We were invited to visit the Great Smoky Mountain National Park for several days this spring with some good friends.

We’d never been before, and didn’t have high expectations in spite of all the glowing reports we’d heard from friends. Wow, were we blown away. Just driving into the park is magical, with towering trees, rivers & wild turkey in all their glory right on the side of the road. It’s like the rangers staged the scene just before we showed up, in order to make the best possible first impression.

We were extra fortunate that our time in the park allowed us to attend one day of the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage. The pilgrimage is 5 days of classes, hikes, seminars and more – all in the the park and surrounding area. I wish we could have been there for the whole event, but we packed in a lot on the one day that we had. (you can see last year’s brochure here)

Our first class was “Forest Foods and Pharmacy” taught by the venerable Ila Hatter, who has been teaching about wildcrafting for more than 25 years. Some of our other classmates have been coming to her sessions year after year, because they always learn something new.

We were led on a 3 mile walk in the Metcalf Bottoms area to rustle up whatever useful plant life could be found. We learned about mullein which can be good for wounds, partridge berry that you can eat for its vitamin c content (tastes bland, but kindof nice), sweet birch branches that taste like wintergreen and can be made into a vitamin rich tea, and many more.

It was all so fascinating, and I wish I could absorb everything she said. She was passionate and wrapped her lessons in wonderful stories of past experiences. Fortunately she was selling her books afterward, and we picked up a copy of her cookbook Roadside Rambles .

We were having the time of our lives. There is not much better than learning while being outside and hiking – sincerely three of our favorite things. The trails here are not to be beat. Everything is so lush, varied and well maintained.

Our next class was “Fungal Roles in Forest Ecology” taught by Ed Lickey and >Gary Walker. Right off the bat we learned about the basic classifications of mushrooms and got to see some great examples. It’s no secret that Thom and I love to take fungi photos, but we really didn’t know much about them before this class.

For instance, we had no idea that the mushrooms we usually see are just the fruiting body of the organism – like an apple to the tree. The actual fungus is the mycelium, a complicated thread-like structure that branches its way through the host. That’s why, in certain areas, it’s ok to harvest found mushrooms – because you aren’t harming the actual fungus.

Our teachers were full of energy and got up close and personal with the specimens they found. Here, Ed uses a hand lens to see the structure of the fungus. These lenses are incredibly powerful, and reveal an entire new world. If you are interested at all in mycology or plant-life, I encourage you to pick one up. You can learn so much more by getting a closer look.

We have so much more to learn about mycology, and this book came highly recommended. It’s still on our to-buy list, but we did purchase Musrooms of the Midwest just to narrow the field a bit. We were so inspired by this class – we can hardly wait to learn more.

To top off our wonderful day, as we were departing, the line of cars began to pile up. My instinct was *bear* and I was absolutely right. This gorgeous black bear was hanging out on the other side of the river, just taking a gander at the line of people standing around taking photos. It was our first day in the Smokies!

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3y6x-h8WXTQ&w=600&h=338]
The 2016 Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage will take place April 19 – 23 and we think that it is an amazing opportunity for anyone who loves nature and wants to learn more. We will certainly be going back!