July 19, 2009

Ithaca is Gorges

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In Ithaca, gorges are more than just a defining part of the landscape. They have become a source of fame for Ithaca, inspiring the well-known “Ithaca is Gorges” t-shirt. For Cornell, the gorges, particularly the two that run through campus (Fall Creek and Cascadilla gorges), have become parts of University lore. Jumping from great heights into the gorges and swimming in them has become something of a right of passage for Cornell students. Ask many on campus and they will recall well-preserved memories, including the vivid, coherent thoughts that raced through their minds right before splashing into the water.
However, despite the fond experiences, both jumping and swimming in the gorges are quite dangerous and have often lead to tragic results. In June of 2008, Douglas Lowe ’11, who had been swimming with a group of friends in Fall Creek gorge, was pulled underwater by a current and drowned. This past May, Leslie Reed ’09 suffered severe injuries when she slipped and fell into the gorge while attempting a dive. She struck her head and back on the rocks, was knocked unconscious, and was hospitalized for several days.
An alternative to swimming in Ithaca’s gorges is Buttermilk Falls State Park, where there is a greatly reduced risk of harm. If, however, one insists upon enjoying the gorges at Cornell, then the University suggests alternative ways to appreciate them, such as walking and hiking on the many trails that surround the gorges.
Injuries and deaths suffered in the gorges have instigated the long-debated issue about how to ensure the safety of gorge visitors. Warnings of danger and plaques commemorating those who lost their lives in the gorge line the pathways around Fall Creek.
For the past three years, Cornell has published a pamphlet about gorge safety: “The Gorges of Cornell — Path and Safety Information.” In it, a warning states, “The gorges are not amusement parks. People have been injured and killed through the misuse of these natural wonders, but all of these incidents could have been avoided.”
Following Lowe’s death, the Cornell University Police Department built several fences to temporarily block access to the more dangerous parts of Fall Creek. In an e-mail to The Sun written at the time the fences were erected, Kathy Zoner, chief of CUPD, stated that the intention of the fences was “to warn of dangers below and decommission the trail, as the trail served no purpose except to allow access to a dangerous natural area where we responded to multiple deaths in the past few years.”
While it is in fact illegal to swim in the gorges that belong to Ithaca, parts that run through Cornell’s campus remain open. In February, the Codes and Judicial Committee attempted to amend Cornell’s Code of Judicial Conduct to ban swimming in the gorges. While there was some support for such an amendment, student reaction was, by and large, opposed to the idea, and no action has yet been taken. As it stands, the gorges remain an enticing and very dangerous attraction for students and other residents in Ithaca.