Partake in summer fun — cautiously

jtarica@thetribunenews.comMay 11, 2013 

It’s not difficult for me to imagine the accident last week that took the life of Christine Allen, the 19-year-old from San Luis Obispo who was camping with her family in Utah when she was killed by a freak rockslide.

It’s similarly easy and unpleasant to imagine the accident that killed a Minnesota tourist in Yosemite. He fell from the top of Vernal Falls.

Same thing for the tragic case of 3-year-old Justin Vargas-Smith of Paso Robles, who drowned after getting trapped beneath the cover of a swimming pool.

The one thing these three sad stories have in common besides their sudden proximity in time, is that they serve as a harbinger for summer, when we Californians embrace our warm weather and wide-open spaces by getting out to hike, swim and explore.

Our family does all of these things in abundance, and no season is complete without some kind of road trip through the parks and wilderness areas of the Western United States.

I’m no daredevil by any means. You couldn’t pay me to jump out of a plane or scale a granite face with nothing but a half-inch rope and some anchors separating exhilaration from death.

But I thrive on experiencing the outdoors and look forward all winter to the arrival of summer, when we load up the van with food, sleeping bags, the tent and assorted gear and hit the road, often to the dismay of Mrs. Joetopia, who prefers to stay in one place either at home or on a tropical beach somewhere.

I give her credit, though, because minor complaints notwithstanding, she always goes along with the loosely planned itineraries, which lead us to various destinations without much of a time schedule or any sort of overnight reservations.

Sometimes we drive eight hours and roll into camp in the gloaming of twilight. We can set up the tent in 15 minutes and still have time for an evening walk, any of which might take us to a spot such as the Allen family explored this past week, amid the red sandstone of Southeast Utah.

A couple years ago, we drove from Orange County to the Grand Canyon, arriving just in time to join fellow travelers for sunset on the South Rim, all of us scattered about the rocks watching the colors change at the edge of a great emptiness.

Beyond the safety railings, one wrong step could turn tranquility into tragedy.

The scene before us was so vast, it appeared almost as a two-dimensional painting, and you had to force your mind to appreciate the three-dimensional peril below, a danger oddly made more real by the soft breeze blowing off the canyon than by the gaping view itself.

This past summer, we spent one triple-digit day swimming and rock-
hopping with friends around a small waterfall on the Feather River near Lake Almanor.

It was a churned-up stretch of water that made the deep pools difficult to judge. When I wandered into the spray of the cataract, I lost my footing in the chest-high flow and suddenly slipped beneath the surface into nothing.

For a moment, there was no bottom, and I kicked in a panic to get a breath, before finally finding a rock and leverage to push myself to safety.

“If your head went down one more time,” said my friend, who fortunately was standing a few feet away, “I was coming in after you.”

This is the brutality of our wild places — they can mesmerize and kill simultaneously.
That moment on the Feather River was a reminder.

The death of Christine Allen is as well, and hers was a life lost unjustly and far too soon, the Fates exacting their cruel results.

Despite the pain now being endured by the Allens, family of the Yosemite hiker or those who knew little Justin — the toddler who simply went to explore the backyard on a May day — such stories shouldn’t deter you from your adventures this or any summer.

So go, keep help close and be safe out there … as best you can.

Joe Tarica is the presentation editor for The Tribune. Reach him at jtarica@the
tribunenews.com or on Twitter @joetarica.

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