Wild South Staff Retreat: Into The Woods of the GNSA

In which a staff bonding experience involves four days of camping in the mountains… while hosting a series of key GNSA campaign events.


Wild South Staff Retreat into the Woods of the GNSA
Wild South Staff Retreat into the Woods of the GNSA

In a stroke of luck, this summer’s Wild South staff retreat took place smack dab in the middle of my internship focus area: the proposed Grandfather National Scenic Area in northwestern North Carolina.

Mark Roberts, a well-known photographer from Boston who had fallen in love with the scenery in this part of the country (and, after seeing his photographs, you can understand why), had created a book of photography showcasing the area. During our retreat, he was going to be in town for the Grandfather Mountain Nature Photography Weekend, so Wild South’s GNSA Campaign Coordinator scheduled a series of events – including an upscale photography viewing at a local resort – to highlight Mark’s work and raise general local awareness about the GNSA.

The preparation that went into these events was extensive – but that’s a post for another day. Now, let me simply capture the essence of a well-planned week:

The whole Wild South team, including those from Wild South’s Alabama office, was on hand. And we got to experience all the fun of interacting with local communities and spending time in one of Western North Carolina’s most scenic areas: a gorgeous swath of mountains, forests, creeks and streams in Pisgah National Forest between Grandfather Mountain and Blowing Rock.

Welcome to the Hobbitat


Setting up camp in the shadow of the Hobbitat.
Setting up camp in the shadow of the Hobbitat.

After a two hour drive, the three Wild South interns and Associate Director Ben Prater (BP) rolled into the rustic Julian Price Campground off Blue Ridge Parkway Milepost 297 on Tuesday morning, unpacking hiking boots, formal clothes, enough food to sustain eleven ravenous staff members for several days, and a variety of sleeping accommodations, from hammocks to the “Hobbitat,” a fairly massive tent with an attached “garage.”

Our first GNSA event: a Wild South Pint Night at Cafe Portofino in the mountainous college town of Boone.

Between a variety of channels, including Wild South member emails, social media invites, website announcements, and media advisories, we’d gotten the word out about Pint Night and the week’s other events. Now was the time for us to not only converse with local media about the GNSA, but to get to know the values and interests of the communities we represent in an atmosphere where everyone could relax and have fun.

I eventually joined a table with Lamar Marshall. As Wild South’s Cultural Heritage Director and one of its founders, Lamar is a most interesting man who who’d driven up from the Alabama office. Over delicious Portofino fries, Lamar told fascinating stories of re-discovering and mapping over 200 miles of the Cherokee Trail of Tears in Alabama alone, learning how to identify rare plants from local Cherokee as a boy, and his attempt to plot a Cherokee sacred site. I say “attempt to plot” because he inexplicably lost his GPS in the process, leading he and his Cherokee guides to conclude that a higher power simply didn’t want the site mapped.

Wild South Camaraderie: Built Upon Staff Blood, Sweat, and Tears


The Wild team swimming at Thunderhole Falls.
The Wild team swimming at Thunderhole Falls.

After fueling up on a delicious camp stove breakfast of bacon and eggs, the Wild South staff embarked on its obligatory team-building hike, this time through the proposed GNSA.

Three days earlier, BP first described this hike as a “relatively easy five miler.” The next day, it turned into “maybe more along the lines of six miles with a few hills,” and ultimately evolved into a monstrous – I mean, exhilarating eight mile hike that fell (and, on the return trip, gained) over 2000 feet in less than 2 miles during a four mile descent to our goal: Thunderhole Falls.

To be fair, the trail was in good shape, passing through beautiful old growth forest and over creeks bursting with small waterfalls as it wound down the mountainside. And the destination definitely made the journey worth it – Few things beat leaping off the side of a waterfall into icy water after a hard hike. Thunderhole Falls is a stellar swimming spot, with plenty of places to picnic and explore – even behind the falls!

And at the end of the climb back, there’s nothing quite like that overwhelming sense of raw accomplishment that accompanies successfully hiking straight up a mountain: I almost dropped to the ground and laughed and/or wept in joy when the parking lot came into sight. A team-building hike, indeed!

Environmental Economics For The Win

Mark Roberts presenting.
Mark Roberts presenting.


The Westglow Resort and Spa is perched on the top of a ridge overlooking the proposed GNSA and Grandfather Mountain. It’s a lovely place and was an ideal location for our crowing event: An invitation-only evening of local nature photography at the Westglow Resort and Spa with Mark Roberts and prominent members of the Boone and Blowing Rock communities.

After weeks of sending hand-written invitations and preparing food and wine lists, the main challenge on the actual day was undoubtedly finding a place to shower (especially after the previous day’s hike) and slip into dresses and suits – the campground didn’t have the facilities.

I’ll leave you to wonder how we worked that particular magic. When we arrived at the Westglow, having successfully accomplished said mission, Mark Roberts was already setting up. Hailing from the UK, Mark is a modern Renaissance man – an adventurer, photographer and college professor all in one with a voice that sounds suspiciously like Sean Connery’s. The latter shone through in his excellent presentation, in which he blended tips and tricks of the photographic trade with imagery of stunning scenic vistas, unique flora, interesting fungus, and friendly critters.

My particular communicative victory for the night came in reaching common ground with a staunchly conservative attendee who had taken a more skeptical view of the value of creating a national scenic area – and yes, I will admit, I used the “economic benefits” frame. Though I consider myself a political moderate, he didn’t know that.

“I’ve actually agreed with a liberal!” he excitedly exclaimed to his friend.

The Value of Personal Experience


WS staff on Thunderhole Falls Hike.
WS staff on Thunderhole Falls Hike.

Over the course of the retreat, our days ranged from swapping stories around the fire pit and discussing Wild South’s position on wind energy on public lands to hiking out to nearby Price Lake. Our nights, upon conclusion of GNSA events, also involved swapping perhaps more colorful stories around a roaring fire until only faintly glowing embers remained.

But perhaps the most magical – yes, I use that word consciously – experience of the entire week involved walking down camp roads once the sun went down. Hundreds of fireflies lit up the woods as far as the eye could distinguish, waltzing in a synchronous dance around me like brilliant intermittent strobe lights – one entire side of the path would flash, then the other, and then back and forth and back and forth so swiftly it was as if two forest-sized disco balls were having a face off.

Fireflies are only known to harmonize their flashes in large groups like this, a process called phase synchronization, in a few locations, this region of the Appalachians and some of the tropics being among them.

I know how critically important it is to discuss the environment in stark economic terms to convince others less environmentally-focused to help preserve it (I’ve obviously done it myself). But equally important, I think, is simply reminding people to go outside more – and not just to the end of their property line.

Standing in the fresh mountain air, blanketed in the silence of an otherwise pitch black forest, I didn’t need anyone to convince me of the economic value of preserving those trees. The moment resonated with me in such a way that I would protect that setting in a heartbeat, simply so that others who came after me – and I, when I returned – could experience the exact same wonderfully unique phenomenon. Perhaps this is just wishful thinking on the part of an optimistic environmentalist, but I think almost anyone else standing there would have felt similarly.

That’s why the simple act of encouraging and helping others to get out in nature and experience it for themselves can have more than simple results. It kindles an innate connection to our planet’s natural assets that the best ecological assessments and even photos and videos can only hope to simulate.

For more photos from the week, see the slideshow below, or click here!