PLYMOUTH – It’s a little-known fact that coastal North Carolina is home to the world’s largest black bears according to the organizer of the North Carolina Black Bear Festival, and he wants to change that.
Festival founder and director Tom Harrison, who serves as part-time director of the Washington County Travel and Tourism Authority, explained that the state Black Bear Festival, set for the first weekend in June, started as a way to educate the public and particularly North Carolina residents about the state having the world’s largest black bears and highest black bear densities on the planet.
“We celebrate this important superlative through hosting the award-winning N.C. Bear Fest along with National Black Bear Day, (June 1) that intentionally coincide,” he said.
In its fifth year, the festival celebrates the sizable critters over the course of three days, May 31 to June 2, with 30 educational and bear-themed activities including a 5K, wild bear watching tours, wildlife photography excursions, pontoon boat rides on the Roanoke River, a classic car show, wooden boat show, shark tooth fossil dig, fireworks, live music throughout the weekend, a blackberry extravaganza and more.
The festival park opens at 10 a.m. June 1 where there will be a full schedule of family-friendly activities, such as mechanical black bear rides, airboat rides, a black bear tent theater, a make-your-own bear, a free children’s fishing event, lazy river tubing, a magic show and vendors. The festival park will reopen 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 2.
National Black Bear day, created in Plymouth, will be celebrated at 11 a.m. June 1 at Feyer Ford Music Stage. National Black Bear Day will always be held on the first Saturday in June in conjunction with the event, according to the website.
Harrison, who photographs and records black bears all year and gives private bear tours, told Coastal Review Online that the success of the festival is because “Everyone loves bears! No matter what your age, bears seem to appeal to everyone.” Attendance has grown for the festival from 7,000 to 30,000.
Harrison added that many attend the festival for the “Bear Tours to see these magnificent animals in the wild. Others come for the huge variety of activities and unique events that are added each year. The Reflections on the Roanoke Fireworks Show is a jaw dropping, multi-media event that attracts thousands of people.”
Harrison said that his interest in black bears began almost three decades ago.
“For over 25 years I have been observing, photographing and taking video of black bear that are so large and so abundant in this area,” he said. “In March of 2015, a friend suggested we have a bear festival. My jaw dropped and I said, ‘That’s a great idea!’ So three days later I led our first Black Bear Festival meeting and three months later we had our first Black Bear Festival.”
Harrison applied in 2017 to the National Day Calendar to create the first National Black Bear Day.
“I noticed upon investigation that there was a National Polar Bear Day, but no National Black Bear Day – even though black bears are found in 40 of our 50 states,” he said in a statement, and in 2018 the first National Black Bear Day was celebrated at the festival, when there were visitors from 18 states and four foreign countries.
The Bear Fest gospel concert kicks of the event at 7 p.m. May 31 and will feature Brian Free and Assurance and Soul’d Out Trio at the Plymouth Church of Christ Family Life Center at 905 Washington St. Doors open at 6 p.m. and tickets are $10 each. There will also be live music 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and noon to 4:30 p.m. Sunday. A full music schedule is available on the website.
Festivities on June 1 begin early with the 7:30 a.m. Run With The Bears 5K, a group paddle at Bear Track Landing and motorcycle poker run. The day wraps up with the 9 p.m. Reflections on the Roanoke Fireworks Show.
Festivalgoers can find out why bears hibernate, what they do during the different seasons and more with featured speakers, biologists Colleen Olfenbuttel and Chris Turner from 10 to 11 a.m. at Bear-Ology Black Bear Museum.
Olfenbuttel has served as the statewide black bear and furbearer biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission since 2007. A certified wildlife biologist, she has been working in the wildlife profession for 20 years.
“We are glad to celebrate the bear,” Olfenbuttel said, especially because not only does the festival celebrate the bear, but also promotes how to responsibly coexist with bears.
During her presentation, she said she will speak about bear biology and what the bear does throughout the year. “I also talk about our BearWise initiative to try to teach people to live responsibly with bears.”
She added that they will have a booth at the festival with more details about BearWise, which teaches the six BearWise basics to help humans and bears coexist.
She told Coastal Review Online that the Wildlife Resources Commission’s biologists in the area have been participating in the bear festival since it was conceived.
“We are thrilled to be part of the festival,” she said, adding that the agency has been trying to promote for years that residents should be proud of the black bears on the coast. At one point, the species was almost eradicated but were able to hang on.
This will also be the second year for the Blackberry Extravaganza. Harrison said that they debuted the extravaganza to expand the festival and attract a new demographic.
“We chose blackberries because black bears love to eat them, they begin to get ripe at the time of the Bear Festival and there is a similarity in name with black bears. We had a lot of fun with it last year and we are having it again this year,” he said. ”We have large blackberry character cutouts, a giant inflatable blackberry, a blackberry eating contest and vendor contests.”
The food vendors are required to include a blackberry food item on their menu and organizers award a prize to the best tasting food. “We also ask retail vendors to decorate their booth with a black bear/blackberry theme and the one judged best gets a prize.”
Harrison established Bear-Ology Black Bear Museum in Plymouth to have a year-round facility to promote Northeastern North Carolina having the world’s largest black bears the highest black bear densities on the planet, according to a release, after garnering success from the festival.
The festival has received many accolades since its inception, including the Rising Star Award from the North Carolina Association of Festivals & Events, Best Event in the state twice and the Top Twenty Event Award from the Southeast Tourism Society. Last year Bear Fest was named Best Small Festival from the Southeast Festival & Events Association.
“It’s remarkable what a small town can accomplish with a dedicated team, loyal sponsors and the support of the community,” Harrison said.
Plymouth Mayor Brian Roth said in a statement, “We are super-proud and honored to receive this special recognition. The N.C. Black Bear Festival has had an amazing impact on the town of Plymouth. It has created great awareness about the huge numbers of magnificent black bears on the Albemarle/Pamlico Peninsula and brought an economic resurgence to the town of Plymouth.”
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