Bear canisters? Most likely, if you are familiar with what they are, you either love them or...well, you don’t care for them. If you are not familiar with them, they are sturdy plastic containers designed to hold your food while you backpack and camp. The purpose is to keep bears out of your food. There are some folks that anticipate the use of bear canisters on the AT replacing the need for bear cables or even the new food boxes that GATC has been placing near shelters and other campsites. I must be honest with you in declaring that, at least for the moment, I am not one of those folks.
Several years ago, GATC worked with the Forest Service to resolve a specific issue on Blood Mountain. There had been several reports of bear encounters. Together we developed a “camping ban” on Blood Mountain during the Spring and early Summer. The exception to the ban was that any camper who carried a bear canister could camp there. The camping ban seemed to be successful. The number of bear encounters reported dropped. Though a small percentage of hikers may have used a bear canister to camp there, most backpackers simply camped elsewhere. There are now some who promote a requirement that all backpackers have a bear canister to camp anywhere along the AT, not just in Georgia but on up into Virginia. Betty Jewett, Forest Supervisor for the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, has asked GATC if we could support and even help promote such a requirement. I told her that I did not think GATC was ready to support such a proposal. For one thing, I noted, few GATC members that I knew owned a bear canister. I told her that I thought the cost of $60-$80 might prevent our members from giving them a fair chance. I realized later how lame that must have sounded since most of us have several thousands of dollars in camping gear. Betty, being the gracious lady that she is, did not throw that one back in my face. Instead, she offered to buy some of the canisters for GATC to use. It’s hard to argue with someone who continually disarms every excuse you put forth. And at the last PATHE meeting in January the Forest Service delivered a supply of the canisters so that some GATC volunteers could experience the issues of using a canister on the Trail. I promised Betty Jewett that we would give them an honest appraisal. I have one. I’ll let you know.
The use of bear canisters is just one example of the pressures we face in the subject of visitor use management. GATC has long been a faithful servant in protecting and promoting the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. But clearing waterbars and cleaning privies are not enough. In our role as stewards of our beloved Trail we must become more proactive. With the ever-growing number of hikers, trying to clean up after them is not a sustainable strategy. Becoming more effective educators of Leave No Trace will have a much more lasting impact than trying to pick up the mess left behind by ill-informed hikers. GATC’s Trail Ambassador program is leading the way in this area. The incredible progress that our own Jay Dement has made as the mastermind and hero of this program now serves as a model for all the other trail maintaining clubs between Georgia and Maine.
In every Regional discussion of visitor use management, the PATHE program currently being implemented by the Forest Service, ATC, and GATC is put forth as the way to get things done. It has proven what can be accomplished when highly skilled and highly motivated volunteers and professionals come together and join their minds and their hands. Whether the topic is bear canisters, sidehill tentpads, or Leave No Trace education we are intimately involved in developing best practices for trail maintenance and protection. There is so much to be done this year. Please come join us.
Submitted by: Don Hicks