Representatives from Bays Mountain Park & Planetarium drew crowds to the kid’s zone of the Great Outdoors Festival as they held demonstrations with birds of prey. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

Despite the forecasted weather conditions, there were dry skies and warm temperatures awaiting event attendees who flocked to downtown Erwin for the Great Outdoors Festival on Saturday, May 5. The third annual festival was orchestrated by the community group RISE Erwin, and organizers deemed this year’s event as the most successful one yet with estimated attendance numbers between 4,000 to 5,000.

Along with dozens of outdoor-themed vendors, the festival provided a popular music lineup, a kids zone full of multiple activities, a mobile skate park, food trucks, a craft beer tent, live animal demonstrations with Bays Mountain, and the presentation of the International Fly Fishing Film Festival.

“Our food trucks sold out by 3:30 p.m.,” said Jamie Rice, RISE Erwin president and communications coordinator for the Town of Erwin. “The weather definitely helped a lot; last year’s event was pretty much rained out and this year when we went to bed on Friday night we were thinking it was going to be the same outcome, but when we woke up and there was no rain, we were so thankful.”

Rice said the festival was strategically planned to coincide with numerous hikers passing through Unicoi County as they come off of the Appalachian Trail.

“I think everyone was really appreciative of the efforts that have been made to highlight Unicoi County and the outdoor opportunities that are available here,” she said. “We had so many hikers, which is the reason we do the festival when we do it. That’s a huge win for us when people get back on that trail and tell everyone what a great experience they had in Erwin.”

Food trucks present at the festival included Joe Bill’s Kitchen, Bite, Opie’s Pizza Wagon and Italian ice and kettle corn vendors. The extensive variety of vendors could be found selling everything from pottery, jewelry and handmade body products to knives, outdoor apparel and clothing. Vendors were also offering massages and selling live plants, in addition to the various booths set up to represent community organizations.

Alan and Nancy Stegall attended the event for the first time as pottery vendors and said they were “absolutely loving the festival.”

The Stegalls were selling their handmade pottery, which consisted mostly of coffee and tea mugs in vibrant hues of cool earthy green and blue tones, some with intricate designs and others that were monogrammed with names.

“We got hooked on pottery in college,” said Nancy Stegall, who was previously a registered nurse before pursuing pottery full time in 1983.

Ten years later, her husband, who has a 20-year military career, also began making pottery full time. For the Stegalls, being able to do something every day that they love while spending time with one another makes for a fulfilling career.

“That was the biggest attraction,” said Stegall.

This was also the first year that Northeast Tennessee Outdoors set up as a vendor at the festival. Northeast Tennessee Outdoors was selling outdoor-themed shirts, decals and outdoor-themed hats. The new business continues to grow through social media alone, where they also post informational videos related to outdoor activities.

“We’ve been selling an Appalachian trailblazer shirt and one with our logo on it,” said Katie Linkous, who started the business with her husband, Eric. “You can show where you’re from with our stuff.” 

On the company’s Facebook and Instagram pages, you can find various videos on the topics of hunting and fishing, as well as reviews on different sporting products. 

“If we go on a hike we always try to get online and let people know what the trail was like and if it’s suitable for kids and things like that,” said Linkous, who added they had a great time selling at the festival.

After festival attendees made their way past the foods trucks, musical stage and vendors that lined North Main Street, they entered the kid’s zone located on Main Avenue between Gay and Love streets. The kid’s zone included an archery course, target practice with a pellet gun, a petting zoo and two new editions this year – live animal demonstrations by Bays Mountain and catch and release trout pools supplied by Bass Pro Shops and stocked with rainbow trout from the National Fish Hatchery.

Small crowds gathered around Bays Mountain volunteers as they presented rescued birds of prey such as a Red Tailed Hawk and Great Horned Owl. Onlookers had the opportunity to learn facts about the birds and their impressive natural abilities.

Rice said the new additions were organized by RISE Erwin members Kristen Anders and Juan Villaba, who sought to kick the kid’s zone up a notch this year with the Bass Pro Shop sponsorship and live animal demonstrations.

“Those were huge additions that both the kids and adults enjoyed and we really appreciate their efforts,” said Rice.

Rice added that Trout Unlimited, which presented the International Fly Fishing Film Festival at Capital Cinemas around midday, was very pleased with the turnout and happy to bring awareness to their organization with the film. 

“Hopefully they will have some new members because of the outdoor festival,” she said.

About every couple of hours a new band performed at the festival and this year’s lineup included the Ripple, Folk Soul Revival, Unicoi County High School Bluegrass Band, Anabelle’s Curse and 49 Winchester.

“It was definitely probably the best lineup we’ve had in the three years,” Rice said. “I mean we had people drive three hours to come and see Folk Song Revival and we were really pleased for the turnout they brought to the festival.”

Rice said she believes each time an outdoor- or nature-inspired event is hosted in Erwin, it draws needed attention to the area and its array of outdoor-themed assets.

Recently, Rice said the festival was mentioned in Blue Ridge Outdoor Magazine and a professor from Maryville College took notice of Erwin and Saturday’s festival.

“Two of those professors actually came to Erwin and spoke to the mayor about their outdoor program,” she said.

Rice also said the college is currently interested in sending students to Erwin and Unicoi County to help work with the area in conjunction with their outdoor program.

“It’s a feather in our cap each time we’re mentioned,” said Rice. “You never know what opportunities that may bring … our hope is the more times we’re mentioned, maybe a small business that’s outdoor-related will come to want and fill a store shop downtown.”