Childhood friends Brandon Pendleton and Mozus Ikuenobe ducked under a guardrail, descended 108 steps and slipped past a metal gate to conduct a photo shoot below a partly frozen Minnehaha Falls.
The stunning backdrop was perfect for Pendleton, a 19-year-old amateur photographer, to practice portraits. For nearly a half-hour, Ikuenobe posed along the snowy banks of the falls and its adjacent ice caves — sometimes without a jacket. They attempted to enter the caves, but turned back after deeming the area too icy.
“It makes amazing photos,” said Ikuenobe, 22, a local model and recent University St. Thomas grad. “I’ve been seeing [similar images] all over my newsfeed.”
Minnehaha Falls is one of the most popular winter Instagram destinations, but it also is a dangerous one. Each year, hundreds of thrill seekers brazenly ignore the “no trespassing” signs and scale barricades to snap selfies behind the wall of ice, which slowly suspends the 53-foot waterfall in motion.
Explorers, undeterred by multiple warnings, risk earning a citation from Minneapolis Park Police — or a nasty fall. City officials stress that venturing into the area is illegal and risky due to moving water, slippery slopes and “generally unsafe conditions.”
When the brave — or foolhardy — are injured, emergency workers tasked with rescuing them also are endangered, officials said.
Park police are called to the scene only when someone needs medical attention, said Park Board spokeswoman Robin Smothers. In 2016, there were two recorded incidents: the first in March, when a 24-year-old woman suffered a possible broken ankle after slipping on a rock behind the falls; in December, a 35-year-old man sliced open his leg while trying to scale a fence.
Both were transported to the hospital via ambulance, Smothers said, and both had blatantly brushed off warning signs.
In years past, someone has affixed a rappelling rope to the falls for easier access, which maintenance workers dutifully cut down. The rope reappeared at least three times before its owner eventually took the hint.
Each year, the Park Board is tasked with posting reminders on social media to prevent the wanderers from getting injured — a message they know will be overlooked.
“It’s an ongoing frustration to let people know that they can’t go down there,” Smothers said. “We do everything we can to discourage them.”
Yet the natural wonder remains a draw, especially for young adults seeking the perfect seasonal profile pic. During Thursday’s lunch hour, as subzero temperatures blasted the city, at least 14 people were visible from the platform, frolicking in the restricted area below with cameras.
Sunny Kothari, of Plymouth, put the winter haven at the top of his list to show Kim Jacobs, a college friend visiting for the first time from Houston.
“When you think about the most iconic Minnesota features, the frozen waterfall is a timeless classic,” said Kothari, who purposely chose to come on a weekday so the park was less crowded.
Bundled in heavy coats, Kothari and Jacobs slowly made their way down the stone steps and trekked into the ice caves, where they licked some icicles. The pair said they slipped a few times, just when they got too confident, but returned from the blue cavern unscathed.
Several other visitors returned to the park with friends who had never ventured past the barricades. As she scrambled up the embankment toward the forbidden ice caves, Jasmine Berman encouraged Monica Bondeson to “go slow and be careful.”
A giant icicle wall was the reward for reaching the entrance, where the 19-year-olds took turns standing for glamour shots.
The college students said they had little fear of getting caught because the park didn’t appear to be patrolling the grounds and, well, everyone else was doing it.
“They can’t arrest everyone,” Berman said.
She’s right. Park police do not have the resources to patrol full time and there are no plans to place further restrictions on the basin, said Smothers, who called the frozen area an “attractive nuisance.”
The Park Board must rely on visitors to heed their warnings. “I just wish they would stay where it’s safe,” she said.
On Thursday, dozens of onlookers remained on the footbridge, watching others prance in and out of the icy cave.
“It’s not worth breaking my leg for,” an elderly passerby nodded at some teens fooling around.