National park rangers are used to getting mail. But the delivery that arrived at Great Smoky Mountains National Park recently, from a child identified only as Karina, was not their everyday message.
She wrote how much she enjoyed Deep Creek and the 60-foot-high Tom Branch Falls. And she had a confession.
“I loved it so much, I wanted to have a soiveneir to come home with me, so I took a rock,” she wrote. “I’m sorry, and I want to return it. Also, here’s a donation!”
Included was a heart-shaped stone trying to make its way back home.
Whoever she is, and wherever she’s from — the rangers did not get a return address — Karina is also a bit of an artist. She drew a picture of the waterfall and creek, with a mailbox that says “Tom Branch Falls” at the bottom.
Education park ranger Jessie Snow and Allison Bate, an AmeriCorps member who works in an educational capacity at the park, saw an opportunity. They figured that if they responded on the park’s Facebook page, they could not only thank Karina publicly but also spread a message.
“This isn’t just an issue for this one girl,” Snow says. “It’s very visible that things are moved a lot in the park; there’s a lot of damage on the park, people inscribing in trees, movement of materials and rocks. … It’s a very common issue here.” According to federal regulations, removing plants or objects from National Park Service lands is prohibited, with the potential for violators to face fines or citations.
During a recent backpacking trip to the Deep Creek area, Bate took the heart-shaped rock along and snapped a picture with the waterfall in the background. Then, she said, she tossed the rock “back where it belonged.”
That photo, as well as pictures of Karina’s letter, made up a Facebook post Saturday that assured the girl that her letter and rock had made it back to the Smokies.
“Already, you are becoming an amazing steward for the park,” the message said. “Thank you for recognizing that what is in the park should stay in the park. If every visitor took a rock home, that would mean 11 million rocks would be gone from the park every year!"
Snow said more than 11.5 million people visited the national park, which covers parts of Tennessee and North Carolina, last year, and at least as many are expected this year.
“We hoped that Karina would see the message, but I think we both were thinking in a broader scale of things when we came up with the post,” Snow says. “It’s more important to us that … thousands of others who visit the park see that and relate to the message and take that home with them.”