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Safety First

From scary signs to city fines, the University aims to prevent gorge accidents


The sign in Fall Creek Gorge is neither small nor subtle. “Four people have died by swimming here,” it says. “Swimming is prohibited. No access beyond this point. VIOLATORS ARE SUBJECT TO ARREST.” And if words fail to sway hearts and minds, the placard bears a convincing visual: an artist’s rendering of the deadly conditions beneath the Suspension Bridge, complete with swirling currents, downed trees, a submerged shopping cart—and two trapped, drowning victims. Only one of the figures is wearing bathing trunks; the other is clad in a T-shirt, shorts, and sneakers, as though a hike has gone terribly awry.

The warning was installed at the entrance to a popular Cornell swimming hole following a series of student deaths in the gorge in summer 2011; one young man fell during an off-trail hike, another drowned while swimming illegally near Ithaca Falls, and a third slipped while wading and was swept away. None of these were the deaths cited on the sign; those four—stretching from 1986 to 2008—came in addition to the most recent tragedies. “We’re trying to make it clear to folks why this is so dangerous,” says Todd Bittner, director of natural areas for Cornell Plantations and chair of Cornell’s Gorge Safety Committee. “And the reason is that there’s a thirty- or forty-foot hole underneath that waterfall; there are strong currents that change minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day; and hidden rock ledges that trap you underneath the water. Basically you get an undertow, just like in the ocean, that sucks you under.”

Cascadilla gorge in the summer

University Photo

While the signage was being designed, the University installed a test version and hired the Cornell-based Survey Research Institute to canvass visitors about its potential efficacy. “Sixty percent said that reading the sign didn’t make them any less likely to swim there,” marvels Bittner, standing next to the rushing waters of Fall Creek on a frigid January day. “And when we asked them, ‘What would make you more likely not to swim here?’ more than half said, ‘Nothing.’ The most likely thing was, ‘If I’d get arrested.’ They were more worried about something that’s more probable to them—to get arrested—than dying.” Mike Roberts ’10 got similar feedback in summer 2012, when he was one of the inaugural crop of gorge stewards—employees charged with educating visitors about the dangers of illegal swimming and off-trail hiking. “I can’t tell you how many people told me they never saw the sign,” he says, “which is amazing, because it’s big—like two feet by three feet.”

Gorge safety has been a perennial concern at Cornell—ever since its founding brought thousands of young people to East Hill, a dramatic landscape cut through by steep cliffs and rushing waters. But in recent years, a series of deaths—both accidents and suicides—has spurred the University to aggressive action. After a trio of suicides in spring 2010 (and a total of six that academic year), Cornell erected fences on gorge bridges and convened a task force to study ways of preventing further deaths; the panel’s recommendations—the installation of nets and security cameras—are currently being implemented. And another, parallel safety effort—intended to prevent people from losing their lives in the gorges by accident, not intention—has been under way since the deaths in summer 2011, including two on Fourth of July weekend alone. “Sadly, the tragedies focused the mind,” says vice president for student and academic services Susan Murphy ’73, PhD ’94. “It heightened the level of attention. Just speaking for myself: doing the same-old, same-old wasn’t going to work.”

Todd Bittner installs a warning sign

Todd Bittner of Cornell Plantations installs a warning sign in Fall Creek Gorge.Lisa Banlaki Frank

As with the suicide threat, the University created a steering committee to study ways to protect people from harm. Its recommendations, which President David Skorton accepted in late 2011, were four-fold: improving infrastructure to prevent accidents and curb access to potentially dangerous areas; educating the public about the hazards of illegal swimming and off-trail hiking, through such means as improved signage and the implementation of the gorge steward program; increased enforcement, including a stepped-up Cornell Police presence during the summer; and offering alternative recreational activities, like organized hikes and busing to legal swimming spots. “In some ways it’s a little like the way we approach alcohol—it’s harm reduction,” Murphy says. “How do we minimize the harm that comes to our students when they do something that is illegal? It’s illegal to swim in the gorge, but just telling students it’s illegal doesn’t get you anywhere.”

Swimming in the gorges is both a violation of the Campus Code of Conduct and a fineable offense under Ithaca city law; it’s also an activity that has been enjoyed by generations of Cornellians and locals alike. “Despite the warnings, despite the memorials, people would be really irate that we were telling them it’s not a safe place to swim,” Roberts, the gorge steward, says of the spot where the dramatic danger sign sits adjacent to stones marking previous drownings. “The stereotypical reaction is that they’d roll their eyes; ‘Here’s another person harping about safety.’ There was more than one comparison to the ‘fun police,’ and I think someone even called me a Nazi once. To them, the short-term gain of being able to cool off in the gorges outweighed what they perceived as a slim chance of something terrible. It’s always going to come down to that moment when people are staring at a tempting pool of water and wondering whether it’s worth it.” The gorge stewards’ role is to educate, not enforce; if swimmers refused to comply, Roberts says, “we’d step away and quietly call the police and let them deal with it.”

According to Bittner, most people—Cornell students, local highschoolers, Ithaca residents—eventually accepted the message without overt hostility. One constituency, though, proved surprisingly resistant. “The user group that was somewhat antagonistic to the gorge stewards was the alumni,” he says. “Most alums have phenomenally great memories of Cornell, and when they visit campus they want to revisit those experiences—and swimming in the gorges is one of them. They feel like they’re right and the gorge stewards are wrong. ‘I’ve been swimming here for however long, and I’m going to swim here again.’ The stewards got more attitude from the alumni than from any other user groups, and generally the least compliance.” During the planning weekend for Reunion 2013, Murphy appealed to class event organizers in no uncertain terms. “I said, ‘You have a responsibility to inform your classes it’s dangerous to be in the gorge,'” she told them. “‘Times have changed—and to see that, all you have to do is to live through the year we did, with three deaths within the space of a month.'”

Dying flowers are woven through a chain-link fence as a memorial

The spot on the Cascadilla trail where a PhD alumnus fell to hi death in December has become an impromptu memorial.Lisa Banlaki Frank

Alumni resistance aside, the University considers last summer’s enforcement and education efforts to be a marked success. The gorge steward program was launched in early July—and by the start of classes, Bittner says, it had already borne fruit. “In prior years on opening week, Friends of the Gorge and Cornell Plantations would hold hikes in Fall Creek for freshmen and their families, and we’d come down here and talk about gorge safety and the dangers of swimming, and there would be fifty kids out there—buff guys, girls in bikinis—and the kids couldn’t run to their dorms fast enough to change and come back here and go swimming,” he says. “This year, after two months of the gorge stewards, every hike we took down here, there were zero people swimming, even though it was sunny and eighty-five degrees. That was a real validation of the whole program.”

Curbing swimming is just half of the gorge safety equation. The other is promoting safe trail use—an effort that took on new poignancy in early December with the death of a recent graduate alumnus. Alan Young-Bryant, PhD ’11, was visiting Ithaca to celebrate his girlfriend’s doctoral defense; after leaving the Chapter House, he died in an accidental fall from the Cascadilla gorge trail just below the Stewart Avenue Bridge. The spot where he fell has cracked, uneven pavement and a bent railing; the latter has since been patched with chain-link fencing, which became the site of an impromptu floral memorial. And while there may be contributing factors in Young-Bryant’s death—according to City of Ithaca documents, his autopsy detected amphetamines and barbiturates in his system, as well as a blood alcohol level of 0.22 percent—the accident emphasizes one of the challenges in keeping the trails safe: some of them are on city property, and Ithaca’s budget woes stymie maintenance and repair efforts. “It joins a long list, and we’re going to have to take a hard look at our budget both this year and next and see if we can afford to completely replace the railing,” says Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick ’09. “We’re talking about hundreds of miles of roads, trails, railings, and parking garages in our city infrastructure, and every year we can only afford to make an extremely limited investment—and it’s hard to know where that investment will best be put to use.”

The City of Ithaca has representation on Cornell’s Gorge Safety Committee—whose creation was one of the steering committee’s recommendations to Skorton—and the possibility of the University helping to fund trail repairs on city land near campus is on the table. “The city is responsible for its own property,” notes vice president for human resources and safety services Mary Opperman, who co-chaired the steering committee with Murphy, “but we are in conversations with them about how we can be supportive in our collaborative efforts.” The University has already earmarked significant money for gorge safety improvements, including $1.7 million for work on the Cascadilla trail, which has been partially reopened after years of closure; on top of that, Cornell recently received an $800,000 FEMA grant to repair flood damage to the upper portion suffered during Tropical Storm Lee in September 2011. In Fall Creek, the University has allocated $360,000 for trail repairs, fencing, and signage, as well as $300,000 for the development of “destinations,” several spots to be outfitted with seating and other amenities. Additionally, starting in fiscal 2013, Cornell will spend $150,000 on yearly trail maintenance in the two gorges—an annual budget item many see as long overdue. “These trails are going to be maintained now, and that makes them a lot more accessible for recreation, compared to when they were muddy and nails were sticking out of the fences,” says natural resources professor Marianne Krasny ’74, who spearheaded creation of Friends of the Gorges, a student-run group that promotes safe recreation. “It was as if Cornell didn’t care, and the fraternities used them as dumping grounds.”

In general, Bittner points out, Fall Creek and Cascadilla gorges have different constituencies and challenges. The former is known more for recreation such as hiking and swimming, while the latter has shallower waters and a trail that many use to walk between campus and downtown—even when it’s closed due to storm damage or winter ice hazards. “People use it as a commuter line,” Roberts says. “There are a lot of people who walk it every day—grad students, professors, staff. I would catch them on a fairly regular basis hopping over a railing that’s clearly marked and going on their daily commute.” With the approval of the FEMA grant, the upper portion of the Cascadilla trail is aimed to be reopened by this fall, Bittner says. Over in Fall Creek, the University has installed new fencing, added lighting, repaired stairways, marked blazes, and rehabilitated trail beds. “They’re beautiful now,” Opperman says of the trails. “They really are the ‘Ithaca is Gorges’ bumper sticker.”

With those and other amenities, University officials aim to balance safety and access—providing legal ways to enjoy the gorges that, they hope, will supplant the riskier ones. The dramatic natural landscape, after all, is one of the factors that sets the University apart from many of its peers. “I came to Cornell, basically, because it was a large university in a beautiful place,” Krasny says. “And we hear that a lot; the unique natural features of the campus are what attracts people.” She notes that there are demonstrable benefits to using the gorges—not just physical exercise but improved mental health and well-being—and cites a classic study showing that hospital patients recovered faster if their rooms looked out on trees and grass. Says Krasny: “There’s a huge body of research on the cognitive, social, and psychological benefits of access to nature.” And then there’s the fact that the University’s topography is an essential part of its character, as evinced by the first four words of the Alma Mater. “We’re trying to celebrate our positives while mitigating our risks,” Opperman says. “Being in this beautiful environment is one of the things that makes Cornell Cornell.”