Originally published at Paddling.net on June 16, 2015
Ah, wilderness! The annual flight from the cities and suburbs is about to get under way in earnest. Soon many popular waterways will boast their own traffic jams, as canoes and kayaks jostle tentatively with darting jet‑skis and lumbering party barges. Lighting out for the territory just ain’t what it was in Huck Finn’s day. But some things don’t change. Beyond the boundaries of the tent‑cities now springing up in established campsites — the line of demarcation is easily identified by the sudden and unexpected appearance of lower limbs on trees — the natives go about their business as best they can. That’s natives with a small “N,” of course. I’m referring to the furred and feathered creatures who make their homes in the world’s remaining enclaves of wilderness.
Wilderness, you may remember, has been sanctified in law in the States. It is the place “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” A noble sentiment, indeed, if woefully wide of the mark. Still, how often do hacks like me get to use “untrammeled” in a sentence? And notwithstanding the overheated language, the text of the Wilderness Act does make one useful distinction: In what now passes for wilderness, we humans are indeed “visitors.” We’re just passing through. In fact, in the eyes of the natives, we’re merely blow‑ins — unwelcome guests, to be tolerated rather than embraced.
That said, I have an alternative definition of wilderness to propose: Wilderness is where the wild things are. This lacks the soaring rhetoric of the Act, but it’s much easier to translate into operational terms, even if some of the consequences are a trifle unexpected. For example, many urban apartments would probably earn wilderness status. After all, visitors to New York City are often told they’re never more than six feet away from a rat, and if a stroppy, streetwise rodent who eats tame tabbies for breakfast isn’t a wild thing, what is?
This is TNO, though, not The New Yorker. So I’ll limit myself to considering relations between us and the wild things living in places where trees outnumber cars. And those wild things, if given the choice, would likely be happier if we blow‑ins just stayed home. We, on the other hand, are keen to make their acquaintance. We want to get up close and personal with our new neighbors. Just not too close. And not too personal. When spotted at a distance during the hours of daylight, a bear is a welcome sight, but the same can’t be said of chance encounters under the kitchen tarp at midnight.
The upshot? Backcountry wanderers and campers walk a thin line in our dealings with the natives on whose doorsteps we camp. We want to be accepted by them, but we also want them to know their place and keep their distance. This is pretty presumptuous of us, really. Since when do house guests get to lay down rules for their hosts? Be that as it may, however, it’s much harder to strike the right balance than it used to be. Truly wild things treat infrequent blow‑ins with appropriate caution and circumspection. But tens of millions of us now invade the natives’ wilderness homes in search of solitude and serenity, and such familiarity inevitably breeds contempt. By now, the natives have learned that — outside of the hunting seasons, at any rate — most featherless bipeds are pilgrims ripe for the plucking. You could almost say we’ve become targets of opportunity. The smaller creatures have long since learned to rob us of our tastier stores by stealth, while a few of the bigger beasts see us as possible entrées in our own right. To these more formidable natives, we look like nothing so much as not very fast food.
Needless to say, few trekkers are happy with either state of affairs. We’re used to calling the shots wherever we set foot. We see ourselves as verbs, rather than objects. But that’s not how the natives sees us. To them we’re clumsy, stupid, and clueless. And if push comes to shove, as it sometimes does, the toothier wild things know we can’t put up much of a show. To borrow Admiral “Jacky” Fisher’s pithy phrase, we’re too weak to fight and too slow to run away. Nonetheless, whenever a blow‑in is injured or robbed by a native, our species’ wrath knows no bounds, and we take a terrible revenge. The bottom line? It’s in the interest of both natives and blow‑ins to keep encounters from escalating. And like it or not, the burden of responsibility rests on our shoulders. In other words, it’s up to us — paddlers, hillwalkers, campers, and cyclists — to …
Keep Wild Things Wild
In an age of mass tourism, this is harder than it sounds, but there are a few things we blow‑ins can do to avoid open conflict with our (involuntary) hosts. And they mostly involve good housekeeping. That begins with our …
Observing All Rules and Regulations. Nowadays, most wilderness is highly regulated, and the people responsible for keeping order and “protecting the resource” — rangers, conservation officers, and park administrators — have the nearly impossible job of reconciling our seemingly infinite demand for recreational access with the finite ability of wild lands (and wild things) to survive the combined assaults of solitude‑seekers and thrill junkies. Which is why most parks and reserves now have rules in place designed to minimize the likelihood of run‑ins between blow‑ins … sorry … visitors and natives. It goes without saying — or it should, at any rate — that these rules must be followed to the letter.
But what about those rare and wonderful places still unencumbered by formal rules and regulations? What then? Easy. Use your common sense, and …
Don’t Feed the Animals. Mind you, wild things are no more likely than bankers to turn down a free lunch, and (also like bankers) their appetites grow with eating. So don’t embark on a program of dietary quantitative easing. Don’t give free meals to cute cadgers. Ever. And don’t leave food lying about in camp. In fact, make it a habit to …
Keep a Tidy Camp. In high‑traffic, high‑risk areas (e.g., popular campsites, obvious bear sign, etc.), prepare, eat, and store food well away from your sleeping area. When you’re planning to do 20 miles in the hours from dawn to dusk, 150 feet is not too far to travel between bed and breakfast. And never eat in your sleeping bag or shelter.
Don’t grill meat or fish over coals, either. Fry it in a pan, instead. And pour off the grease into a metal container with a tight seal, saving it for reuse or subsequent disposal. Store any other food waste in sealed, doubled plastic bags. (A hard plastic “bear can” makes an even better trash receptacle.) To minimize the volume of waste, avoid leftovers. When preparing a meal, tailor quantities to appetites. This isn’t usually a problem after a long day’s paddling. It’s rare for a canoeist or kayaker to complain that he has too much to eat!
Then, when the meal is over, clean up immediately. Police your cooking and dining areas, picking up any dropped or spilled food. Next, wash the dishes. Disposing of dirty wash water is a problem, however. In the absence of a designated sump — do not use the privy! — you’ll have to empty it into a cat hole dug at least 30 double‑step paces (150 feet) from your camp and any spring or surface water. And then stow wash basin, wash cloth, detergent, and pot scrubber with the same care as you store your food.
OK. Keeping a clean camp is important. But you need to do more. You’ll also want to …
Clean Up Your Act. Don’t sleep in the clothes you wore while cooking and eating. And leave scented soaps, shampoos, deodorants, lip salves and the like at home. (In winter, I use a lip balm that has a honey base. Farwell can smell it 50 feet away. A bear could probably do ten times better.) Is there any more you can to minimize your odor trail? Yes. Substitute baking soda for toothpaste and leave your chewing gum behind, as well. It, too, has a powerful scent signature.
And now, for women only: Blood‑soaked tampons and sanitary pads are an intractable problem. If you don’t fancy carrying them home in an air‑tight container, you might want to consider a menstrual cup. It has a lot of advantages.
Lastly, there’s the question of what to do with …
Man’s Best Friend. The best advice? Leave Rover at home. Wilderness is not a dog park. Dogs of all sizes and breeds will chase wild creatures for the sheer fun of it, but their “playmates” won’t see the game in quite the same light, and many of the natives have formidable defensive weaponry. If you’ve ever had to pull porcupine quills out of an unanesthesized dog, you’ll think twice before bringing Rover with you again. Not convinced? Then consider this: Dog food is strong‑smelling stuff, and dog’s aren’t tidy eaters. Bears and raccoons find dog food quite palatable, too.
Still unwilling to consign your Best Friend to the kennel for the duration? At the very least, then, keep Rover on a short leash, both in camp and on the trail. It’s in everyone’s best interest. And safeguard his food with as much care as you protect you own.
Speaking of which, there’s a newish wrinkle in …
Campsite Food Security
More and more parks and reserves are requiring that backcountry campers use bear‑resistant food storage containers (aka “bear cans”), and while these are pricey, heavy, and awkward, they do reduce the likelihood that you’ll have hirsute guests dropping in unannounced for a midnight supper chez vous. Some established campsites also boast steel food storage lockers or bear poles. And wherever such facilities are provided, it makes good sense to use them.
But what if you’re on your own, camping outside an established site? Well, there’s always the bear‑can option. And bears aren’t the only wild things with a taste for the good life. White‑footed mice, raccoons, and skunks are also happy to dine at your expense, and porcupines have an affinity for salty things like packs and paddles. I’ve had good luck protecting my food in lightly traveled, low‑risk areas with retasked wide‑mouthed plastic peanut jars. You could call them Not So Safes, I suppose. They’re certainly not bear proof, but they discourage foraging mice, and they haven’t been seen as targets of opportunity by skunks or raccoons — yet.
Then again, when camping in places where bear cans aren’t mandated, I usually hang my food, in addition to stowing it in my homemade Not So Safes. But the method I use — it’s a variation of the climber’s Tyrolean traverse — has now been well and truly sussed by many brainy bears, who’ve discovered that biting through either end of the traverse line will make food fall from the sky. A better approach is therefore needed, and I’ve just learned of one:
The Pacific Crest Trail Bag Hang
It’s both simpler and more secure than the Tyrolean traverse method, and while it’s not suited to high‑risk campsites (a bear can or steel locker is the only option in such places), it offers a lighter, more convenient alternative for adventurers who venture off the beaten path. Here’s what you’ll need:
- A food bag with a secure closure and a hanging loop
- About 50 feet of parachute cord or light line (green or black cordage is probably a better choice than white or yellow)
- A small stuff sack or throw bag (to be filled with pebbles or small stones when needed)
- A carabiner hefty enough to hold the food bag’s weight.
- A toggle made from a stick, dowel, or tent stake, and at least twice as long as the ‘biner is wide
- A tree located at a fair distance from camp (downwind, if possible), with a strong live branch at least 12 feet above the ground (the higher the better)
It’s a pretty short list, and most campers will already have the makings. Here’s what to do with them:
- Fill the throw bag with pebbles or small stones and secure tightly.
- Tie a figure‑eight loop in one end of the line, clip a carabiner to the loop, and then clip the throw bag to the carabiner.
- Toss the throw bag over the branch so the line hangs at least six feet from the trunk.
- Unclip the throw bag, clip on the food bag, and thread the running end of the line through the carabiner. (Photo A below)
- Haul the food bag up to the branch. Then, while maintaining tension on the line with one hand, …
- Take the toggle in the other and reach up as far as you can, …
- Before attaching the toggle to the line with a clove hitch. (This won’t be easy at first, but practice makes perfect. See Photo B for the result.)
- Now loosen your grip and let the line out slowly, until the toggle engages the ‘biner. (Photo C)
- Allow the bitter end of the line to hang free. (Sketch D)
That’s it. To retrieve your food bag, simply pull on the bitter end of the line until the toggle is once again within reach, remove it, and then lower the bag to the ground.
What did I tell you? Simple and (reasonably) secure. You have to do your part, however. Most adult male black bears can grab anything within seven feet of the ground (and the biggest bruins can do better), so make sure your food bag is out of reach. Ten feet is not too high. And though it’s a safe bet that some bear, somewhere, will eventually figure out how to defeat the Pacific Crest Trail hang, that day doesn’t seem to have arrived — good news for both trekkers and bears.
~ ~ ~
It’s summertime, and the wilderness is calling. Soon campsites in popular parks will be filled to overflowing, as paddlers and hikers make themselves at home where the wild things are. And with the crowds comes conflict. We want to keep our food to ourselves. But our involuntary hosts have other ideas, and the resulting differences of opinion can get messy. Is there an alternative? Yes. And now you know what it is.
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