Last weekend, the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge and Cherokee Removal Memorial Park hosted their annual Sandhill Crane Festival. Free to the public, the gathering attracted visitors and naturalists from across the country to observe the magnificent spectacle of migratory sandhill cranes.

The weekend-long event included wildlife displays and presentations, Native American displays and speakers, flint knapping demonstrations, and expert naturalists to assist visitors with viewing scopes.

Even from a distance, sandhill cranes are something to behold, towering over four feet tall with wingspans easily exceeding six feet. Almost wiped out entirely during the 1800s from overhunting and habitat loss, they have made an impressive comeback. Moreover, fossil evidence suggests that this particular animal is likely the oldest known bird species still in existence. Many other species were observed at the event, including the endangered whooping crane, which is one of the most critically threatened species in North America. For most attendees, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to observe sandhill and whooping cranes, bald eagles and scores of other rare birds taking advantage of the exceptional habitat provided by the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge. Located at the confluence of the Hiwassee and Tennessee rivers, the refuge is a 6,000 acre habitat for migratory birds and many other animals. Each winter, thousands of cranes and other birds enjoy a temporary rest from their long migrations at the refuge, further highlighting its importance in conserving migratory populations.

Dr. David Aborn, ornithologist at UT-Chattanooga, described the significance of the annual gathering.

"This festival is a great way to introduce people to birds, biodiversity, the importance of conservation and it's right here in their backyards," Aborn said. "It's also a unique contrast; the most numerous bird in the world, the sandhill crane, and the most endangered bird in the world, the whooping crane, can be observed here together."

Once visitors were satisfied with Hiwassee Island's remarkable avian display, shuttles kept the crowds moving to and from the Cherokee Removal Memorial Park. The Park is a 29-acre area dedicated to the rich Native American history within the Hiwassee Refuge. In the fall of 1838, some 9,000 Cherokee Indians camped along the river at this site. The 1,000-mile journey that awaited them would come to be known as part of the historic Trail of Tears. Displays, memorials and traditional native music projected an atmosphere of reverence and respect for the horrors these families were forced to endure. Many speakers were present to give folks an opportunity to learn about these events from the natives' standpoint.

Ron Cooper, a Comanche Indian from Oklahoma, was on site to speak about his recent expedition along the northern route of the Trail of Tears. Spanning 835 miles from Tennessee to Oklahoma, his walk took roughly three months and three days. Desiring to reconnect with his native heritage, he completed this trek during the winter, much like that of the original journey in the 1800s.

"I'm Comanche. The Cherokees were the ones that traveled this particular trail. My intent was to symbolize tribal unity and show the relationships of differing tribes and what we all went through, and what we survived," Cooper said. "We've come a long way. It's the 21st century and we're still here, so I wanted to celebrate that while remembering those bad times." Cooper's book, titled 'It's My Trail, Too,' is now complete and recounts his travels and interactions with people along the way.

"I was very happy that there are people, not necessarily native groups, all along the route preserving their own (local) parts of the Trail," said Copper.

Cooper explained that he was able to connect these locals with native groups to better preserve the history of these areas, which made him especially excited with the work.

"All the time you see on the news nothing but bad things, bad people, and terrible events happening around the world," he said. "I met nothing but good people, all along the way, that helped me out and provided me with places to stay. There are good people out there."