Lifestyle Outdoors

Great Smoky Mountains Association Keeps Park Lovers Connected During Closure

Golden mouse. Elizabeth Ellison, artist

For the millions who love Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it was important to stay connected while the park was fully closed March 24 through May 9. To make this possible for Smokies lovers throughout the world, the park’s partner organizations worked remotely to create virtual park experiences through the magic of storytelling.

Great Smoky Mountains Association (GSMA) is an educational park partner that normally generates revenue for the park by creating, selling and distributing books and other educational materials and products in park visitor center bookstores, as well as online. One of its most important storytelling tools is Smokies Life magazine, an in-depth journal produced twice a year for the association’s 34,000-plus members.

“In late March, with our park closing and our visitor center bookstores soon to follow, we knew we had to bring the park to people in their homes,” says Frances Figart, GSMA’s creative services director. “So, we created Smokies LIVE as a virtual magazine for Smokies lovers—an online offshoot of Smokies Life.”

Figart reached out to association supporters to develop daily interpretive posts. Bryson City duo George Ellison (author of Back of Beyond: A Horace Kephart Biography) and his wife, painter Elizabeth Ellison, contribute a nature essay in “Permanent Camp” each week. Asheville photographer-philosopher Don McGowan of Earthsong Photography contributes a weekly article called “Image for the Asking.” Likewise, writer and photographer Sue Wasserman, who was to be this year’s Steve Kemp Writer in Residence, offers up her column, “Writer NOT in Residence.”

A popular element of Smokies LIVE are the videos highlighting wildflowers, wildlife and cultural history. These are produced by GSMA’s videographer and publications associate, Valerie Polk.

In April, Polk also represented GSMA on a different project that included members of the National Park Service, Friends of the Smokies, Discover Life in America and Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. Together, these partners created SmokiEEE’s @ Home, a digital learning space connecting students of all ages with the educational resources of the park.

The three E’s in SmokiEEE’s @ Home stand for the three primary needs it meets for students: Explore offers opportunities to get outside in the neighborhood or learn about nature-related topics from experts; Entertain brings a creative perspective to learning in the Smokies with music and other fun presentations; Escape allows reflection and quiet observation of the natural world.

“I’m excited about the ingenuity happening while many of us are working from home and looking for ways to create content that helps us stay connected to others,” says Polk, who provides video editing for the project. “In the spirit of these unprecedented times, many park staff and partners have recorded and edited their own videos. Like Smokies LIVE, SmokiEEE’s @ Home will continue to produce content even after our park resumes normal business.”

While working remotely for two months, GSMA’s creative team stayed closely connected through Slack, developed and released a podcast, Smoky Mountain Air, and made four previously missing issues of Smokies Life virtually available for free online.

“The neatest thing about all these projects,” says Figart, “is that we seized an opportunity to develop new storytelling tools that will remain available to us long after COVID-19 is history.”

SmokiEEES @ Home content can be found at Learn more about Great Smoky Mountains Association, see Smokies LIVE posts, read the missing issues of Smokies Life, and become an association member at All purchases and memberships support the park.

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