Friday, January 11, 2008

Dalles of the St Croix cliff jumping revisited

While digging around in some old posts I stumbled across a belated comment taking me (and RangerBob) to task for my assertions and his comments about the cliff jumping ban on the St Croix River that the park service instituted after a teen ager drowned back in 2000. I figured perhaps my memory of the event had become hazy in the past seven years and this fellow seemed to be a knowledgeable resident of St Croix, possibly a park employee, and had some good points. So I took the criticism seriously, seriously enough that I sprung for $6.95 to access the St Paul Pioneer Press news archives. Here is the story that I found:

St. Paul Pioneer Press (MN)

July 11, 2000
Section: MAIN
Page: 1A

Dennis Lien, Staff Writer

Swimming and cliff jumping in a particularly dangerous section of the St. Croix River have been banned after a drowning last month.

The National Park Service, which manages the nationally protected St. Croix north of Stillwater, said Monday that swimming in the river - and by extension, jumping into it from cliffs - will no longer be allowed in a four-mile section from the Northern States Power Co. dam at St. Croix Falls, Wis., south to the Franconia Landing.

The emergency order is in response to a fatal accident last month, one of many that have occurred over the years in a stretch of river dominated by high cliffs and turbulent and strong currents.

On June 22, a 14-year-old St. Paul boy drowned after jumping from a cliff on the Wisconsin side of the river. John Lee and some friends were jumping from cliffs at Wisconsin Interstate State Park, and Lee drowned while trying to swim to the Minnesota side, authorities said.

``I know we will save lives,'' said Anthony Andersen, superintendent of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. ``I don't know whose lives we will save, but I know we will save them.''

In the past 12 years, Andersen said, about a half-dozen people have died in accidents in that area of the river, commonly called the Dalles. He said some have drowned while trying to swim from one side of the river to the other, while others have died after jumping from cliffs and not surfacing. Often, alcohol has been a factor, he added.

It has been illegal to swim in the river at Minnesota Interstate State Park, but there was no similar restriction at the state park on the Wisconsin side of the river, Andersen said. He said it was only recently that the Park Service determined it had jurisdiction and could impose a swimming ban.

Although the Dalles area only covers about half a mile of the river, Andersen said the Park Service chose to ban swimming along four miles of the St. Croix to include upriver rapids and some dangerous stretches downriver. It will now begin a public review process aimed at establishing a permanent policy. Along the way, modifications to the existing ban are possible, Andersen said.

Chisago County Sheriff Randy Schwegman said he favors a ban on cliff jumping, but he said an outright ban on swimming could be going too far.

``What is the definition of swimming?'' he asked, citing canoeists and kayakers who often must get into the river to launch their craft or to recover from miscues.

``This is really getting to be a little broader than I thought it would be,'' he said. ``There are parts of the river that are shallow. You can wade out there. Can you walk in the water? How does that work?''

Andersen, however, said the rule and enforcement are aimed at people who clearly are swimming and are not using a watercraft.

Polk County, Wis., Sheriff Dan Mosay said the order will help lessen problems in that area.

``It's always difficult, not just for the loss of life and the trauma for families and rescue personnel, but a lot of time and expense is spent there by rescue personnel,'' he said. ``The current there is so unpredictable.''

Like Andersen, Schwegman said banning cliff jumping will save lives.

``This won't totally prevent drownings because you still have people who ignore laws and do it anyway,'' Schwegman said. ``But it certainly will cut down on the number.

``It can be a very dangerous area,'' he said. ``People are unfamiliar with the different rocks. Some are safer than others to jump from. There are strong currents, and there is a variance in depth. In some parts, it's 80 feet to 100 feet deep, and a half a mile away, you can almost walk across.''

Dennis Lien can be reached at or (651) 228-5588.

A synopsis of the criticism basically was that the drowning which precipitated the ban was not due to substance abuse (or it wasn't a "major" factor; this with a 14 year old boy!), it wasn't the NPS that initially instituted the ban, and its probably a good thing because its a dangerous area and it will certainly save lives. Read the blog comment and the above article draw your own conclusions.

The bottom line is that the government once again is attempting to protect us from activities that they deem to not be safe. According to the article, about 6 people have drowned in the past dozen years with alcohol "often" a factor. I would agree that it is an area that offers 'attractive nuisances' as the lawyers would put it. There are eddys and whirlpools below the bridge that white water guys and playboaters play in, there are sheer rock cliffs that rock climbers tend to want to scale, and those same alluring cliffs have ledges and lower areas that we thrill seekers used to love jumping off into the river. Not to mention that fact that the canoe outfitter in this 'treacherous' stretch of river launches families to paddle down to Osceola or William O'Brian State Park. Oh, and its a great place to fish and swim. This is also the oldest state park in Wisconsin's state park system and there is a lot of history here.

My main questions are where is 'the line', what gets banned next, and who the hell is in charge? Regarding the first two, if a couple of rock climbers fall or a play boater gets sucked into a hole and drowns will they ban those activities? It worries me that two kayakers have drowned at the Squaw Bay sea caves in the Apostle Islands over the past two years. This rate is double that of the one every two years in the news story above. Who knows, could be a ban in the future! To read the park administrative rules and how they made, especially if you are plagued by insomnia, click here. The key paragraph is telling: "This Compendium in no way restricts or limits the authority of the Superintendent to otherwise place, at any time, further short term restrictions or closures on any use or activity for public and employee safety, natural and cultural resource management and protection, maintenance, or any other administrative activity". Which to me means the superintendent can add any damn rule that he feels like, whenever he feels like it, no matter what it says in this comprehensive list of rules.

So what exactly is banned? Even the authorities didn't seem to know. Can you roll your kayak or practice a wet exit? Wade out to cool off? And, to address my last question, who is in charge? There were quotes in the story from the NPS superintendent and sheriffs on both sides of the river. Actually the police in Taylor's Falls and St Croix Falls, the two towns that straddle the park could comment also. And lets not forget the DNR in both Wisconsin and Minnesota. For years Minnesota (The State Where Nothing is Allowed according to a local radio host) banned swimming while Wisconsin did not. This is pointed out in 'Campshoes' criticism of my previous comments. Years ago, No1 son and I were admonished by a MN DNR employee for swimming across the river....after jumping off a Wisconsin cliff of course, and ordered to get out and walk back across the bridge, a 3 mile trudge. We smiled, thanked her for her concern, and swam the 40 yards back to Wisconsin. Maybe in this card game the county trumps the city, the state trumps the county, and the Feds are the red queen that trumps everyone. I'd sure like to know.

This whole debate will continue and is a microcosm of the "911 syndrome" which seems to want to make us choose whether we want to be safe or free. In reality there is a middle ground, with the proper balance point being hotly debated. I tend to lean toward the more libertarian attitude of responsibility and consequences. When I paddle Lake Superior I wear my pfd, dress for immersion, and carry a VHF radio. When we cliff jumped in the Dalles, we checked the depth off the rocks with an anchor and noted the gates on the dam when we crossed the bridge. Should my freedom be limited because another member of the public chooses to paddle to the sea caves with no spray skirt paddle float, and their pfd under the back deck bungee? Or pound a six pack of beer and jump off the highest cliff in the Dalles with 3 gates on the dam open? 'Campshoe's' conclusion in his critique of my post was, "In short: check your facts, check your personal garbage, and be safe on the water". I treasure my personal garbage and I have my arms tightly wrapped around its smooth black plastic bag and don't intend to throw it in the dumpster any time soon. The facts were checked and I strive to do everything within reason to be as safe on the water as me and my paddling partners can possibly be. This is an important issue on a number of levels. Decide where you want to be between safe and free and make sure others, especially those that can move you in a direction you don't want to go with the stroke of a pen, know your position.


Kristen said...

Time to move to NZ!

DaveO said...

Funny, my buddy up in Barrrow-in-Furness, a police officer, said much the same thing as we were driving through the Bad River Indian Reservation. I told him there were at least 5 overlapping agencies that could arrest us if we screwed up. He found that to be both amazing and incredibly wasteful of public funds

bonnie said...

Oh, don't get me started.

Former hot topic, now more like cold, dead & decomposing horse of a topic that a few people just won't quit beating, on one of my local listserves has been about the lawsuit filed by the widow of a kitesurfer who went out & got himself killed on a stormy day when all the sane kiters had gone back in.

She's suing the town where he launched for making winter access too easy.

The guy was not a tyro, he had to know the risks.

That's in CT. Here in NYC, well, us local paddlers spend a lot more time than we really like sitting in mind-numbingly dull political meetings so that we can speak for ourselves when the nanny-mentality starts to surface in park planning & such.

I've been so happy with my move out to the Sebago Canoe Club in part because recreational boating is so much more accepted out there than along the Manhattan shoreline, where the tradition of going out in small craft had died out during the pollution years. It seems firmly reestablished now, moreso than when I first started, but you still get public servants wringing their hands over safety issues without really knowing much about paddling.

Mind you I have seen some kayakers doing damned stupid things out there. But they're in the decided minority - most paddlers & rowers around here know that we're very small boats operating around some very BIG boats & that we have to behave accordingly.

Anyways. Like I said, don't get me started.

Mostly wanted to say thanks for your comment and if you were to happen to be in Brooklyn with a kayak, please feel free to get in touch with me, I'd be happy to take you out for a spin on Jamaica Bay.

DaveO said...

Thanks Bonnie. No2 son will be moving from Queens to Brooklyn late winter and my Feathercraft and I just might be out that way. As far as the nanny state, its too easy to blame this stuff on the plaintiffs bar. There is some much deeper malaise than just that at work. Hence your kite surfing widow.

Ranger Bob said...

Fella seems awfully touchy, doesn't he?

Sure reads a lot into one short sentence of mine.