The Forest Service re-opened the trail to the Big Four Ice Caves last weekend.
Last July, an ice collapse there killed 34-year-old Annalisa Santana. Her 25-year-old brother David Santana died from his injuries in the collapse a few months later. Between the two of them, they left behind seven children.
Darrington District Ranger Peter Forbes says the only thing that’s different this year is some new, more explicit, signage on the trail.
“It’s pretty blunt,” he said.
But last summer, after those deaths and with the backdrop of the loss of an 11-year-old girl who died when the caves collapsed five years ago, the Forest Service said it was weighing all options.
The public had the opportunity to comment online and make suggestions about what to do. Put a phone up? Build a fence? Staff a ranger there around the clock? Re-route the trail?
Forbes says that long term, re-routing the trail is still an option. But not this summer. And many of those other options just aren’t realistic for a variety of reasons. He says no one wants to see tragedies happen and the Forest Service tries to warn every visitor about the dangers, but they also have to consider visitors’ decision-making.
“At a certain point, personal responsibility takes over,” he said. “We’re trying to find that balance. We give people the information, they make choices. And that’s the conundrum, if you will, that we’re in.”
Most hikers who commented on the Forest Service website said the trail should be kept open for the greater enjoyment of all who want to visit. Some argued that the caves deserve special attention because of their ease of access. The trail is only 1.3 miles and is ADA accessible. That means tens of thousands of people visit there every year. And that may mean they’re more unlikely to heed warning signs.
Should that close the trail for everyone?
“It’s kind of a struggle to say, well, we’re going to deprive folks of the opportunity to see this natural feature just because other people are making bad choices,” Forbes said.
Ultimately, the Forest Service decided, they’re not willing to do that.
Another tragic accident occurred near the caves last weekend – unrelated to dangers of falling ice – when a 6-year-old boy was found dead after going missing.