A 27-year-old man died Saturday at Devils Lake State Park after falling some 50 feet from the cliffs near the Devil’s Doorway rock formation on the southern end of the park’s east bluff. Our condolences go out to his family.
These days, when anything happens in the world, people take to social media to express their thoughts and opinions. Often in a tragedy such as this, the comments are warm and heartfelt. At the same time, others will take the opportunity to put their own stupidity on full display. There are also folks who really are trying to understand how accidents such as this happen in the park and asking some generally good questions. I want to address a few of thoes today.
First, it’s true that there are no “warning signs” or fences posted along the tops of the cliffs at Devil’s Lake State Park. In our travels around the country personally, we’ve seen various combinations of on-location notices. Do they help? Well, that’s a matter of debate. The sign above is one of many located at the Garden of the Gods in Illinois. Anyone who’s been there will tell you signs are not stopping anyone who wants to climb on the rocks. On the other hand, they might slow people down enough to stop some accidental falls. I often see adults and kids run up to cliffs out of excitement! It would only take one misstep…
Folks often say something like; “Stay on the trail”. Well, we don’t know if the person who fell over the weekend intentionally went off the trail. In general though, “staying on the trail” is good advice for many reasons. Hikers should stay on the trails and not climb on the rocks. That said, at this particular location, Devil’s Doorway, the trail is a bit sketchy and not terribly obvious. There are two trails down to the famous rock formation. Both come with some risks. The trail from the east has a hidden, quick turn onto the ledge you see above. It would be easy to trip or slip on the corner or anywhere along this ledge for that matter. It’s also fair to say, that the “trail” isn’t well marked here. It’s basically, anywhere there is flat rock. Erosion damage where both trails come together leaves no clear idea where the “trail” begins or ends and funnels downward toward the cliffs.
I also don’t think hikers who come down to Devil’s Doorway from the east bluff trail above, fully comprehend the sheer cliffs they are walking on. The photo below was taken at a distance with a telephoto lens. It gives you a better idea of what the area looks like. You can see the ledge or “trail” from the photo above if you know where to look. It’s fair to say that all it takes is one mistake…
Things get much more dangerous when you add water. We try to express this issue many times throughout the year. Our local quartzite is smooth. It’s slippery on its own and is worse when even covered by a layer of dust or loose dirt. Add water and it becomes like ice. Sometimes, there’s just nothing you can do but stay off of it. On Saturday we had mixed weather with some showers.
One solvable issue is erosion on the cliffs. This is a problem I’ve written & ranted about many times. For years now, the trails have not been maintained in a way that recognizes and accommodates the high volume or use habits of hikers. The end result has been huge areas of erosion that are not only damaging to the environment but when wet, can create mud “slides” where no amount of tread could stop you from sliding toward the cliffs. One of those damaged areas is indeed at Devil’s Doorway. General over-use and erosion probably had nothing to do with this weekend’s accident, but is certainly an issue that needs to be addressed.
It’s important to put the weekend’s tragedy in perspective. Although this was not the first fall of 2017, this was the first death at the park this year.* Folks familiar with the park will tell you that there is about one death in the park per year on average. When you consider that about 3 million people visit the park each year, falls and deaths at Devil’s Lake State Park are rare events. Most people stay safe regardless of some of the things you may see them doing out there!
Still, with each tragedy comes an opportunity for discussion and reexamination and there are fair questions. Could the park do more to educate visitors? Can trails be marked and maintained better? Should some Iconic rocks simply be off-limits to hikers who want to climb around on them? Can we look but not touch? In the end, we also have to realize that there will never be a way to make a natural environment completely safe. Sadly, accidents such as this one will happen again.
Before I wrap up today, I want to take a moment to recognize everyone with our local ropes rescue team who put their own lives at risk every time someone needs help out there. Thank you!
To everyone else, Be safe out there!
***Obligatory Disclaimer: This website is NOT associated with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The views expressed in this blog are mine and do not represent the views of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.