My wilderness experience had been bear-free until 1999. I always traveled with veteran food-hangers, and they were always willing to protect my food - so much so that I never got a chance to learn the ropes myself! It was a ritual that always seemed to take more time than it should. Besides, most of my camps were near timberline, where both bears and bear-deterring high branches are scarce. In 1989 I watched uncomfortably as my more-experienced buddies tied our bags together and threw them off a cliff; it worked fine but introduced new variables that I didn't want to think about (like how much granitic abrasion that old rope would handle). I finally saw a bear in '99 - he was pretty small, about forty yards away across a good-sized river, and more nervous about me than I of him. No bear dropped into camp that night, and that's still the only one I've met. By then I already had a canister, so it didn't really matter (to me) if the bear came in to camp or not.
Why did I buy a canister? Simple, really - once the regulations began to appear that required canisters in certain places, I accepted that such rules were more likely to expand than to go away. My relative inexperience at bagging, and my experience at watching the process of bagging, made this decision easy. I also figured that the sooner I owned one, the quicker it would be paid off: better ten trips at $14 apiece than four trips at $35 to pay off the thing. It was clear that I would only want to carry one of these bulky things, so it had to be large enough to hold at least a week of food; that left out the cheaper ones! While several new models have appeared recently, I began my search in 1998, and my options were limited. I finally settled on a $140, 8×16 inch aluminum can and never looked back.
Since my purchase, I've been out several times, always with a bear-bagging partner or two. It feels good to walk fifteen steps and wedge the can against a rock, then walk back to camp and relax while listening to the nearby thud-curse as another rock either misses the branch or comes loose from the rope. That's when I know that, despite its own issues, the canister is making my life on the trail easier.
Let's not ignore those issues, though. Clearly all canisters are NOT created equal, and many features appear and disappear between them. Mine comes with small, quarter-turn screws to hold the lid, and no coin will fit in the slots. Therefore I am often cursing a bit myself, in search of my small screwdriver or army knife so I can put one more item back in the can before I stash it. The sling that I bought with the can was too tight to remove easily, and my hasty modification made it even less usable. This means it must fit inside the pack, which amounts to a lot of space not available for other items. The can looks the same from both ends, but I painted an X on one side so I know which side to open for dinner (or was it on the non-X side??). My can is neither aroma- or water-proof, which some of the newer cans claim to be, and it's not a pretty color either. And, of course, until a bear comes along I cannot prove definitively that it works - but (depending on the bear) I'm willing to live with that uncertainty.
It's clear that this issue will continue to come up in the future, as new products that walk the tightrope between convenience and true protection are introduced and debated. Perhaps it will only take a few years to retrain bears to stop looking our way for easy treats, and the whole issue will be gone in twenty years. Worse yet, maybe the bears will be gone by then - I treasure that one encounter I had in '99, although his distance and discomfort were a great help. I don't like telling people what to do in their wilderness areas, but the canister system works for me. Good luck finding your comfort zone in the 21st-century wilderness system!
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