By Kevon Storie
Doing what is right and safe is a core value that is as relevant at home and at play as it is on the job. The overlap has been particularly clear this summer to the Environmental Services staff at the Colorado River Storage Project Management Center.
CRSP MC Environmental Services works closely with the Glen Canyon Adaptive Management Program and its partners to balance the many uses of the Upper Colorado River, including recreation below Glen Canyon Dam. In the many hours the program’s field crews spend on the river, they see—and occasionally must respond to—situations that are anything but safe.
“Too many people come down to Glen Canyon without preparing for the conditions they might encounter,” said CRSP MC Fish Biologist Craig Ellsworth. “Lately, we are becoming involved in more and more rescues while working below Glen Canyon Dam.”
One spot in which visitor traffic has recently increased is the Horseshoe Bend overlook in Glen Canyon near Page, Arizona. Visitors to this site are approaching 2 million annually, an explosion the National Park Service anecdotally attributes to social media, explained Public Affairs Specialist Mary Plumb.
“It has happened over the past seven years, since people started posting their pictures of the rock formation on Instagram,” said Plumb. “It went viral and now the image is iconic. You see it all over the place. Horseshoe Bend is on people’s bucket lists.”
Preparation is key
The positive thing about the area’s popularity is that social media produces advocates, and every public land agency needs advocates, Plumb observed. On the downside, however, that popularity does not translate to greater awareness of safety hazards.
Ellsworth recalled a recent science trip on the river near Horseshoe Bend during which he and his boat operator helped two kayakers to safety after an afternoon thunderstorm whipped up a particularly choppy stretch of river.
“People aren’t giving enough attention to the heat, the wind or the cold water,” said Ellsworth. “They don’t seem to appreciate that there is very little access to help on the river if something goes wrong.”
Boaters in national parks are required to carry a personal flotation device of proper size for each passenger on the boat. Children 12 years of age and younger must wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved lifejacket when the boat is underway.
It is recommended that children always wear a lifejacket when they are around water, even if they are not on a boat. People on personal watercraft must wear a life jacket regardless of age, as must anybody being towed by a boat.
NPS advises visitors to stay aware of their surroundings when they are on or near the water and to check a weather forecast before embarking. Afternoon storms can rise out of calm mornings, and these storms can produce winds and waves that can pose a threat to even the best-equipped boats.
It is best to stay off the water when storms are possible and to always have a contingency plan in case the weather turns bad.
Plumb advised against exploring the many slot canyons in the area due to the possibility of flash floods that could be triggered from a storm many miles away. The unusually high runoff levels this summer make the risk of flash flood even greater. “The high water just flushes out the canyons,” she said, “so people need to avoid slot canyons when it rains and be aware of debris.”
Beat the heat
On the same trip as the thunderstorm incident, another member of the science team helped a kayaker who was experiencing heat exhaustion while touring the river below the dam. “He had a pre-existing illness and was not going to be able to make it out on his own in those conditions,” Ellsworth said.
Unfortunately, this is all too common, said Plumb. “People overestimate their abilities and underestimate the difficulty of the activity and the intensity of the heat,” she said. “Many outdoor enthusiasts recommend not exceeding 80 percent of your capability, so in case something unexpected happens you can self-rescue.”
Most of the emergency medical service calls Glen Canyon headquarters receives are for heat stress and heat stroke. Plumb keeps a “cheat sheet” on her desk that lists the symptoms of heat stroke and explains what to do if people observe them in themselves or their companions.
In addition to knowing how to identify and treat heat stroke, visitors should observe the rules that apply to outdoor activities everywhere: bring plenty of water and snacks, wear sturdy footwear and protective clothing, use sunscreen and be prepared for sudden changes in the weather.
Most importantly in the desert, Plumb added, “Do your activity in the morning and stay out of the midday sun, stick to the trails and use those handrails.”
Heat exhaustion or heat stroke symptoms
- Faint or dizzy
- Excessive sweating
- Cool, pale, clammy skin
- Nausea, vomiting
- Rapid, weak pulse
- Muscle cramps
How to treat
- Move to cooler location
- Drink water
- Take a cool shower or use cold compresses
- Throbbing headache
- No sweating
- Body temp above 103˚, red, hot, dry skin
- Nausea, vomiting
- Rapid, strong pulse
- May lose consciousness
How to treat
- Get emergency help
- Keep cool until treated
Stay safe out there
There are many beautiful national parks across WAPA’s different geographical regions, presenting different safety concerns. Some safety tips, however, apply in every park.
- Always let someone know where you are going and when you plan to be back.
- Check with local experts about current road and trail conditions before you go.
- Don’t count on cellphone coverage.
- Don’t rely on a GPS, as it does not include information about road conditions and may lead you down a bad country road.
Before visiting your favorite national park area, look it up at go.usa.gov/xymmt for general and region-specific safety tips.
For more information about safety at the Glen Canyon Recreation Area, visit go.usa.gov/xymmH
Note: Storie is a technical writer who works under the Wyandotte Services contract.
Social media has caused a spike in visitors to Glen Canyon, most
of them unprepared for the hazards they find. (Photo by
View from Glen Canyon Dam. (Photo by Craig Ellsworth)
Page Last Updated: 10/24/2019
Last modified on September 12th, 2023