20,000 members of counterculture group expected in Utah, officials remain alert
Heber City is bracing for a flood of up to 20,000 peace-minded campers who are expected to stream into the national forest some 15 miles east of the town for the 43rd annual Rainbow Gathering.
The campers, according to a letter distributed by Wasatch County, began to arrive over the weekend and are expected to linger until August in the area of the west fork of the Duchesne River in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest.
Home to just over 12,000 souls, Heber City could see its population double or even triple due to the Rainbow Gathering. Local officials are preparing to welcome and accommodate the new arrivals, all the while staying alert for vandals, vagrants and criminals that could cause trouble to locals.
Utah Rep. Kraig Powell, who represents Wasatch County, said law enforcement would be a top priority during the gathering.
"That's going to be the first line of defense here," said Powell. "There's a potential for disruption of normal ways that we live in a society. So it's important that law enforcement be able to handle that in a safe, efficient and fair manner."
Most of the attendees should remain peaceful, said Wasatch County manager Mike Davis, though he noted that at previous Rainbow Gatherings there have been cases of loitering, aggressive panhandling and shoplifting.
"In the past there have been individuals who are not very law abiding who have created some issues in the nearby towns," said Davis.
Attendees have been trickling into Heber City and hiking east up Center Street and along Lake Creek Road to reach the gathering area.
"You can't miss the group up in there," said U. S. Forest Service spokeswoman Kathy Jo Pollock, who was at the camp site on Monday. She counted just two dozen people, but said she expected the numbers at the camp site to swell considerably in the coming weeks. Most attendees should come between July 1st and 4th, added Pollock.
A wedding party was reportedly disturbed by a group of would-be wedding crashers in search of food on their way to the campsite.
"They just went into the reception and started taking the food," said Davis. "They weren't trying to blend in." Wedding guests ran off the intruders before calling police.
Meanwhile, two Mormon girls' camps, both situated along the same road where the wedding was taking place and which campers have been using to get to the gathering, were relocated "as a precautionary measure," LDS Church spokesperson Cody Craynor said in a statement.
In addition to law enforcement, federal, state and local agencies have sent sanitation, transportation and health care workers to the area.
A 39-year-old woman, Susan Wilkinson of Keene, N.H., was found dead in her sleep on Sunday at the gathering site, said Lt. Brian Gardner of the Wasatch County Sheriff's Office. Wilkinson was found lying outdoors at the campsite. Gardner said the woman's family has been contacted; the cause of her death remains unknown.
The Rainbow Family of Living Light, according to an unofficial website, is "into intentional community building, non-violence, and alternative lifestyles. We also believe that Peace and Love are a great thing, and there isn't enough of that in this world. Many of our traditions are based on Native American traditions, and we have a strong orientation to take care of the Earth. We gather in the National Forests yearly to pray for peace on this planet."
The Rainbow Gathering has been held every year since 1972.
The gathering last came to Utah in 2003, drawing attendees from all walks of life to the north slope of the Uinta Mountains in Summit County. Police made 18 arrests, but the attendees left the local community largely undisturbed.
If everything remains peaceful this year, the Rainbow Gathering should ultimately prove an economic boon to local businesses.
"If attendees are buying services and goods, that is certainly a benefit to Heber City and Wasatch County," said Davis. "We hope that that is the case."
How to get to the Rainbow Gathering
Go to Heber City and head east on Center Street, which turns into Lake Creek Road and dips slightly to the south. Soon after the road turns to dirt there will be a sign for Uinta National Forest. At this point, the road changes names, first to Forest Road 083 and then to Forest Road 054, which leads to the campsite at the west fork of the Duchesne River. The site is about 15 miles east of Heber.