Wednesday, July 20, 2011


A string of recent deaths near well-frequented waterfalls in California's Yosemite National Park and on the Hawaiian island of Kauai have renewed debate about visitor safety in potentially treacherous environments - and about how much personal responsibility those visitors should assume.
Search and rescue operations continued today along the Merced River below Yosemite's 317-foot Vernal Fall after witnesses said they saw one or more hikers slip into the water and over the edge Tuesday. Rangers have temporarily closed the Mist Trail, the popular hiking route that provides access to the fall, the Associated Press reports.
Record snowfall has created unusually spectacular waterfalls in Yosemite this year, but the turbulent waters have taken a toll: At least eight people have died in the park this year, spokeswoman Kari Cobb told the AP. Visitors were traumatized in May when a hiker slipped and fell into the Merced River; his body snagged on a rock and rescuers were not able to reach it for hours. Two men died after being swept off a bridge near the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in June, and one man who disappeared while hiking near Yosemite Falls with his church group is still missing.
The path to the top of Vernal Fall is a three-mile trek with a 1,000-foot rise in elevation, and is frequently slippery and covered with spray. At the top a guardrail separates visitors from the precipice, and signs in multiple languages warn of the danger created by slippery boulders. Published accounts say that 13 people have died by falling over since records began being kept in the 1920s, the AP says.
According KSEE in Fresno, witnesses say a man and a woman climbed over the safety rail at the top of the falls so that they could put their feet in the water. The couple then reportedly tried to get their children to join them, but before the kids got there the couple began to slip. KSEE is reporting a third male family member jumped the railing to try and help, but all three went over the fall.
On the Hawaiian island of Kauai, meanwhile, a 35-year-old visitor from Irvine, Calif. died June 26 while swimming in a natural pool below Kipu Falls. He was the fifth person to die at the falls in the past five years, including two since December, and the incident has prompted local authorities to push for greater restrictions to the site, the AP reports. The local tourism bureau has asked guidebook writers, hotels and sightseeing outfits to urge tourists away, and backed proposed legislation that would have made writers and publishers of travel guides liable if a reader is injured or killed while trespassing on private property they have depicted. The bill died amid protests from publishers who said it violated their First Amendment rights.
Kipu Falls, though located on private property, has been a popular draw for locals and visitors for years. It is rated number 64 out of 155 attractions on TripAdvisor, where tourists have voiced spirited opinions ranging from "DO NOT GO HERE!" to "Fun swimming hole with rope swing."
"We try to educate people about the area so that they are aware that it is private property and causes you to trespass if you go there and can be dangerous," says Sue Kanoho, director of the Kauai Visitors Bureau. "There are so many other places on the island to be enjoyed, and we would like to focus on those areas."
Daniel Hale, a tour boat captain who has been swimming at the falls for about a decade, told the AP he is sympathetic to families who have lost loved ones but said the accidents shouldn't lead to closure: "People come here on vacation and they get hurt, and it's sad, but it happens because it's not Disneyland. It doesn't cushion you."