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Byllesby cliff jumping incidents spike

For many local young people, hiking to the top of a 50-foot cliff and jumping off into Lake Byllesby below is a thrill.

The problem, Goodhue County Sheriff's Office Patrol Commander

Kris Johnson said, is that the cliff is on private land and it's considered trespassing to be there.

"You can't be someplace where you're not welcome to be," he said. "It's pretty clearly marked that it's private."

The number of people cliff jumping at Lake Byllesby, near Cannon Falls, has grown significantly in the last couple years, Johnson said. Last year, the sheriff's department issued 68 civil trespass citations to people found jumping. So far this year, there have been 113 citations, and the season is only about halfway through.

"It doesn't get busy until late June, early July when the weather warms up the lake," Johnson said, adding that people continue to jump into early September.

About five years ago, large aluminum signs were posted that clearly marked the cliff as private property. Johnson said that helped keep people from trespassing until just recently.

"It's been really bad the last couple of years," he said.

Johnson attributes the recent spike to social media and the Internet. He said there are plenty of homemade videos and photos showing people jumping into Lake Byllesby. A quick Google search brings up dozens of videos.

"It's a much more well-advertised attraction for folks," Johnson said.

The first time people are caught on the cliff, which is actually owned by a Boy Scouts camp, they can be given a civil trespass citation for $50. A second violation brings a fine of $100, with subsequent violations going up after that.

But according to Janet Chestnut, an emergency medicine doctor at Mayo Clinic Health System in Cannon Falls, a $50 fine could be the least of a cliff jumper's problems.

"It's one of the most dangerous extreme sports," she said.

Depending on how the jumper hits the water, Chestnut said injuries can range from broken limbs to a broken neck, severe head injuries and internal bleeding from punctured lungs, liver or spleen.

"You could die when you do it," she said.

Chestnut said that after jumping from just 25 feet, a person is actually traveling 20 to 25 miles per hour when they hit the water.

"From 20 feet, it's like hitting concrete," she said.

From the 50-foot cliff over Lake Byllesby, jumpers can be traveling even faster.

"The long and the short of this is that the higher you go, the harder you fall and the more likely you are to be injured," she said.

Making the situation even more risky, Chestnut said, can be hidden dangers in the water.

"There can be logs, there can be rocks. There can be some kind of obstruction under water when you take the leap," she said.

Johnson added that at the very base of the cliff, there is a sandy platform where the water is only about two- to three-feet deep. Murkiness in the lake can make the shallow water almost impossible to detect from the cliff. If a jumper doesn't jump far enough out, they can be at risk of hitting that platform.

Neither Johnson nor Chestnut said that there have been a high number of serious injuries in the last couple of years for Byllesby jumpers. But that doesn't mean the danger isn't there.

"It's an extreme sport; it's not for amateurs," Chestnut said. "To do it recreationally, it's very risky."

To help stop cliff jumpers, the sheriff's office has had more people out patrolling the site. That's not always easy, Johnson said, considering that only one car routinely patrols the western side of the county. There is also the sheriff's water patrol, but with 38 miles of river and the entire lake, they can't always be watching for cliff jumpers either.

"We're doing the best we can with what we have," Johnson said.

A few years ago, the sheriff's office worked with the Goodhue County Attorney to allow deputies to give cliff jumpers civil trespass citations, rather than criminal citations, which are more expensive and require a court date. But if people continue to jump, that might not always be the case, Johnson said.

"If people are just willing to pay the fifty bucks and we're still saddled with the problem, that might change down the road," he said.

Sarah Gorvin
Sarah Gorvin has been with the Republican Eagle for two years and covers education, business and crime and courts. She graduated from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in 2010 with a  journalism degree.