With the budget cuts that have so negatively impacted the Forest Service, I understand that a ranger station may not know the answer to a question. We all are dealing with those impacts and a simple “I don’t know” is understandable (though unfortunate and disappointing). However, I don’t understand giving out false information—especially in regards to something like the presence of water at an essential water source. Some minimum standard of assessing the truth value of information should be in place prior to a ranger station passing that information along to the public.
False Information Given
Since I was backpacking with three others on Saturday, I called the Mill Creek Ranger Station Friday afternoon and asked how much water was available at Limber Pine Springs. I was told that water is present but that I needed to bring all the water I required. I went round and round with the person on the phone trying to ascertain what he meant. He just kept repeating the same thing which I found nonsensical. If there is water, why would I want to carry at least 6 extra liters? I let everyone know that we might have a water issue and to bring enough water for the whole trip but that we would also stop by the Mill Creek Ranger Station to get better information in person. The information over the phone didn’t make sense as I’d hiked up the Vivian Creek Trail a few weeks earlier (when I also picked up the permit for this trip) and there was plenty of water then.
On Saturday we stopped by the Mill Creek Ranger Station and got more definitive answers (which turned out to be categorically false). Initially we got a similar response indicating some water existed but that we needed to carry up all the water we would require. None of us wanted to carry up all that extra water, so we talked about how we were backpacking and how much extra water that would be. I told them I’d hiked there before and knew where the spring was and mentioned that even if it wasn’t visible from the trail I’d know where to find its source etc. The more we asked the more definitive they became (including body language like shaking their heads no) telling us it was dry at Limber Pine Springs. They were adamant that we bring up all the water we would need for a two day backpacking trip.
It was over 90 degrees at the trailhead and loading up our packs with close to 14 pounds of extra water each was brutal. About a quarter mile up the trail I was already concerned that I was drinking too much water due to the strain of carrying so much extra weight. By the time we reached the Wilderness Boundary sign I was thinking about what part of the trail would be our latest turn back point if we needed to abandon our trip. About a quarter mile later we met a hiker who was coming down from Limber Pine Bench. Although he didn’t make it up to the springs he mentioned that he has hiked this trail for fifteen years and has never seen Limber Pine Springs dry. Sure, we might need to hike up above the trail to reach the springs but he was certain enough water would be flowing to filter. He suggested we pour out our excess water. However, given the certainty presented at the ranger station, we weren’t confident enough to trust the word of one person who didn’t actually see water. Fortunately, within another quarter mile a group of hikers passed us who were coming down from the peak and confirmed that there was plenty of water, that it crossed the trail, and that there was still snow on the trail by the spring. We decided to pour out some water as soon as we got a couple hundred yards up the trail to a flatter area where we could also stop and eat lunch. Along the way we met another group of hikers coming down from the peak that confirmed that there was water and snow at the spring. This further confirmation gave us the confidence to pour out about 6 liters of water each. Even after pouring out our water we asked the same question to each group of hikers passing us on their way down from San Bernardino Peak and got the same response.
Perhaps most surprising was that there was so much water at Limber Pine Springs that we could hear it flowing down the mountain over the sound of our trekking poles at least a couple hundred feet before seeing it cross the corner of trail.
Following Up And A Suggestion
This morning (Monday) I called the Mill Creek Ranger Station to let them know what the actual conditions were. Before I could explain why I was calling I was given a more accurate report (though still over cautious enough for me to want to explain exactly what I saw). While explaining what happened to us I learned that someone they knew stopped into the ranger station late Saturday and gave them better information. I was told that prior to that they were just “sharing what they were told.” I find the idea that someone could see the conditions I saw and report back that water was so low that water couldn’t be guaranteed to be there impossible to believe. Further, given the reaction of the hiker who has hiked in the area for the last fifteen years, I find it apathetic (at best) that the ranger station would simply accept such a ridiculous report and share it with the public without confirming its truth value. In our back and forth I learned that there currently aren’t enough rangers to give timely updates on water conditions and that they rely on reports from hikers.
As I was giving the woman on the phone my blog address so she could see the photos and internalize how much water is still flowing at Limber Pine Springs, it occurred to me that a system of asking for photos of water sources from hikers could go a long way in providing accurate information to the public. Everyone is required to get a wilderness permit to hike in the San Gorgonio Wilderness (not doing so could land you a “fine of not more than $5,000 or imprisonment for not more than 6 (six) months, or both”). A large number of people pick up their permits at the Mill Creek Ranger Station. It wouldn’t be that difficult to ask for people to volunteer to take photos and share them so that their reports are verifiable. I’m sure enough people would understand the importance of such a system and happily take the photos that a reliable weekly report would be the result. I suggested this idea to the woman on the phone and also suggested that the ranger station just post a sign at the counter to facilitate getting volunteers.
Granted that idea is “off the cuff,” but something needs to change. If I learn about any change in policy from the Mill Creek Ranger Station, I’ll write a follow up story. I realize one alternative is to not trust any information coming from them but that would make the ranger station a joke. Hopefully they will decide they need to do better than that!