GATLINBURG, Tenn. — Workers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) are publicly thanking a young girl who hit a soft spot by mailing the rangers a heart of stone.
"A girl named Karina mailed the park a small heart-shaped rock with a letter apologizing for taking it from the park. She sent us the rock, a donation, and a drawing," said Allison Bate, an AmeriCorps worker who helps with GSMNP educational programs and social media.
"We all looked at it [the letter] and thought, 'That's awesome.' It is special because she's kind of admitting she made a mistake. And we all make mistakes. So, she made this mistake and she wanted to fix it," said interpretive park ranger Jessie Snow.
The letter read, "Dear Park Ranger, Deep Creek was awesome. I especially liked Tom Branch Falls. I loved it so much, I wanted to have a souvenir to come with me. So, I took a rock. I'm sorry, and I want to return it. Also, here's a donation! From, Karina. PS: Look on the back!"
The back of the letter featured a drawing of Tom Branch Falls at Deep Creek on the North Carolina side of the park.
By the time the letter and rock made it to Snow and Bate, there was no envelope or return address.
"The envelope was probably kept with the donation. We posted the letter to social media because we wanted her to know that she did something good. Hopefully, this makes it to her, so she knows we do appreciate it," said Bate.
"Who doesn't like a heart-shaped rock, right? What Karina learned is important for everyone. It's one rock. Your first thought is, 'It doesn't really matter.' But when you get 11 million visitors in the park, that's 11 million rocks taken or 11 million flowers picked. These are essential parts of our habitat," said Snow. "Even moving rocks impacts species. It changes the currents in streams and can damage sensitive species. Right now, moving rocks can impact salamanders like the hellbender and its eggs underneath rocks. So, it's a really important message to enjoy things where you see them, and leave them where they are."
Snow emphasized it is better to leave the park with photographic memories of your time in Smokies.
"You find something really cool, really beautiful, and you want to celebrate it and share it with people. Take a picture and put it on social media. A lot more people saw this beautiful heart-shaped rock from Karina by us putting it on social media than if you take it home and put it in your closet. If you see something cool, take a picture and share it with us," said Snow.
As for the rock Karina sent to the park, Bate personally delivered it back to its proper place.
"I hiked to Deep Creek and took the rock. It is tossed over by the waterfall in the water, probably close to where Karina found it. That heart-shaped rock is back where it belongs. We were very proud of her that she sent us the rock," said Bate.
Below is the Facebook post by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park thanking Karina.