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Update, 9/1/2021: As of August 29th, the Forest Service has closed roads and trails in the South Fork Merced area of Sierra National Forest to “provide for public safety due to unknown hazards in and near the Savage Lundy Trail.” In mid August, a family of three and their dog were found dead with no clear cause of death after a dayhike along the river.
The order shuts nine trails and several picnic areas and campgrounds, including the Hite Cove Trailhead, Savage Lundy Trailhead, and South Fork Merced Trailhead as well as the Dirt Flat Campground and Dry Gulch Campground. Visitors with plans to camp have had their reservations canceld. The closure will extend until at least September 26. California has closed all National Forest access until September 17 due to wildfire risk.
Original Post: Authorities are investigating after rescuers discovered a family of backpackers dead on Tuesday near the Hites Cove Trail in Northern California. This 3.2-mile trail near El Portal, CA follows a moderate grade along the South Fork Merced in Sierra National Forest. Friends and relatives knew the family as avid hikers, and they appeared to be well-prepared for their hike.
Search and rescue workers found the bodies of John Gerrish, Ellen Chung, their one-year-old daughter, Miju, and their family dog near the Devil’s Gulch area, Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office said in a news release.
“Sheriff personnel with the assistance of the California Department of Justice are conducting the investigation and processing the area,” the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office said in their release. “Current scene information does not indicate a clear picture of what occurred or a clear cause of death, the scene is currently being handled as a hazmat and coroner investigation.”
One initial suspicion is that the family may have suffered carbon monoxide poisoning. The Center for Disease Control has reported an annual average of 30 deaths due to carbon monoxide poisoning while camping, usually due to using a stove inside an enclosed tent. But this family was on a day hike, not camping. Investigators had questioned whether gasses escaping from old mines in the area could have been a cause, but no mines were located nearby.
A new theory from authorities emerged that involves toxic algae blooms in the Merced River. Last month, the U.S. Forest Service warned that toxic algae was discovered in the Merced and urged people not to swim, wade, or allow their pets to drink the water. Warning signs were posted along the trail.
A sheriff’s office spokesperson said an autopsy of the bodies ruled out trauma, but hadn’t indicated a cause of death beyond that. Toxicology results should help determine what happened but could take weeks.
“This is never the outcome we want or the news we want to deliver; my heart breaks for their family. Our Sheriff’s Chaplains and staff are working with their family and will continue to support them during this heartbreaking time,” the Sheriff’s office said.