‘Leader of leaders’: New Smokies chief ranger brings impressive career to America’s most visited park

After decades roving the backcountry of some of the largest parks in the Western United States, Lisa Hendy is returning to her home state of Tennessee to serve as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s first female chief ranger. 

At least, that’s the headline picked up by news outlets across the country, and it’s true. Hendy will start her new job April 8, and it will be the first time a woman has served that role in the Smokies. But to Hendy, it’s not about gender. It’s about her ability to do the job, and do it well. 

Back to work: Shutdown ends, but effects likely to linger through 2019 season

After 35 days of furlough, National Park Service staff are back to work at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway and more than 400 other National Park Service units nationwide. 

“On behalf of the employees of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I want to express our heartfelt gratitude to our partners and communities for their unwavering support over the last five weeks,” said Smokies Superintendent Cassius Cash in a press release. “In addition to the monetary support offered by our partners to provide basic visitor services, we were moved by the number of people and organizations who stepped up to organize litter pickups and the outpouring of generosity expressed to our employees through meals and gift cards.”

Outdoors 2018: The year in quotes

From the depths of winter to the height of summer, valley agriculture to mountain exploration, longtime mountain dwellers to new arrivals, a year in Western North Carolina’s great outdoors can provide a lifetime of stories. In 2018, The Smoky Mountain News covered everything from conservation to kudzu, encountering plenty of colorful characters along the way. Here’s a selection of the best quotes we heard this year, about the mountains and from those who love them. 

Planted in the mountains: WNC botanist reflects on a lifetime of discovery

Dan Pittillo has made his name as a botanist, but he could easily have ended up a dairy farmer instead. 

Born in Henderson County the oldest of five, Pittillo entered the world in 1938, when the Great Depression was in full swing and people were used to not having much. For the first two years of his life his parents didn’t even have a house — the family lived with his grandparents while his father worked to build one. 

You can’t make this stuff up

One of my favorite and most often used aphorisms in this lifetime has been “you can’t make this stuff up.” This adage applies 100 percent to Michael Finkel’s recent national best-selling book The Stranger in the Woods (The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit). Gifted a copy of the book from a friend who had read my book Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods and who thought that I would enjoy reading about “the ultimate hermit,” I dove right into the book and didn’t come up for air until I had reached page 203 at the end of the book.

Making tracks: Kids trails program earns recognition after decade of growth

In 2008, the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation launched a new program aiming to get kids and families out exploring the high-elevation corridor. Ever since, the Kids in Parks program has mushroomed into a national endeavor with designated trails from San Diego, California, to Nags Head, North Carolina. 

Kids in Parks was recognized for its decade of accomplishments when it won the Youth Engagement Award at the SHIFT Festival in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The annual SHIFT Awards recognize individuals, initiatives and organizations that contribute to conservation through human-powered outdoor recreation. 

Uniquely positioned: Grant aims to grow outdoor gear industry in WNC

An effort is underway to make North Carolina’s 24 western counties into the next outdoor gear industry hub, and the far western region is poised to find itself at the epicenter of that wave. 

“We’ve already got tremendous momentum within the outdoor sector from the early work that’s been done to cultivate this sector,” said Matt Raker, director of community investments and impact for Asheville-based Mountain BizWorks. “A lot of that is rooted in our exceptional outdoor recreation assets we’ve got across the region, from Tsali to the new Fire Mountain Trails to the Tuckasegee and the Pigeon River Gorge, you name it — we could go on for a long time. That’s helped attract a lot of entrepreneurs and brands here, but they have some specific needs to be able to grow.”

Oil Nut, that most curious fruit

For Elizabeth and me, the fall season is one of the most invigorating times to get out in the woods and prowl around. Many of the most beautiful wildflowers found in the Blue Ridge, especially the lobelias and gentians, are then coming into their own. And most of the others are in their fruiting stages. The transition from flower to fruit (or seed) is both logical and enjoyable. The varied fruiting forms — which run the gamut from drupes, berries, and pomes to follicles, utricles, loments, and legumes to capsules, achenes, samaras, and nuts — are as attractive and intricate in their own way as any wildflower. And they are, after all, the grand finales of the germination-flowering-pollination cycle.

Poor acorn crop leads to increased bear encounters

A nighttime breath of fresh air turned traumatic for 75-year-old Swannanoa resident Toni Rhegness when she spotted three bear cubs while walking her dog on leash in her front yard Sept. 18.

While Rhegness followed important bear safety rules at her own home — not leaving trash outside and keeping her dog leashed, for starters — her neighbor had left garbage cans outside for pickup the next morning, and the cubs were scavenging them for a meal. Seeing the cubs, the dog barked. Rhegness shouted to scare the bears off and picked up her dog to go inside.

A mile-high view: State-level squabble stalls Jackson County conservation project

To call the view stretching out below the 5,462-foot bald “spectacular,” “impressive” or even “jaw-dropping” would be an understatement. 

It was as clear a day as had been spotted in the mountains this rainy year, skies blue and cloudless ahead of the slowly moving remains of Hurricane Florence. The sun shone on Cherokee to the west, Bryson City visible just a couple folds of land beyond it and the Nantahala Mountains rimming the horizon south and west of the small towns. 

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