To The Sea Caves, At All Cost




I think if you polled rangers asking, “What do you most want to visitors to understand?” nine out of ten would answer, “Believe the warnings.”

This sad and infuriating story from Yosemite is a perfect illustration:

Ranger finds body in Merced River near Vernal Fall

Three people were killed after being swept over Vernal Fall in July… The three fell into the river and were swept over the 317-foot-high falls while on a day trip to the park.

Witnesses told park rangers that the victims had gone around a guardrail at the top of the waterfall and disregarded warning signs and the pleas of bystanders to come back.

A Yosemite National Park ranger found (the last) body in the Merced River beneath Vernal Fall Thursday.

San Francisco Chronicle, November 30, 2011

For another example, with a happier ending, picture late winter 1995 or so, here at the Apostle Islands. It’s been a good year for ice, and there’s been heavy visitation at the mainland sea caves. Now the ice is thinning, and it would be a bad idea to venture out on it. That’s hard to tell from the shore, though; the lake still looks like an unbroken plane of white.

I’m West District Ranger, a supervisory position, but with typical mid-90s winter staffing levels, I’m on duty alone. There’s a lot of administrative work backing up on me, and I decide to take care of it while parked at the Meyers Beach stairway, the prime access point for the caves a mile away. There are warning signs in place, but I know from experience some people would walk right past them.

Sure enough, while I was sitting there reading through summer employment applications, a family drove up– Mom, Dad, and two teenage girls. I greeted them and cautioned, “Hi-  I’m afraid the ice’s not safe to go out anymore.”

The father bristled. “What do you mean?”

I thought I had spoken clearly enough. Maybe it was the wind?

“The ice isn’t safe for travel anymore. We’re late in the season and it’s starting to break up.”

“It looks fine from here,” Dad countered.

I suppressed the urge to roll my eyes. “I know that, sir. Believe me, it’s thin at a lot of places and it’s not safe to walk on.”

“So you’re saying we can’t go out there?”

I sighed inside. There I was, a Federal law enforcement officer, with a badge, a gun, and full arrest powers, but as incredible as it seems, in those circumstances I couldn’t legally stop the guy from going out.

“No, sir,” I answered slowly and clearly. “I’m saying, ‘The… Ice… Is… Not… Safe… For… You… To…. Walk… On.’”

“Oh, I see…” The guy got a glint in his eye, then lowered his voice. “What you’re telling me is, ‘Proceed at your own risk.’”

Okay, that settles it. He’s insane.

“No, sir– I’m telling you that the ice is not safe and you should not be taking your family out on it.”

The mother avoided my gaze, the girls’ expressions were inscrutable. The father persisted.

“But we can go if we want to, right?

“Yes, sir,” I answered. “You certainly can.”

“Well, we’ll be careful,” he assured me.


He said that.

Out loud, in English.


Mawikwe Bay

The spot in question, February 2009.


I thought of remarking that “doing just what the ranger warns you not to” is the polar opposite of “being careful” on my planet, but it was clear that there was no convincing him.

Instead, I watched the group walk off and decided I’d do my best to continue reading applications while popping in and out of the truck to spot-check their progress. I was pleased to note they were sticking close to shore, at least, and not short-cutting across the bay where the water gets deep.

Then, only about ten minutes later, I saw them heading back, not even a quarter of the way out to the caves.

When they reached the top of the stairs, it was easy to see why: the younger girl was wet to the hips.

The father glared at me, the mother glared at him. The girls looked away.

Resisting the urge to say “I told you so,” is basic ranger manners, but this time I didn’t even feel a temptation. I could tell he’d already had an earful.

“Is the young lady all right?” I asked.

“Yes!” he snapped.

“Great,” I answered. “If y’all want to get warm, the quickest way is to turn right on the highway and head to Cornucopia. It’s only about four miles and there will be places open. Hope the rest of the day goes okay.”

The father ignored me, but the mother nodded and smiled.




If you hike out to the sea caves, it’s useful to have a ski pole along, and a retired park ranger if you know one.


Hi, David and Rachel!



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