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Cornelliana

Stepping It Up: ‘Stewards’ help make Ithaca’s gorges safer for all

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Gorge steward Corey Ng ’17 chats with visitors in 2017.Jason Koski/UREL

In good weather (and even bad), Cornellians and locals alike flock to Fall Creek and Cascadilla gorges to admire the waterfalls and hike the trails. But as beautiful as they are, these natural areas can be hazardous. So in summer, when the gorges are busiest, a half-dozen seasonal workers—known as “gorge stewards”—patrol the trails, educating the public about potential dangers. Overseen by Cornell Outdoor Education since the program’s founding in 2012, the stewards don’t scold or ticket rule-breakers; rather, they act as friendly ambassadors. “People follow the rules more where they know there’s someone walking around and checking in,” says Cecilia Martindale ’20, who served as a steward last summer. “We aren’t out here to fine anyone. We just want people to be safe.”

Clad in green shirts, the stewards—some of whom are Cornell students and others local residents, including teachers on summer break—loop through the two gorges and around Beebe Lake, for a total of as much as ten miles per shift. Martindale notes that she learned the hard way to plan her route so that her trip through Cascadilla was uphill. “You do not want to go down that gorge multiple times a day, because it’s too hard on your knees,” she says with a laugh. “I made that mistake once.” The stewards answer questions, hand out brochures, and—when necessary—warn swimmers and off-trail hikers that they’re putting themselves at risk. “Many of them don’t know it’s illegal,” says Sylvan Whitmore ’15, a steward for three summers. “They just think it looks like a nice place to swim. They don’t read the signs, and they head in there innocently.”

While gorge swimming was long viewed as a Cornellian rite of passage, it has been prohibited for decades; the water may appear calm, but conditions can be dangerous and even deadly. In addition to slippery surfaces, falling rocks, and an absence of lifeguards, the gorges have hidden pools that can be up to fifty feet deep with strong undercurrents. Following several drowningsin 2011, the University established a Gorge Safety Committee that has spearheaded such initiatives as the steward program, the installation of improved fencing and signage, and the creation of a safety video that’s required viewing for all new students. “We want people to come out and use these areas,” stresses Todd Bittner, director of natural areas at Cornell Botanic Gardens and the committee’s chair. “We’re trying to find that sweet spot, where we facilitate access but also make it as safe as possible.”

The stewards’ duties include counting pedestrian traffic—Whitmore says that on the busiest days, he’d tally more than 300 people—and noting activity. According to Bittner, that data shows that the safety initiatives have succeeded: in the steward program’s first year, 8 percent of visitors engaged in potentially risky behavior, but by 2018 that number had dropped below 1 percent. Whitmore, now an environmental educator in Washington State, also sees the stewards as a boon for local tourism. “There were a lot of people visiting from out of town, and a lot of times I got, ‘Where’s the Commons?’ or ‘Where’s Collegetown?,’ which is to be expected,” he recalls. “But it’s cool that the way you can get from one to the other is through the gorge.”

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