A Walk in the Woods

Great Smoky Mountains Guide Service Logo

It started with a through-hike of the Smokies, and turned into the proverbial labor of love...

Although we have always been avid naturalists, we both had successful careers. Erik has a BBA in Accounting and worked as a Controller for a video post-production house for ten years. Vesna has a BS in Communications and was working towards her Masters in Education. She worked in television as both a reporter and a producer for nine years.

However, our careers became less satisfying and as we struggled to find meaning on this path, our trips to the mountains became more frequent and important.

We began discussing an alternative in which we would be doing something we believed in, raising people’s environmental awareness. We were drawn to the Appalachian Mountains and loved being outdoors, but were unclear of how to make this our life's work, instead of just a passion.

Then in late August of 1996, Erik took a backpacking trip through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park alone. During this vision quest, he found the answer. Why not share this magic with others?  A Walk in the Woods was born.

As children, we had both wanted to become naturalists, but for various reasons had gotten off of that path. We now have come full circle, and invite you to share the wonders that this beautiful park has to offer.


Our Guides

Our guides make A Walk in the Woods the best. We have always had the top guides in the business, known for their expertise in the botany, geology, culture and history of the Great Smoky Mountains. Our mission is raising environmental awareness through direct, fun, positive experiences with nature. Anyone can walk you down a trail through the woods. When you go with us, it will be the best day of your vacation.

Our Guides include :


Great Smoky Mountains Trail Guides Erik and Vesna Plakanis

A Walk in the Woods is owned and operated by the husband and wife team Erik and Vesna Plakanis. Between them, they have over 60 years experience in hiking the Appalachian Mountains, covering thousands of miles of trails. They have both been full time trail guides in the Great Smoky Mountains since 1998. These two naturalists have taken courses on medicinal and edible uses of plants, animal tracking and stalking, wilderness survival and primitive arts, as well as years spent studying the natural world from within.  They are also both accomplished storytellers, specializing in Cherokee legends and settler tall tales.  They have been featured in publications including Outside Magazine, Backpacker, National Geographic, National Geographic Traveler Magazine, USA Today, Washington Post, Shape Magazine, Women’s Health, Southern Living, AAA's Magazine Home and Away, and many others.  They have appeared on the Discovery Channel, Travel Channel and NBC Nightly News.

Erik was awarded REI Adventures Top Guide for 2012.

Both Erik and Vesna are Wilderness First Responders and certified in CPR and Non-lethal Aversive Bear Conditioning.


Trail Guide Samantha Suttles

Born in Louisiana, the timeworn mountains of East Tennessee did not start calling to Samantha Suttles until her parents began vacationing here while she was in middle school, after a family move to South Carolina. Who knows if it was simply the beauty of the mountains, an innate love of history, or a long forgotten family tie to the land that fueled her eventual interest in these mountains. As both her grandfather and aunt hold degrees in History, some might say a love of the subject was passed down through her family. In 2009, Samantha received her Bachelor’s Degree in History from the University of Tennessee. Following that pursuit, she interned with the National Park and worked as an interpretive ranger while she completed a Graduate Certificate in Historic Preservation from the Savannah College of Art & Design. Her two research projects for that degree centered on the Elkmont Section of Great Smoky Mountains. Samantha joined A Walk in the Woods in 2010. She loves the Great Smoky Mountains National Park not only for all its beauty and opportunities for outdoor education and recreation, but its vast cultural history as well. Everywhere one looks, there’s a story to be found. Another one of Samantha’s interests is photography and the mountains of East Tennessee provide wonderful chances to learn as well as fantastic artistic opportunities. Samantha is certified in CPR and as a Wilderness First Responder.


Trail Guide Jaimie Matzko

Jaimie Matzko has been a naturalist in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park since 2003 when she began teaching environmental education at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. Before that, she taught environmental education at the Hocking Woods Nature Center and Wahkeena Nature Preserve in Ohio and worked as an Outdoor Educator at Lindsay Outdoor Center in Pennsylvania.  Jaimie has a degree in Natural and Cultural Interpretation from Hocking College and also received certifications in Backpacking and Survivor Skills and Advanced Survival Techniques.   Jaimie joined A Walk in the Woods in 2011. In 2014, Jaimie earned her Bachelors degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Tennessee.  Her passions include exploring the mountains, backpacking, bird-watching, gardening, practicing yoga and nature photography. Jaimie has been certified as a Wilderness First Responder and in CPR since 2003.

Trail Guide Mike Matzko

Michael Matzko grew up in western Pennsylvania and developed a passion for wild places while exploring the backcountry of Yellowstone National Park. After graduating from Hocking College with a degree in Recreation and Wildlife, he became an Outdoor Instructor leading adventure based activities, such as rock climbing, caving and mountain biking at Lindsay Outdoor Center. In 2003, Michael began working at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont as a Teacher Naturalist where he gained a love and sense of wonderment of the Smokies natural and cultural history. Michael joined A Walk in the Woods in 2011. He enjoys playing music, backpacking and hiking in his free time. Michael is certified in CPR and as a Wilderness First Responder.


Trail Guide Charles Savidge

Growing up in Indiana, Charles Savidge fell in love with the outdoors at a young age. During high school his passion was continued as the president of the Venture Crew 007, with whom he helped lead monthly trips around the Midwest. In 2010, Charles went to Arizona where he spent his time backpacking and rock climbing with the National Outdoor Leadership School and graduated from the Outdoor Educator program. Before becoming a guide for A Walk in the Woods in 2010, Charles led many trips to the Smoky Mountains. Now it is his honor to pass on his love for these mountains, nature and all that it has to offer. Charles is certified in CPR and as a Wilderness First Responder.


Trail Guide Blue

My name is River Blue and I was born deep in the heart of the Tennessee mountains, in a little valley, in a small cabin, built with family hands . On my journey through life, a vast world of knowledge and experiences, my energy started off as a small trickle. But over time I grew. I became a camp counselor, helping kids experience the joys of nature, till one day my path led to a rock. The only thing in my mind was how do I get to the top. Finding my true passion in life, I became a rock climber, living off the grid for 2 years, in a small 8 by 8 cabin, on the edge of a cliff. I gained intimate knowledge of the Southeastern plants by using them for my food and medicine. My days were spent teaching kids of all ages to climb and be active in nature. I took my new skills and moved to the city, where I became a rock wall instructor, developing a climbing team. It didn't take long, however, living in the chaos that comes with a large city, before I needed to return to my home in the Smoky Mountains. Embracing a new path in my life, I started working for A Walk in the Woods in the spring of 2015. I look forward to sharing the wonders of these mountains with you. Blue is certified in CPR and as a Wilderness First Responder.


Great Smoky Mountains Trail Guide Bob Miller

Bob Miller is recent retiree from a long and diverse career with the National Park Service, including serving as the Public Affairs Officer on the Superintendent’s staff at Great Smoky Mountains National Park for 22 years. During his tenure at the Smokies Bob was the widely recognized “Voice of the Smokies”, providing information 24/7 on the Park’s natural and historic resources, visitor activities, and a wide range of management issues and activities ranging from bear management to road construction planning. While at the Smokies he also served as the Public Info Officer on an interagency team which managed response to scores of major natural catastrophes, mostly fires and hurricanes, from Oregon to St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. Bob and his wife Elaine and daughter, Caitlin, moved to the Smokies following a stint as the Administrative Officer at Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor, Maine. Prior to that, Bob oversaw the interpretive programs in national park sites in Washington, DC including the White House, Ford’s Theater and the Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. He was also part of a task force to develop and interpret the new Vietnam Veterans Memorial – as a Vietnam Era Army veteran, the Memorial was especially moving. Upon retirement Bob was awarded the Dept. of Interior’s highly prestigious Superior Service Award. He earned a B.S. in Biology from Michigan State University with a Secondary Ed. Minor. Bob joined A Walk in the Woods in 2013. He loves boats (paddle, sail, power), hiking, camping, cooking, snow-water and cross country skiing and grand-fathering. If you want to learn about the natural and cultural features in America’s most visited Park, and especially if you want a senior manager’s perspective, Bob’s your guy!


Trail Guide Jen Jen Kelley grew up in the Smoky Mountain region, but didn't take her first real hike until 2008. After falling in love with the mountains on that first trip, she began hitting the trails nearly every weekend year-round. In a few short years she had completed all 900 miles of trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In 2012, Jen set out to thru hike the Appalachian Trail and adopted the trail name "Sprinkles". Five and a half months after she started she finished the 2,184.2 mile journey. She moved to Millinocket, Maine to work helping other Appalachian Trail hikers plan their journeys and get back home from the northern terminus of the trail. Since then, she has also thru hiked the Benton MacKaye Trail, half of the Finger Lakes Trail, and the Long Trail. Jen joined A Walk in the Woods in 2015. She has a passion for long-distance hiking and loves teaching others to find themselves out on the trail. Jen is certified in CPR and as a Wilderness First Responder.
Hiking Guide Bethany Growing up at the base of the Smokies in Knoxville, Tennessee, Bethany Houghton was drawn to the mountains and the inevitable adventures that lay within them from a young age. While attending the University of Tennessee, she took every school break to explore different parts of the U.S. From working at JH Ranch in Northern California where she guided kids up Mt. Shasta, to being the Outdoor Skills and Hiking Instructor at Camp Natarswi in Baxter State Park, Maine, Bethany enjoys encouraging others in every aspect of the outdoors. After receiving her Bachelor’s Degree in Art History in December 2012 she immersed herself in the Smokies and worked a season at LeConte Lodge. In 2014, she realized her childhood dream of thru hiking the Appalachian Trail with the loving encouragement, support, and ultimate jealousy of her family and friends. She returned to the Great Smoky Mountains as a guide with A Walk in the Woods in 2016 to share with others the ever-exciting and unexpected adventures that await on the trail. Bethany is certified in CPR and as a Wilderness First Responder.
Hiking Guide Haley Haley Urben was born in a small town in western Pennsylvania, where she grew up in a log cabin built by her father. She spent her childhood exploring the outdoors in her work boots and cutoff jeans. Haley loved exploring and trying anything and everything that involved being outside. Starting in 2014, she attended Shenandoah University where she played basketball and studied Exercise Science, until she realized that her passion for the outdoors could be more than just a hobby. She currently attends Allegheny College, where she majors in Environmental Science with a minor in Geology. For her undergraduate thesis, she is exploring the idea of creating an outdoor education program that incorporates ecology, ecosystem services, and experiential learning into one super awesome learning experience. As one of the leaders for Allegheny’s Outdoor Club, ecologist and outdoor educator in the making Haley loves being a part of people’s outdoor experiences. She started as an intern for A Walk in the Woods during the 2016 summer where she fell in love with the people and the Smokys, and now has been promoted to a seasonal guide. Haley is certified in CPR & First Aid, Wilderness First Aid, and as a Wilderness First Responder.
Hiking Guide Nokey Patrick Kennedy, better known as NoKey, is an adventurer and long-distance hiker who has completed the Appalachian Trail, the Benton MacKaye Trail, the Long Trail, and half the Finger Lakes Trail. He also worked at a trail hostel in Millinocket, Maine before moving to the Smoky Mountains in 2015, and joined the A Walk in the Woods family in 2016. NoKey's other interests include mountain biking, canoeing, and running. He mountain biked North Dakota on the Maah Daah Hey Trail in 2011 and canoed the Allegash Wilderness Waterway in 2016. When he's not out playing in the woods you can find him fishing in our nearby lakes. NoKey is certified in CPR and as a Wilderness First Responder.
Company Info :
Mailing Address : A Walk in the Woods*
4413 Scenic Drive East
Gatlinburg, TN 37738
Phone : (865) 436-8283
email : info@awalkinthewoods.com

*Note : A Walk in the Woods is a guide service, not a store. Our Walks and Hikes meet at spots convenient to the program NOT at this office. We only meet clients at our office to Rent Gear and for guided Backpacking Trips. Please call for an appointment.


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