FAIRBANKS — The bins loaned to visitors of Denali National Park were made to withstand a grizzly bear.
Some of the bins have encountered curious and determined bears and have traveled as far and wide as the park’s visitors. Some have undergone years abandoned on riverbanks and have taken the occasional trips to Germany, Singapore and the Lower 48 with forgetful tourists.
The black, cylindrical bear-resistant food cans became a mandated piece of gear for overnight visitors to Denali National Park’s backcountry in 1982. More than 95 percent of the 200 bins loaned to visitors make it back safely, backcountry ranger Sam Hooper said.
But park visitors did quickly find a way to wreck the nearly indestructible cans. The melted lid of a bear can on display at the Denali backcountry office reminds visitors that while the cans make excellent camp chairs, they are terrible cooking surfaces.
Other cans have left the park with visitors, although most people are good about returning the bins, which cost about $70 retail. There are a couple in the inventory that still have U.S. Postal Service labels on them, Hooper said.
Overnight campers also have lost the occasional bear can in the park. In summer 2012, park visitors called to report a bear can in District 9, a popular area of the park along the Toklat River.
Rangers hiked out to recover it and noticed it was an older style bear canister. They looked it up and it turned out it had been checked out to someone in 1996, lead backcountry ranger Kristin Pace said.
Pace said she held her nose when cleaning it out.
“There was definitely a lot of moldy old stuff, hot chocolate packets and M&Ms that had melted and the colors had run over everything. Everything else was unidentifiable.”
Although bear cans are designed to withstand bears, reports of bears actually trying to get into canisters are rare. There is one old bear canister in the inventory that’s been chewed on, but most of the scratches in the others are from the bins being dropped or coming into contact with other items in backpacks, Pace said.
A mid-1990s study on Denali National Park’s grizzly population that’s still thought to be fairly accurate estimates the northern half of the park is home to 300 to 350 brown bears, wildlife biologist Pat Owen said.
She credits her predecessor with the park’s bear management program for making changes that make it harder for bears to associate people with food.
Until 1975, the park used open trash dumps, which according to anecdotal reports were frequented by bears, Owen said.
The park introduced bear-resistant trash cans in 1978 and in 1982 began requiring hikers use canisters.
The park now keeps a database of bear encounters based on questions rangers ask visitors when they return their bear canisters.
In the past four years, the number of reported bear encounters has been between 40 and 90 each year, Owen said. An “encounter” is defined as anytime a bear takes notice of a person.
Bear “incidents,” when a bear makes multiple approaches or damages property, average eight to 15 per year. The first fatal bear mauling in park history occurred last summer.