's Free!)
24th Annual Wilderness Wildlife Week
Eight days of FREE workshops, seminars, lectures, hikes and guided walks
Saturday, January 25 – Saturday, February 1, 2014
LeConte Center at Pigeon Forge, 2986 Teaster Lane, Pigeon Forge, TN 37868