Nature and tradition a winning combination

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khelms@starhq.com

   Sometimes it's the simple things in life that make people pause and take notice. Things like knocking the dirt off a nightcrawler, squishing him onto a hook, and baptizing him in a mountain stream.
   Or the steady hum of a spinning wheel as you pedal away, going nowhere physically, but traveling thousands of miles in thought while turning freshly carded wool fibers into yarn.
   These scenarios from good ole mountain living captured the attention of three people chosen to judge this year's Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association's (NETTA) Pinnacle Awards. At a ceremony Wednesday in Kingsport, Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area's Traditional Arts Workshops and River Ridge Campground & Fishing Area's advertising campaign captured Pinnacle Awards for peak performance in the divisions of Heritage Tourism and Attractions.
   Jennifer Bauer, park interpretive specialist at Sycamore Shoals, and Larry VerRan, owner of River Ridge, were saluted by NETTA for their contributions to the region's economy through tourism promotion and development. Bauer and VerRan went up against competitors in seven counties in Upper East Tennessee and four in Southwest Virginia, including such heavyweights as Bristol Motor Speedway and Barter Theater.
   Judges included the director of North Carolina High-Country Host, the vice president of marketing for Chattanooga Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, and marketing director for the Tennessee Aquarium, IMAX 3D Theater and Creative Discovery Museum in Chattanooga.
   Bauer, who started the Traditional Arts Workshops now offered at Sycamore Shoals, said it was especially exciting to receive the award because "it's been a real personal love of mine to get something like this going and really highlight the talent that we have in our region. This just brings to light what wonderful folks we have in Upper East Tennessee that can share these skills. It's really an award to them."
   The workshops "Celebrate Appalachia," the theme of this year's Pinnacle Awards, are offered to "preserve our heritage in the line of our crafts," Bauer said.
   While viewed in today's world as "arts and crafts," activities such as spinning, weaving, flint knapping, chair caning, basket making, and pottery once were survival skills, "things that we had to do and I'm sure many people enjoyed doing," Bauer said. "Our instructors just don't do this for a hobby; they live it."
   For example, Carol Marquardt teaches basketry. She and her husband, Bob, were featured artists at Dollywood for six weeks. Another workshop instructor, Bob Estep, teaches pottery and flint knapping. "That's a big part of his life and the way that he would like to live if it were possible in this modern culture," Bauer said.
   Though these arts and crafts are part of the Appalachian heritage, "Young people are unfamiliar with many of these things," according to Bauer, who used to visit county schools and talk to students. "I'd often take a weaving loom and a spinning wheel. A lot of people in Carter County have not seen those things."
   As our pace becomes faster and our world a little more high-tech, it's these types of arts and crafts that people are seeking out for enjoyment, according to Bauer. "Our attendance and sign-ups for these workshops are wonderful. I think we all need something to take care of our own spiritual self." By creating through use of traditional skills, we are "bringing our innermost self out in our art and our culture," she said.
   After a day of "survival" in today's concrete jungle, there's nothing like letting the soothing sound of a stream wash away your worries. Perhaps it was this that lured judges to VerRan's miniature riverbank display.
   Complete with fishing line tangled in trees, a bird's lost feather on the shore, mussels, an underwater crawdad, and a frog and grasshopper sunning themselves on river rocks -- VerRan's River Ridge promotion was, in itself, a work of art. Though the water is acrylic and the animals are plastic, they nonetheless look real.
   River Ridge is the only campground on Watauga River that is located directly on the stream side. But perhaps the biggest draw is that it is in the trophy trout zone. There are also other amenities: volleyball and horseshoe facilities, a hiking trail, and activities ranging from boating, canoeing and rafting to tubing.
   River Ridge opened in 2000 and features 30 campsites and a central, year-round bathhouse with hot showers. In 2002, in the "day fishing" area alone, "I had customers from 30 different states," VerRan said, averaging 3.8 out-of-state visitors per day, or 2,954 visits. "In my camping area, I had campers from 27 states."
   VerRan and Bauer both agreed that Carter County has great potential for tourism development.
   "When I draw folks from more than 30 states to the campground, that's a lot of tourism coming into the community," VerRan said.
   He and Chamber of Commerce Tourism Director Larry Gobble sat down one day and put pen to paper to come up with their best estimate on tourism dollars the campground brings to the county. According to their estimate, River Ridge generates more than $1 million each year, VerRan said.
   Future activities include spring and fall fly-fishing clinics. The first clinic begins June 14 and is almost full. The second clinic will kick off in September.
   For more information on River Ridge, call (423) 542-6187 or e-mail RiverRidge@onemain.com or www.RiverRidgeCampground.com.
   To learn more about the workshops at Sycamore Shoals call (423) 543-6140 or e-mail Bauer at jennifer.bauer@state.tn.us.