Stewards help visitors enjoy Ithaca's gorges – safely

Gorge Steward Ng chats with a family
Jason Koski/University Photography
Gorge Steward, Corey Ng, '17, chats with a family visiting from Rochester as he walks the Cascadilla Gorge trail.

Lucy Stockton ’17 loves the great outdoors and teaching others how to enjoy themselves in nature, so spending the summer roaming Ithaca’s gorges and greeting hikers is the perfect fit for her.

Stockton is one in a team of six gorge stewards who take to the trails through the summer and parts of the school year with the goal of keeping visitors informed about everything these public natural areas have to offer, and ensuring that they enjoy them safely.

“When the university reviewed gorge safety, we realized that one of the major contributing factors was that people were unaware of the dangers,” explained Mark Holton, associate director of Cornell Outdoor Education for outdoor programs and risk management. “Instead of prohibiting access we would make this an education issue.”

The stewards hand out brochures and offer information about the geology and natural history of the gorges, and eventually the conversation will turn to warnings about possible hazards and reminders that there are some rules.

Swimming in the gorges is prohibited by law, and for good reason: Inviting pools are deeper than they look and may conceal entangling debris. Water rushing over the top of a pool can create strong downward currents.

Cornell Police and Ithaca Police patrol the gorges and hand out tickets for swimming and for going off the marked trails in environmentally sensitive areas.

Although the stewards wear a sort of uniform – a shirt with an embroidered patch – their job is not law enforcement. “I see my job as informative, not surveillance,” says Stockton, a veteran steward who first took on the job in the summer of 2015. “I like to consider myself an outdoor educator.”

Stockton spends some of her time away from the gorges teaching canoeing, backpacking and rock climbing for Cornell Outdoor Education, which manages the stewards program as part of the Nathaniel Rand ’12 Memorial Gorge Safety Education Program, named for a student who died in a gorge drowning accident.

The Rand program also provides orientation hikes for new students, educational programming for orientation leaders and resident advisers, fencing and repair of trails, warning signs throughout the gorges, and the brochures handed out by the stewards. You can see everything that’s in the brochure on the Gorge Safety website, which includes updates on trail closures.

The brochures and the website list places where swimming is safe and legal, including nearby state parks and municipal pools.

In training, stewards bone up on the lore of the gorges and learn techniques to de-escalate conversations, if necessary. Stockton says that even if some people are unreceptive to the stewards’ message, that message will still be delivered. “It’s my job to keep people safe,” she says, “and if that means I have to say it’s dangerous I will.”

People are listening. According to Holton, the percentage of gorge users in violation of a policy dropped from 12 percent in July 2013 to 2 percent in July 2016.

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