With summer beginning and six accidental deaths already recorded in parks this year, Ohio state park officials are redoubling security and safety efforts.
Drownings are the number one cause of fatals at Ohio parks, but cliff-related deaths remain a concern for state officials.
Three people fell to their deaths in April and May at Hocking Hills alone. Two of the fatal falls occurred when hikers left the trails to use the cliffs and the third occurred when a Boy Scout troop leader fell in a rappelling accident.
ODNR spokesman Mark Bruce said new signs placed at Hocking Hills “encourage visitors to be mindful of their safety and surroundings,” and park rangers have stepped up their patrols and enforcement efforts to make sure people are aware of the “dangers that might exist off-trail.”
A Dayton Daily News examination found since 2008, 110 people have died in Ohio’s 83 state parks. Of the deaths, 79 were ruled accidental, 29 by suicide and two were murders, according to Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ data.
With 50 million visitors to Ohio’s park ever year, that’s one death for every 2.5 million visitors compared with one for every 1.8 million visitors in national parks.
The five officers who are assigned to full time duty at Hocking Hills State Park have increased their trail patrol duties and share shifts with other rangers from around the area.
Ranger Paul Baker said Hocking Hills and John Bryan State Park have some of the only cliffs in the state park system, which helps explain why Hocking Hills had five out of the eight cliff-related deaths since 2008.
“I can’t remember a year when we had the number of fatalities in such a short period,” said Baker, who has worked in the park system since 1994.
Nine people have died at Caesar Creek Lake State Park in the past five years, the second highest behind the 15 at Cleveland Lakefront State Park. In both of those parks, more than half were suicides and the others resulted from drowning.
With the exception of a beach monitor on busy weekends, no lifeguards patrol the beaches at Cowan Lake or Caesar Creek. “That makes it easy for someone who is acting crazy to slip through the cracks and hurt themselves,” said Mark Smith at the park office that covers those two lakes plus Little Miami State Park.
Smith said the parks could use more safety resources, but understands that, “If you want to live a little, you have to take some risks.”
Cowan Lake’s 10 mph speed limit helps minimize boating accidents, but Smith said on Caesar Creek, where speed boats are “flying by,” it’s easier for a small boat or kayak to get flipped and lead to a potential drowning.
HIKING ON TRAILS
Park officials said they are encouraging visitors to never go in the “back country” with less than three people. “In the event one person is unable to continue, the second person can stay with the affected person while the third goes for help,” Bruce said.
Baker estimates between 1 and 2 million people annually hike on trails at Hocking Hills. Although signs don’t warn people of a penalty if they go off trails, rangers can fine off-trail hikers with a $135 citation.
Upper and Cedar Falls at Hocking Hills are hot spots for injuries, with people jumping into shallow pools where swimming is prohibited. Baker said he sees people who jump from the falls return even after breaking their legs.
If accidents do happen, rangers respond with first aid, oxygen, CPR, and a trained rope rescue team if the area can’t be reached by foot. At Old Man’s Cave, where three of the fatalities in the last five years occurred, a clearing provides a landing area for air rescue.
Injuries range from twisted ankles and shortness of breath to those requiring EMT response. Cell phone coverage is limited in the parks, so Bruce advises people to not rely solely on one form of communication.
The Hocking Hills Forest, which is managed by the Division of Forestry but patrolled by state park rangers, offers designated cliffs for rappelling and rock climbing, like the one where Peter Livingston of Centerville, 52, fell to his death this May. Guests need only register at a bulletin board in the parking lot, and the rangers check the area at night to make sure no one is left behind or stuck on the cliffs.
The simple things often make a difference in staying safe in parks, like wearing appropriate footwear, sticking to trails, and using situational awareness, Baker said.
By the numbers
Causes of death in Ohio state parks
39 Drowning (lakes, beaches and rivers)
35 Other (including 2 murders and 16 by heart attack or natural causes)
The Dayton Daily News examined five years worth of data that showed the leading casue of death at state parks is drownings.