By Natalie Simms
Every year more than 200,000 people visit Little River Canyon/Little River Falls Preserve near Fort Payne, Ala., to hike, swim, kayak and enjoy the beauty of the national park. But while it’s beautiful, it is also unforgiving. With nine deaths since 2014, including the May 12 drowning of a Rome teenager, is there more than can be done to improve safety at the popular attraction?
First, let’s take a look at the problem.
“We average about two deaths per year. We had four last year and three in 2016. And before that, we went a couple of years without any deaths,” says Larry Beane, the Interpretative Park Ranger with Little River Canyon where he has worked for last 36 years.
Cherokee County (Ala.) Coroner Dr. Jeremy Deaton also confirms those figures. “Since I’ve been coroner in 2014, I’ve see two deaths due to head trauma from falling off of rocks and the remainder due to drowning. Approximately 85% of the drowning victims have had illegal substances in their system or have had blood alcohol levels above the legal limit.”
Beane says the park averages about 18 “major” rescues a year in the park that covers some 15,288 acres along the border of Cherokee and Dekalb counties. A rescue is considered “major” if multiple emergency responders and agencies are dispatched for assistance.
“Some (of the major rescues) are water related, some are falls like sprained ankles. If you can’t walk out of the canyon, then we have to call in the rescue team, and sometimes a helicopter with the basket and rope, to pull you out,” says Beane.
Shawn Rogers, director of Emergency Management for Cherokee County, responds to many of these calls. He says the most common calls coming into the 911-Center from the park are either injured hikers or swimmers who are injured or in distress.
“While some local residents experience injuries while visiting the Canyon, the majority of calls for distress and/or drownings involve people visiting from out of the area. I think the biggest factor is visitors, who are not familiar with this area, don’t really understand the dangers at or around the Canyon.
“They come from out of town and they don’t realize that in some of the areas, rocks are just under the water’s surface. They don’t realize that swimming in the Canyon when the water level is elevated can cause exhaustion a lot quicker than in a pool. The best rule of thumb is to respect nature and the Canyon and don’t take unnecessary risks just to seek a thrill. Dangers lie in the water that can’t be seen from above.”
What are the dangers?
Thousands of people come to enjoy the water at Little River Canyon every year. Beane says there are no designated swimming areas, but there are no rules against swimming, it is “at your own risk”. He says the biggest danger is that many people don’t realize how strong the current is in the river.
“I don’t think a lot of people realize this is a river with current and depending on recent rain, the water level can go up really fast and also go down fast. Many visitors don’t take a lot of this into account,” he says.
According to the park website, on a scale of I (beginner) to VI (expert) in difficulty in navigating the rapids, Little River is a III – VI. “These rapids are for experts, we do not recommend that beginners try this river.”
Aside from the currents, the rocks are another big danger. “Wet rocks are deceptively slick and sharp and cause many people to get injured,” says Beane. “Some people have slipped on the rocks, fallen into the water and been swept under by the current.”
The other issue Beane says he battles daily is getting folks to obey the rules. The top of Little River Falls is closed 50 feet back from the edge of the waterfall and it is illegal to be closer than 50 feet to the edge of the waterfall. But, Beane says folks cross those guardrails everyday “seeking the thrill” or “to get the perfect selfie”.
“At the Falls, we have signage in English and in Spanish warning visitors that they are not allowed within 50 feet of the edge of the Falls,” he says. “It is a closed area, but I spend 6-8 hours a day out there telling folks to get back, to not cross the railing. It frustrates me to no end. But every day, people cross that guard line. It is a problem of folks obeying the rules…we can only do so much.”
What can be done?
Beane says the main thing is for folks to wear a lifejacket, even those who are experienced swimmers.
“The river is a special place. Folks want to fish, kayak and swim. But they need a lifejacket and not just a float because a float will get away from you quickly in this current,” he says. “And if you slip and hit your head, a lifejacket will at least keep your head above water. If you are not a good swimmer, you need to stay out of the water with these currents or wear a lifejacket.”
There are no lifeguards at the park because there are no designated swimming areas. Beane says if the park were to designate swimming areas in order to have a lifeguard, daily water tests would be required and “there is simply no funding or the staff to do that.”
Little River Canyon does offer some water safety programs during the summer, including the “13 Ways Not to Die at Little River Canyon” that Beane taught last July. He says this summer’s schedule is still being finalized.
Rogers says he thinks the water safety programs are good, if the public will attend. “I think any program that explains the risks and hazards of Little River Canyon are helpful, if the public will attend the programs. The programs are designed to educate on what to expect and how to be protected while visiting. Once again it is primarily visitors from out of town that fall victim.”
“To be honest, visitors just need to use common sense. Don’t go outside of the barricades or railings that are already in place. They are there for a reason. Children and teenagers shouldn’t be unsupervised. Some accidents and/or injuries can’t be avoided or might be more difficult to avoid such as medical emergencies or falling down a trail. Those can happen anywhere at any time. I think the National Park Service does an outstanding job trying to provide a safe atmosphere for tourists and visitors to enjoy themselves.”
Bottomline says Beane, “People risk their lives in a national park all the time. And young people especially miss judge the water. People just need to use caution whenever they are in or near water.”
Click here for more river safety tips at Little River Canyon.