Ruth's Waterfalls
of the Finger Lakes, Rochester, and Ithaca, NY.

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Danger! - Don't find your 15 minutes of fame this way!

Note: The Ithaca Journal has informed us that the following articles were inadvertantly placed in a subscription-only archive but will soon be restored to the public website.


August 17, 2006
Section: Local
Page: 5A

August 17, 2006—Gorge deaths:

Time for everyone to help each other

The signs are up. The fences are in place. Volunteers and professionals are on patrol. Public pleas and warnings have been issued. Five million years of human evolution screams for extreme caution.

Still, the deaths continue to add up.

As of early this week, a tour of Journal headlines shows three people dead in area gorges in three separate incidents - over a span of just 11 days in August. The latest came Monday afternoon, when sightseers at the end of North Willard Way discovered a body in Fall Creek Gorge. This grisly scene played itself out just six days after hikers walking along Enfield Creek Gorge in Robert H. Treman Park found a body in the water at the base of 115-foot Lucifer Falls. Two days earlier, emergency rescue crews fighting string currents at the bottom of that same Fall Creek Gorge recovered the body of a man who drowned days before while swimming in the swollen creek.

A look back into July shows more headlines, although mercifully limited to near-tragic events. On July 29 two young boys trapped on a ledge in the Fall Creek Gorge below Ithaca Falls had to be rescued after entering the creek and nearly being swept away in the current. About two weeks before that on July 13—the day before our last gorge safety plea ran in this space—three young adults had to be rescued in the Taughannock Gorge after the current there swept them to the far side of the creek.

Not including the rescue workers who put themselves at substantial risk every time they're called, that makes three deaths and five near deaths in a span of one month and one day. If a new drug or some wandering cult leader blew into town and wreaked that level of destruction in 32 days, the governor would come to Ithaca to hold a press conference, and the multi-agency crackdown would be under way.

The lasting danger is, of course, not very far from that very thing. If death and near death continues at this pace, and concerned citizens and liability attorneys raise the volume, police and government officials will have no choice but to step in where personal responsibility has so often failed. For a community that prides itself on its natural beauty and love of personal freedom - not to mention enjoys a hefty dose of tourist dollars courtesy of these gorges - restrictions on access and use that could follow will come as a bitter pill.

Before we go down that trail, we have the opportunity to alter course.

Yes, as we've said in this space now three times in the past 12 months, we all must assume responsibility for our own conduct in and around area creeks and gorges. Know the rules. Stay on trails. Swim only in designated areas. Respect the power of what you've come to admire.

But we must do more. We all must accept that, as a community, we have a responsibility to be on guard for the safety of each other as well. As you hike, keep an eye out for anyone whose behavior may be putting anyone at risk. If a reminder will do, offer it. If that friendly gesture will not suffice, contact the responsible policing agency and let them know someone needs a firmer hand.

It is human nature to live and let live. The people of Ithaca and Tompkins County can be proud of their reputation for doing that in myriad ways.

When it comes to the area's gorges, however, live and let die simply has to stop.

It's up to you.

Who to call

         In any emergency situation, call 911.

         For assistance at any area gorge inside a state park, contact the New York State Park Police at 387-7041.

         For assistance inside the City of Ithaca, call the Ithaca Police Department at 272-3245.

         For assistance inside the Cornell University campus, call the Cornell Police at 255-1111.

         For assistance anywhere else in Tompkins County, call the County Sheriff's Office at 272-2444.

Copyright (c) The Ithaca Journal. All rights reserved.

July 10, 2006
Section: Local
Page: 1A

July 10, 2006—Explore gorges at your own risk
Elizabeth Lawyer

Rangers urge you to stay on beaten paths

Special to The Journal

The season for exploring has begun, and locals and visitors alike are heading for the Finger Lakes area's famous gorges.

Summer is in full swing. Parks that have been closed all winter have reopened to the public and packed snowfall has melted away. These things bode well for those with wanderlust, but those who wander, be warned.

Already this season there has been an accident. Two swimmers drowned in Glen Brook in Steuben County June 1 when the gorge quickly filled with water after a short downpour. The swimmers were in an area where many visitors take their chances in the water, said Steuben County Sheriff Richard Twidell.

In the past, several people have been killed or needed rescuing when they fell off drop-offs or slipped on a ledge. A search of The Ithaca Journal's archives turns up more than a dozen stories of deaths, accidents and rescues in the past six years alone.

Accidents are very often the result of straying from marked trails, ignoring barriers or boundaries, or hiking on trails that have been closed for the season. Last year, a woman was killed when she and her family of four was caught in the path of a rock slide in Taughannock Falls State Park in an area off the marked trail.

Twidell said the two swimmers who drowned in June were in an area where swimming was prohibited. However, it isn't the only dangerous spot in the gorge, and it isn't the only dangerous gorge in the area.

"There are places like this in all gorges around the area," Twidell said. "Basically that could happen in any of the gorges if it filled with water quickly. Visitors should stay on the marked trail."

Darlene Bentley, one of the two rangers who patrol Six-Mile Creek in Ithaca, said the major problem with the creek is it's lined with high cliffs. She said sometimes she and her fellow-ranger Ilana Trombly will come upon dozens of people "lining up as though they were at an amusement park" for a turn to plunge into the water.

"We're trying to send the message that people have to avoid dangerous activities," Bentley said.

One favorite activity along Six-Mile Creek is jumping off an abandoned building below Van Natta's Dam into a deep pool, said Ithaca City Forester Andy Hillman. This is also one of the most dangerous things to do along the creek, he said. Swimming in the creek is prohibited, and rangers will not be hesitant to arrest people who don't get out when asked, Hillman said.

"It's a lot of fun and that's why people do it," he said. "The rule is nobody in the water. If we see people doing this and they don't stop doing it, they're going to be arrested," he said.

"There are lots of places that are conditional. Some are safe in dry conditions, but not in wet or winter conditions. Our soils tend to be slick," said Todd Miner, executive director of Cornell Outdoor Education. "All the gorges have areas that are dangerous. I'm sure all the gorges have had some fatalities."

Many times when an accident happens in the gorges, alcohol is involved.

"The sense of caution is dampened by alcohol and bad results happen," Miner said. "Occasionally Mother Nature is cruel and that's bad luck, but there's also human error in terms of bad judgment."

Six-Mile Creek has been patrolled by rangers ever since a high school student was killed swinging off the cliffs on a rope swing about ten years ago. Bentley said some dangers of the creek are often not thought of by visitors, such as low visibility in the muddy water, and even high concentrations of E. coli from sewage and dead animals in the woods.

"And we always joke about big, black water snakes," she said.

Copyright (c) The Ithaca Journal. All rights reserved.



August 23, 2005
Section: Local
Page: 1A

August 23, 2005—Woman killed, 3 hurt in gorge rock slide

ULYSSES - What began as a leisurely hike down the Taughannock Falls trail Monday afternoon turned into a tragedy for a family of four, as a New Jersey woman died following a rock slide on the northwest side of the falls.

Deborah A. Rowen, 51, of Westmont, N.J., was flown by StatMedEvac helicopter to Arnot Ogden Medical Center in Elmira where she was pronounced dead at about 6:38 p.m. after rescue workers removed her from the gorge floor. New York State Park Police say Rowen had been on the gorge floor, off the trail, with her husband Paul M. Arsenault, 52, their 14-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son.

Emergency workers were dispatched to the gorge at 12:48 p.m. About 20 Trumansburg firefighters arrived first at 12:57 p.m.

"As far as we know there was some kind of rock slide at the falls," said Trumansburg Fire Chief Jason Fulton. Fulton reported no injuries to emergency workers, but some loose rock fell during the rescue operation.

Park Police, New York State Police, Tompkins County Sheriff's deputies and Bangs Ambulance arrived a short time later at the park near the trail's entrance. Rowen was taken from the gorge, put into a pick-up truck with emergency workers and taken to a waiting Bangs Ambulance which brought her to the east side of Route 89 to the helicopter landing zone. Ithaca Fire Department's rope rescue team had been asked to remain on standby but firefighters later canceled the request.

Arsenault and his son were taken to Cayuga Medical Center for treatment. Their conditions were not available Monday.

Witnesses told The Journal that falling rock struck at least one person and that there was "dust everywhere."

Taughannock Falls is approximately 215 feet high and surrounding gorge walls are at least 25 feet higher. The gorge trail extends from the parking area on the west side of Route 89, along the stream and across a bridge to an observation area downstream from the falls.

"Every year we send out scalers and we send them to all the gorge parks," said Major Richard Waffle, commanding officer of the park police for the Finger Lakes Region. Waffle was referring to New York State Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation workers who scale down gorge walls to knock down loose rock along the trails before the season begins.

"That area where they were was not scaled because they were where they weren't supposed to be," Waffle said.

The summer weather has left Taughannock Falls largely dry this season. Large expanses of dry, white rock can be seen along the stream from the trails leading to the falls.

"They were in an area that would've been, under normal conditions, very close to where the falls would've been," Waffle said.

Park police say charges are pending in the incident. According to Title IX of the New York State Code of Rules, going off public trails, overlooks, roads and "other ways" provided by the parks office is a violation.

Arthur Bloom, a retired Cornell University geology professor, said the area has a "nasty history of rock falls."

"The dry weather probably caused the rocks to crack and shrink," Bloom said. "More likely it happens during rain or especially in the winter when ice builds up in the cracks and that can push out the rocks."

Bloom, who said he has lived in the area since 1960, said the local shale rock appears susceptible to shrinking then sliding or falling.

"Almost any (rock) will, but our local shales there have a lot more openings and they tend to shrink and break up," he said. "It can be more or less rapid—extremes are very dangerous to people. It's very dangerous rock to be climbing around on."


Copyright (c) The Ithaca Journal. All rights reserved.




August 23, 2005
Section: Opinion
Page: 9A

August 23, 2005—Gorge tragedy: Please help us never write this headline again
John Carberry

Reading the headlines—"Woman killed, 3 hurt in gorge rock slide"— triggers instant bolts of horror and sympathy in the minds every reader. A family of four, parents and children, trapped beneath tons of falling rock. A mother killed. All thoughts fix on the injuries to these people, the fear and grief felt by everyone close to them, and the danger for the rescuers who answered the call.

No human worth that designation can help but pause.

But beyond the instant injury, there is an enduring insult we pay all victims of accidents in the gorges that surround this area—we keep needlessly adding to their ranks.

Monday's tragedy in the gorge, just a few feet from the base of the drought-silenced Taughannock Falls, marks the fifth time this year that emergency responders were called out for a major rescue in an area gorge. In July, two teens had to be rescued from Ithaca Falls. In June, a man trying to climb the same famous falls had to be retrieved. In late April, a woman fell 70 feet into Taughannock gorge, only four days after emergency rescue crews battled mud and darkness to save a man who tumbled 60 feet into the Six Mile Creek gorge outside Ithaca. In every one of those cases people who came to enjoy the beauty of these natural treasures took their power too lightly, going beyond designated trails and heading far from the safety those trails define.

A quick search of The Journal's recent archives turns up the same alarming pattern, with at least a dozen major incidents in the past six years involving people visiting or venturing near gorges at Taughannock, Six Mile Creek, Cascadilla Creek, Fall Creek and Buttermilk Falls. In all but two cases, the people injured were off trails, over fences or walking on trails closed for the season. In addition to Monday's death, two incidents in 2003 claimed people's lives.

Of course, as area residents well remember, it's not just errant hikers who are in danger. Almost 20 years ago, in March 1986, an effort to rescue two people who fell from a closed trial in the upper Buttermilk Falls gorge turned fatal for one of the victims and local firefighter, ambulance company employee and police officer Bill Chapin.

In an April interview with The Journal—reprinted on our Web site today along with coverage of Monday's accident and very much worth reading—Ithaca Fire Chief Brian Wilbur noted that his department alone responded to 10 gorge rescue calls in 2004, 12 in 2003 and 11 in 2002. Wilbur's prescription for gorge safety: Stay on marked trails and inside fences, watch your footing and use extreme caution near vertical faces.

The temptations are great; a special view, a quiet spot, a rare moment deep in an ancient gorge by the base of a near-silent waterfall. But the risks are greater, and no such moment is worth the injury and loss of life that too often results from such adventures. As much as every human wishes, no one can undo the injury. But, every human can and must work to cease the insult. Stay on the trails, be mindful of all safety restrictions, use a generous dose of respect, caution and common sense. And let's make it possible to never read such a headline again.

Copyright (c) The Ithaca Journal. All rights reserved.




April 23, 2005
Section: Local
Page: 4A

April 23, 2005—Gorge rescue highlights need for safety on area trails

The Ithaca Journal caught up with Ithaca Fire Chief Brian Wilbur for an interview on gorge hiking safety in the area.

Question: How many gorge emergencies did the Ithaca Fire Department respond to in 2004?

Answer: 10. There were 12 in 2003 and 11 in 2002.

Q: What periods during the year see the most gorge accidents?

A: During peak recreational periods, May through September. The time range may increase, depending on the weather. Some of the most difficult rescues are those that occur after dark. We do gorge operations in cold weather, but quite often these are recoveries, and not rescues.

Q: Are there particular types of weather that contribute to accidents?

A: Very hot weather drives people to the water and other recreational venues, including the gorges. This time of year, any nice weather brings people out as they enjoy the change from a long, hard winter.

Q: What are the most common causes of gorge accidents?

A: In general, lack of understanding or appreciation of the risk related to gorges is a key factor. More specifically, leaving marked trails, carelessness while adjacent to vertical drop-offs, and not paying attention to footing that often exists adjacent to gorge rims or in the gorges, are a few. All of these are greatly exacerbated when substance use/abuse is involved.

Q: This week's accident involved a rescue party of 30 people. What impact does that have on local public safety operations?

A: The risks to the rescuers involved in a gorge rescue operation are extraordinary. We have had some injuries and resultant lost- time sustained during various rescue operations over the years. Unfortunately, this is usually an expensive outcome. Operationally we are hard-pressed to support an operation of this scope and maintain coverage for the entire rest of the district. We call in off-duty personnel and often use mutual aid coverage from surrounding communities. Nonetheless, when we are engaged in such an operation, we struggle to provide seamless coverage without gaps in service. It is not at all unusual to have simultaneous incidents in progress that totally deplete our resources.

Q: How much does a rescue operation like the one on Monday cost the City of Ithaca?

A: Financially, the Six Mile Creek Gorge operation cost the Fire Department about $3,800; this is without taking into account actual operating costs for equipment, and clean up costs. As an example, all rope used is carefully washed, inspected, dried, and inspected again, before it is returned to service; in some cases rope cannot be used again and must be discarded. I don't know at this point what costs were incurred by Ithaca Police, Newfield Fire Company, the Tompkins County Sheriff's Department, or Bangs' Ambulance. We will tally those as soon as we can to get a more accurate picture.

Q: What can people do to avoid getting into an accident around the gorges?

A: To minimize risk, people must stay on marked trails and inside fences and other barriers erected to protect them. Swimming, and especially diving, is very risky, and should be limited to marked and guarded areas. Be aware that when surfaces are wet, as after a shower, or near water- sprayed areas, footing is extremely treacherous. Doing anything in or near a gorge while drinking should be avoided at all costs. Just as when driving, judgment and reaction times are impaired, and decisions or lapses that kill are a real possibility.

Q: If a person is in a gorge accident, what should they or their friends do?

A: Send someone for help. Look for landmarks and other indicators to help rescuers locate the victim and the best access to the victim to accomplish a rescue. Although the capability will soon exist, most current cell phones do not provide location information to the 911 Center, so being able to accurately describe where the victim is now is critical.

Q: Is there any type of special equipment a person should carry while hiking in the city?

A: Appropriate clothing is helpful, footwear especially. Flip-flops or sandals are not a good choice for hiking in a gorge. Hiking boots or shoes are best. A cell phone may not work deep in a gorge, but should be carried anyway. Sooner or later on the way out, it will catch a signal and a call can be made. If it is possible the hike will last past normal daylight, a flashlight is a good idea. Darkness can overtake hikers deep in a gorge fairly quickly.

Copyright (c) The Ithaca Journal. All rights reserved.




April 23, 2005
Section: Local
Page: 1A

April 23, 2005—70-foot fall into gorge
Anne Ju

TRUMANSBURG—A woman hiking by herself in Taughannock Falls State Park fell 70 feet into a gorge Friday afternoon, prompting a multi-agency team of rescuers to pull her up to safety.

Friday's gorge rescue was the second in the week in the Ithaca area.

Beneath overcast skies and cooler temperatures of about 50 degrees, Trumansburg Fire and Rescue led the two-hour rescue mission of the 48-year-old woman, whose name was not released.

It all took place in the upper portion of Taughannock Falls State Park, about 200 feet east of Jacksonville Road along the north rim trail.

The woman fell into the gorge at about 3:30 p.m. By 3:45 p.m. Trumansburg Fire and Rescue, Ithaca Rescue and other law enforcement agencies responded to the site of the accident, according to a Trumansburg fire department press release.

New York State Park Police officials were at the state park to help. About 30 rescuers contributed to getting the woman out of the gorge.

A four-person crew from Trumansburg Rescue walked into the gorge first to look after the woman while a crew from Ithaca Rescue set up a rope system to haul her and rescuers out of the shale-filled gorge, according to the release.

Trumansburg Fire Chief Jason Fulton, who coordinated the rescue, said the rescuers had considered rappelling over the side of the gorge directly above the woman, but opted for the longer, safer trail route instead.

"It was just too dangerous with the rock conditions and loose shale," Fulton said. "We decided to walk the patient instead of taking the chance of someone else getting hurt."

Kevin Romer was one of the Trumansburg firefighters who reached her first, about a half-mile walk into the gorge. The victim was found lying at the bottom of a cliff on a pile of stones. He said as they talked to her, she was conscious and answered their questions.

"Part of my job was to decide which way we were coming up," Romer said.

A second group of trained technicians followed the initial group, bringing items such as blankets and backboards, once Romer and his group had assessed the patient.

The woman was taken to Arnot Ogden Medical Center in Elmira with a broken pelvis and possible other injuries, according to Fulton.

A state MedEvac helicopter landed in the field across from Taughannock Falls Park Road and took the woman to the hospital at about 5:40 p.m.

A man fell 60 feet into Six Mile Creek gorge on Monday, requiring several agencies to perform more than a three-hour-long rescue operation to get him out.


Copyright (c) The Ithaca Journal. All rights reserved.



June 19, 2002
Section: Local
Page: 1A

June 19, 2002—Beating the heat alluring, even if illegal
Dan Higgins

ITHACA - The seven young men poised on the edge of the stone footbridge knew that, technically, they weren't supposed to be there.

But, c'mon. It was really hot outside.

The "cliff jumpers," as they called themselves, were more worried about the finer points of hitting the water from a distance of about 30 feet than being charged with trespassing.

Brandon Hugg, 17, and his friends from Horseheads, who are working this summer at Cornell University, spent the afternoon following their shift launching themselves off the Sackett Foot Bridge at the east end of Beebe Lake.

The group was engaging in a time-honored tradition: beating the heat at a swimming hole.

It sounds wholesome enough, but it's not without its risks.

People frequent such unsanctioned spots all summer, but the crowds are larger during heat waves like the one stalled over the Northeast this week.

Temperatures in Ithaca neared 100 degrees Thursday.

Local law enforcement officials wish that the wilted would swim where a lifeguard can keep an eye on them.

"We're not saying we don't want you to enjoy the lake, or to have fun or cool off," said Sgt. Walter Shedel of the New York State Park Police, Finger Lakes Division.

"We're just saying we don't want you to get killed while you're having fun."

The only places it is legal to swim are where a lifeguard is posted otherwise you're trespassing. Police and parks officials say you're risking your life, as well.

Shedel said some spots where people are often found swimming include Taughannock Creek near Rabbit Run Road in the Town of Ulysses, several spots along Buttermilk Creek, and even the top of Taughannock Falls, where it's 217 feet to the bottom.

"I've seen people sitting up there, dangling their feet over the edge," Shedel said.

Darrel Clark is one of two gorge rangers employed by the City of Ithaca. Clark and his ranger partner, Peter Rogers, patrol the trails running along Six Mile Creek from below Giles Street to Burdett Road.

On Thursday alone, he said he saw about 100 people in the water.

Clark asks swimmers to get out of the water, but he said his job is to inform, not to punish.

"I tell them that it's dangerous," he said. "At every swimming hole there are submerged rocks and trees, or seaweed that can tangle you."

Kathie DeSarno, supervisor for park operations at Finger Lakes State Parks, noted that drownings or serious injuries often happen when people are swimming where they're not supposed to be.

The last such fatal incident was Aug. 16, 2000, when an 18-year-old Elmira man drowned while swimming with friends at Buttermilk Falls State Park. He was swimming near Pinnacle Rock, when he jumped approximately 13 feet into a pool of water, and never surfaced.

"When people go where they're not supposed to, that's when we lose them," DeSarno said.

In Tompkins County's state parks, swimming is allowed at Robert H. Treman near the `lower' entrance in the plunge pool at Buttermilk Falls State Park, and in Cayuga Lake at Taughannock Falls, where lifeguards are on duty.

To encourage legal swimming Thursday, so far the most sweltering of a four-day heat wave, the state waived the usual $6 parking fee for cars at state parks that have swimming facilities.

Attendance figures for Thursday were not available at press time.

Swimming holes popular way to cool off, but can be dangerous

Copyright (c) The Ithaca Journal. All rights reserved.