Enjoying the great outdoors is relatively easy for many East Tennesseans with day-trip access to a multitude of state parks and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The sparkling streams of the Smokies that attract fishermen from across the country might as well be thousands of miles away for children in East Tennessee who are disadvantaged or disabled.
Monday some of those children were given a rare chance to see just how great the outdoors can be thanks to a group of conservationist turkey hunters.
"Our goal is to introduce children to the environment and wildlife who may not have any way of experiencing it on their own," said Richard Hatten with the Maryville-based Little T Longbeards Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF). "We take kids hunting that are disabled or disadvantaged. Those kids have a
real challenge in being able to get outdoors. Another goal of NWTF is to get girls excited about outdoor activities like hunting and fishing."
Monday Hatten and other NWTF members escorted more than 20 children to the stream along Elkmont in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There they teamed up with park fishery biologists with electric fishing backpacks to survey the stream's fish population.
"It is probably a once in a
lifetime experience for a lot of these kids to do this type of thing with these experts. It is new to me as well because I've only seen this kind of thing on television before," said Hatten.
More than 20 children helped with Monday's survey. The group included young girls, a few boys in wheelchairs, and other boys who may not have any family members to teach them outdoor activities.
"Half of the boys here do not have fathers [who are alive]," said Hatten. "It's something that chokes me up. It is so rewarding when you are able to take these kids out and introduce them to Mother Nature. Even on the hunts we go on, there might not be a single animal harvested but it is such a great experience for all of us to share and spend time with each other."
"It's great to see these kids get excited about something we're passionate about," said Matt Kulp, GSMNP fishery biologist. "They are able to see these fish and handle them in ways most people do not. With this type of electric fishing survey, they are able to see everything in the stream. We handle fish that are too small to catch if you were just out here fishing. For these children to learn about the world they live in, this is all part of their heritage. Fish that live in these streams
are just as big a part of the kids' heritage as you or me, so it's good
for them to see it and get an appreciation of it."
One participant who did not have an early appreciation for the prospect of handling fish was 11-year-old Abbie Ozanne.
"No, I don't like fish. They taste nasty," said Ozanne. "I did not want to come, but my mom and dad made me."
Ozanne quickly gained enthusiasm for the buckets full of fish gathered from the stream.
"We were weighing [the fish] and measuring them to make sure they are healthy," said Ozanne. "I don't like eating fish, but fish are fun. I like it. It's just fun."