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Bear Canister Bias

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Water Purification for Long Distance Hikers

Bear Canister Bias

By Paul AYCE Nanian

Sometime you gotta do what you gotta do. Unfortunately for lightweight backpackers, carrying a hard sided bear canister is one of these gotta do's in much of California's High Sierras. Now I'm sure there's a hardcore group of ultralite hikers that'll preach the party line: hard sided canisters are overkill, with 'stealth' techniques the danger of actually having your food stolen is minimal. Fact is, I couldn't agree more. But before you decide to leave the hard sided canister home, listen to an experience I recently had in the Sierras.

It Happened to Me
Climbing towards Kearsarge pass to resupply out Onion Valley I was closing the gap between myself and several other more traditional hikers (read large packs) when a ranger appeared on the rise 1/4 mile up the trail. He continued his decent past the traditional hikers but stopped to question me. It was obvious that he had singled me out to check for a canister because my pack was small and, had I wished to, there would have been no way to have avoided this encounter . Even though I told him that I was carrying a canister, he did not believe me and demanded to see it with the comment "Ursacks and homemade canisters are not acceptable". The bottom line is that I had to pull out one of the approved canisters or receive a fine of $150. I produced the Wild Ideas Bearicade for the ranger, who was clearly disappointed that he couldn't make an example out of what had seemed to be an irresponsible ultralite hiker. Truth be known I had been struggling with the canister issue two weeks earlier and had nearly decided to carry Tom Cohen's Ursack TKO, a bear bag made from kevlar that isn't on the approved list.

So what's with this approved list
A committee of park officials called the Sierra Interagency Black Bear Group (SIBBG) are the final word in what products are approved for use in the trouble areas of Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon, and Inyo National Forest. SIBBG's strict rules mandating the use of approved canisters in the backcountry and proper food storage in the parks have been remarkably effective in stopping what was a serious problem for both people and bears. Few argue that what SIBBG is trying to do is a good thing, but many people, such as Ursack's Tom Cohen take issue in the way the approval process is carried out.

The Approval Process
Fisher, a 580-pound black bear, ended up in the Folsom City Zoo Sanctuary because he was a 'problem bear'. You know, the kind that like to tear into cars, tents and backpacks in search of fast food in preference to their natural diet. Items seeking 'approved' status from SIBBG are filled with goodies and then left for an hour with hungry Fisher. If he gets in, SIBBG won't add your product to the approved list. Seems simple enough, but Ursack TKO thwarted Fisher yet still was refused 'approved' status because of five tooth punctures. A disappointed Tom Cohen is considering a lawsuit, contending that "SIBBG applied hard sided container standards not applicable to soft sided bags".

Had I written this article while fulminating over SIBBG's rules, trying to cram the square peg (hard sided canister) into the round hole (my 'everything in its place' ultralite pack) it would have had a distinctly different tone. Since then a more rational look at the complicated bear problem provoked downright respect for SIBBG and the NPS' governance. Take a look yourself at the way they've made it as easy as possible to be in compliance, from food lockers at parking areas to inexpensive canister rental for backcountry trips. There's even a convenient after hours 'drop box' for rental canisters. And the 60%+ reduction in bear incidents is proof that the policy works.
But the fact remains that Fisher did not obtain the food in the Ursack TKO. Tooth punctures do not equate to stolen food. Let field testing of the Ursack TKO determine if in fact the product is effective.

The Bottom Line
Hopefully SIBBG will allow Ursack TKO to be tested for effectiveness in the field so that there will be more choice for lightweight backpackers. Until then, carry one of the approved canisters or risk the $150 fine. I'm glad I was carrying one of the approved canisters, despite the fact that it occupied significant real estate and added 1.8 lbs to my base weight. And if the ranger from Rae Lakes is reading this, don't you wish you'd checked those other guys instead?