Forming a spectacular backdrop to campus, Cornell’s two gorges regularly draw thousands of students and visitors, attracted by their stunning vistas and dramatic scenery. But the dangers they can pose are all too well known.
A small army of students hired by Cornell, known as “Gorge Stewards,” patrol campus’ two gorges from May through September, providing guided tours and natural history lessons — while making sure visitors enjoy the scenery safely.
The program represents an “important component” of Cornell’s gorge safety efforts, providing both safe recreation as well as “enforcement” of rules, according to Todd Bittner, director of natural areas for Cornell Botanic Gardens, the division responsible for the gorges’ management and upkeep.
Covering the University-owned portions of Cascadilla and Fall Creek Gorge, the student stewards observe at least 300 visitors a day in the gorges, offering vital opportunities to educate visitors on safe use, rules and alternatives to illegal behavior, like swimming or leaving marked trails.
Those interventions have proved remarkably effective in increasing the safety of the gorges: Since the program’s founding seven years ago, the number of violations observed by stewards has fallen by nearly 97% — with fewer than half a percent of visitors committing a violation in 2019, compared to more than 8% in 2013.
Founded in 2012, the program was launched as a part of the Nathaniel Rand ’12 Memorial Gorge Safety Education Program, an initiative named for a student who drowned in a gorge just a year prior. That mission — ensuring that gorge accidents and fatalities are no more — is one that Cornellians who become stewards take seriously.
For instance, Elle Miller ’21, who grew up in the Ithaca area, chose to join the program as, from a young age, she knew that gorges “need to be cared for and protected.”
“Working as a guide, protector, set of eyes and steward of the gorges in the summer … [it] fit me perfectly,” Miller said.
At the start of each summer day, she would “arrive with [her] first aid kit, a water bottle and start hiking,” Miller said. Her daily tasks include keeping an hourly count of people encountered on the trails, spotting violations, answering questions about natural history, and “generally keeping my eyes open.”
Beyond ensuring visitors’ safety, student stewards’ work can also include teaching visitors about the gorge’s geology, whose towering heights are reflective of a rich natural heritage, while pointing out various landmarks and hazards.
But, most importantly, Miller said, is sticking to the rules. Swimming in Cornell’s gorges is never allowed, with their dangerously unpredictable water currents. At the same time, drinking near them, especially at night, is “about the most dangerous situation anyone could find themselves in,” she said.
Picture-taking also requires caution, as when we have “eyes on the device … we tend to lose awareness of all other things and our surroundings,” Miller said. Instead, visitors must know where they are on the trail, looking to see what’s in front and behind them, to make sure they aren’t in danger of falling.
“The rules are for your safety,” Miller continued. “The gorges are unique to Cornell and they’re for everyone … Treat the trails with care and enjoy being out there.”