Hiking and backpacking

Posted: Friday, February 09, 2007

Hiking, backpacking and camping are staples of summertime activity on the Kenai Peninsula, but campers take note: it takes more to enjoy the great outdoors than shorts, a T-shirt and a walking stick.

One of the first concerns for those planning a camping session is the chance of bear encounters. Knowing what to do — and what not to do — in bear country can mean the difference between a carefree outing and a brush with death.

“You should always be cautious of bears, even if you don’t see any signs of bear activity,” said Jim Hall, deputy manager at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

Bears must eat constantly during spring, summer and fall, gorging themselves so they will have enough fat reserves to make it through the long winter months. The salmon that draw fishing enthusiasts are the preferred dinner choice of bears.

“The good thing about bears on the Kenai is that they’re more interested in the fish,” said Park Ranger Candace Ward.

However, in months before the salmon runs when berries and fish are scarce, there is an in-creased danger. Bears like camp food and can smell it miles away, but there are things that can be done to minimize the chance of battling a bruin for your bagels.

“The most important thing is keeping a clean camp,” Ward said.

She also said bear-proof Dumpsters are few and far between on public land, so after a meal of especially smelly food, campers may want to carry a few extra trash bags.

“If you can double bag and contain your trash until you can find a secure dump, that’s probably a good idea,” Ward said.

When possible, it’s best to choose a campsite with good visibility so bears can be seen from a distance — and they can see you. Also, avoid sites that would be popular bear feeding sites, such as salmon streams in summer or berry bushes in fall.

When a potential site is selected, inspect the area for signs of bear activity, such as paw prints or scat. Also, avoid sites with messy human activity. It does little good to be safe and clean if the people who camped there the night before were careless and left food scraps and garbage strewn about.

Another hint is to minimize food prep time and mess. Freeze-dried meals that only require mixing with boiling water are good choices. This means no pots or pans and very little cooking time, thus reducing the odor that could attract nearby bears.

“It’s always a good idea, when you’re in a tent, to avoid smelly food,” Ward said.

If cooking is preferred, one-pot cooking is the best bet. Fewer pots mean fewer dishes to clean, especially if eating directly from the pot. If dishwater contains food waste, filter it through a nylon stocking or small mesh strainer and hang the strainer with the food.

Drain cooking liquid, such as water to boil rice or pasta, 100 yards away from camp. Never burn or bury garbage. Pack out what gets packed in.

It’s also a good idea to change clothes from the ones that were worn while cooking. Washing your hands and face after cooking can further eliminate food odor.

“It’s better to be safe than sorry,” said the refuge’s Hall.

When hiking, the more noise you can make, the more likely bears will be to shuffle out of your way before you come through. Ward suggests staying in a fairly tight group, keeping children and pets closeby and staying in brushy, noisy areas. Usually only young bears are curious enough to hang around when human noise is heard.

If you follow the safety tips, bears are likely to leave you alone.

Ward said that sharing crowded highways with sleepy drivers poses a greater danger than bears do to summer adventurers.

“Everything is just one long line of cars,” she said. “There are a lot of things to worry about, and bears are probably on the bottom of the list, even though it’s the first thing to cross people’s minds.”

Fire safety is important to keep in mind as well. Ward suggests using grated fire areas when possible and urges campers to pay attention to the site on which the fire will be built.

“(Regulations) are fairly loose in the backcountry, but when the weather is very dry, you’re better off to use a stove,” she said. Keep an eye open for leaf litter and peat soil during a dry day and try to avoid sparking up the fire near it. A low brush fire started in such conditions can spread rapidly.

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