As Cornell stewards patrolled two local gorges in July, they found more than 200 people engaging in behavior that violated rules about using the gorges.
The volunteers’ findings came to light in the course of their work in the University’s gorge steward program, which was created in response to three accidental deaths in Ithaca’s gorges last summer.
Beginning this July, three stewards patrolled Fall Creek Gorge and Cascadilla Gorge, speaking to swimmers and hikers about gorge safety. Mike Roberts ’10, one of the three gorge stewards, described the stewards’ role as being educational –– letting those who frequent the area know what rules they have to abide by while exploring the gorges.
“I think of the gorge stewards as the University’s eyes and ears on the ground, eyes, ears and mouth really,” said Todd Miner, director of Cornell Outdoor Education and member of the University’s gorge safety committee.
In July, the stewards observed 3,801 people in the gorges and talked with 725 of them, according to Rob Cook, gorge steward program coordinator. Of the hundreds of people the stewards talked to, 227 were “doing what they shouldn’t be,” Cook said. Data from August has not yet been made available.
Miner said the University was impressed by the stewards’ ability to gather data on the gorges because, prior to this summer, “we had no idea really how many people use the gorges.”
“[This] is going to be really helpful to the University’s planning and response,” Miner said, adding that the numbers indicated that more people used the gorges than he would have expected.
Cook said he believes the gorge steward program successfully raised awareness about the dangers of misusing the gorges.
“We were in a meeting with the police last week. They said that they usually have … someone getting themselves into trouble in the gorges — and they haven’t had to [respond to those incidents] this summer,” Cook said, adding that the stewards hope to continue patrolling the gorges until Fall Break.
Roberts said that, as the summer went on, he saw fewer people in the unsafe areas of the gorges.
“It more than likely means they’ve found alternatives” to swimming in the campus gorges, Roberts said.
The gorge steward program is just one part of the University’s new emphasis on gorge safety. In March, the University allocated $1.56 million toward gorge safety efforts, building new warning signs and fences. The steward program represents only $15,000 of that money, according to Miner.
Additionally, this weekend, the University provided students free buses to and from Treman State Park, where people can swim and hike safely and legally in the presence of lifeguards. The buses will run again from Aug. 31 through Sept. 3.
Students who took advantage of the bus service said they thought the program provided a good alternative to swimming in the campus gorges, which are less safe than those at the park.
“It shows [that] the school really cares about the students,” said Autumn Gray ’15.
However, Gray said that not enough students knew about the free buses, which mitigated their effectiveness in providing an alternative to swimming in the campus gorges.
“I don’t know if this was advertised very well,” Gray said.
Ashley Cross ’14 said that “if more people knew about trips like this, they’d be less likely to swim in dangerous gorges.”
The push for safety comes in the wake of criticism from parents of students who died in the gorges for what they identify as the University’s lack of action.
“To the administration of Cornell, I encourage you to stop saying, ‘We know that we need to do better’ and just do it,” Jacob Rand –– the father of Nathaniel Rand ’12, who drowned in the Fall Creek Gorge in July 2011 –– said in September 2011. “For the life of us, we cannot fathom how you have been able to accept drowning after drowning and not have taken substantive action to put an end to these tragedies.”
Additionally, the parents of Khalil King ’13 recently filed a lawsuit against Cornell claiming that King’s fatal fall into Fall Creek Gorge in 2010 was the “direct and proximate” result of Cornell’s negligence and carelessness. Steven King and Alexis Mercedes Godfrey, King’s parents, contend in their lawsuit that the University should have erected barriers and placed lighting in the area surrounding the gorge.
Despite Cornell’s knowledge “of the specific and extreme risk to residents and visitors of the nearly 200-foot drop from their property to the gorge below, [Cornell] failed to take any steps to prevent or correct the defective condition, unusual hazard and peculiar danger,” the lawsuit states.
But the new programs and increased emphasis on gorge safety represent a significant change, according to Miner.