There's a pool in Fall Creek that looks like many others in Ithaca's famed gorges. Sandstone and shale cliffs loom above it, the scent of moist soil and ferns drifts around it, and waterfalls feed it. But danger lies below the surface: unpredictable currents, running in all directions, can drag down a swimmer and trap him underwater.
Can Cornell tame its treacherous gorges?
By Susan Kelley
Photographs by Jason Koski
There's a pool in Fall Creek that looks like many others in Ithaca's famed gorges. Sandstone and shale cliffs loom above it, the scent of moist soil and ferns drifts around it, and waterfalls feed it. But danger lies below the surface: unpredictable currents, running in all directions, can drag down a swimmer and trap him underwater. The pool is twenty feet deep, lined underwater with sheer rock walls— except near the falls, where a scouring reverse current that swirls up underneath the cascade has carved out sharp ledges. A shopping cart lies jammed at the bottom.
In June, the pool was where New York State trooper Neil Case donned his scuba gear, hooked onto a safety line, and searched for Douglas Lowe '11. "From the surface, it looks like a nice place to dive," Case says. "But it's not safe at all. It's not safe for anybody to be in there—not even a scuba diver."
It had been a sunny day, with a high of seventy-four degrees. Lowe, an ILR student taking a summer course, was swimming across the pool with a friend when he went under. The Ithaca fire and police departments responded to 911 calls saying Lowe hadn't surfaced, then called in the New York State Police dive team. Case arrived on the scene at about 8 p.m. Underwater visibility was only one to two feet. "When the water is murky like that," he says, "we search with our hands."
Case dove under, feeling his way along the rock walls downstream from the falls and along the shore. Next he plunged beneath the falls. He figured that the current might have pulled Lowe under an overhanging ledge and pinned him there. "At that point, I'm twenty feet deep," Case says, "and you can just feel the pressure of the falls smashing down on you." After about an hour and a half of searching, he surfaced to get a flashlight, then went back in where Lowe had last been seen. "I just sank down and let the undertow take me, just let myself float under the water," Case says. "And it took me right to him."
According to Ithaca Fire Department statistics, Lowe was the fifteenth person to die in Ithaca's gorges since 2000—and the fourth to drown in that particular pool since 1986. When most people think of gorge deaths, they think of the jumpers who have given Cornell an unwanted (and unwarranted) reputation as a suicide hot spot. But Ithaca Police Officer Doug Hoyt estimates that about half of those fifteen deaths were accidents caused by turbulent water, slippery rocks, fallen trees, and a host of other natural features. The local community has mourned each death. But Lowe's passing—coming in the wake of the drowning the previous year of Jeevan Mykoo, a thirty-year-old tourist from Ottawa, and the 2006 death of Navin Parthasarathy, a visiting graduate student from the University of California, Santa Barbara—has spurred a widespread debate about how to deal with the dangers and appeals of one of Cornell's great natural attractions.
Much of the official reaction is being formed by the Gorge Safety Task Force, a two-year-old group comprising high-level administrators from the City and Town of Ithaca, the University, and Ithaca College. Since Lowe's death, it has stepped up its efforts to brainstorm short- and long-term solutions for safety education, enforcement, and alternatives—including filling in that Fall Creek pool for good. Meanwhile the Student Assembly has formed an ad hoc committee on gorge safety, and students in the Department of Natural Resources have created an organization called Friends of the Gorges. "We have a group of people saying, 'There must be something that we can do to prevent this,'" says City Clerk Julie Conley Holcomb, a task force member. "We don't want one more death in those gorges."
The gorges have defined the University ever since Ezra Cornell pointed out to his advisers the wild country where he intended to build his campus.The task force's most visible action has been erecting a chain-link fence, about thirty feet long and eight feet high, blocking access to the pool via a steep stone staircase from the Phi Gamma Delta parking lot off McGraw Place. Simeon Moss '73, BA '82, Cornell's press relations director, calls the fence a short-term fix while a more effective safety campaign is worked out. Although some have welcomed the fence, others have criticized it as ineffectual. Matthew Nagowski '05 calls it "draconian and naïve," and the homepage of his blog, MetaEzra.com, sports a banner calling on President David Skorton to take down the fence. "Is the University going to put up a fence around Cayuga Lake?" Nagowski asks. "It seems like the proper solution to this problem is education and enforcement, not forbidding people to enjoy one of the University's most treasured natural places." Professor emeritus of geological sciences Arthur Bloom agrees that restricting access is neither feasible nor desirable, pointing out that the gorges provide a valuable teaching tool. "There are all sorts of interesting phenomena, and you can literally get your nose right up against them."
On one warm evening in August, the fence wasn't deterring the steady stream of students, many carrying towels, who ducked through a neatly cut hole. The barrier was vandalized the day after it was erected on August 15—two months after Lowe died. It has been repaired and recut several times, and the accompanying warning signs repeatedly stolen, Moss says.
Down at the gorge, the path is flanked by two small memorials that beg visitors to heed the deaths there of Parthasarathy in 2007 and of Sabartomo "Danny" Sastrowardoyo '87 twenty-one years earlier. But at knee-height, the memorials are easily overshadowed by the spectacular view of the falls. About two dozen people were climbing up the waterfall and wading in the shallow creekbed downstream. Blue beer cans stacked on the cliffs reflected the last rays of daylight. As four young men jumped together off the lowest ledge into the pool where Lowe drowned, Min Kang '10 dried off after an hourlong swim. She pointed out where students sometimes set up a "beer pong" table in the creekbed. She won't swim in the pool if the current is too strong, but otherwise she doesn't worry about getting hurt—or worse. "Like most other people," she said, "I feel like it's not going to happen to me."
The gorges have defined the University ever since Ezra Cornell pointed out to his advisers the wild country where he intended to build his campus. "Cornell turned to the east, swinging his arms north and south and said: 'Here, on this line extending from Cascadilla to Fall Creek,'" wrote Morris Bishop '14, PhD '26, in A History of Cornell. Central Campus is still flanked by those gorges, and they've since provided Cornell with a powerful PR tool, living lessons in geology and hydrology, and a dramatic sense of place. "If Cornell was in Kansas, it would be OK," says Gary Stewart, assistant director of community relations. "But it's really the nature that makes the area."
If the gorges literally define the campus, they also shape aspects of its culture—including the issue of suicide. While Cornell is not the suicide mecca it is purported to be, jumping into the gorges does tend to be one of the most frequently used methods among students, says Gregg Eells, director of counseling and psychological services at Gannett Health Services. "At other schools, it would usually be pills or handguns. Partly why gorges are a part of the culture here is that people know that there have been suicide attempts before."
Scholarship Honors Douglas Lowe '11
The family and friends of Douglas Lowe '11 have created a scholarship in his memory. The Douglas Arthur Lowe Prism for Beauty on Earth Scholarship Fund aims to promote academic success for African American undergraduates who exemplify Lowe's spirit, promote the well-being of humanity, and show exceptional creativity. Lowe, of Shelton, Connecticut, was an eighteen-year-old ILR student when he drowned in June. A member of the Cornell Caribbean Students Association Dance Ensemble, he was a talented saxophonist and composer and worked with children in a daycare center.
The scholarship will be awarded on the basis of the applicant's academic excellence, financial need, dedication to community service, demonstration of leadership, and creativity. For more information, visit prismforbeauty.org.
Though a troubled few have always been drawn to the gorges to end their lives (most recently Jakub Janecka '98, whose body was found in Cascadilla Creek Gorge on October 8 after a witness reported seeing him jump from the College Avenue Bridge), for most students Cornell's gorge culture is something much more lighthearted—a way to enjoy the campus's natural beauty and soak up the few precious weeks of swimming weather. In August, Akilah Terry '10 waded near the Fall Creek pool for the first time since coming to Ithaca, even though she says she's not a "nature person." "I didn't want to leave Cornell without coming to the gorges," says Terry, who slipped and fell during her outing. "It seems like one of the things that you should do. Last year, a bunch of my senior friends had a list of things you should do before you graduate, and most of them had been swimming in the gorges numerous times."
The city's municipal code bans dipping in campus gorges—or any body of water not designated specifically for swimming. Technically it's a trespassing violation. The penalty ranges from a $100 fine or twenty-five hours of community service to a $250 fine and fifteen days in jail. (Ithaca passed its first anti-swimming law in 1897; Holcomb, the city clerk, notes that nudity, not safety, seems to have been the bigger concern.) There are several reasons for the ordinance: slick algae-covered rocks, submerged trees, no lifeguards, and steep terrain that makes rescue difficult. Hiking is permitted on designated trails, although many are closed when conditions are hazardous. But enforcing Code 250-3 is trickier than it might seem. It was only shortly before Lowe's death that officials sorted out who has legal jurisdiction over campus gorges. It's not always Cornell.
A mosaic of state, city, and town ordinances governs Cascadilla Creek and Fall Creek. They run through (or are adjacent to) not only Cornell but the City of Ithaca and the towns of Ithaca, Dryden, and Lansing, as well as private land. To complicate matters, ultimate control of the waterways falls to New York State's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). At the pool where Lowe died, the water is owned by the city—but Cornell owns the land leading to it. "This nineteenth-century model of governing is maddening," says Stewart. "It doesn't help when there are so many jurisdictions involved."
And then there's the problem of enforcement. Cornell Police don't cite people for gorge swimming, because it is not a violation of the Campus Code of Conduct—though that is likely to change soon. CUPD Deputy Chief Kathy Zoner has been working to incorporate the municipal code into the campus code. Even so, CUPD lacks the staff to prevent swimming in Fall Creek, by far the more popular of the two gorges. "With the amount of use that that area gets, I would have to post somebody down there twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week," Zoner says. "And I haven't got the manpower to do it. We'd get seventy violations on an eighty-five-degree day." Beebe Lake is a problem spot too, she says—but because it's campus property, CUPD does have the authority to cite people for diving off Sackett Bridge, a stone arch at the east end of the lake. From July 2007 to June 2008, campus police issued about 100 warnings—but no arrests—for violations of campus code and state law such as reckless endangerment and disorderly conduct. "Your first jump, everything's fine, but what you don't know is there's a log three feet under the water," Zoner says. "On your second jump, bam, you land on the log, and you're a paraplegic."
Over the past few years, the Ithaca Police Department has stepped up its focus on the problem—although not the number of actual arrests. It issued four tickets for gorge swimming in 2004 and 2005; but from 2007 through June 2008, it issued twenty-eight warnings, in which offenders are identified but face no punishment. City and campus police departments are now exploring ways to collaborate on enforcing the code—and, if the University agrees, upping the punishment to include academic penalties. Many students would welcome more enforcement, says Student Assembly (SA) president Ryan Lavin '09. "If there's some enforcement—cite or ticket once in a while—it will deter the bulk from going in."
The task force is also brainstorming alternatives to gorge swimming. They include providing free shuttles to nearby state parks where swimming is allowed, like Buttermilk Falls and Lower Treman; designating safe swimming areas in the city's natural waters (and amending the city code to make those areas legal); and building an outdoor pool on campus. Perhaps the most drastic option is filling the Fall Creek pool with boulders or other materials. In November the task force plans to talk to a hydrologist and research DEC regulations, Stewart says. "The million-dollar question—beyond signs, fences, brochures, swimming pools—is, if there's a really big hazard, when do you get to the point where you say that the hazard has to go?"
Implementing any of the options will take time. Meanwhile, students and officials from the city and University are focusing on more robust safety education. On campus, the University now warns about gorge safety via a three-year-old brochure distributed online (campuslife.cornell.edu/campuslife/gorges-of-ccornell.cfm) and to new students and resident advisers; there's also a forty-second section of an orientation video, given to new students on a CD and also available online (newstudents.cornell. edu/welcome/QuickTour.html). Oddly enough, the spot appears in the "Getting Around" section—not in the "Safety and Security" section. "We've worked hard to communicate to our community on this issue," says Moss. "But we feel that maybe even more needs to be done. We're committed to working with appropriate authorities to make sure that our community understands that while the gorges are one of Cornell's defining features, and everyone loves them, they represent a safety challenge that needs to be respected."
To address that concern, the task force is exploring the creation of a map that would point out dangerous areas, perhaps to be posted at trailheads. Says Holcomb: "We have received letters from victims' friends and family members saying, 'You as a city need to do more. The warning sign wasn't enough.'" The SA's ad hoc committee plans to create a brochure with sharper wording. "The [University] brochure is not scary enough," Lavin says. "Everyone's sensitive about the gorges, and they're close to everyone's heart, but because people are dying, I think it's OK for students to be scared." The SA also plans to advocate for a required gorge safety session at orientation, similar to the alcohol education session, Lavin says. "We hope everyone can work together and be proactive this year, before the good weather."
The good weather was what brought transfer student Tracey Ho '11 and two friends to the waterfall below the Suspension Bridge a few weeks into the semester. She was sitting cross-legged on a mossy rock in the falls and the rushing water made her white bikini a blur. She had heard that someone had died in the pool below but she wanted to swim in the gorge anyway, she says. "I came here two summers ago, and I saw this waterfall. I was like, 'Man, what happens if I go down there? Is it doable?' And here I am, right now," she shouted over the water's roar. "It is gorgeous."