May 22, 2024

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Their son drowned while jogging in a California park. Now they’re trying to build a bridge.

7 min read
Their son drowned while jogging in a California park. Now they're trying to build a bridge.

On the last day of his life, Max Lenail jogged towards the San Diego River in Mission Trails Regional Park. The Jan. 29 run was part of the 21-year-old’s training for an ultra-marathon with his brother, according to family members, and he had plans with friends to leave for a climbing trip in Joshua Tree National Park that evening. A serious athlete who once climbed with Alex Honnold, Lenail knew the outdoors well and was in excellent physical condition.

The night before Lenail’s run, an atmospheric river had dumped more than an inch of rain over the region, and a flash flood watch was in place on Friday for the San Diego County’s inland valleys, mountains and coastal areas. So when Lenail approached the San Diego River at around 2 p.m. that day, the water level was likely very high.

Plans for a bridge over the river had been in a holding pattern for over a decade, so Lenail had only two choices: cross the dangerous river and jog another 10 minutes to complete his planned loop — or — backtrack upwards of 5 miles to get back to his car. He’d avoid the river, but endure another 2,000 feet of elevation gain in a hailstorm.

Lenail chose the river crossing, but he never made it back to his car.

Max Lenail and his dog, Hazel.

Max Lenail and his dog, Hazel.

Courtesy of the Lenail family

Lenail had wanted to become a doctor, according to his parents, and to spend his life helping people. He had expected to graduate from Brown University this semester with a degree in neurobiology. He was into sustainable farming and plant-based cooking. He loved photography. He was an accomplished glass blower.

The weather had been clear and cooperative when Lenail parked at the Mission Trails Visitor Center and started his run that morning. But as he neared the last stretch of the 6-mile loop tracked by his cellphone, a hailstorm set in. “It’s a moody day,” Lenail narrated in a cellphone video he created as the storm approached.

Soon after, Lenail came to an area of the trail known as Jackson Crossing, a series of stones in the San Diego River. Park maps label it as “seasonal” and signage says hikers and bikers are permitted (but not horses). Local guidebook author Scott Turner says that this section of the trail has become an increasingly popular river crossing.

“Fortunately, the river is almost always flowing near the low end of the range, and you can cross by skipping across boulders or stepping across a concrete slab just downstream,” Turner wrote in “Afoot and Afield: San Diego County: A Comprehensive Hiking Guide.” “After substantial winter rains, though, forget it!”

Max Lenail's final jogging route, as recorded by his cellphone.

Max Lenail’s final jogging route, as recorded by his cellphone.

Courtesy of the Lenail family

When Max didn’t return home that evening, his three roommates sent him a flurry of worried text messages. As midnight approached, Max still hadn’t responded. His friends contacted his parents, Ben Lenail and Laurie Yoler. The couple lives in Palo Alto, where they raised their two boys to love the outdoors, taking them hiking and camping every summer and encouraging Lenail to build a climbing wall in the family backyard.

The morning after Yoler learned Lenail was missing, she made an early departure for San Diego. By the time she arrived, a search and rescue effort involving around 1,500 people was underway in the 8,000-acre park.

At about 2 p.m. that day, in what Yoler describes as “every parent’s worst nightmare,” Lenail’s body was discovered by hikers near a waterfall in the park. Family members and friends were devastated. “With unspeakable grief, I have to report that our beloved Max is dead,” Ben Lenail posted on Facebook. “As immensely cruel as his death is, we are grateful to God for loaning him to us for 21 years.”

On a Facebook page entitled “Remembering Max Lenail,” friends and family posted memories and tributes.

“He had so much to give this world and was bound to do it so beautifully,” one friend wrote. “I will miss his energy, his light, his giggle, his tough questions, his hiking suggestions, and his endless love for the rest of my life.”

“On the rock, your joy was infectious and your strength was impressive,” a climbing buddy wrote. “I had never seen someone climb so gleefully and calmly, while simultaneously with so much passion and skill. I hope to one day find an activity that gives me 1% as much stoke as climbing brings you.”

Max Lenail climbing in 2019.

Max Lenail climbing in 2019.

Courtesy of the Lenail family

Following the incident, some of Lenail’s closest friends and family gathered at the place where he died to conduct a memorial service, and Yoler was shocked by the number of people she observed making the perilous crossing.

“I watched dozens of near accidents,” she says. “I saw a family carrying a newborn baby in their arms and another with a baby in a backpack. And I wanted to scream.”

There was no signage offering warnings, Yoler says, and the rocks were covered in green algae and therefore very slippery. “For several months in the winter, the crossing is tricky,” she says. “And then a few days a year it becomes downright treacherous.”

In doing some research on the history and design of the park, Lenail’s parents learned that a bridge over this stretch of river is actually written into the Mission Trail Regional Park’s Master Plan. Reportedly, discussions about a bridge in city committee meetings and less formal settings date back to 2010.

A sign at the river crossing says hikers and bikers may use the trail. There's no warning about danger when the water level rises.

A sign at the river crossing says hikers and bikers may use the trail. There’s no warning about danger when the water level rises.

Courtesy of the Lenail family

Over the past decade, the project failed to move forward due to a lack of funding, disagreements over whether the bridge should be for pedestrians or vehicles (or both) and potential environmental impacts, according to a statement by the city of San Diego. There’s no set timeline for the construction of a bridge, according to city officials. Meanwhile, a new ranger station that cost more than $6 million opened in the park last February.

In a separate statement, the city offered condolences to Lenail’s family and urged hikers to avoid “unmarked, alternative paths to cross the river in the event that the trail is flooded and impassable.”

“While the City is still learning details about the circumstances surrounding Max Lenail’s tragic death, we continue to urge the public to hike only on City-marked trails when visiting the park,” reads the statement, which city spokesman Tim Graham emailed to SFGATE. “The area where the incident took place does not have a bridge or maintained trail to allow for safe access to cross the river.”

Lenail’s parents are determined to change the situation and spare other families the pain of losing a loved one at the crossing. To expedite the stalled project, they recently hired KPFF Consulting Engineers to prepare designs and cost estimates for three options.

The options were presented March 18 during a Mission Trails Task Force Meeting, and, according to Yoler, they received a mostly favorable response. Numerous friends of Lenail voiced support for a bridge, as did a Sierra Club representative, an executive director of a local mountain biking association and Turner, the guidebook author.

“As evidenced by Max LeNail’s passing, even experienced hikers are not immune to potential accidents at this location, and I am afraid that with the increasing popularity of hiking and influx of new, inexperienced hikers, it may only be a matter of time before the same tragedy repeats itself,” Turner wrote in a letter to the city. “Unless, of course we expedite construction of the pedestrian bridge at the location.”

Friends and family gather to remember Max Lenail.

Friends and family gather to remember Max Lenail.

Courtesy of the Lenail family

Three San Diego city councilmembers, including Raul Campillo, who chairs the Mission Trails Regional Park Task Force, also spoke in favor of the project.

“Today’s Mission Trails Regional Park Task Force meeting was an important step in the process of constructing a bridge over the San Diego River Crossing,” Campillo told ABC 10News. “My support for Max’s family remains the same as it has been from the beginning and will continue until we have constructed a bridge in his memory.”

Campillo is working with the Mission Trails Regional Park Citizens Advisory Committee to call a special meeting next month to take further action in support of the bridge construction, he said. The committee has been pushing back on the idea of a pedestrian bridge, according to Lenail’s parents, instead throwing its support behind a vehicular bridge for service trucks.

That would likely be a complex and controversial project, Lenail’s parents say, and it’s not what they have in mind. Instead, they’re leaning toward something less costly and time-consuming — a simple, natural-looking footbridge serving visitors by keeping them safe. They are partnering with the San Diego Foundation to raise money for the bridge’s construction. Fundraising efforts begin Friday, March 26, the day that would have marked their son’s 22nd birthday.

The Lenail family in Mammoth Lakes.

The Lenail family in Mammoth Lakes.

Courtesy of the Lenail family

“We’re trying to make something beautiful out of this tragedy and benefit others,” Yoler says.

“We want to make sure no one comes to harm here ever again,” Ben Lenail says. “This would be the best way to honor Max.” © All rights reserved. | Newsphere by AF themes.