Help Keep The Bears Wild

by David H. Day (Copyright 1999 - All rights reserved)

We had just turned in for the second evening of our 7-day Yosemite backpack; it was a few minutes after 9:00pm, and we had been having a good conversation around the dying fire. About five minutes after zipping up our sleeping bags, I thought I heard ‘footsteps’ passing by our tent. Since there were 11 others in our group, I didn’t think too much of it; until we heard the rattle and snapping of dead branches on a tree some distance beyond our tent. We both knew instantly that what we were hearing was our bear-bag being raided. I yelled "BEAR!" and called out to the group leader to alert him. We then threw our shoes and jackets back on and piled out to see what was going on.

Sure enough, a sow black bear was putting on a ‘how-to’ for her two cubs – and us. This bear bag was hung absolutely by the book; 20 feet up and 8 or so feet out on a live, strong, but thin-at-the-tip branch. With the cubs watching, she first tried to shake the branch. When that didn’t work, she tried to stretch out to reach, but it was too far out and the many dead branches were in the way. Next, she tried to bite off the branch. Finally, she climbed up to the branch above and dropped down onto the gnawed branch, breaking it off at the point she had chewed. She caught herself right away, and lead the cubs down to the ground for a snack. It took her less time to take it down than it did for me to put it up!

All during this time, as per Park policy, we had been harassing the bear by yelling, blowing whistles, banging pots and pans, throwing rocks, etc.. We need not have bothered; she paid us no mind whatsoever. We finally returned to our tents to nervously wait out the rest of the raid. For the next couple of hours, she and the cubs wandered back and forth between our site and two sites on the other side of the stream. Needless to say, not a whole lot of sleeping was done until they left.

The next morning we awoke to find the shredded remains of my stuff sack, still dangling about 3 feet off the ground; wrappers and bits of trash strewn around the area; a total loss of its food contents. Fortunately, it was only our gorp and a couple of lifesavers. The rest of the food was just where we had left it the evening before… on the ground next to the cooking area! There they sat – 12 ‘bear canisters’ full of food, untouched, just where we had left them. I was a believer!

For those of you who have never seen or heard of ‘bear canisters’, they are one of the most elegant solutions to the problem of keeping bears wild and out of your food stores. The ones we were using were cylinders roughly 8" in diameter and 12" long. The door is flush in one end and the rest is seamless. Once fitted in place and locked with 2 half-turn latches (which use a quarter or screwdriver to turn), the canister is completely smooth, even kind of slippery.

The trick is that the bears just can’t do anything to get the thing open. Since they don’t carry screwdrivers, they have to resort to other methods. However, the canister is too big to get their jaws around and is too small for them to hug or step on and crush. So, they will just knock it around and play with it for several minutes, but then get frustrated and move on to easier pickings. In Yosemite, where they have been using these for several years, the bears have learned that these aren’t even worth fooling with, so they just ignore them. We had bears in and around our camps for the rest of the week, and we continued to leave our food ‘laying around the cooking area’. In the whole time, none of the barrels were disturbed.

We now own 2 bear canisters, and I have retired my bear bag cord to clothesline duty. The canisters do weigh about 2.5 pounds each, but the ease of use and peace of mind at night are worth it! Each one will hold about a week’s food for one person, depending on what you are taking. I found a couple of manufactures producing various sizes and styles of them. Most are made of ABS plastic, some are metal. All are designed to be carried in, or on, a normal backpack. Ours are the same as the ones on our trip, and are made by Garcia Machine, part number BC-812. Retail is $75, I ordered ours from Mountain Technologies, via the internet, and paid somewhat less.

The reality is that bear bags, no matter where or how well you hang them, will probably get taken by a well trained bear who, like our cubs out west, has been taught by his or her mother. Shouldn’t we give the bears a better lesson; one that does not involve getting food from backpackers? I don’t know about you, but I would have a tough time hiking out on ‘empty’ if the food got stolen on the 4th day of a weeklong end-to-end backpack. It will also help keep them alive; because bears, once they begin to equate people with food, become ‘problem bears’ and are eliminated. Obviously, our momma bear was teaching her cubs the ropes. Unfortunately, we gave her an opportunity for a bear-bag workshop; hopefully, she won’t get many more.