The Ghosts of Henry Hagg Lake

Ken Bilderback at Sain Creek inlet to Henry Hagg Lake, October 7, 2014.

Ken Bilderback at Sain Creek inlet to Henry Hagg Lake, October 7, 2014.

I don’t believe in ghosts, but I am haunted by the image of a 3-year-old child, lying on the banks of Henry Hagg Lake, receiving frantic CPR by volunteer firefighters.

The child’s image has kept me from Hagg Lake for more than a month, but yesterday I ventured out to Sain Creek to see the new warning signs the county posted after the little boy, his uncle, mother and grandmother drowned in the channel created by the creek.

I made the visit as a journalist, but also as catharsis, having just left the Courthouse where Michael Medill finally learned officially that he does not face current criminal charges after his arrest for posting eight cardboard signs at the park after the drownings. That’s not closure, however, because the county made clear that it might re-file the charges any time in the next year.

Sain Creek seemed alien when I arrived there yesterday, although I have been there hundreds of times, including the trips I made for four summers as a volunteer to stock the life-jacket kiosks at the picnic area. I made that hourlong roundtrip faithfully, because I believed that the life jackets had, or would, save at least one small, innocent life.

I had been to Sain Creek in the autumn as well, to document the steep, hidden underwater cliffs that have claimed many victims over the years and which nearly claimed eight more in 2012. In my role as volunteer Public Information Officer for the fire department, I was at the scene of the dramatic rescue that made national heroes of the family that saved all of us from what would have been a devastating disaster. I documented the cliffs in the autumn of 2012 to help a college student’s efforts to get warning signs to prevent what she, and I, saw as the inevitable drowning of a small child sometime in the future.

I viewed the tragedy as inevitable because there are few places more serene than the Sain Creek Picnic Area. Children splash happily in the shallow wading area, oblivious to the hidden danger lurking just beneath the surface. There were no signs warning their parents of that danger, making the park a little too serene, lulling visitors into complacency.

That serenity was gone yesterday when I arrived at the lake. Medill’s eight cardboard signs have been replaced by more than a dozen permanent and temporary signs. They were not the signs I had envisioned in 2012 when Jessica Maclean and I talked about her college project. We envisioned year-round signs with pictures of the late-summer drop-offs, explaining how they were formed by the hidden power of Sain Creek’s rain-fueled rapids in the winter as it fills the reservoir we know as Hagg Lake. We wanted harsh temporary warning signs and/or buoys in the late summer when the heavy demand for the lake’s water extends the gentle beach until it nearly reaches the hidden peril.

I fear that the new signs will create another form of complacency, because they greatly overstate the danger present for most of the summer, but after 40 years of refusing to post signs of any kind, the county finally has done something, so I’m not going to complain.

Possible damage at Henry Hagg Lake.Then I looked for the damage Michael Medill was arrested for when he posted his cardboard signs. I couldn’t find any evidence on the trees he screwed them to. I found several small holes on a sign post, some of which doubtlessly were Medill’s handiwork. I have posted a picture of the biggest hole I found.

Then I walked out to the drop-offs, fully exposed now after one of the area’s hottest, driest years ever. I was surprised at how much shallower the drop-offs are now compared with earlier years. For a moment I saw a ray of hope, thinking that if we have another mild winter, the sediment might continue to fill the channel. But then I realized that was wishful thinking. The channel still was much higher than my nearly six-foot, three-inch frame, much deeper than it needs to be to swallow a tiny child should another family ever fall victim to complacency.

My feeling of serenity and complacency at Hagg Lake, a place I once loved, is gone forever. As I walked back to the car, my knees began to shake and tears formed in my eyes. As Kris and I left the park, we talked about whether we’ll ever return.

I don’t think I will, at least as long as the image of that sweet 3-year-old child remains so vivid in my mind.

Maybe I believe in ghosts after all.