Thursday, April 26, 2012

BLOG 8. The Bear Truth, by Cliff Jacobson

Cliff Jacobson

Readers who are familiar with my books know that I don’t recommend hanging food packs in trees to keep the food away from bears.  Over the years, I’ve come under considerable criticism for this approach but I refuse to comply with what appears to be conventional wisdom. Click up my book, “Boundary Waters Canoe Camping, 2nd Edition” on and you’ll find this “one star” rating and quote:

1.0 out of 5 stars This guy and his book are a joke
Typical of his book is his suggestion of hiding your food in the woods and not to hang a bear bag, since bears would not think to look in the woods for your food. The book was good for many laughs between me and my friends, if you are interested in that, then buy the book.
Published on July 12, 1999

Fact is, bears DO climb trees, and they climb very well.  Indeed, black bears who live in the Smoky Mountains National Park nest in trees during the winter.  The cartoon below, which I took directly from the Smoky Mountains National Park brochure explains why. The legend is small and hard to read so I’ve enlarged it below for your convenience:

These above ground dens offer some advantages to ground dens.  For one, being high above the ground in a tree is a good defense against any potential predators.  For another, the tree dens offer some added insulation not present in alternate sites such as under rock overhangs or the exposed rootballs of toppled trees

Black bears are great climbers.  Indeed, when danger threatens, the first thing momma bear does is to send the youngsters up a tree! 

This bear in the photo below is checking out an eagle’s nest, probably hoping for some tasty eagle eggs or eaglets. This is an adult bear and getting up there was probably quite a climb!

This bear (photo below) has learned that by biting through a rope a tasty treat will fall from the sky. In the Adirondacks, bears biting through ropes have become so common that some campers are rigging two lines—a white one that goes nowhere to fool the bear and a black one that holds the food pack.  Really now, how long do you think it will take an intelligent bear to figure this out?

Talk about smart, get this: in the high peaks area of the Adirondacks a relatively tiny, extremely shy middle-aged black bear named “Yellow Yellow” has been able to figure out how to break into the popular “BearVault 500”.  It took her only a few weeks. Once she learned the procedure (similar to opening a medicine bottle with a tab) “Yellow Yellow” told all her friends.  Soon, dozens of bears became educated and the container became useless.  By contrast, some humans had to resort to the directions to figure out how to open it!  Stupid animals?  Hardly!   These Adirondack bears have learned that when they see a bag hanging in the air there is a rope attached. They locate the rope, chew through it, and have lunch. I might add that Yellow Yellow never attacked anyone.  It was just the food she was after!

This cartoon is from my long out-of-print book, “Basic Essentials: Camping” It reads:  “Bears are very adept at getting food packs out of trees.”

Given the bear facts, why is it that people are so emphatic about treeing their food when bears are around?

It’s simple, really. Federal authorities are responsible for providing a safe camping experience for all.  And to do this effectively they must have rules everyone will follow.  For example, in the BWCA, it is recommended that campers hoist their food into a tree that is at least ten feet off the ground and hang it on a limb at least six feet out. There are not a lot of trees in the Boundary Waters with limbs strong enough to support a heavy food pack hung that far from the tree.  No matter that these elusive bear trees barely exist, the rule separates food from campers and that’s enough.

The disconnect in thinking is simple. Federal authorities don’t care if a bear gets your food, but they do care if a bear gets you! That’s the reason for the “hanging rule”. Simply put: “people here, food THERE”.  The feds figure that as long as the two are separated, people won’t get hurt.  

In frequented areas, I just take my food out of camp and hide it in the woods.*  The rationale is that if a bear can’t smell your food or see your food, he won’t get your food.  It works!  Today’s freeze-dried foods have near zero moisture content (you add the water) and are sealed in odor-proof Mylar foil which is as moisture-proof as a tin can.  It’s doubtful a bear can smell through the foil, but he certainly can smell you—and your hands where you handled the package.  If you keep a scrupulously clean camp and trip with modern dried foods, you should never have a bear problem.  However, Mylar-packed packed foods won’t necessarily keep a curious bear from checking out your camp.  Why?  Because a bear can probably smell you a quarter mile away!  Bears have learned that where there are people, there’s food.  It’s the smell of humans that bring them in, not the nearly odorless freeze-dried food.  

If a bear can’t see your food it won’t get your food!  Contrary to popular belief, bears see rather well.  If in the past the bruin has learned that food comes in packs, he may bite into any pack he sees. Ditto if he was “conditioned” on tin cans or boxes.  Once a bear has had a positive experience with a container—be it box, can, pack or ice chest—he will bite into every similar object he sees, and he’ll continue that behavior until rewards stop coming and his earlier operant conditioning behavior has been forgotten.

Some years ago, I was began a seminar on bears by telling the audience that bears were as smart as a very smart dog.  My friend, Dick Person—who spent 17 years living in a tipi in the Yukon and who had forgotten more about bears than I’ll ever know—raised his hand and politely interjected that he’d never seen any dog that was as smart as a bear! 

In November, 1987, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel printed an article by Suzanne Charles, entitled “Cars not safe from bears at Yosemite”. The article appeared earlier in the New York Times.  Steve Thompson, Yosemite park’s wildlife biologist was quoted as follows:

“Bears have elaborate schemes for getting food.  One time-honored precaution, hanging bags of food from a rope high in a tree is now seen as useless.  Local residents call the food bags ‘bear piƱatas’.
The bears chew off the rope that has been attached elsewhere, or chew off the branch that is supporting the bag.  If the limbs are small, they’ll send the cubs out.  If that doesn’t work, they’ll just climb up above the bags, launch themselves out of the tree and grab the bags on the way down.”

With this I rest my case and leave you with the bear truth.  You’ll find a treatise on bears and bear-proofing your camp in my books, “Expedition Canoeing,” “Canoeing and Camping, Beyond the Basics,” “Camping’s Top Secrets” and the just-released “Boundary Waters Canoe Camping, 3rd Edition”.

In closing, I should add that those who canoe the unforgiving rivers of northern Canada and Alaska never tree their food. Why? Three reasons: 1) It’s a bad plan to put all your eggs in one basket. If you capsize or an animal gets your food, you’re in big trouble! 2) A pack filled primarily with food will be terribly heavy.  Experienced trippers equalize the loads.  3) The trees in northern Canada are too small to support a pack. In the barrenlands there are no trees at all.

*Some people are dumber than bears.  Once, while presenting a bear seminar, a man raised his hand and asked: “Say Cliff, you say to take the food out of camp.  Where does camp end?”

Cliff Jacobson