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The Packers Take On the Bears

Keeping campers' food from prying paws is not easy. Apparently reliable receptacles must pass an unusual quality-control test.

August 15, 2003|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

If you want to make good in the bear-canister business, you go up to Folsom with hat in hand and pay your respects to Fisher -- a larcenous, no-neck, knuckle-dragger who could take your face off with a lazy flick of his wrist.

Fisher is a 580-pound black bear. He used to be what wildlife types call a "problem bear," snatching fish guts and scaring anglers at a fish-cleaning station near Bridgeport in the eastern Sierra Nevada. Now he is a quality-control expert at the Folsom City Zoo Sanctuary -- stomping, whacking and ripping with his massive jaws the cans, bags and boxes designed to keep backpackers' food away from hungry bears in the wild.

One of the big tests for a new product is an hour with Fisher. If he manages to smack open a supposedly bear-proof receptacle loaded with goodies, it will be rejected by a committee of park officials called the Sierra Interagency Black Bear Group. But if Fisher can't crack it, officials will endorse it for use by the tens of thousands of hikers who trek to Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks and the Inyo National Forest each year.

"He's sent many an inventor back to the drawing board," said Roberta Ratcliff, a zoo spokeswoman. "He's a pro."

Fisher is a key player in the small but growing industry devoted to thwarting hungry bears. In areas of the Sierra that draw a lot of backpackers, bears have gotten wise to the old camping precaution of dangling a sack of food from a rope or tree limb. Now they make quick work of nylon bags filled with candy bars and freeze-dried beef stroganoff, crawling out on flimsy branches and swiping at ropes with the skill of pirates scooting up to a crow's-nest.

As a result, campers in some bear-rich national parks and forests in California, Washington and Alaska must tote food canisters that bears can't open or risk a $150 fine.

The market is dominated by bulky, drum-like cans that cost $60 to $200. Many hikers find them to be a pain in the backpack, but their discomfort has put entrepreneurs on the scent of opportunity. In Santa Barbara, retired aerospace engineer Allen DeForrest and two longtime colleagues mortgaged their homes to develop a lightweight canister called the Bearikade.

In three tests, Fisher punctured the space-age composites used to make the prototype Bearikades, succeeding where two grizzly bears at the Fresno Zoo had failed. The Fresno bears, Betsy and Ross, had scrutinized a Bearikade smeared with blood and filled with rotting meat, carefully inspecting it for seams and even tipping it on its side to expose its weakest point.

"They went at it kind of like engineers," DeForrest said. "Fisher used brute force. He had no regard at all for his teeth or his gums or his lips."

DeForrest eventually thwarted Fisher with an improved design, but San Francisco attorney Tom Cohen hasn't been as fortunate.

Bulletproof Kevlar

A few years ago, Cohen, who once hauled a heavy canister over the 211-mile John Muir Trail, invented the Ursack, a lightweight, scrunchable bag initially made of bulletproof Kevlar. A bear in the Adirondacks shredded an early Ursack, so Cohen found a stronger fabric and had it sewn with even tighter seams.

Then came Fisher.

Cohen poured a quart of honey into his new, improved Ursack, added some bagels for heft and looped the bag's Kevlar cords around a concrete post in Fisher's den. When Fisher lost interest after grappling with it for just 3 1/2 minutes, Cohen jubilantly declared a technical knockout.

But officials with the interagency group turned down Cohen's bid for approval, citing five punctures from Fisher's teeth. Cohen pointed out that Fisher, who goes unfed before his testing sessions, didn't bother to suck the honey through the holes.

"If we can ever get them to change their minds, we'll have a real business," said Cohen, who has hired an attorney and is considering a lawsuit.

Texas engineer Bruce Warren, the inventor of a canister he calls the Stealth Can, is also frustrated, contending he could sell "jillions" of units if the interagency group were more open to innovation.

Warren readily admits that any bear could slice the Stealth Can like a tomato. But, he says, bears won't even approach the can, which ordinarily is used for hazardous waste, because its vacuum-sealing lid traps all food aromas inside. The cans, loaded with Oreo cookies and other delicacies, sat on a New Mexico trail untouched for two weeks as bears padded by, Warren said.

But Harold Werner, an ecologist at Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, as well as a founder of the interagency group, was skeptical.

"No matter how good the seal is, you'll still have food odors associated with it," he said. A greasy fingerprint on the outside of the can would be enough to draw a hungry bear, he added.

Bears have an extraordinary sense of smell -- more than seven times sharper than a bloodhound's, by some estimates.

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