Niagara Gorge death highlights the risks
Police and firefighters have been called into the Niagara Gorge for rescues five times this month after hikers wandered off marked trails.
Nine young adults stranded by a flash flood spent 10 hours in Zoar Valley last month before they were rescued by helicopter.
On Aug. 13, a hike in Whirlpool State Park ended in tragedy when 12-year-old Magdalena Lubowska slipped from a rock and drowned in the rapids of the Lower Niagara River.
Western New York’s deep gorges offer vigorous hikes and beautiful views, but they also pose real problems when hikers get out of their element or set off unprepared.
“People blunder in and do foolish things,” said Art Klein, outings chairman for the Niagara Frontier Chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club. “I just wish that we had some kind of permit process or a sign-in that just warns people that you’re entering a totally different world.”
Seasoned hikers and rescue personnel say the Niagara Gorge, Zoar Valley and Letchworth State Park can be enjoyed safely if hikers take simple precautions and stay on clearly marked trails.
State Parks Police Maj. Vincent Iacovitti said most people who test the limits come away unscathed, but seemingly minor risk taking has produced significant problems for several hikers in recent weeks.
Two days after Magdalena disappeared, three teenagers had to be rescued after venturing out on a trail closed to the public. On Wednesday, an Amherst man couldn’t find his way out of the gorge after trying a shortcut and becoming disoriented.
In each of the cases, hikers left the trail, Iacovitti said.
“We don’t do rescues every day,” he said. “It doesn’t happen as often as one would think. It’s been a little [higher] this past summer. The weather was wonderful the past few weeks, and people were coming out to enjoy it.”
In Canada, the Whirlpool Nature Walk provides a marked, more “well-established path” than gorge trails on the American side. Although rescue calls are rare, a young man fell to his death this summer from the top of the gorge.
“He was not hiking,” Niagara Parks Police Chief Doug W. Kane said. “He was up above in Queenston Heights, and we do believe alcohol was involved.”
In Western New York, few signs warn people of the dangers of the trails that plunge deep into the Niagara Gorge and take hikers closest to the Whirlpool and Devil’s Hole rapids in the Niagara River. The lower river portion has no railing, while nothing stops people from climbing over a metal railing along the upper rim of the gorge, which is 175 to 300 feet deep.
Vast expanses of Zoar Valley and Letchworth State Park also lack signs.
A sign warns those who traipse up a muddy embankment near the start of one Niagara Gorge trail to “Proceed at your own risk.”
But in Whirlpool State Park, no such sign is visible at a series of stone stairs that descend to the river.
Iacovitti called fencing off all dangers or posting numerous warning signs “an unachievable task.”
“All natural wonders have natural dangers,” he said. “That’s anywhere in the United States. In essence, you would be disrupting the natural beauty for those who respect the environment.”
He said he believes signs at the falls and gorge are adequate.
When hikers fail to respect nature’s dangers, they also put rescue personnel at risk — and run up the tab for taxpayers.
“There are just so many variables, but the bottom line is that these calls don’t come free of charge,” Niagara Falls Fire Chief William MacKay said. “When we are on these calls, we may not be available in sufficient numbers in the city to provide coverage [for other emergencies].”
State parks educators and police say people need to use common sense. Don’t hike alone. Don’t wander off trails, onto slippery rocks or near steep cliffs. Bring water and food, wear sturdy shoes, and make sure you know the terrain before setting out on a hike.
“If you don’t use your common sense, everything has risks,” said Carol Rogers, a state parks educator.
Rogers said she has seen women try to hike into the gorge with heels. One family thought they could bring a baby stroller into the gorge.
Parks workers will advise or stop people who don’t appear prepared as they start a difficult hike.
Kane said that when hikers finish the long trek down into the gorge, they are often lured by the water and will want to stick their feet in.
“That’s the attraction of the water. The trouble is, is that they underestimate the power of that water,” the Canadian parks chief said.