The Garrett family makes its way south along the The Appalachian Trail in Newry on July 22. Front to back are Chase of North Carolina, his nephews Koen 12, and Mostyn, 10, their father Chad all of South Carolina and Chad and Chase’s father, Dave, of Tennessee Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

NEWRY — Lester Kenway recalls the black bear that ripped the screen door off his cabin at Baxter State Park in 1981, when Kenway worked as a ranger in the park. Yet despite that memorable encounter, Kenway said he has never heard of a bear conflict with a hiker along the Appalachian Trail, which passes through the park moving toward its northern terminus in the park atop Katahdin.

“It’s kind of a blessing in Maine because along the Appalachian Trail we really haven’t had bad incidents with bears. There hasn’t been much bear activity, and I’ve been dealing with the trail for almost 50 years. I never heard of a bear conflict on the trail,” said Kenway, a volunteer with the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, which maintains the 267-mile section of the trail in Maine.

It’s a different story in the 13 other states that the AT passes through, said the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which helps manage the trail. And on July 14, after years of suggesting it, the Conservancy formerly requested AT backpackers use bear canisters to store their food to help thwart the bear-human conflicts that are on the rise along the 2,200-mile trail.

So far this year, the ATC has received 21 reports of bear encounters along the trail, including nine from North Carolina and four from Virginia. New Jersey had three reports, while Georgia and New York each had two.

On a hot Friday in July as a dozen hikers and backpackers came out early to get on the AT at Grafton Notch State Park in Newry, every one voiced skepticism over the new bear-canister policy. None thought AT backpackers – especially thru-hikers – needed them. Several were opposed to the extra bulk and weight. Many didn’t like the space the roughly 10-inch high canisters would require in their backpacks. All said hanging a bear line works perfectly.

“I had a friend who tried it and put (a canister) in her (ultra-light) pack, and it tore it. She had to come off the trail to get a new pack. It’s not necessary,” said Chase Garrett of South Carolina, an AT section hiker.


According to the ATC, there hasn’t been one report of a nuisance bear on the AT in Maine, which is odd given the fact that Maine is home to the largest black bear population in the lower 48 states, according to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

Maine’s black bear population grew from 23,000 in 2004 to 36,000 in 2015 and the annual harvest in the fall hunt has not been able to keep it from growing, the Maine department reported.

According to IFW, Maine has a relatively low number of complaints about nuisance bears, averaging about 500 a year statewide.

So far this year, there have been about four complaints of bear in campgrounds in Baxter State Park, although not on the Appalachian Trail there, said Baxter District Ranger Kevin Adam.

“If you’re hiking and you see a bear, most of the time the bear will see you and quickly run off. But if you’re in a wilderness campground or any campground, you have to watch your food management,” Adam said.

But Hawk Metheny, the ATC’s vice president of regional and trail operations, said in the past few years the increase of hikers and backpackers on the AT has led to an uptick in bear conflicts because with the increase in use comes novices who don’t know how to properly store their food.


Experienced backpackers hang their food in nylon bags at night when they sleep, hanging the bags on what’s called a “bear line” that is set between trees more than 12 feet off the ground.

After the ATC installed large bear-proof metal boxes at more than 100 of the 270 campsites along the Appalachian Trail, there continues to be hungry bears coming into campsites and scaring hikers, Metheny said.

The ATC’s new food-storage policy is only a recommendation, but to encourage the practice the Conservancy is loaning bear canisters along the trail in Georgia and Vermont. The BearVault-brand canisters on loan weigh 2 to 2.5 pounds. They hold anywhere from two to seven day’s worth of food, and cost between $70 and $90.

“We want to transfer the problem back to the visitor. The benefit of having a bear canister is it gives you more flexibility of where you can camp. You don’t have to depend on a (bear-proof metal box) to store your food at the campsite,” Metheny said.

Given the fact the bear canister loaner program in Vermont was well used last year – with the 50 bear canisters all on loan several times last summer – Metheny said the new practice could grow in popularity.

Metheny said trends in backpacking show that when the convenience and efficiency provided by a piece of gear is so great, it becomes widely used despite the added weight. He points to the use of tents and stoves as an example. Neither were commonly used decades ago when hikers would cram into shelters or cook over campfires. Today both are staples among expert backpackers.


But only 10 percent of thru-hikers on the AT in 2021 said they used a bear canister and 17 percent said they used one somewhat, according to the ATC.

Kenway is doubtful the practice will catch on when the traditional bear lines have worked well for decades, and the backpacking trend today is keeping packs as light as possible.

On the AT in Newry two weeks ago, Alan Korhoner of Upton agreed, and said those new to backpacking were causing the problems, not the experienced hikers.

“It’s mostly a problem with the weekenders,” said Korhoner, a veteran backpacker.

Others who had hiked in Alaska, like AT thru-hiker Cooper “Field Medic” Fischer, said that hiking in a remote backcountry setting where there are grizzly bears is a different story – and may warrant the canister, to seal the food smells as well as the food supply. But black bears are not as much of a danger, if a danger at all.

“If there are grizzlies – a 100 percent,” said Fischer, who is hiking the trail this year after graduating from the University of Maryland. “I hang my backpack, and put it away from where I sleep. I know black bears are hogs. But I’ve never seen a black bear in Maine.  In (Great Smoky Mountains National Park) in North Carolina, there I will probably take greater care.”

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