The Calm Before the Snatch
Filling Up the Tank
Think of this story as Goldilocks and the Three Bears, but with a plot twist: Goldilocks turns out to be one of the bears.
The Goldilocks here is an unusually large black bear named Hank the Tank. He lives around South Lake Tahoe, California, where he has a habit of breaking into houses. Unlike the fairy tale heroine, however, Hank isn’t picky. Any food he finds on the premises is apparently “just right.” Garbage, too. It all goes down his gullet. His manners have made him famous—he’s been all over the news in recent weeks—but they’ve also gotten him into big trouble.
Another plot twist may have saved his life.
Dating to last summer, Hank has been the lead suspect in dozens of home invasions. In the words of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (C.D.F.W.), Hank is a “severely food-habituated bear,” which is ranger-speak for a bear that has “lost its fear of people and is associating people with access to food.” (That is also ranger-speak).
Hank’s M.O. involves breaking down doors—garage doors included—and smashing through windows. While all bears are strong, Hank is especially strong, packing 500 pounds on his frame. The average black bear weighs in at somewhere between 100 and 300 pounds, but Hank has bulked up thanks to his diet of people food.
“He didn’t get fat like that eating berries and grubs,” Ann Bryant, executive director of the Bear League, a non-profit group promoting improved human-bear relations, recently told The New York Times. She was referring to the kinds of things black bears normally eat—stuff they can forage in a forest, along with whatever fish and meat they catch. But as a spokesperson for the C.D.F.W. pointed out, “It’s easier to find leftover pizza than to go in the forest.”
The good news is that Hank hasn’t hurt anybody. “He just sits there and eats,” Bryant explained. “He doesn’t attack [homeowners]. He doesn’t growl. He doesn’t make rude faces.” And yet, while people who live in South Lake Tahoe are used to bears, they still don’t like having their front doors broken down and their pantries ransacked. Especially by bears like Hank, who don’t run away when you bang pots and pans or even seem to care if you tase them.
Authorities had begun talking about euthanizing Hank, assuming they could catch him. But here’s the second plot twist we promised. Citing DNA evidence, the C.D.F.W. announced last week that Hank is merely one of three bears that have been breaking into South Lake Tahoe homes. So why all the focus on Hank? Authorities blamed human witnesses for not being very good at telling bears apart.
Since he’s now considered less voracious, Hank is also considered less dangerous, and if captured is a candidate for being relocated to a “suitable habitat.” Presumably that means way out in the woods somewhere, and not, alas, the dumpster behind a Chuck E. Cheese.
Sorry, Hank. It’s not a happy ending. Goodbye pepperoni, hello grubs. —Bruce Handy
Art and Sole
Air Mail Pilot trivia question of the week: Flip-flops account for what percentage of the total plastic waste polluting oceans?
If you guessed 25 percent, you get a gold star. And a pair of flip-flops.
While the shoes might be pretty, the cost of constantly replacing them is not. Every year, thousands of flip-flops are thrown away in Asia and Australia. They end up in the Indian Ocean, and eventually land on beaches in Kenya.
Alarmed at the plastic waste littering her home’s coast, Julie Church wanted to put the old shoes to good use. So, 16 years ago, she created Ocean Sole to turn flip-flops into sculptures. Today, the company has more than 100 full-time staff and uses nearly one million flip-flops—per year!—to make colorful objects.
The process starts with Ocean Sole volunteers (today numbering 150) scouring coastlines for plastic soles. Then artists—many of whom are former wood carvers who lost their jobs when the Kenyan government banned logging in 2018—clean the flip-flops and glue the shoes together to make dazzling sculptures.
The works are sold both online and at local Kenyan markets. Ocean Sole uses the profits to give their workers good wages and invest in local welfare programs.
“We can do masterpieces that take about 2,000 flip-flops,” Jonathan Lenato, a supervisor at Ocean Sole, told The Times of London. Their specialty: animal sculptures.
This month, those forgotten flip-flops have found their way into an unlikely place: a high-fashion collection. In collaboration with Ocean Sole, the French fashion house Chloé has created a line called Lou, which uses scavenged flip-flops to make colorful soles for fashionable sandals. A pair of Chloé Lou sandals costs about $550—more than most Ocean Sole collectors make in a year.
Ocenan Sole employees are overwhelmed with the amount of plastic they find. “Trash has come from as far as India and the Philippines,” Sally Adolwa, a collector, told The Times of London. “Sometimes we are shocked.” Here’s hoping the price tag on those Chloé sandals prevents them from ending up on Kenya’s shores again. —Elena Clavarino
Keeping Their Cool
If you were going to ski and hike 684 miles across Ellesmere Island, at the northernmost tip of Canada, what would you bring?
To prepare for their 50-day Arctic expedition, Canadian adventurers Ray Zahab, 53, and Kevin Vallely, 57, packed their bags with pounds of coconut oil. While AIR MAIL Pilot would have picked chocolate, there’s a reason this duo went with coconut oil: to make sure they have enough fat to fuel their journey. (They brought other food, too, like coffee and porridge.)
Zahab and Vallely’s journey is a long time coming. While they planned the trip several years ago, coronavirus-related travel restrictions delayed the excursion. The two finally started their trek earlier this week from Grise Fiord, on the island’s southern coast.
This is far from their first adventure. Zahab has run over 10,563 miles through desert conditions, and even pulled a heavy sled for miles across Canada’s Baffin Island, Russia’s Lake Baikal, and Antarctica. Vallely, who has a day job as an architect, has skied Alaska’s 1,180-mile Iditarod Trail, broken the world record for fastest run across Vancouver Island’s West Coast Trail, and biked 1,243 miles across ice during the Alaskan winter. Together, the two have snowshoed around the South Pole and explored Siberia.
But their latest feat could be their most daring one yet. In the winter, temperatures in Ellesmere Island range between negative 20 and negative 30 degrees. “It’s archetypal wilderness,” Zahab told The Times of London. “We will be closer to people on the space station than we will be to anyone else.”
The island, which is near the North Pole, is only slightly smaller than Great Britain. It’s home to just 200 people and a large population of musk ox, wolves, Arctic foxes, and polar bears.
Their trip isn’t just for fun—there is a political message behind their adventure. Canadian sovereignty over northern territories, like Ellesmere Island, has become a top priority for the Canadian government. “Many countries see it as an international waterway,” Vallely told The Times of London. “This massive island, is it ours? How much is it ours? Having Canadians on Canadian land is important.”
There is an environmental message, too. The duo will collect snow samples for researchers studying climate change. “We really want people to understand this place,” Zahab said.
Perhaps most important of all, the pair will have to focus on staying safe. Every night, they will construct booby traps and fences around their tents. “In areas where there are a lot of bears,” explained Vallely, “we are not going to sleep well, I expect.” —Bridget Arsenault