The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has long been synonymous with black bears. From the first automobile tourists to today’s long-distance backpackers, catching a glimpse of the the iconic animal is the ultimate Smokies’ experience.
Of course, it was much easier to see one in the park’s early days when tourists regularly fed the bears without fear of reprisal. While it’s illegal to feed wildlife now, it was once an accepted practice, ensuring tourists could get a good, long look.
There was no such thing as bear-proof trash cans, so campgrounds and picnic areas became the bears’ main stomping grounds, giving rise to a host of problematic encounters. Some bears even broke into vehicles to get food left inside.
“They were always trying to catch a bear that was mischevious and getting into trouble,” said Teresa Pennington, who spent lots of time in the park during her childhood years in Asheville. “They would have big traps set up with a piece of meat inside and the gate would fall behind them. They would take them out of the park and release them, but three or four weeks later they were back again. They even had names for them.”
Many of the tourist shops in Cherokee would put bears in a cage and charge tourists to see them, spawning a black market for live bears. Trying to catch a bear was not just a source of money but entertainment for the kids, recalled Gary Carden of Sylva.
“You would pull up at Smokemont and raise the trunk lid and throw a pound of bacon in the back and then go hide. When the bear came in there to get the bacon you slammed the lid and drove off. Sometimes the bear tore that car all to pieces. You would drive around half the night and if nobody wanted the bear you had to go back to the park and let it out,” Carden said