Minnehaha Falls has frozen into a dramatic ice sculpture almost every winter going back eons. Then came social media and selfies.
Awe-inspiring Instagram, Twitter and Facebook photos of people standing behind an ice curtain awash in blue light or under dagger-like icicles have lured hundreds to climb over no-trespassing signs and fences in hopes of getting their own perfect photos. But the slip-and-slide to the bottom of the falls has landed some trespassers in court and still others in the hospital.
Plenty of photo takers capture Minneapolis' iconic falls from legal and safe overlooks above the frozen gorge. But park police are locked in a never-ending battle to stop others who blatantly ignore warnings and obstacles to pose right next to a wall of water frozen in a 53-foot plunge.
One Minneapolis park police officer recently standing watch over the falls said it's like herding cats, only it's easier to herd cats.
Social media outlets are filled with photo posts of the trespassers — a couple capturing a marriage proposal, children climbing over mounds of ice, others peeking from behind the frozen veil.
"It's not safe whatsoever," said park police Lt. Calvin Noble, who grew up in south Minneapolis.
People slip on the ice and they tumble down slopes. They've been slammed by unstable ice falling from above and have gotten soaked when ice opens up below them, plunging them into moving water.
In the summer, visitors can legally walk down steps into part of the gorge. In the winter, those steps are too dangerous to navigate, and signs and fences go up warning people to stay out.
"The falls are a stunning natural resource we have in the city," said Jason Ohotto, park police chief. "People are drawn to it, and they want to get close to it. We have to balance access against public safety, and protecting people from themselves and also protecting the resource."
The area at the bottom of the falls is restricted year round, but officers have seen 50 people or more at the water's edge on a hot summer day. In winter, dozens of people sometimes can be seen strolling on the frozen stream and climbing a slippery ledge behind the falls.
"I've seen many people propel their children over barricades and pose them on icy ledges adjacent to the basin of the falls," Ohotto said. "It's a blatant disregard for all the safety measures we put in place — the fencing, signs and barricades — to protect people."
Winter magnifies the dangers, and people don't grasp that, he added. "They think they can take care of themselves."
But when things go wrong, they put themselves, bystanders who might try to come to their rescue and emergency responders at risk, Ohotto said. "Rescue operations are far more challenging in the winter," he added.
Injuries and fines
Last winter, at least three injured people were rescued, two of whom had been struck by falling ice. In one case, a 20-year-old woman exploring the base of the falls was knocked unconscious when a chunk of ice hit her head, Ohotto said. She also may have broken her arm, he said, reading from the January 2017 police report.
An injury can be expensive. The ambulance ride to Hennepin County Medical Center alone costs $1,500 or more, depending on the treatment needed en route. said Mike Trullinger, deputy chief for Hennepin EMS.
If barricades, warning signs and the threat of injuries aren't enough to deter people, park police who patrol the area hope verbal warnings and tickets will put a stop to the illegal treks to the bottom of the falls.
Dozens of people were cited for trespassing last winter, said Robin Smothers, spokeswoman for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. Violators must go to court to pay a fine, she said. If they don't show up, a warrant is issued, she added.
"Suddenly, this becomes more inconvenient," especially for those who live out of town, Smothers said.
That could be a major deterrence for Super Bowl visitors who might try to venture into forbidden falls territory. With more than a million Super Bowl visitors expected to descend on the Twin Cities, park police likely will bolster their patrols at the falls.
"We're not trying to be a buzz kill," Smothers said. "We just want people to be safe."
Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788