10,000 free spirits, nudists to gather in Utah

Authorities in Utah are preparing for a counterculture gathering KUTV

SALT LAKE CITY - Authorities are bracing for nudity, drugs and general free-spiritedness during a counterculture gathering that began near Salt Lake City this week, compelling a pair of nearby Mormon church-owned girls' summer camps to move elsewhere.

The first attendees are setting up camp at the annual Rainbow Family gathering, where attendance is expected to total about 10,000. They have begun building kitchens and setting up tents in advance of their July 4 celebration.

Most visitors have come without incident through the closest town of Heber City, said Wasatch County Sheriff's Deputy Jared Rigby. But even just a few menaces have rankled locals in the town of 12,000 dotted with churches and bordered by vast fields and ranches.

Some revelers have already crashed a nearby wedding reception in search of food.

Police also expect to find marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine in coming weeks, but aren't saying whether the drugs have already turned up. They have doubled their force with help from the state.

"We don't deal with a lot of panhandling, people asking for handouts," Rigby said. "We don't have a lot of lewdness or public urination."

With only about 200 participants, the gathering Sunday logged one death when a 39-year-old New Hampshire woman was found on the site hunkered around a bend in the Duchesne River, Rigby said. She apparently died in her sleep, he added.

For the most part, participants have cooperated with officials, asking how they can limit their toll on the land at the spot about 40 miles east of Salt Lake City, said Dave Whittekiend of the Forest Service.

"People have approached and asked, 'How can we be lighter on the ground; how can we minimize those impacts?'" he said. They have "been very open" to requests of biologists, who barred the group from setting up camp within 200 feet of the river, Whittekiend said.

It's the first year the annual event has come to Utah since 2003, when it set up on the northern side of the same mountain range. It has convened every year since 1972.

Last year, the group chose Montana's Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, where law enforcement costs related to the gathering totaled $575,000, according to the Forest Service. Officers issued hundreds of citations but only arrested two people out of 10,000.

Officials there compiled a list of lessons learned, advising their counterparts in other states to make clear where participants may camp, set up fires and retrieve water.

The Rainbow Family has no official leaders and no one website or member list. Its creed revolves around nonviolence, inclusiveness and praying for peace, according to a number of websites asserting ties to the group.

The gatherings take the name "rainbow" because they aim to incorporate a spectrum of people and cultures, says one website.

Jan Olpin, co-owner of the Dairy Keen, spotted a group in recent days rummaging through the eatery's garbage, "so I said, 'Here's your cheeseburger with some soup, fries and a drink."

That's a one-off, she said: Police are urging against such donations.

At a community meeting, officials said the festival would boost local business, quelling anxiety, Olpin said. Some pledged to welcome the visitors but also vowed to lock their cars.

"The whole audience kind of agreed we need to do what's best for Heber and make these people feel welcome," Olpin said, "yet be vigilant."

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