Local authorities are increasing patrols as thousands flock to our region for an extended stay. Safety is a concern with as many as 10,000 people expected to be camping in Cherokee National Forest through July.
The Cherokee National Forest is hosting this year's annual Rainbow Family of the Living Light national gathering, and News 5 found out hundreds of people are already there camping out.
It's a family reunion on a level you may never have seen before. 300 to 500 people of all ages and backgrounds are saying "welcome home" to strangers and friends.
"We are a family. We might not be blood related but we are family," said a Rainbow Family camper who goes by the name "Lucky Duck."
That family setting up near South Holston Lake will soon get larger. Terry Bowerman, the Unaka District ranger for the U.S. Forest Service said, "We anticipate upwards into the thousands. 5,000, even 10,000 people will come and visit us by July 4."
With a stay expected well into the middle of July, forest rangers told us safety is a primary concern. That's why they're keeping the roads clear, increasing their patrols, and working 12-hour shifts. "We have resource people out here every day walking amongst the camps and talking to folks," Bowerman said.
But even with hundreds, soon to be thousands, of strangers living together it's not the people that worries campers like "Smiles."
"My main concern right now [is] black bears. You know you?ve got to be really careful, and there is going to be food. There's going to be 10,000 to 20,000 people here," Smiles added.
But for your everyday camper like Josh Rasnake, that many people so close can be a worry. "That's a plus about having a smaller campground. [It's] kind of more private," said Rasnake.
But by talking to campers at the gathering, we found out most said their sole reason for being here is all about community and love. "There ain't nothing in the world I wouldn't do for these two people, or this man right here, or that man right there, or that lady right there," said Smiles, pointing to other campers passing by.
We checked and found out the Sullivan County Sheriff's Office is assisting the U.S. Forest Service with monitoring safety. Starting July 1, they will have officers there around the clock during the peak of the gathering.