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Big Black Bears Celebrated in Big Way in Washington County, North Carolina

A young black bear helps himself to wheat in a field in Washington County, N.C. Black bears living in the swamps around the Albemarle Sound are the largest in the world. Photo by Doward Jones.
A young black bear helps himself to breakfast in a field of wheat near Plymouth, North Carolina. Black bears living in the woods and swamps around the Albemarle Sound are the largest in the world. Photo by Doward Jones.

On a recent spring morning, photographer Doward Jones and a friend were looking for photo opportunities in the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge near Plymouth, North Carolina. As they cruised through the refuge in an SUV, they spotted a black bear helping himself to wheat in a farmer’s field.

The young male bear was enjoying his own form of shredded wheat, and he was so engrossed in his breakfast that he ignored Jones, who stood with his camera near the SUV only about 30 feet away.

Big black bears are a common sight in the woods and fields around northeastern North Carolina’s Albemarle Sound. The bears flourish in this rural coastal region, thanks in part to hundreds of acres of wheat, corn and peanuts grown by local farmers.

Project2Although some of the farmers consider the bears an expensive nuisance, the historic river town of Plymouth–seat of Washington County, 100 miles south of Norfolk, Virginia–has started a popular late spring celebration focusing on the big beasts. The recent second annual North Carolina Black Bear Festival, held June 3-5 on the Plymouth waterfront overlooking the Roanoke River, drew an estimated 12,000 visitors from 14 states and the United Kingdom during three days of bear-related fun.

That’s a pretty good crowd anywhere, but in a rural county with just under 13,000 residents, it’s huge. Local restaurants reported a booming business during the festival, and many festival vendors sold out of their bear-related wares.

The black bears around the Albemarle Sound are the largest of their species in the world, often growing to more than 600 pounds. Even female black bears often reach 300 pounds. Elsewhere in North America, male black bears usually don’t exceed 200 pounds, and females usually reach a maximum weight of about 150 pounds.Project1

Besides the nearby food supply, there are a couple more reasons why coastal North Carolina’s bruins get so big. Usually mild winters in the lowlands mean that the bears are more active than their cousins living in more severe climates.

And although people going about their daily routines often see bears, the region is sparsely populated. Local business boosters point out that the Roanoke River delta looks much the same as it did when English explorers first ventured into the area more than 400 years ago. Washington County Travel and Tourism uses the slogan “Go Wild!” to market the area’s opportunities for boating, wilderness camping, canoeing and kayaking, hunting and fishing, and bird watching.

Of the towns on the peninsula between the Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, only Belhaven–with about 1,600 residents–has a population exceeding 1,000. There are about 200,000 acres of protected wildlife habitat–plenty of room for bears to roam.

But for a few days during the past two years, the bears have brought big crowds. Town Manager Sam Styons, who grew up in Plymouth, said he’d never seen as many people in the town’s waterfront business district as there were during the recent festival.

Festival planners are already at work on next year’s third event, which will be held on the Plymouth waterfront June 2-4, 2017.

Listen to author Willie Drye talk about his IPPY Award-winning Book, For Sale-American Paradise, with Frank Stasio on WUNC Radio’s “The State of Things,” and with Joseph Cooper on WLRN Radio’s “Topical Currents.”