Bear cannisters and face masks

It started with a tweet just a few weeks ago:

“The temporary backcountry camping closure is now expanded due to multiple incidents of one or more black bears obtaining food from backpackers.”

And with that, a year of planning was out the window. The entire backcountry wilderness of Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California was closed to overnight camping. So much for our carefully-planned and long-awaited six-day backpacking trip.

There had been multiple reports from visitors of bears going into backpackers’ campsites and searching backpacks for food. This only happens if bears are sometimes successful and actually find food. But that would never occur if backpackers followed the park’s strict regulations about using “bear cannisters” to hold all food and scented items, putting those bear cannisters 100 feet away from camp overnight, and keeping no food in backpacks.

However, due to a small number of backpackers who choose to act like the rules don’t apply to them, the bears (which are quite clever) learned that backpacks might have food. Unlike some places (such as Yosemite Valley) where such bear “training” has been a problem for many years, at Lassen this is a significant shift.

The bears probably originally followed their keen sense of smell to find food which was foolishly left in a backpack. That find was enough for the bears to associate backpacks with food. The closure is expected to last for at least a few months to “un-train” the bears and get them to return to foraging for their natural food sources. Given the chilly fall weather and chance of early snow in the mountains, this will likely mean no backpacking in Lassen for anyone until next spring.

Why did this happen? A small number of people flaunted the simple and common-sense rules about backpacking in bear country. In so doing, they not only put themselves at risk, but also put others at risk of serious injury or even death. Additionally, the fallout of their actions is affecting untold numbers of us who have been planning, anticipating and training for our backpacking trips.

Lassen Volcanic National Park is over 500 miles from Carpinteria. But can you think of another situation we are experiencing right now that bears any resemblance to what I described in Lassen? 

For our own safety, for the safety of those around us, and for the safety of the entire community, we are required to stay at least six feet away from people we do not live with, and we are required to wear masks in most indoor public places, and outdoors when we cannot stay six feet away from others.

Distancing and wearing a mask can be a bit of a nuisance (as is using a bear cannister), but it’s really not that difficult. The possible outcome of ignoring the simple and common-sense rules is continued spread of Covid-19 through our community putting people’s health and lives at risk, and extending the time until children can safely return to school, friends can socialize, and we can again greet each other with a handshake or a hug.

I am surprised how often I am on sidewalks or trails that are not six feet wide, and I pass someone with a mask under their chin, in their hand, or with no mask at all. Or I see people wearing masks but standing or walking shoulder-to-shoulder as if the mask is a magic talisman that is guaranteed to ward off the evil coronavirus. (Wearing a mask does not take the place of physical distancing.)

Even in the pages of the Coastal View News, just about every week there is at least one photo of some group of people not following state and county rules. Every one of these examples is documentation of a potential extension of how long this crisis will last.

Backpackers need to take bear safety seriously, and if we don’t, entire parks can be closed. This is true even though there are only about 40 attacks per year by bears globally and around six deaths per year.

Worldwide, there are now over 18 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 and over 700,000 deaths. Abiding by distancing and mask requirements seem like rather obvious steps to take.

If it helps, think of coronavirus as being a hungry bear; if you don’t physically distance and wear a mask, that hungry bear might come after you.

This post is from the Coastal View News and ran on August 5th, 2020.