When Pigeon Forge launched Wilderness Wildlife Week 22 years ago, there were only four programs on a single Saturday afternoon.
This year, the 23rd annual winter event will last eight days and feature 304 workshops, lectures, panel discussions, mini-concerts, hikes and excursions to draw attention to the neighboring Great Smoky Mountains National Park and a variety of other outdoor destinations and topics.
The event will be held Jan. 12 through Jan. 19.
Programs, all free of charge, are at the Music Road Hotel Convention Center.
More than 200 experts — nature photographers, biologists, raptor rehabilitators, social historians, musicians and just plain folks who grew up in the Smokies — donate their time to lead Wilderness Wildlife Week programs.
“The week is extremely flexible. You can come just for one program, for one day or for the whole week,” said Leon Downey, executive director of the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism, which organizes the event. “We have 304 ways to connect you to our beautiful part of the country.”
While the vast majority of Wilderness Wildlife Week programs are indoors, there are 44 hikes and excursions on the calendar. They range from a photo trek in Cades Cove to a four-mile walk through the Elkmont Historic District to a strenuous 11-mile hike to Mt. Cammerer. Round trip transportation to the hikes’ trailheads is provided.
Sam Venable, author and columnist for The Knoxville News Sentinel, is the keynote speaker on Jan. 12. His topic is “How To Tawlk and Rite Good: An Introduction to the Native Tongue of Southern Appalachia.”
Of the 260 programs, 142 are new for 2013, and the lineup is different every day.
Among them are “Wonderful Waterfalls of Tennessee,” “Being Bear Smart,” “Searching for Panthers in the Smokies,” “Wild Hog Management in Great Smoky Mountains National Park” and “Advanced Possomology” (songs and stories about possums presented by folklorist Doug Elliott).
There are 32 special programs about the heritage of the Great Smoky Mountains, including the Civilian Conservation Corps and its impact on the national park.
Nineteen programs are designed especially for children. Their topics include the basics of outdoor photography, learning to hike, what’s special about owls and knowing how to behave if you encounter a bear.
There is a series of nature photography workshops — both about taking pictures and editing images — led by some of the region’s most accomplished photographers.
Wilderness Wildlife Week in 2012 drew people from 33 states, Washington, D.C., Canada, England and New Zealand.
Wilderness Wildlife Week, named 10 times as a Southeast Tourism Society Top 20 Event, is a part of Pigeon Forge Winterfest, which starts in November and continues through February.
For more information, visit www.MyPigeonForge.com/wildlife.