The Legend of Yellow-Yellow: New York's Most Infamous Bear

Not the infamous Yellow Yellow herself, but a black bear of similar size and stature.
Not the infamous Yellow Yellow herself, but a black bear of similar size and stature. Madeleine Deaton
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Their website is filled with photos of snarling 1,000-pound grizzlies mauling little clear-blue cylinders, fully grown black bears standing atop them, and honest testimonials from grateful hikers in the Tetons, Sierras, and Alaska Range whose food supply was saved by their bear resistant food canisters. Clearly these things work.

Except in the Adirondacks, notes the disclaimer on manufacturer BearVault's website. You probably shouldn’t use them there.

The Legend of Yellow-Yellow

Since the New York Times published an article profiling her in 2009, the name “Yellow-Yellow” has been a household name in the region, made famous by the black bear’s ability to open—not break or pry, but actually open—a subset of bear canisters. Named after the yellow tags in each of her ears, given to her by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) in 2001 as part of a bear study, the 125-pound, middle aged female was skilled at using her teeth to press in the inlaid button that allows the user to unscrew the lid and access the deliciousness waiting within, just as the human owner would.

Before these canisters are put to the test by PCT hikers and Alaskan grizzlies, they undergo a zoo test, where captive bears are given a set amount of time to attempt the break-in. Yellow-Yellow could do something no other bears could figure out. BearVault’s original 350 and 400 models weren’t able to pass YY’s muster, so in 2008 BearVault improved the design with her in mind and added a 450 model (and later a larger 500 model) with a second button. After depressing the first and turning the lid part way, the user needed to press the second to finish the job. But Yellow-Yellow cracked that code, too.

The radio collar that the normally very shy and elusive bear wore is what typically gave away the culprit when bear canisters were found open, but occasionally an unlucky hiker would get to watch helplessly from a distance as the bear cracked the code to steal their food.

Her stealth and reluctance to approach humans was what, for years, kept her out of the DEC’s and other hunters’ sights, but in 2012 at age 20, her legend came to an end when she was legally hunted miles from her regular territory.

As heartfelt obituaries eulogized her and some Adirondack natives mourned the loss of what the New York Times called a “near-mythical creature,” there was likely some relief from more than a few backcountry enthusiasts and bear canister manufacturers. The one non-human able to foil their deterrents would not be opening any more canisters.

But the disclaimer on BearVault’s site remains.

Vague rumblings throughout the region mention possible proteges to Yellow-Yellow, but none have been confirmed.

“There’s no one doing it the same way as Yellow-Yellow, that’s for sure,” said DEC biologist Jim Stickles, “Yellow-Yellow was a very smart bear.” But according to him, Yellow-Yellow’s former stomping grounds—a deep portion of the Adirondack High Peaks centered around a corridor from Marcy Dam to Lake Colden—has seen approximately a half-dozen opened bear canisters this year alone.

In particular, Stickles notes the bear canisters targeted have been the same blue polycarbonate models that Yellow-Yellow was so fond of. “At least one bear has figured out that the plastic seems soft enough that they can grab it and run off with it,” he said.

From there, the bears have been using “brute force and patience” to chew out the bottom of the canister until they’ve ripped a large enough hole to get at the treats inside.

At them From the Start

A traditional BearVault bear canister.
A traditional BearVault bear canister. David Fulmer

Bear canisters haven’t always been a fixture in the Adirondacks. In the early 2000s, bear break-ins were at a peak. Because many backpackers were improperly storing their food and garbage, bears were habitually returning to popular lean-tos and campsites knowing there was easily-accessible food there, to the point where they were also beginning to lose their fear of humans. On more than one occasion, the animals would walk right into occupied lean-tos to follow their noses.

One of the DEC’s first steps to solve the problem was initiating a study, in 2001, tasked with marking and conditioning a handful of bears. The first bear captured was Yellow-Yellow. After tagging her, the scientists sprayed her with pepper spray, shot her with rubber buckshot, chased and scared her using firecrackers, with the hope that it would train her to stay away from humans. It didn’t work. Break-ins hardly slowed and Yellow-Yellow (and the bear tagged and conditioned with her, Red-Red) were regular culprits. Within a few years, because she had grown into more of a nuisance and potential risk, it was decided that Yellow-Yellow would be euthanized. But, just in time, she disappeared. Instead, in another attempt to curb the problem in 2005, the DEC instituted regulations requiring the use of bear canisters in her portion of the Adirondacks, which we still see today. Still, Yellow-Yellow found a loophole.

A Continuing Problem

The Adirondack stomping grounds of Yellow-Yellow.
    Ryan Wichelns
The Adirondack stomping grounds of Yellow-Yellow. Ryan Wichelns

Although the DEC won't use any brand names, the incidents this summer seem isolated to the clear-blue canisters similar to BearVault’s. In one situation, Stickles said of a collection of canisters accessible to a bear, the blue one was the only taken.

“It seemed like the bear targeted that specific canister,” Stickles said, “which indicated to me that it’s probably had success opening that canister before.” The only instances of other canisters being broken into are the result of user error, while those who have their blue canisters opened were using them correctly.

While the DEC said it doesn't make make any recommendations about specific brands of canisters to recommend in the Adirondacks at this time, they are considering it.

In any case, this small corner of the Adirondacks are put aside other areas with much larger and meaner bears. Yellow-Yellow was a unique ground-breaker in the food-pillaging field and an Adirondack legend. Ironically, she was also a pioneer for bringing the very devices that made her famous to the Adirondacks. And even with her gone, her legacy lives on in each empty canister the area’s backpackers wake up to find pillaged.

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