In the past couple of weeks, the U.S. Forest Service has had to close backcountry campsites and issue warnings about bear activity in certain areas. Specifically:
- Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness — specifically, the Haoe Lead, Stratton Bald, Hangover Lead and Hangover trails
- Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee, where camping has been banned on the Appalachian Trail between Double Springs Shelter and the intersection with Backbone Rock Side Trail.
- Pisgah National Forest along the Appalachian Trail, from Pisgah Grassy Fork Road, mile marker 245, to Max Patch Road, mile marker 253, including the Groundhog Creek Shelter.
The reason? Campers have been sloppy with their food, specifically with not storing it properly.
Encounters include bears taking down bear bags stored hanging from a tree (improperly, presumably) and riffling through camping supplies and gear. Bears will often stay in the area of the incident for several hours. This time of the year black bears are opportunistically looking for food that campers and trail users bring on their trips.
Which is why it is imperative that you properly store your food when camping or even on a day hike. Why this is such a hard point to drive home frankly befuddles me. My friend, river guide Joe Jacob of Haw River Canoe & Kayak, once told me of a trip he lead in Alaska, in grizzly country. He was pretty sure the folks on his trip weren’t heeding his request to tuck all their food into the bear canisters he provided. So one evening, after dinner, he had everyone walk downstream a short distance, ostensibly to a spot where the setting sun would be especially spectacular. But he also knew this was a spot where the bears came to feed on salmon in the evening. Sure enough, one appeared, waded in, snatched a huge fish in one clawed paw and ate it in one bite. “Everyone’s eyes got huge,” Joe recalled. “They ran back to their tents and came pouring back out with candy bars and other snacks.”
Does it take watching a bear devour a fish to convince you that bears get hungry, and that once they discover a source of food will take full advantage? Now, black bears, the bears we have in the Southeast, will eat just about anything, but mostly insects, roots, berries, grasses — the meals that won’t put up a fight. They will, occasionally, eat fish and mammals, but they prefer the heavy lifting be done for them in advance: they prefer those larger critters to already be dead.
That said, once a bear discovers a reliable food source — like an area where campers have been slack storing their food — they will indeed be back. Which is why the above locations have been closed to camping. That said, we pass along key tips from bearwise.org, a website developed by black bear biologists and supported by State wildlife agencies to help us better understand and live with black bears.
- Leave no hint of your food behind. Double bag your food on the trail, hike all food-related trash out. Don’t burn food scraps in your fire ring or grill (apparently it doesn’t get all the food smell out). And in answer to a question I get repeatedly — It’s OK to toss these orange peels into the woods, right? I mean, they’re organic — the answer is no. Bears will pick up on the scent and associate the area with food.
- Set up camp away from dense cover and natural food sources. “Dense cover” — now, that can be near impossible in the Southeast. But check out the “dense cover” and make sure it’s not, say, a bundle of blackberry bushes.
- Store food 100 yards from camp, either in a bear canister (or ursack), or suspended from a tree at least 10 feet off the ground and 10 feet from any part of the tree. And please, take both measures seriously. Three years ago we watched amused as a camper at the Overmountain Victory shelter camping area on the AT hung his food directly over his tent. And not 10 feet above his tent, either! He might as well have erected a blinking neon sign reading “Good Eats” with an arrow pointing down to his tent.
- Don’t cook food within 100 yards of your tent. This one is a bit of a head-scratcher, since you may well have noticed that at most shelters, especially on the AT, the grill/fire pit is smack-dab in front of the shelter. 100 yards? Try 2 or 3. Still, it makes sense to not cook close to where you sleep.
- Store anything with a scent. In addition to hanging your food, hang your toiletries — your toothpaste, soap, sanitizer — as well. Do not keep them in your tent!
These are just quick reminders pertaining to how to properly handle food in bear country. For how to deal with bears encountered on the trail, head to bearwise.org.
A final note about bears and how they see us. I’ve seen maybe 10 bears in the wild, and every time I’ve encountered one, it’s been a Three Stooges-esque mad scramble to see who could run in the opposite direction the fastest. Only once did I have the luxury of being able observe a bear for more than just a few seconds, and that was because I was upwind of the sow and her cub, who were maybe 75 yards off, making their way down a gentle slope, the sow with the purposeful stride of an attentive parent, the cub gamboling without a care in the world. I watched, unnoticed, until they disappeared over a ridge.
I’d love to have an encounter like that on every trip I lead to help de-demonize bears and drive home the fact we help these awe-inspiring creatures by keeping our campsites food-free. And if for some reason that message doesn’t come across? I’m good with everyone seeing a bear yank a fish out of a stream and devour it whole.
Know your black bears
For more information on coexisting with black bears, visit bearwise.org.
GetHiking! Southeast Podcast
This week on the podcast we focus on the same topic as in today’s blog: dealing with food in the backcountry. Give a listen here.