Bankhead ranger offers safety tips for those planning forest excursions

BANKHEAD NATIONAL FOREST    -  The recent fall of a hiker down a rocky ledge at a waterfall has prompted state and local officials to issue some key safety tips when using the forest the midst of its peak season of usage.
On Tuesday, April 30, Matt Rush was injured when he was hiking across the top of a 40 foot waterfall just off the trailhead between Randolph Trailhead and the Sipsey Recreational Area, when he fell down 15 feet to a rocky ledge then about 20 more feet down to the creek, according to a fellow hiker, who witnessed the incident.
First responders stressed some safety tips in the aftermath of this injured hiker incident, stating it was good that Rush was with two other hikers when the accident occurred.
“Never hike alone,” pointed out Ashridge Firefighter Roger Moody, who was in the rescue team that located Rush and helped him out of the forest.
“Always make sure you have a partner,” Moody added. “Let someone know where you are going to be before you go. That way, if something happens, you and your partner, someone still knows the general area where you are going to be.”
The forest is a place where a hiker can easily become lost, according to Moody.
“It starts looking the same,” he said. “When you get down in the bottom of those hollows, they are all the same.”
“We could have been in here three days looking for this guy, if he had been by himself,” added Lt. James Garrison of the Ashridge Fire Department, incident commander at the scene.
Andy Scott, district ranger of the Bankhead National Forest, agreed that hiking alone does create a higher safety risk, but is allowed.
The peak hiking season is underway in April and May, but hiking in groups of 10 or more is discouraged, due to larger groups causing disruptions for others trying to enjoy the forest or recreational areas, Scott pointed out.
In fact, the Sipsey Wilderness has a 10 person limit, meaning there should never be a hiking group of more 10 people, according to Scott.
“One of the characters of a wilderness is to provide opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation,” Scott explained.  
The 10 person limit is actually a Closure Order that the Forest Service has imposed on the Sipsey Wilderness,  to help promote that wilderness characteristic of solitude, according to Scott.
“Also when you have large groups like that, they tend to have much more detrimental effect, if they are camping and doing campsites, it causes more damage to vegetation and soils when you are in large groups,” Scott noted.
Scott advised for hikers planning to use the forest to visit the website Leave No Trace, that gives tips of how to properly prepare as well as to respect the environment.
Scott also stressed it was important for those visiting the forest to first plan ahead, having maps of the official trails.
“Recognize that many of the waterfall features are not on the official trails, but there are social trails that get there,” Scott explained.  
“Those social trails are often more dangerous, more rocky, more slippery, especially after rain,” Scott pointed out. “We would advise hikers to be extremely careful, if they are walking on any rocky surfaces, as those tend to be very, very slippery.”
The fellow hiker who witnessed Rush’s fall at the waterfall, noted Rush was attempting to walk across the top of the falls through flowing water, when he slipped and fell down two rocky ledges of the falls.
The hiker who witnessed the incident, in trying to contact emergency services, had to end up driving three miles, in order to get enough cell phone service in the forest to make the call, the hiker stated.
Scott warned hikers that cell phone service in the forest is quite sporatic. “So always leave information  with a family member or friend, of where you are going to be and when you expect to get out,” Scott emphasized.
“And have them know to contact the county sheriff, where you are hiking,” Scott continued.
“It’s very sporadic,” he added about cell phone service, “but usually ridge tops are better.
“Some places that are near the Sipsey Wilderness that people can usually get access are at Randolph Trailhead and at the corner of Cranal Road and Highway 33,” Scott pointed out.
“Those two spots tend to have enough service to at least get a text message out,” he added.  
Creatures which pose more of a danger than snakes during a hike are ticks, due to the different diseases they carry, according to Scott.
“Many people are more worried about snakes,” he noted, “but snake bites from venomous snakes are very infrequent and are usually only when people try to harass the snake.
“We just ask people to leave snakes alone, and they will leave you alone,” Scott pointed out. “But definitely check yourself for ticks.”




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