Where: Starbridge Sanctuary, 396 Starbridge Road, Murrayville
When: Gates open 3 p.m. Sunday
How much: $10, on sale at gate
The sounds of mud and water squishing and children’s laughter mixed with soulful tunes pouring from the music stage Saturday at the 11th annual HemlockFest at Starbridge Sanctuary in Murrayville near Dahlonega.
Hosted by the Lumpkin Coalition, money raised from the event helps fund research programs by local colleges and universities to combat the wooly adelgid that attacks hemlock trees.
As her son Noah, 4, stomped through the mud puddles proudly carrying a decorated paper lantern, Carol Reed expressed her admiration for the benefit festival spearheaded by Forest Hilyer, one her family has attended for nearly a decade.
“He’s just a guy who saw something that was wrong and didn’t like it and he decided to do something about it,” Reed said. “That is amazing.
“The majority of the research funding that the people have to try and help preserve our forest comes from this festival. Not some big ol’ grant, not some government tax money — this festival. People who work their butts off because they decided they didn’t want the trees in the forest dying.”
The three-day event features an array of activities for all ages, from crafts in Kid’s Nature Village, music on the main stage, a canoe ride across the lake or a stroll through the vendor village. With tents set up to protect handmade treasures, there were many vendors on hand, plus a silent auction tent.
“Kids under 15 are free and it’s not just that they’re free; it’s not just that they’re an afterthought. There are beautiful arts, crafts and music for them,” Reed said. “They go out of their way to make it an incredibly family-friendly event.”
Noah and his siblings joined other children in the Kid’s Nature Village for an afternoon of free activities.
“What better place to enjoy fall than in the North Georgia mountains with all the colors; it’s beautiful,” Reed said, who camped on site with her family after traveling from Woodstock.
Others enjoyed weekend and day passes that were available for those who lived closer to the festival. Erin Crozier of Murrayville was attending for the first time.
“My family and some community members are really involved with some of the beetle labs to help with the whole hemlock issue,” Crozier said. “That’s part of it, and I love music.
“It’s nice to know that so many people care, and that there are so many people in this community that are committed to our woodlands here and our environment.”
She said after learning about the danger hemlock face, a hike through the forest shows the damage, and trees she grew up with dying.
“I know that a lot of people think that it’s just one tree, but it’s one tree that is such a big part of the greater ecosystem,” Crozier said. “We have such incredible biodiversity in the Southeast that every species that we can protect is really valuable and worth doing.”
Alexis Petrassi, a recent University of North Georgia graduate, spent two years of her undergraduate study working in the predatory beetle lab and was asked back to work for the program in July. She spent the weekend answering questions and raising public awareness about invasive species and their dangers.
“It’s been great today,” Petrassi said. “We’ve been reconnecting with a lot of the other labs, a lot of the chemical people, a lot of the forestry people, and we’ve had a lot of people that have no idea what we’re doing coming up to us and finding information. We try to keep things simple, because this is a complicated thing.”
Petrassi said many of the people she spoke with seemed to understand what is happening to the trees. Unlike many other fall festivals, Petrassi likes being about to tell people exactly where the money raised is going.
“This isn’t just ‘we’re taking your money for fun,’” she said. “It’s going to scientific work and research and we’re trying to save, not just a species of tree. It is about saving the ecosystem those trees have created for hundreds of years.”
For more information about HemlockFest, visit hemlockfest.org.