A group billing itself “Free the Gorges” is holding a “Swim In” on Friday afternoon as a response to the crackdown on gorge swimming “and the increased police presence at Six Mile Creek,” according to the group.
City of Ithaca, Town of Ithaca, and Tompkins County officials have been trying various initiatives to reduce not just swimming at and around the First Dam and Second Dam on Six Mile Creek, but also dangerous cliff-jumping and rowdy partying that are blamed not on Ithaca residents, but on visitors to the area.
Some residents insist most people in the area’s natural waterways are responsible and face little or no risk. A frequent argument is that adults should be allowed to make their own decisions.
“Even if you believe adults should be allowed to make their own decisions, it’s not that simple in this case,” says Chief of Police Kathy Zoner of Cornell University Police Department. “They’re not just making the decision for themselves. Every time someone is injured or missing in one of our natural waterways, they are putting other people in the position of having to go in there after them in potentially dangerous conditions. These rescuers can and do get hurt or killed in the process.”
That’s not just a hypothetical risk. Sergeant William J. Chapin of Ithaca College’s Office of Public Safety and Emergency Management died thirty years ago this March when he drowned trying to rescue two students who had been swept into icy waters of the Buttermilk Creek gorge.
In recent years, Cornell and Ithaca police officers, Tompkins County sheriff’s deputies, and park rangers patrol the area’s gorges to remind visitors to stay on the legal trails and avoid trespassing.
Local authorities put out reminders each spring and summer that people must “stay on approved trails and obey posted warning signs,” and the Ithaca Fire Department has said that “failure to do so is unlawful and puts themselves and rescuers in danger.” Swimmers jumping into the reservoir are jumping near Second Dam, a concrete wall with a thirty-foot waterfall drop to the creek below. The reservoir is part of the City of Ithaca’s water system, and signs at all of the gates and trail entrances to the area warn that swimming, rock climbing, and a variety of other activities are prohibited in the City watershed.
Many neighborhood residents are also frustrated by the noise from partying and by garbage left behind, including alcohol bottles and clothing.
“Swimming is not a crime,” insists Logan Bell, who’s organizing Friday’s protest, which he says starts at 4:30pm on Giles Street, near the Mulholland Wildflower Preserve. “Please note that you do not have to swim or risk arrest to attend the protest,” he said on Facebook. “We need witnesses and people recording the event. Please come down and feel free to ask any questions about parking or anything.”
“These trails are designed for hiking, and going off the trails towards the reservoir makes it harder to get rescue personnel and equipment in there,” says George Tamborelle, a paramedic with Bangs Ambulance and chief of the Cayuga Heights Fire Department who has been present for several gorge rescues in the area.