The N.C. High Peaks Trail Association recently purchased, donated and installed two bear-proof steel food storage boxes at Commissary Ridge, a popular backcountry camping spot on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail not far from the Mt. Mitchell summit.

The roughly 3-foot-square, 330-pound boxes have bear-proof door latches that should enable campers to store food and other bear-attractive personal items locked away from the prying claws and powerful noses of the area’s black bears.

For decades campers have typically tossed a rope over a tree limb and hoisted the items up in a ditty bag to hang overnight. But bears are wiley climbers, and many campers apparently have not even been bothering with this strategy.

The result has been an increasing number of dangerous bear-camper encounters, with the bears learning to associate the Commissary Ridge area – and the human interlopers on their turf – with food.

“It got so bad that the US Forest Service closed the area to camping,” said longtime High Peaks member and former club president John Whitehouse, who spearheaded the initiative. “Hopefully these boxes will be a long-term solution that will keep the campers safe and the bears far away in the woods.”

The boxes should also cut down on the number of calls and complaints received at Mt. Mitchell State Park. Although the Commissary Ridge camping area is on USFS land just outside the park boundary, Park staff were the nearest rangers and had to respond when frightened campers called for help.

High Peaks is the Friends of Mt. Mitchell State Park organization. Park staff assisted in the installation by hauling the boxes out to the site on all-terrain vehicles. Members of the Carolina Mountain Club’s Monday Trail Crew – headed by Whitehouse – also assisted with the installation.

Crew members drilled holes through an old masonry step-wall at the site and bolted the boxes to the wall, mindful that even though it takes four humans to lift and move the boxes, a hungry bear could likely tip them over if they were left unattached to an anchor.

Since the installation of the boxes, the Forest Service has re-opened the area to camping.

The High Peaks effort coincides with a regional push to install bear boxes at backcountry shelters on the Appalachian Trail. Carolina Mountain Club has so far installed a handful at the 10 shelters the club maintains, with plans to finish the rest over the coming months.

“Our trails and backcountry camping areas get more and more popular each year,” Whitehouse said. “With that comes the chance of more unwanted interactions between bears and campers. Hopefully these boxes will keep the campers safe.”

High Peaks is a Friends of the Mountain-to-Sea Trail task force group, maintaining a section of that trail, which runs from the NC mountains to the Outer Banks.