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Making Friends in High Places! Literally! I served as the park representative during a hike up Mt. Sterling (el. 5,843 ft) hosted by  Friends of Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Tuesday. Around thirty of us made the strenuous climb, gaining 2,000 ft in elevation in less than three miles. As the official radio bearer, I hiked at the back of the group in case of an emergency. I am a natural sweeper with my slow pace and that fish-out-of-water breathing style of mine!

My co-sweeper for the upward trek, Anna Zanetti, is an SCA alumna and now Friends of the Smokies director for North Carolina! While we plodded up the mountain, I enjoyed hearing about her adventures and experiences. She was also very knowledgeable about the beautiful wildflowers we encountered along the way: Turk’s Cap Lilly, Spiderwort, Primrose, Bee Balm, Indian Pipe, and more! Taking pictures of said flowers provided a great excuse for stopping to catch my breath, haha.

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Turk’s Cap Lily
We reached the summit before noon and sat around enjoying our packed lunches as the hike leader, Danny, regaled us with stories about the mountain. It got its name from a two-foot wide streak of lead that early settlers mistook for silver. Oops! Also, Civil War deserters used the mountain as a hideout. If you are familiar with the book or movie Cold Mountain, there’s a scene where three deserters that were captured are forced to march over Mt. Sterling and executed. 

After lunch, we had the option to climb the abandoned fire tower on the peak before heading back down the trail. It was a rickety old thing, barely a skeleton, with steep stairs and limited railing. I didn’t dare enter the top room with its busted out windows and sketchy wooden planks, but the views were amazing from where I stopped just below. The fog that had obstructed our views on the hike up had dissipated during lunch to reveal those coveted mountain panoramas.

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I resumed my position at the back of the pack for our jaunt back down the mountain. This time I was joined by Marielle DeJong, the Friends of the Smokies Outreach and Development Associate. She is also an SCA alumna and actually served as the Centennial Volunteer Ambassador for Blue Ridge Parkway last year! Small world, right?! It’s really wonderful and empowering to see members of our SCA family graduating into successful careers in the conservation field!

I am happy to report that we all made it back to the trailhead safe and sound. We only had one incident of someone falling resulting in a few superficial scratches. The Friends group will be hosting guided hikes throughout the park to raise money for projects like trail restoration, wildlife management, and historic preservation. I really hope that I will have the chance to accompany such devoted patrons of the park again! The work they do for us is invaluable. They not only dedicate their time, but also their resources to help preserve and protect this magical place. While fundraising is a major effort (having raised more than $47 million for the park since 1993), they also work to promote the National Park Service mission through raising awareness and providing volunteers. Thank you, Friends!