UMATILLA – Not being a camper, Kathy Pagan admits she didn’t know that a task as simple as brushing your teeth in the wild can have unexpected consequences.
Or, to put it another way, can encourage unexpected visits.
“I would never have thought that toothpaste or old food wrappers or anything with food in it would still have enough aroma or smell to lure bears from far and wide,” Pagan said. “Bears are best respected from a comfortable distance.”
Nevertheless, the Lake County town of Umatilla is taking a very progressive view of bears this weekend, when the community celebrates the 12th Annual Florida Black Bear Festival on Saturday, March 26 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Cadwell Park, located at 4 Cassady St. in Umatilla.
“Umatilla is the gateway to the Ocala National Forest,” said Pagan, Lake County’s tourism marketing specialist. “As the gateway to the forest, it’s the perfect place for this event.”
In a region that usually welcomes visitors with huge theme parks, luxury hotels, giant shopping plazas and splashy water parks, the Black Bear Festival is a throwback to the days a century ago when Florida’s appeal wasn’t based on man-made parks, but natural ones. The region’s natural beauty, and some of its unique history, is what’s being celebrated here.
“This is a heritage event,” Pagan said. “This is the heritage of the Florida founders, the people that founded our area, made their camps here, made their towns here, and were living off the towns here. The land provided everything they needed. That’s the old Florida, the heritage we all want to preserve and pass on. I personally love theme parks, but this is something unique to Florida.”
This is also an eventg that’s built up a solid reputation in the decade it’s been around, so that the Lake County Welcome Center, where Pagan works, routinely gets questions about it, including from people who live out of state.
“We have had people come to our Welcome Center from Tennessee to ask about our Black Bear Festival,” she said. “It is a very well respected and esteemed event.”
The festival offers visitors an opportunity to discover and appreciate Florida’s largest land mammal during a one-day educational event for all ages – all done in honor of the black bear. A popular highlight of the festival is two-hour field trips into Ocala National Forest bear habitats conducted by the U.S. Forest Service.
The festival is presented by a partnership of Defenders of Wildlife, U.S. Forest Service, City of Umatilla, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Umatilla Chamber of Commerce and several other agencies.
“We take care of our wildlife here,” Pagan said. “This is an educational program, to be sure. Being able to go out to a cabin in the middle of the woods that is made from scavenged goods and local materials, and seeing how our homesteaders lived, is a wonderful experience.”
The field trips are made by bus and include a hike to where Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologists offer interactive lessons about bear biology, behavior and management. There’s also a visit to the historic Carr Cabin, built in 1938 from local and scavenged materials, and now preserved as a natural retreat.
Another option is the Black Bear Scenic Byway tour, which offers tips on wildlife, recreational opportunities and land conservation.
There’s also on-site activities that include an interactive children’s area, food and entertainment, exhibits, demonstrations, movies, author’s presentations, crafts and more.
“It’s for all ages, of course,” Pagan said. “Some of the children’s activities include cast making. They make a paw print from the bear. They learn the different tracks that animals make. They’re able to do a paleontology dig. They do little arts and crafts. They also have movies that are ongoing in the tent, documentaries on wildlife — especially the black bear. Everything is hands on for the families, so everyone is able to understand how having toothpaste will lure bears to your tents. There’s little activities with tents set up, and some rides like a climbing wall. There’s plenty to eat, like kettle corn and yummy things like that.”
“The Florida Black Bear Festival is a fun event full of activities, presentations and field trips that provide participants with information about how bears live, bear behavior, how we can avoid attracting them to our homes, and how we can live and recreate in bear country safely,” said Susan R. Martin, executive director of the Umatilla Chamber of Commerce.
“Families are introduced to animals to respect them more,” Pagan said. “There’s a strong educational component to this. They’re trying to encourage a love of the outdoors. A lot of kids don’t have a lot of exposure to the outdoors. This is an opportunity to take a whole family to a bear habit where they can walk in and identify whole different markings in the woods. And it may inspire them to make this a career choice, who knows?”
For more information, visit www.umatillachamber.org/blackbearfest.
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