Great Smoky Mountains Spring Wildflower gallery

The time is now!

The combination of winter rains, enough sun warming the forest floor, and a window in time before the canopy shades out that sunlight…. just the right recipe for wildflowers to burst forth.

First the greening, leaves rising up, buds swelling. Then white blossoms, some yellow, larger blossoms, taller plants, and varied leaf shapes. Pinks, purple, red, blues, and more.

And the pilgrims come to see their favorites. To discover something new. To celebrate life. This season of rebirth!

-Ken Voorhis


I gaze into the woods across my deck. Another rainy, cold, gray day. Water drops cling to every bud and twig, reflecting the monochrome sky. “Ready for spring!” That seems to be the heartbeat in all living things at this time of year.

Anticipating, keeping watch, whispering in the springtime if you will, is a glorious pastime. Woodfrog and spotted salamander eggs in woodland vernal pools. Red maple flowers bringing color to the gray forest canopy. The first wildflowers; arbutus, hepatica, spring beauty. Running in the lead of the procession to come. Tree buds swell, ready to burst forth with just a bit more warmth and sunlight. This week we stood in the forest at the edge of where the tree branches were coated with snow and ice from an earlier storm. The sun hit the treetops and we marveled as fingers of ice from twigs warmed and glittered as they fell to the ground. A moment in time. Eye-witness to the transition from winter to spring!

Last year at this time I was in Yellowstone where winter still had a hard hold on things. This year my friends there have experienced record cold and continual snowstorms. Winter in Yellowstone is glorious, but anticipation of spring there is something quite palpable at this time of year. A friend recently asked, when do the mountain bluebirds return to Yellowstone? Answers followed quickly; Soon. Early to mid March. Last year I recorded them in Mammoth Hot Springs on March 11th. People knew. People knew because people watch.

People anticipate and carefully keep their senses on alert for the signs that mark the end of dormancy and the beginning of new life. We watch carefully for the signs and talk about them excitedly. “Have you heard the chorus frogs, singing? Oh yes, last week in the wetlands near the parkway. Redwings too, on the pond. Redbuds will be out before you know it!”

A few years ago I reached out to nature center friends and asked, “What is your harbinger?”* The excited replies came in from across the country. Stories of place specific harbingers that spoke of special places and the signs that cried out, “Here we are again, spring is coming! Let the procession begin!”

Returning from the Northern Rockies to the Southern Appalachians at the end of March last year, I was almost afraid I would miss it. Miss what? The opening of the dogwoods. Those first wildflowers. That I might be too late as the procession had moved too far forward. But I did not miss it. I sat on my deck and with my morning coffee and took it all in, as the dogwoods slowly opened, the beech buds swelled and turned into bundles of new leaves, the chickadees sang their spring songs, and warblers, who had spent the winter in tropical places, hopped from branch to branch in these Smoky Mountain trees.

And so I gaze into these woods now in anticipation. Watching and listening, so as to not miss a thing. Creation takes place in front of us and we get to watch. It is a grand  opportunity to be a part of that creation. To be filled with wonder. The Creator at work around and within us. Glory be!

– Ken Voorhis                         * “What is your harbinger?” article

Outdoor educators: Is it worth it?

I first wrote this article over twenty years ago but in reading it over and revising a bit I wanted to share this message again as an encouragement to those who are doing the important work of connecting people and nature.

                  Does outdoor environmental education really make a difference?  Does spending a few days or even hours in the woods listening, looking, feeling, and smelling with a group of kids really change anything?  Is the planet better off because someone spent some time in one of our programs as a workshop participant?  Is it really worth the effort?

            It seems that just about everyone who has worked at a residential environmental learning center or been involved in environmental education in some form asks these or similar questions at some time.  I have on more than one occasion been confronted with a naturalist/instructor asking, “do I really make a difference?” 

            Sitting back and contemplating the questions once again, while realizing that I wouldn’t still be at it if I believed any differently, I always come around to the same reply.  Yes, you make a difference.   It is worth the effort, and you are not alone. 

            I usually come back to the idea that we are planting seeds.  The seeds that we plant have great potential but require continued care, and nourishment.  Some seeds have not yet sprouted and need the fertile soil of opportunities that will help them develop wonder in the intricacies of a creation of which they are a part.  Some are already well rooted in wonder and appreciation and need to be nurtured by experiences and knowledge that will cause those roots to go deeper seeking answers and solutions along the way.  Others have experienced drought and need to be refreshed and re-charged by returning to a place where they can drink in the wonder once again. 

            One might observe that the gardener who plants seeds but does not see them bear fruit will become weary.  This may be the point at which the, “do I make a difference?” questions come about.   Since our outdoor experiential education encounters with people are brief, it is difficult to know if the small seeds that we have planted have taken root or not.   In some cases our short time may be one of few such encounters that that individual may have.  The gardener too cannot foresee which seeds will produce fruit and which will rot or be eaten by the birds.  The gardener does know however that if she/he stops planting seeds there won’t be a harvest. 

             We often have a sharing circle at the end of a program where participants have an opportunity to share something that had meaning to them during their experience.  After these sessions instructors will often share that a child that they had perceived as unmovable had given a startling testimonial as to the impact that the week had had upon them.  The sharing sessions that we have at the end of our adult sessions are equally surprising as participants share insights, and impressions that they say have had significant impacts upon their lives.  These along with the daily discoveries and joys are signs of growth that are certainly encouraging.  Of the things that happen once departed we receive only glimpses. 

            The longer one is involved in outdoor environmental education however, the more glimpses come to view, and the confidence in the importance of planting seeds becomes more certain.  Letters from appreciative teachers and students, encounters with those who attended programs as a child, friends who return again and again with students or to attend a special workshop, stories of students whose experience affected their choice of career, instructors who send a thank you note a decade later about the impact of their time leading people to engage with wild places, those who have been motivated to do something to care for the Earth. 

            Each of us can trace our love for nature to some early experience when and where the seeds were planted.  Mine began with parents that took me camping, Scouts, and then an opportunity to work at a natural history museum while in high school.  There were people in my life, and yours, who were planting seeds.  Some of those people were probably wondering if it was really worth it.  There were really many seeds, and opportunities to nourish them along the way.  Those who planted them were not alone. Rachel Carson said,

“children need the companionship of an adult who can share their sense of wonder, rediscovering the joy, excitement and mystery  of the world we live in. …..It is not half so important to know as to feel.  If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soils in which the seed must grow.”

            So,  outdoor environmental educator,  interpreter, naturalist, teacher, gardener, just interested, or whatever you want to call yourself, consider your own growth.  Many of you are testimonials to those who planted seeds or exposed you to fertile soils and nourishment.  Is it worth it?  Is the planet better off?  As for me, changing the world all at once is too big a job.  But planting a seed?  It needs to be done carefully, but it’s easy when you enjoy it.  I’m not the only one who will care for that seed, It’s potential reaching far beyond my lifetime.  After all we’ll only reap what we sow.

-Ken Voorhis


Autumn’s brilliance shouts.


Displays of yellows, reds, orange, copper and colors in between.


Now fading.

Grey skies.

Brown, wet leaves, let go of their place in the canopy.

Performing a slow, floating, dance. to rest below.


Now, a subdued pallet of dead leaves lay deep across the forest floor.





This carpet.

Laying like a quilt pulled across Earth’s breast

Life slows down.

Green fades.


Growth unperceivable, the forest prepares to rest.

Ready for a long winter’s respite.        




Nourishing life that will burst forth after a few months of stillness.

The smell.

The richness of these November woods.

Like the memories stirred as a long loved sweater is pulled from storage.

Warming me once again.


Following Rivers part II

Although less known by modern travelers, rivers define places much more than roads.

 We had seen the Columbia River years earlier, following it by road from Portland through the gorge it carved to the Pacific. This time however, we approached it from further east in Washington where it flows over flat land that is covered with rich, dark, volcanic soils. Although on the dry side of the mountains, irrigation from the great Columbia creates a place covered with orchards: apples, peaches, plums, cherries, watermelons and much more. As the Columbia cuts through the mountains and heads toward the Pacific, her character changes as well as she cuts through rock and rushes to places where salmon fight the upstream currents to spawn.

A few days later, we had a chance to paddle our canoe in the Pacific Ocean on Bellingham Bay with friends. Were we encountering waters that we had already crossed on the west side of the continental divide?

Our friends and canoeing comrades from Bellingham, Saul andShelley, gave us a “have to read” book about the surveyor, explorer, and trader David Thompson. Thompson explored the Northwest U.S. and Southwest Canada, the places we were and would be traveling through. Reading about his journeys further piqued our fascination with rivers. He however, was discovering and mapping that country in the early 1800’s, before the boundaries of our two countries had been set. Another big difference: he was doing so in canoes he and his compatriots built from birch bark or western cedar. One of his goals, like many other traders of that time, was to find that celebrated route across the Rockies to the Pacific. Eluding him for years because of its circuitous route, he finally floated that river, the Columbia, to the Pacific, the first white man that many of the native people along that route had met.

As we traveled North into British Columbia we crossed or followed many other special rivers, many of which Thompson had surveyed. The Skagit, Nooksack, Fraser, Kootenay. We swam in the Thompson River, the surveyor’s namesake.

Many of these Canadian rivers were white with glacial sediment like we had seen in the White river near Mount Rainier. The Athabasca is a powerful river that is white as milk. It flows north from massive glaciers and ice fields in the Canadian Rockies. Where do the Athabasca’s waters eventually flow? Into the Arctic Ocean!

This glacial flour, as the sediments are sometimes called, carries various minerals giving some lakes and rivers less of a milky color but hues of green, and blue, and turquoise. Lakes that we paddled in Jasper, Banff, and other parks, were colors that require the explanation when showing photos; “These really look like this. They were not photo shopped.”

As we moved east and out of the Rockies we crossed the continental divide again and the prairies of Southern Canada. Fewer rivers but many lakes and prairie potholes left by glaciation, dot Southern Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Our welcome back to the U.S., and the waters that mingle with those of our home in Tennessee, happened at our friends Greg and Rebecca’s house in northern Minnesota. An hour after arriving at their house, Greg invited us to walk down to the end of their property where the Mississippi flows peacefully.

We canoed up and back a small stretch there where the river is colored with tannin from conifers and is only ten feet wide in places. The headwaters of the Mississippi begin only a few miles upstream from where we were! This water would flow south to a place where our “home” waters would mix as the Ohio dumped into the, by then, mighty Mississippi. We would soon be back in our home watershed in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Early this September I flew west again to Portland to work with some friends at Mount Saint Helens Institute. As we approached the airport I could see Mount Adams, and Rainier, solitary mountains but part of a chain of volcanoes, sticking up above the clouds. As we dropped below the cloud layer, there was the Columbia and the gorges it has carved flowing below me. Just weeks before I had been on its banks. Jennifer and I had crossed it several times on our trip. I looked down from this height and imagined David Thompson meeting for the first time with tribal groups who lived there. I imagined the places it flowed, the people it had touched over time, and those it touches today. The Columbia is one of a host of many rivers that have touched me and helped me to know a place more deeply.

Wherever we go, we look for rivers and when we can, we travel them for a ways. A river can bisect a city and yet, traveling its waters can show you a bit of the soul of a place. Along its banks can be found what wildness used to, or in some parts still exists there.

Following rivers is not that hard. Tools that help; a map, a road, a boat, a friend? It takes time, and effort, and sometimes a bit of searching, to really get to know a river. I intend to spend more time doing so.

– Ken

Where I live there is a road,

it’s seen me come and seen me go,

and taken me so far I thought I’d lost my way.



Where I live there is my heart,

won’t be long until I start,

back again to where that river slips a way.

– From the song “Where I live” by Bill Staines

Following Rivers – part I

Last Christmas Woody and Hayley gave us a wonderful map of the rivers of the United States. No borders or labels, just a black background with white lines showing all of her rivers. The map looks like our country’s circulatory system, which of course it is. Our lifeblood…. places defined by watersheds.

Tennessee is one of the only places I know of, that places signs along major roads telling us what watershed we are entering. I love that. I wonder how many people think about what that means, about the hydrology of where they live, their water circulatory system. How many people spend time following and getting to know the rivers that flow by them? Although less known by modern travelers, rivers define places much more than roads.

We enjoy looking at the river map, finding places we’ve been, and trying to figure out which river is which. It is often easiest done by finding a major tributary or recognizable border and tracing it back to the lesser tributaries we’ve paddled, or crossed again and again by vehicle.

The rain that is falling at my house flows into a small feeder stream, that runs into Cove Creek, which flows into Walden Creek, then into the West Prong of the Little Pigeon, the Little Pigeon River itself, the French Broad, then on to the Tennessee which meanders west across the state where it is slowed by a number of dams and lakes, flows South, dipping into Alabama and then turns straight North, bisecting Tennessee’s midsection, and heading into Kentucky where it merges into and is dwarfed by the Ohio, which flows for a short while through Illinois before joining the Mississippi, traveling through Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, before it empties into the Gulf of Mexico…. the Atlantic Ocean. A description worthy of a run on sentence, don’t you think? If you don’t know where and how the water where you live flows you may find it satisfying to get out the maps and trace that journey.

On our recent cross-country camping trip we traveled over 7,000 miles by road. We followed, considered, and marveled at many rivers. Our trip first took us from Tennessee back to the place that had been our home for five years in Yellowstone. We approached the park’s south entrance from Wyoming coming in along an old friend, the Snake River, and we imagined where it flowed. Our further travels would be taking us in similar directions. The ranger at the entrance gate saw our park employee tag, observed our vehicle towing our teardrop trailer, so said, “Welcome home!”. We left in April so were surprised at the greeting, but were thankful that someone else recognized our homecoming.


We then climbed Yellowstone’s lower loop road up and over the continental divide. We had already crossed this boundary, those places that mark where waters travel to the Atlantic or the Pacific, several times on our trip. This particular divide, however is special. Isa Lake sits there on the continental divide near Craig Pass. A small pond really, barely noticed by the many travelers heading north toward Old Faithful. She fills with snow melt each year. Out of one end, her waters flow to the Atlantic. From the other end, the snowmelt flows to the Pacific. I look at her smooth surface and wonder, where will that drop of water end up? What a journey!

The familiar rivers that we passed in those next few days also welcomed us home; the Firehole, Gibbon, Madison, Gallatin, Yellowstone, Gardner, Lamar…. all like old friends. The remainder of our journey however would take us to places we had not been before. Where do those rivers run and what would they reveal about the country they passed through?

To be continued…….

Great Smokies Rhododendron Super Bloom

The profusion of rosebay rhododendron blooming this past month is one of the best I’ve seen. The huge white blossoms have been prolific, decorating hillsides and stream banks in the lower elevations of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Rosebay rhododendron along the Middle Prong of the Little River


While June is the month to see the rosebay bloom, it is more often much less spectacular. Hillsides are covered in these huge shrubs. At other times of year I’ve often had visitors proclaim, “It must be amazing when all of these are blooming.” True, but rarely is it that extensive. One year we thought it would be a good idea to plan a photography workshop at Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont around the rhododendron bloom in June. Our expert photographers and naturalists chose the most likely week to capture the event and the workshop filled with folks eager to capture the spectacle. As you might expect, as with many attempts to try to schedule mother nature, it was a pitiful blooming year. The groups struggled to find a bush with even several blossoms. The one or two that we did find were well photographed as you can imagine.

Rosebay blossoms – photo by Jennifer V


With branches sometimes four or more inches thick, these are formidable plants. So much so, that the impenetrable vegetative thickets that they create are called “hells”. If you’ve ever tried to crawl through one of these you know why. Once after my son and I climbed to a high ridge, we decided on the way back that we would try the “short cut” by going straight down the mountain slope, which was covered with rhododendron. After clambering through the tangles, making slow and painful progress, we found that our best option was to literally roll across the tops of the substantial undergrowth.

So what makes a Super Bloom? In the desert, Super Blooms happen now and then and the answer, perhaps obviously, is water. A few years ago, word was out that Death Valley, was experiencing a Super Bloom for the first time in over 10 years. Several friends left winter in Yellowstone that March and made the thirteen-hour drive over the weekend to catch a glimpse of that spectacle. Heavy rains in the fall were what was needed for the desert to burst into flower that spring. When we visited Death Valley at the same time the next year we saw a few flowering desert plants but nothing like what happened the year before.


With a regular abundance of moisture in the Smokies it is not likely that rainfall is the trigger for the abundant blooming of the rosebay rhododendron this year. Certainly the right climatic conditions must have something to do with it but what else? Should we perhaps be concerned when we see such production? Plants will often overproduce when stressed. Pruning or stressing plants may actually sometimes cause greater blossoming. Blooming, after all, is how plants reproduce. The dogwood and redbud bloom is sometimes more spectacular after years of less moisture, when the plants are stressed. Can some Super Blooms be the result of plant’s survival mechanisms? Is some signal being communicated; “Quickly! Bloom big! Reproduce! Create seed! Survive!”?   I’m not suggesting this but I do ask that question, especially when I know that there are so many climatic and air quality issues at play.


I prefer to marvel at the bloomings and rejoice at the displays. The show of mountain laurel-lined corridors (a close rhododendron relative) along trails is a little more predictable and did not disappoint this May. At the same time, in higher elevations here, Catawba rhododendron, with similar large clusters of blossoms, were bursting forth, in magenta hues. I understand that the flame azalea bloom, famous on some of the balds in the Smokies, peaked recently and was wonderful as well. While I missed that display, I enjoyed seeing small-leaved rhododendron (a miniature variety with smaller blossoms) in several places.

          small-leaved rhododendron (Rhododendron minus)


Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The earth laughs in flowers.”


Ken Voorhis


small-leaved rhododendron (Rhododendron minus) at Charlie’s bunion

God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.  – Martin Luther

More about home

There are places where I do NOT feel at home. We recently returned from the North Carolina coast. Jennifer loves the beach and we had not been for about seven years. I like to visit these places (every 7 years may be about right) but they are foreign environments to me. Coastal places are interesting and fascinating but I don’t feel “at home” there. They are very different from what I am used to. They are alien and exotic and when visiting, I, too, feel like an exotic species trying to survive in an alien world.

On this recent trip we were excited to discover numerous carnivorous plants, many in bloom; Venus fly traps, pitcher plants, bladderworts and sundew. And bird species that are only found in these places; painted buntings, oystercatchers, numerous herons and egrets, brown pelicans that soar just above the wave tops then glide upward, survey the waters below, then abruptly dive and crash beneath the surface to capture some unsuspecting prey.

Shells, crabs, and other mysterious items left behind at low tide are clues to an abundant ecosystem and activity that exists in the depths and vastness of the ocean. I venture just to the edge of this alien kingdom and allow it to lap over my toes. Another world, that I am curious about but at the same time a bit uncomfortable with because it is so outlandish and unknown to me.

The desert is another place where I am a curious but tentative visitor. I’m a little more comfortable when visiting it by river because rivers are more in my blood and soul. A trip down the Green through the Canyonlands of Utah awhile back was glorious in spite of my lack of feeling apart of the desert communities that we floated through.

Perhaps our rootedness in our home places helps us to appreciate and be drawn to these other worlds. I know people who are desert rats and others whose lives are of the sea. Those individual’s sense of place, their rootedness in their home worlds is something that I understand and value. These people know the flora and fauna, the landscapes, the changes and subtleties that make those places rich and familiar – like family, to them. Another person’s sense of place, often palpable, can give others like myself the desire to know more, creating in us a longing to better understand and become connected to those places as well, if only in some small way.

To know the desert like Ed Abbey or my friend Karla who is as much a part of the canyonlands as the rivers that formed them. To comprehend the ocean like the watermen of Chesapeake bay, the lobster fishermen of Maine, or those who build boats and sail them around the world. I can only hope for a glimpse of their comfort in those worlds. I am blessed to have friends across this country who are deeply connected to their home places many of which are foreign to me. My own “at homeness” in the places I know well provides a feeling of what they possess.

Our big home, this amazing planet Earth, this awesome creation, is diverse and full of wonder. It consists of many home places, many habitats and niche environments. The big old world as I name it to my granddaughter when we step outside to feel the wind on our faces and hear the birds sing, is full of unique and special places. In all of those places there are people who are devoted and bound to them. Places they call home. Places they desire to protect and preserve and care for. To what places are you most devoted?

We are homesick for places, we are reminded of places, it is the sounds and smells and sights of places which haunt us and against which we often measure our present.

– Alan Gussow


It has been a little more than a month since we got home. Our home, that is, in the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, close to where we lived for almost 30 years before moving to Yellowstone. Yes, we had a home there too and while a bit alien at first, over the five years that we lived there we became more familiar with that amazing landscape and ecosystem. We developed a familiarity and comfort that caused us to call it home as well.

What does it mean to be truly be “home”? Various definitions point to that feeling of familiarity, the place where one lives, or ranges, or is rooted. A male grizzly bear’s home range can be 500 square miles. The home range, or territory of the red-eyed vireo now singing off my deck is probably less than 8 acres. After breeding season this little songbird flies “home?” to South America where it spends the winter. Where is its home?

In people we often call that familiarity, that feeling of “homeness”, a sense of place. I have worked toward the goal of developing within people a greater sense of place throughout my career. People’s sense of place is lacking in today’s world. Having connections to the places we call home helps us act as better caretakers of those places.

The feeling of coming home to the Smokies is about being rooted. The landscapes here are like the faces of old friends in a crowd. The deciduous forest is a place I know. The flora and fauna have names and stories that are in my head. I have family, and friends, and wonderful memories here. The smells, sounds, and feelings that the southern Appalachian mountains possess call to me deeply. I feel “at home”, a part of all that is this place.

mountain mist

And yet, I can say that it is not the only place that I feel at home or for which I have a deep sense of place. The western landscape has called to me regularly as well. After a summer job in Yellowstone in college we returned there and to other places in the northern Rockies numerous times on family trips. Our recent opportunity to work and live in Yellowstone again for a longer period of time allowed its landscape, plants and animals, climate and culture, the people, to become a part of us and us a part of them.

I know many people who say that coming back to Yellowstone, or the Great Smokies, or fill in the blank, is like coming “home”. They may live somewhere else, have another homeplace, but there is still a sense of homecoming when they return to these special places. For some reason those places have gotten under their skin and into their souls. This is another reason we desperately need public lands. These wild and protected places call to us and feed us. They help us remember our roots, our needs, our connections. They reflect back to us, who we were and still need to be. They remind us that our home is this planet Earth and the many landscapes, ecosystems, and special places where we have ended up and become rooted for a time.

Where do you feel most at home?

Sparks from the campfire blog

ruminations on people’s connection to wild things and places…

Who isn’t hypnotized by staring into a campfire? I’ve enjoyed many campfires and they have almost always punctuated some special event; an epic hike, or float, or exploration,  with friends and family, often with song, full of memories of encounters with the wild.

I hope to use this space to share some sparks from those fires; stories, thoughts, ideas, memories, who knows.

Some sparks will drift and fade away, others may pop and surprise, perhaps something will catch fire.

Draw closer and join me if you will.