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In wake of Mount Yonah tragedy, official explains why Forest Service land is ‘not Disney World’
Yonah Mountain 2
View from the top of Yonah Mountain. - photo by Bill Murphy

Safety is the main thing when trekking up Mount Yonah, a popular North Georgia attraction that made national news this week with a Cartersville woman’s fatal fall

“We’ve had a couple other fatalities across the forest this summer, and it breaks our heart,” said Steven Bekkerus, spokesman for Gainesville-based Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests, on Thursday, Oct. 15. 

“These are places where people … are putting themselves in harm’s way. This is not Disney World. There are real risks out there … between the natural hazards in mountain climbing or hiking along a mountain, or people climbing waterfalls when they shouldn’t be.” 

The White County Sheriff’s Office and Georgia Department of Natural Resources are trying to piece together what happened in the Oct. 13 Mount Yonah incident, said David Murphy, White County’s public safety director. 

“There is no foul play expected,” Murphy said. “It’s certainly an accident.” 

White County Coroner Rickey Barrett said that Jennifer Randel, 46, was hiking with her husband and son, when she got too close to the edge of a cliff face and slipped over the edge. 

Mount Yonah and other Forest Service recreation areas have been particularly busy this year, with people looking for outdoor options during the COVID-19 pandemic, Bekkerus said. 

“We’re seeing record numbers,” he said. “At Mount Yonah, (crowds are) overflowing. A lot of these folks ... haven’t been out in the forest before, and so there are hazards out there they aren’t aware of.” 

But trouble doesn’t just come to novices. 

“Even people who have been out there before are going out farther and farther and deeper into the forest, and taking risks out there,” Bekkerus said. “People need to take care when they’re out there. … People need to be aware of that and take responsibility for their safety.” 

The Forest Service has an online tips sheet for people considering a trip into the woods. 

“Preparedness is the key to having a good and safe time at any of our national forests or grasslands,” the site says. “Before you head out on your next forest adventure, be sure to prepare for any surprises or challenges -- wildlife, harsh weather, medical emergency -- you might encounter at the forest you are visiting.” 

Staying close to the beaten path can make outdoors fun safer, as well as “knowing your own level of skill and comfort,” Bekkerus said. “Not everybody is the same.” 

Also important is “knowing where you are at,” he said. “If you can’t tell somebody where you are located, it’s going to be hard to get you that help.” 

Hikers also should be wearing sturdy shoes and carrying needed supplies, such as food, water, pocketknife, flashlight and whistle.