Education on dangers of swimming in Ithaca Gorges difficult

Aug 15, 2016

A proposal to reword a swimming ban at Ithaca natural areas to make it easier to understand is on hold. The city's Common Council wants to focus on education and outreach about the dangers of swimming in these areas instead.

But education isn't always easy.

It's something Todd Bittner has been focused on at Cornell University. He's the director of Natural Areas for Cornell Plantations and has spent most of the last decade encouraging safety at these areas.

One of these areas is Fall Creek Gorge. Memorials line a viewing area next to the gorge in remembrance of people who died there. 

The water looks fine from the outside, but that can be deceptive. Bittner says undertows and other factors pose a danger.

"The water conditions change constantly," He explains. "[There are] hidden obstacles under the water that you can't see: trees, shopping carts, bicycles."

In fact, Bittner and others know about the hazards are because of accidents at the gorge.

"The principle reason that we know about those hazards is from the recovery divers that have gone in to try and rescue/recover drowning victims that have been in the water," he says. "They've come back and told us what the plunge pools in the water are filled with."

Bittner helped start the Gorge Safety Education Program, which is named for Nathaniel Rand. He died after getting sucked under the water in 2011. 

The program invites students to become gorge stewards. There are related, but separate from the gorge rangers that work for the city of Ithaca.

The stewards patrol the gorge trails and educate people on how rules should be interpreted, but their power is limited.

"The enforcement is not really my job," says Tom Hilchey, a steward and Ithaca native. "I'm the informer and if it gets to the point where there is enough push-back, I'll have to call the police."

Hilchey has never had to make that call. 

He and the other stewards keep track of violations they see. Bittner says that fewer people have been breaking the rules, but still thinks more education can be done to avoid more deaths. 

"[We're] trying to have people recognize those costs and trying to promote those areas that are safe and able to be enjoyed responsibly," he says.

There are designated areas swimming is okay,  but those are in state parks and not controlled by the city.