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Tourists' delight — or death?

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Tourists' delight — or death?

Postby ERIC » Tue May 16, 2006 4:01 pm

Tourists' delight — or death?

White-water drownings No. 1 cause of visitor fatalities in Valley's national parks.

By Tim Sheehan / The Fresno Bee
(Updated Wednesday, May 10, 2006, 5:11 AM)

SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK — As the Valley heats up, the Sierra Nevada offers an inviting and scenic getaway from high temperatures.

But in the region's national parks — Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Yosemite — rivers and streams swollen with icy water are both beautiful and deadly.

It's a combination that is prompting rangers to warn visitors to stay clear of the rivers.

Signs in English and Spanish are placed on every trailhead with river access in Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Yosemite national parks. Other safety measures include rangers at visitor centers warning people to stay out of the rivers and rangers patrolling trails to remind visitors of dangers.
Carey Wagner / The Fresno Bee

"Drowning is far and away the leading cause of death in the parks," said Alexandra Picavet, a spokeswoman for Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks.

The two parks, in eastern Fresno and Tulare counties, saw six drownings in 2005, "and we've already had three close calls this year," Picavet said Tuesday.

In Yosemite National Park, Supervising Ranger Tom Medema said concerns are rising along with the Merced River as the visitor numbers increase.

Medema said there have been no drownings this year at Yosemite, but three people drowned in 2005.

In Sequoia National Park, the Kaweah River is more inviting — and hence more dangerous — than the Kings River in the neighboring Kings Canyon park, said J.D. Swed, chief ranger for the two parks.

"The Kings is just scary-looking from the get-go; a person's instinct is to stay back," he said.

The Kaweah, however, claimed four lives in 2005. "It's deceptive," Ranger Eric Öberg said. "It's small enough to look approachable."

But its drop in elevation from its headwaters to the Valley "is one of the steepest in North America," he added. "That's what makes it so treacherous."

And with more snow this winter in the Sierra, rivers are carrying more water this spring.

For the past few days, the National Weather Service has issued advisories that high daytime temperatures are melting snow faster throughout the central Sierra, from Yosemite to Kings Canyon.

In Yosemite, the snowmelt prompted a flood watch Tuesday afternoon indicating the Merced River "is expected to crest near flood stage of 10 feet by Friday morning" near the Pohono Bridge.

The water volume not only carries tremendous force, but the cold temperatures — estimated to be in the mid 40s — can quickly sap muscle strength and coordination of even strong swimmers, rangers said.

"People don't realize that this water was ice only 15 minutes ago," Swed said Tuesday along the Kaweah near Sequoia's Ash Mountain headquarters.

A few miles upstream, a quartet of tourists from Nova Scotia got a firsthand feel of the Kaweah's chill as they clambered to a pool near the Hospital Rock picnic area.

"I tried to wade in there," said Michael Bitar, "but it's so cold that it's hard to walk."

One companion, Rita MacPherson, was mindful of the danger as she picked her way over boulders at the river's edge, just yards from a thundering waterfall and rapids.

"I grew up on rocks like these," MacPherson said. "I know how to be safe on this."

She, too, touched her toes into the river. "It's just as cold as Nova Scotia," she said, "but it's refreshing."

It's just such adventurousness that worries rangers like Swed, Öberg and Medema.

Even pausing after a sweaty hike to wade in a seemingly calm pool could be disastrous if a person loses his footing.

"We have an issue with people wading into streams above the waterfalls, not understanding the nature of the currents, and being swept over the falls," Yosemite's Medema said. "There's a lot of whitewater at both ends of the valley, and we lose people to swift water on either end on a regular basis."

In all three parks, safety measures include rangers at visitor centers warning people to stay out of the rivers and off slick

riverbank rocks; bilingual signs announcing the drowning danger; and rangers patrolling river trails to remind visitors.

Sequoia's Öberg is also seeking volunteer "River Rovers" to help spread the safety message in the busy spring and summer months.

The volunteers are expected to hike trails leading to the rivers "as our eyes and ears to educate visitors about river hazards," Öberg said.

"This is not search and rescue; we do not expect anyone to get wet," he added. "They'll have a uniform and a radio; if they encounter an emergency, they'll be able to call for help."

Volunteers are needed for weekdays and weekends, and bilingual skills in English and Spanish are helpful.

Öberg seeks people who:

Are able to volunteer one day a week, although scheduling is very flexible.

Can walk two to three miles on steep river trails during a three- to six-hour shift.

Have good communication skills.

Are at least 18 years old and can provide their own transportation and good hiking boots. A uniform and training are provided by the park service.

Would-be volunteers can learn more by calling Öberg at (559) 565-3719.

A handful of volunteers, including a pair of college students, a retiree and a school teacher who had the summer off, made more than 1,000 contacts with visitors last summer, Öberg said.

But for all the safety warnings, Picavet said, "people have to be vigilant for themselves."

All of last year's Sequoia/Kings Canyon drowning victims were adults, she noted, adding that alcohol is believed to have contributed to at least one of the incidents.

The park has a team of rangers who have special training for swift-water rescues, including several Navy SEALs, Swed said. But in parks intended to preserve nature, Swed said the danger of the rivers is an inescapable fact.

"People are going to die in the river," Swed added. "You almost wonder who's going to be next."
The reporter can be reached at tsheehan@fresnobee.comor (559) 622-2410.
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