Archived Outdoors

Spring wonders: Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont makes nature hands-on

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Cameron Farlow, an intern at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s Oconaluftee Visitors Center, reaches down to pluck a meandering millipede from the moist, dirt bank along the side of the trail as we hike up the ridgeline.


“Have you ever smelled them?” she asks with a smile. “They smell like Cherry Coke.”

With the millipede gently pinched between her first finger and thumb she raises it to her nose and then offers it to mine. Sure enough — Cherry Coke.

It’s just one of many lessons about the Smokies’ natural world learned at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont’s Spring Wonders workshop. And this lesson, like so many others, is one we simply happen across on our way to somewhere else. Tremont provides a type of interactive, hands-on learning seldom found. Programs are led by a host of naturalists and educators, both on staff and visiting, and shaped by participants who range from experts in and of their own right to those simply choosing to embrace their curiosity.

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I am one of the curious ones. Originally scheduled to attend Tremont’s Arts and the Environment workshop, I was disheartened to learn just a week before time to go the workshop had to be cancelled. It was the first time in 20 years that Tremont had not had enough participants sign up. As a compromise, Tremont had agreed to pull a session or two from the Arts and the Environment workshop to incorporate into their concurrent Spring Wonders workshop. They called to ask if I would still be interested in coming — I said sure.

So, on a motorcycle-laden Friday afternoon I headed up onto the Blue Ridge Parkway to cross over into Cherokee and on toward Maryville, Tenn. Tremont is located just within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, not far from Cades Cove. At the Tremont turn off, the middle prong of the Little River flows along the roadside all the way to the institute’s campus. The river’s pleasant roar is a constant on campus and way up into the hills where the sound of rushing water mixes with the sound of rustling leaves.

The Tremont campus is an old Job Corps site. Tremont Environmental Education Center was opened in the fall of 1969 under a cooperative arrangement with the National Park Service and Maryville College. During the 1973-74 school year, 9,026 people participated in programs at Tremont.

In 1979 Maryville College withdrew from operating the Institute and in May 1980 the Great Smoky Mountains Natural History Association (GSMNHA) took over the operation and along with the Park Service remodeled, and in some cases removed, aging facilities. The name Tremont Environmental Education Center was changed to Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont in 1985. This change was made to further emphasize Tremont’s tie to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, associate its mission with similar “Institutes” around the country and emphasize that its audience was broader than just elementary school groups.

Tremont is nothing fancy by any means, but with heating and air conditioning, clean, hot showers and padded bunk beds, the accommodations are not too shabby either. The campus’ main building once held the Job Corps gymnasium, the hardwood floor of which remains in what is now called Cove Room. Tremont’s research rooms and reference library are located on the second floor for those spending their time on more scientific endeavors. Plans are underway to build a new Tremont campus, with the environmental impact assessment of construction about three-quarters of the way through. Currently, the institute is seeking funding and sponsorship to help pay for the project, said Tremont Executive Director Ken Voorhis.

As a residual of the Arts and the Environment weekend, we headed into town Friday night for a concert by singer-songwriter Bill Staines. Staines is best known for his song “A Place in the Choir (All God’s Critters)” and has been featured on National Public Radio’s Prairie Home Companion. Staines also is one of Voorhis’ favorite musicians, and as part of his trip, Staines conducted a Saturday morning workshop entitled “Songs From the Heart.”

Not being so musically inclined — my nine years of classical piano training are long since past — I opted to join Voorhis on the trail for “Nurturing the Eye of the Naturalist.” We headed two miles uphill into the woods, passing blooming yellow trillium and cresting into mountain laurel thickets ripe with hot pink buds. We paused, listening to bird calls.

“Hear that?” Voorhis asked. “That’s the black-hooded green warbler.”

Another bird chimed in, seemingly to say it’s own name — “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee.”

Voorhis dumped out a canvas sack of art materials — colored pencils, watercolors and paper. The goal was to develop a great sense of place and connection to the natural world through activities that challenged us to be more observant. With a handful of pink and green colored pencils, I headed off trail straight into a laurel thicket to see what I could learn about this regional signature plant.

Sitting on the ground nose to bud with a laurel bush, I began to study and sketch. It turns out that the structure of the laurel bud is such that it looks like two five-pointed stars overlaid on top of one another. I turned over a rock and found a tiny salamander. Trecking higher to the ridgeline I peered at a lichen, and then sat quietly looking left, looking right, to notice that I saw not a single man-made thing other than myself.

After an hour of private study, we came back together as a group to discuss what we had learned. Voorhis questioned us as to what we thought were the greatest detractors to spending time in nature.

“Time,” came the near unanimous response.

Back on campus, we divided into groups for our afternoon sessions. Along with Wren Smith, Interpretive Programs Manager for Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest in Clermont, Ky., five of us headed back into the woods. Using our senses and sign-language to communicate, we took a “soft walk” exploring the details of our surroundings — a leaf, a sweet gum ball.

On a wooden tent platform, Smith sat us down for a sharing ceremony performed completely in silence. She pulled “treasures” out from a basket and passed them around — a crown of vines, a shiny clamshell, a gourd that rattled. Using natural materials including dandelion blooms and mud we painted on paper plates, amazed at the intense colors nature’s paint box produced. The goal, as Smith later explained, was to get participants to focus on details, and encourage the spirit of playfulness and creativity.

Sunday morning, Tremont Education Director Amber Parker led us to one of the many streams that feed into the Little River to go salamandering.

“Here at Tremont salamandering is a verb,” Parker said, describing the process in which we would hunt for some of the park’s many salamanders and use identification keys to tell what type they were.

Just past our first stream crossing, Emily Guss, a Park Ranger at the Sugarlands Visitors Center, spotted a millipede climbing up a tree. The rounded creature crawled across her hands as she offered it to fellow hikers to hold, explaining that millipedes are herbivores and will not bite, versus centipedes, which are predators. However, millipedes excrete cyanic acid, a passive method of self-protection that aims to make the animals that eat them sick.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is known as the salamander capital of the world. Consequently, Tremont is conducting a salamander study that involves creating “salamander hotels” out of wire, leaves and rocks for placement in local streams. Teams monitor the hotels, recording salamanders’ type, weight and length on a regular basis.

At our first stream we quickly uncovered several Dusky and Black Belly salamanders under rocks.

“Have you already been through here?” asked fellow salamander hunter Larry McDonald, eagerly tromping through the stream above me and heading off to find more of the Dusky variety.

But it wasn’t until our second stream that we set about on a hunt for the Blue Ridge Two Line salamander. Whoever found one first and correctly identified it won a fern identification book. After 20 turned over rocks, I caught a tiny glimpse of yellow.

“Oooo!” I exclaimed, gently herding the creature into my highly scientific Ziplock baggie for closer examination.

“What is it?” Parker asked, coming in for a look. “That one’s special.”

The salamander’s little yellow belly almost glowed. I scurried down to find an identification key and following along soon learned that I had indeed found a Blue Ridge Two Line salamander. The Two Line was one of several great finds among the group — including a reddish Spring salamander and a good-sized crayfish.

As we prepared to leave Tremont just after lunch, staff already were preparing for another incoming group. It’s a constant rotation of a variety of school groups, families and individuals coming into to spend a weekend or a week learning about what the Smokies have to offer.

To learn more about Tremont and upcoming programs, visit

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