People all over Colorado headed to the great outdoors over the extended 4th of July weekend, and the vast majority of them will remember the time with pleasure.
But there are dangers hidden within all that beauty, as evidenced by the July 3 death of Haley Clarke, a nineteen-year-old from Bayfield who drowned at Cascade waterfall in San Juan County, a modest drive from Durango in southwestern Colorado.
On Facebook, the San Juan County Sheriff's Office expressed condolences to Clarke's family, friends and loved ones — but the SJCSO also offered a warning, spelled out in capital letters: "THIS IS AN EXTREMELY DANGEROUS AREA! WATER LEVELS ARE STILL VERY HIGH AND JUMPING THE FALLS IS NOT RECOMMENDED. PLEASE USE THIS TRAGEDY TO MAKE GOOD, SAFE DECISIONS."
People come from near and far to "jump the falls," according to San Juan County Undersheriff Steve Lowrance — and that's unfortunate, from his perspective. In his view, the Cascade falls attract far too many adventurers who don't think through the risks involved or the possible permanent repercussions.
"For better or worse, San Juan County is known for things like falls jumping, ridge running, extreme skiing," he says — and as a result, "we have to do a lot of search-and-rescues, and we've definitely had fatalities. A lot of these folks, their ambition outweighs their talent, and they can quickly get in over their head, especially at this time of year, where we have a lot of rushing water in Cascade Creek and all the rivers in the county."
YouTube boasts a number of spectacular videos featuring the waterfalls in San Juan County and the vicinity. Here's one example:
Also accessible are clips depicting people jumping from the falls, as seen here:
"It's a very popular area," Lowrance notes. "A lot of people hear about it through word of mouth, and it seems exciting and appealing to them."
That's understandable given the superlatives in a post by Verde PR headlined "10 Things to Love About a Durango Summer." Among other things, it promotes "The ABC's...Adrenaline Falls, Bakers Bridge and Cascade Creek," which comprise "a circuit of perfect cliff jumping ranging from ten-to-fifty feet in height."
Cascade Creek "offers a slot cannon experience that is second to none," the article maintains. "The views are beautiful as you jump multiple ten-to-fifteen feet through the slot." But the item adds a note of caution: "Once you’re in the cannon, there’s no turning back, and rescues are almost impossible."
A piece at MountainObsession.com has a similar message: "If you’re ever in Durango or near the area, jumping Cascades is a must IF you scope out the rapids before jumping."
Such caveats aren't always included in social-media mentions of the falls. "Someone will post on Facebook or Twitter or whatever that they did this waterfall jump and how exhilarating it was, and they recommend it to everyone," Lowrance says. "And folks get excited without really realizing what they're getting themselves into, especially in high water. We've had people sucked under the water, trapped under the water. It's nothing to play around with."
Another Facebook photo of the late Haley Clarke.
Waterfall jumping is hardly the only San Juan County pastime that attracts the extreme-sports crowd.
"We have a lot of extreme skiers and ridge runners come here," Lowrance points out, "and these things can be very dangerous to real experts, not just self-appointed experts. We had this guy who'd been ice climbing for twenty years" — Ouray guide Mark Miller — "who fell and died last year. And he was a professional. So you can imagine how dangerous it can be if you're not an expert."
Still, the terrain in San Juan County can be irresistible, Lowrance acknowledges. "We have the highest average elevation in the lower 48 states — over 11,000 feet. But we have the highest rate of avalanches, too — which is why a lot of the locals don't participate in those activities. They'll be more into cross-country skiing, more mellow things. But not a lot of the visitors.
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"If there's any type of search or rescue or recovery, we will do everything we can to help that person, even if it means risking our lives," Lowrance stresses. "And we're willing to do that. But we're asking folks to keep everybody safe by preventing these incidents in the first place. Enjoy the outdoors, but do it safely."