USFS to hold Blue Pool management meetings
September 16, 2016
MCKENZIE BRIDGE: The location of a bowl where spring-fed waters form a crystal clear pond is no longer privy to just locals. In recent years increasing numbers of hikers, bikers and cliff jumpers have all been going to the Blue Pool on the McKenzie River National Scenic Trail. Their numbers, and the impacts of their visits, have become issues for the McKenzie River Ranger District, which manages the site.
District Ranger Terry Baker said about five years ago those numbers ran a range of about 20 to 30 per day. In the last two to three years another zero could be added at times, like one recent weekend when a Forest Service video recording showed 200 cars crammed into the parking lot at the Trail Bridge Reservoir.
Baker credits a variety of online social media outlets, websites and news articles for contributing to Blue Pool’s popularity. “It just becomes more and more of an attraction,” Baker said, “so we have increased visitation.”
Paradoxically, a nearby fire this summer locked down the site during what would have been a peak use period - hot days when people like to cool off. At the same time, though, there was plenty more media coverage along with an electronic reader board on Hwy. 126 in Thurston that alerted as many as 20,000 motorists per day of the existence of the Blue Pool - by announcing its closure.
Keeping people out of the fire area was designed to keep both the public and the firefighters safe. But not everyone paid attention. “As folks broke the closure we cited them for it and got them out of the area as quickly as possible,” Baker said.
Checking on their residences also confirmed Blue Pool’s reputation has become widespread. Many were from areas scattered around the United Sates but others came from different countries, including Canada and Germany.
Because they had to avoid being seen, people sneaking into the site often would park in a turnout on the shoulder of the highway, then make a cross country beeline through the brush looking for access. There wasn’t one defined trail to travel, so a half dozen different ways to get in were tried.
“It’s really dangerous in that particular area because there are some really steep high cliffs,” Baker notes. “Folks wandering through the woods not knowing what they’re doing can hurt themselves pretty easily.”
People getting hurt have long been a concern for the people who end up rescuing them. Most are volunteers.
Vern Langan, the Upper McKenzie Fire District’s Assistant Fire Chief said this year he’d already seen a huge increase in the number of people visiting the site. Normally the department responds to three to five calls for help from that area. This year there were only two but he was expecting a lot more before the Blue Top Fire closed access to the public.
Even so, he suspects the number of calls could have been affected by the “massive number of people” the Blue Pool is attracting. “If someone sprains their ankle there’s such a big crowd in there they can help people out without ever calling us,” Langan said.
“I think if Blue Pool had been open this summer we would have had a lot more traumatic injuries - that happens if you don’t jump in straight.”
Langan said the last time he went there over 75 cars were parked in the area extending all the way down from the trailhead to the EWEB generators. “Normally we would be able to park at the trailhead and get our engine in with no problem,” he added.
Lieutenant Joe Larsen is the coordinator for the Linn County Search & Rescue team, where he’s been on call for over 20 years. “I always thought for the first ten to fifteen years that we hardly got any calls from that McKenzie area,” Larsen reports. “Over the last five years we’ve had two to five per year.”
The injuries, he said, range from simple sprains to deaths. One involved a victim killed by jumping from the cliff. Another was a photographer who had a fatal fall.
“The problem with Blue Pool is that it’s in such a treacherous and remote area,” Larsen said. “It’s a large response time to get out there.”
Todd Shechter with Corvallis Mountain Rescue, one of the highly trained groups that called in to get patients out of tight places. Another mountain rescue group is based in Eugene.
Shechter says it can sometimes take from two to two and a half hours to respond. “There’s the time to walk out to the trailhead and people don’t realize there’s a pay phone there so they drive 15 to 20 miles to get cell service,” he said. A response then might come from McKenzie area EMT’s as well as from Eugene, Bend, Corvallis, or Sisters.
“If it’s a technical evacuation, which most of them have been, the response will be from Eugene or Corvallis,” according to Shechter.
Location plays as large a role as the type of injury. “Pretty much anytime someone ends up at the bottom of that rock ledge it requires the appropriate training, equipment and experience,” he said.
Evacuations can involve using a helicopter. Sometimes rescuers can carry a patient out on a stretcher to link up with an ambulance or chopper at the Trail Bridge parking lot.
This Spring a person was quite lucky,” Shechter recalls. “We were able to get a helicopter right in over the pool in a night rescue and it all worked out safely. That’s not always the case.”
With the fire closure the Forest Service wasn’t able to carry out a plan to get an accurate reading on the numbers of people actually going in and out of the Blue Pool area. A new trail counter was installed about a month and a half prior to the blaze which Baker feels provides only a “brief snapshot” of visitor counts. In addition to recording the comings and goings of hikers, the counter can also distinguish between walkers and people with bicycles.
Capturing those numbers will be a part in the process of developing a management plan for the Blue Pool area. Whether or not it might resemble what’s already in place at Terwilliger Hot Springs remains to be seen.
“There’s a potential for that as we more forward,” Baker said, “There are a wide variety of management issues and techniques. Right now we really haven’t defined what that is. We will probably meet with our partners who have associated impacts with the management at Blue Pool.”
Development of a management plan will provide an opportunity for public input. Baker said he anticipates holding at least two initial meetings - one in the McKenzie River area and another in the Eugene/Springfield metro area.
“They would be not just for the local community but also for that broader community of folks that see it online and want to come see it for themselves,” the ranger said.
No dates have been firmed up yet but Baker said he’s eyeing, “This Fall, sooner than later - in October or November. We want to pull this plan together before we get into next year.”
Photos By Michael Sherman: Divers from the Lane County Sheriff’s Office Search & Rescue team spent last Friday night removing soda cans, plastic and other debris that had been thrown into the Blue Pool at Tamolitch Falls.
Second image: Some of the trash divers scooped up from the bottom of the Blue Pool.
McKenzie River Reflections