By Hank Erdmann
You might say the recent Great Smoky Mountains National Park Regional Event last month (October 2021) was years in the making. Normally, planning for a NANPA Regional Event starts nine to twelve months in advance. The planning for this event began in spring 2019, when I was asked if I’d like to lead it. It quickly became apparent that this would be popular. NANPA likes to keep a ratio of about ten participants per group leader, so Tom Haxby (past NANPA President) was asked to join me as co-leader. We planned the event, discussed shooting locations and where we wanted to base it (Townsend, Tennessee – the “Quiet Side of the Smokies”), meal possibilities, dates, and other such initial decisions, came up with an agenda, and sent that info off to the NANPA Regional Events Committee for their review and eventual approval. In turn, they sent the event proposal to the NANPA Board for final approval. We planned it to coincide with NANPA’s Nature Photography Celebration in nearby Asheville, North Carolina, so that participants might be able to attend both if they wished. Approval was granted and, in autumn of 2019, the event was announced. It quickly filled and a wait list was started. Then….
The COVID-19 pandemic hit in late January, 2020. It didn’t take long for the event leaders and the NANPA Board to realize there was only one course of action that would ensure the safety of all participants: cancel all such events.
Towards the end of the summer of 2020, with pandemic conditions easing somewhat, we started discussing rescheduling the Smokies event. We agreed that scheduling it once more for late April (2021) would likely be too uncertain and there’d be a good chance of it being cancelled again.
Instead, we decided to run the event six months later, in October, a prime visitation time for the Smokies. We knew we’d have to plan places and times to deal with the anticipated crowds in the park. (It’s the most visited national park, welcoming more than 12 million visitors each year.) We scheduled the event from Wednesday evening to Saturday afternoon instead of the usual Thursday to Sunday time frame to avoid the worst of the crowds in the park. Little did we understand then how much the coronavirus pandemic would encourage people to get outdoors and into parks in general, and especially into the most visited national parks. The Smokies were no exception. The park was more crowded than Tom or I had ever witnessed. On Friday afternoon a flashing road sign just after the turn on the road that heads to Cades Cove (a very popular area due to its bear population) was announcing a four- to five-hour circuit of the loop-road. With no stops, that’s normally a 45-minute to one-hour trip.
Participants who had signed up for the initial 2019 event were notified first and offered spots in the new Regional Event. Then it was opened to NANPA members at large . It quickly filled up and a large wait list developed again. It wasn’t long before we decided to add a third section (ten more attendees) to the event. Lodging was procured and Tom and I asked Richard Day, who co-led a NANPA Regional Event in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with me in 2019, to lead the third group. Richard had very good knowledge of the Smokies, having photographed there numerous times. He was quickly approved by the board and the third section then sold out in just a couple of weeks. We were good to go! We had three groups of ten photographers each, who were eager, ready, and willing to get out and make some images.
Behind the scenes: planning and attention to detail
Organizing and running these events takes a lot of time and people. First, the NANPA Regional Events Committee looks for places and leaders for events. Attention is paid to how popular a site might be, the primary focus of photography, which might be landscape, bird, mammal, night photography, or special-interest nature photography. They search for leaders well versed in both the location and in that kind of photography. Having procured leaders for the events, together they formulate a proposed schedule and dates. Once finalized, they present the event to the NANPA Board for approval. The board quickly reviews the event proposal and may make a couple suggestions but, because the Regional Events Committee is very thorough in its work, usually approves the event.
NANPA has a new Regional Events Coordinator, Mary Louise Ravese. After board approval of a proposal, Mary Louise takes the reins and acquires park or other permits, if required; investigates and secures lodging for the event; organizes and reserves a site for the first-night orientation meeting and a restaurant for the event’s last day afternoon lunch. Meanwhile both the NANPA Communications and Marketing and Membership Coordinators plan how to announce and promote the event to NANPA members through various communications channels. Promoting Regional Events through social media often brings new people (potentially new members) to NANPA. Often, there are times when even our executive director steps in to lend a helping hand with permits and meetings. As you can see, with all the folks involved with running these events, it’s “all hands on deck” to insure successful events.
Participants and positive attitudes
Ultimately, however, it is the participants who make these events successful. Autumn this year was late, if one can call a season “late.” Color change is largely predicated by the length of light hours during a day. Shorter hours of sunlight slows and then stops chlorophyll production which allows the warmer colors (the yellows, oranges and reds) to dominate. Temperatures and rainfall also have an impact and both warm days and dry conditions in September and October in much of the country contributed to a “late” autumn where the leaves never quite turned those brilliant colors before they dried up, turned brown, and fell to the ground.
We arrived to find a mostly green palette in the forests at elevations below four to five thousand feet, though there was some color from the Chimney Tops area up to where conifers dominate. The first day featured a light, on-and-off rain. Challenges, we had plenty. Our participants weren’t disheartened, though. They came with great attitudes and plenty of the determination to enjoy the camaraderie of spending time with other enthusiastic photographers in a beautiful location. Deciding to celebrate and embrace nature, and to make great images despite the challenges Mother Nature was throwing at us, we set out to do just that.
Taking what Mother Nature gives you
From what I’ve seen filtering back to us as folks process and work up their files, some very fine photos were taken and great memories created. We searched for and found small pockets of color and, as our time in the Smokies progressed over three days the colors were slowly improving. The advice we gave folks was to concentrate more on the color we did find. Shoot closer. Look for an intimate landscape versus the grand landscape. Don’t forget close-up opportunities. We photographed from sun up to sunset, from the first to the last usable light. We caught two very good mornings off of Foothills Parkway with fog-filled valleys, (that fog is what the “Smokies” are named for), often with crepuscular rays (God rays), beams of light streaking through the fog, lighting up tree-lined ridges. Participant Ken Wickham remembers one of those mornings, saying that “to watch the sun appear through the clouds and light up fog in the valley with”God rays” was an unexpected emotional experience.” (See more of his photos at his website or Facebook page.)
Even in bright, high-contrast light (what I not-so-lovingly call “severe clear”), we found large areas shaded by mountain sides where we could productively photograph. These were along the Middle Prong of the Little River and the Little River, itself, as it flows along Laurel Canyon Road. Backlit leaves were another common theme that grabbed the attention of our photographers.
Cades Cove loop road travels through a mountain valley with restored or re-created mountain homes, churches, and even a mill. It is also a top destination for seeing and photographing black bears. My group saw not a single bear, but the other groups did manage to see at least see some. Cades Cove is infamous for its “bear jams”, traffic jams caused by a bear sighting and cars just stopping in the middle of the road (that four- to five-hour circuit mentioned earlier). Tom, Richard, and I, knowing that park service rangers would be roping off areas where bears were known to be congregating to limit stopping or parking, instead focused more on the landscapes. We concentrated on the scenery, which was spectacular, as usual. Morning mist and fog, some autumn color, and great mountain valley vistas were everywhere we looked, but not so many (or any) bears. We stopped whenever we saw great light, great subjects, and/or great photo opportunities.
I try not to have pre-conceived notions or “must shoot” subjects when I go out. Certainly there are images we all want to make but being open to making good images from whatever conditions you encounter on site is a great asset in your photography. The images you didn’t get to make will only serve to make you want to visit again, hopefully in the company of like-minded photographers, on another day or another year.
Come join us!
NANPA’s Regional Events are more like photo tours rather than formal workshops. Our goal is to get you in the best locations at the best times to get the best photos. However, when participants do have questions on technique, gear, and especially composition, they are always encouraged to just ask any event leader for assistance or advice. In addition to being accomplished photographers, event leaders have extensive knowledge of the local sites and know the natural history of the subject or location.
A key feature of NANPA’s Regional Events is the camaraderie these events create and inspire. It is people—the participants and leaders, the planners and organizers—that all contribute to making NANPA Regional Events successful. Especially because of the participants, our Smokies Regional Event was a huge success!
Come with us to experience nature, photographic learning and sharing, and the wonderful camaraderie of like-minded folks. You’ll head home with great photos, fond memories, and new friends. Not bad for a long weekend!
Hank Erdmann has been a full-time professional photographer since 1980. He specializes in natural history and travel photography in North America. He teaches photography workshops and seminars and leads photo tours for various entities. Hank is based in Will County, Illinois. Though he has photographed throughout North America, the Midwest is his primary geographic area of interest. A love of history, especially the maritime history of the Great Lakes, kindles a special interest in the ports, shorelines, islands and natural areas of Lakes Michigan and Superior and their surrounding environs. Learn more at his website, hankphoto.photoshelter.com.