The Great Smoky Mountains National Park boasts more volunteers than nearly any other park. Last year, 2,780 volunteers logged a total of 117,537 man-hours. They wielded Pulaskis on trails, handed out maps at visitor centers, donned historic costumes for heritage days, scooped ashes out of campfire rings and promoted ethical wildlife viewing during peak elk times in Cataloochee.
Some volunteers turn their commitment to the park into a full-time endeavor, like Jim Lowe of Robbinsville. The Smokies hit a home run when Lowe sought out the area in his retirement. With a Ph.D from Yale in entomology and botany, and a forest service career that centered around plants and bugs, Lowe not only has hours and passion to spare but a real knowledge of science.
Lowe found his true niche as a volunteer with the All Taxa Biological Inventory. During the height of ATBI insect collections, the 77-year-old Lowe made twice-monthly treks to Purchase Knob for three years to check insect traps.
To catch crawling insects, Lowe used a pitfall trap: a plastic jar sunk in the ground. Any bugs stumbling along would fall in and drown in a dose of propylene glycol, poisonous only to insects.
For flying critters, Lowe draped a large mesh net over a pole, called a malaise trap. When insects collide with the mesh, they have a naturally tendency to fly upwards looking for a way past the obstacle. But at the apex of the net, the insects found themselves face to face with a bottle of ethyl alcohol.
Since black bears would lap up the ethyl alcohol if given the chance, an electric fence was strung around the whole contraption.
After three years, the Park finally put the breaks on the intensive collection after running out of storage space for the insects.
“Literally thousands,” Lowe said.
Lowe wasn’t the only one making the weekly rounds to check traps. Similar stations were set up at 10 other sites in the park. Lowe frequently pinchhit for volunteers manning the other locations.
“Between that and my trail maintenance, I never hike recreationally any more,” Lowe said.
As an on-call volunteer, Lowe often gets the chance to rub elbows with the troop of researchers funneling through the Smokies on ATBI quests. Lowe has a boat on Fontana Lake and is often tapped to give researchers a lift across the water to the wild and remote North Shore area of the Park. One week it might be ornithologists snaring birds in mist nets, and scientists tracing water mites the next.
Lowe sometimes serves as a backcountry guide for what he calls the “intellectual types” with less than savvy outdoor skills.
The ATBI has overshadowed any semblance of retirement Lowe had to his name.
“It’s a long standing love of the park and wanting to contribute to the knowledge of it,” Lowe said. “At the risk of sounding sappy, I am just devoted to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It has been a great part of my life.”