Ithaca, as we know, is gorges. A visit to one of these natural wonders is almost essential for every student and visitor to Cornell. But just like crossing the street, there are safe and unsafe ways to go about it. To help visitors enjoy the gorges safely, the university will deploy a team of gorge stewards, starting July 2.
Mike Roberts '10, Jim Bunce '06 and Emily Stephan '12, working under the direction of Cornell Outdoor Education, will walk the trails during warm weather and advise visitors about trails, natural history, safety rules and, perhaps most important, swimming alternatives. The stewards are the newest addition to the university's gorge safety program. The Gorge Safety Committee -- initiated by President David Skorton in August 2011 -- is implementing plans in four areas: infrastructure, education, alternatives and enforcement. The university has committed $2.7 million for trail repairs, railings, gates, warning signs and educational outreach.
"Gorge stewards will be like gorge rangers," said Todd Miner, the Lindseth Executive Director of Cornell Outdoor Education, "but with no badge, no uniform and no enforcement authority." (They will, however, have identifying T-shirts.)
Miner said the university wants people to visit the gorges. "If we don't expose students to the gorges, we aren't doing our job," he said at a briefing session with resident advisers who will work in residence halls this summer. He noted that down in the gorges it is about 10 degrees cooler than on campus, so it's a great place to go to cool off, but, he emphasized, "It's a dangerous place, with cliffs, loose rocks and cold water." Five students recently died in the gorges , he reminded them, three from drowning and two from falls.
Gorge stewards will stress two basic rules: Stay on the designated trails, and don't go swimming.
Swimming in these waters is against the law in Ithaca. Closed trails and dangerous areas are marked with signs and are blocked by gates, fences and railings, and entering those areas can also lead to arrest.
Miner noted that young people may think they're invulnerable, but they will be afraid of getting a ticket. "Because of the recent deaths, Cornell Police are not going to play nice," Miner said.
The hazard in gorge pools lies in their deceptive peacefulness. A pond that appears shallow and smooth may hide deep holes, and current flowing over these holes generates eddies that can pull a swimmer down, sometimes into entangling debris.
Gorge stewards will be prepared to direct visitors to safe -- and legal -- swimming areas, including municipal pools, state parks and the Flat Rock area, upstream from Beebe Lake.