ITHACA, N.Y. – Earlier this week, the Ithaca Fire Department rescued a college-age swimmer from Six Mile Creek. The week’s heavy rain had left the creek swollen and full of debris, and the water’s force overtook the swimmer. He was pulled to the creek’s far shore by a friend and brought back across to the trail, without injury, in the Ithaca Fire Department’s inflatable boat.
He was lucky, according to Lt. James Wheal, who oversaw the rescue operation.
“We can’t give the specific number of loss of life … but we’ve seen a significant number of college-age swimmers lose their lives in gorges. I think that kind of speaks for itself,” Wheal said.
The force of the water “can be something even a strong swimmer can’t overcome,” Wheal said. “That’s why you can’t swim in gorges.”
The dangers of swimming in the wake of heavy rain are acute. According to Wheal, the water in Six Mile Creek on Wednesday was muddy and turbulent, “where you can’t see what’s underneath and the water’s moving around in circles, flowing back on itself.”
In such conditions, currents are strong and debris are fast-moving. “There could be shopping carts and rocks and trees to overcome,” Wheal said.
Even when water levels are lower, swimming in undesignated areas can be treacherous.
Lt. Thomas Basher said people often see “that the waterfalls have carved out these perfectly circular ponds that look like great swimming holes, but the reality is the circles are more like commas.”
Basher said water currents in these pools “can pull swimmers underneath the outcroppings of rocks, and they can get trapped.”
Assistant Chief Robert Covert said dangerous situations often unfold quickly and quietly.
“Drownings don’t always occur as people visualize them, like on TV or in the movies,” Covert said. “Often it’s very quiet. Someone just disappears without their friends noticing. ‘I turned around and he was gone.’”
The IFD wants students, tourists and residents to explore the gorges. “It’s a beautiful area to go hiking,” said Covert.
The department trains intensively for gorge rescues and is equipped with boats, ropes and specialized tools to handle them. “It’s why we’re here,” said Covert.
Unsafe behavior in the gorges, though, puts a strain on the department. Wednesday’s rescue “was actually pretty simple,” said Wheal. The response nonetheless used eight personnel, which Wheal said is about the bare minimum.
Rescues in areas that are not accessible by trail require more personnel and expose responders to greater risk.
To keep themselves and the area’s emergency responders safe, there are simple safety rules that the IFD says swimmers and hikers should follow:
- Swim in designated areas. These areas are monitored to minimize hazards and are supervised by lifeguards trained to spot swimmers in distress.
- Stay on designated trails. Maintained trails are safer for hikers and more accessible to rescuers than unmarked trails. Hikers should also respect trail closure signs.
- Plan for treacherous conditions. Bring plenty of water, know when the sun will set and wear appropriate footwear. “Flip-flops are not designed for gorge hiking,” said Covert.
- Prepare for emergencies. Know your location, bring a cell phone and hike with friends. These precautions will make it possible to get help if things go wrong.
The IFD knows accidents happen in spite of precautions and urges swimmers and hikers to call 911 as soon as they realize they’re in trouble.
“We appreciate it when they stop and call for help instead of trying to get themselves out of it and making it worse,” Covert said.
By making the community more aware of hazards, though, the department hopes to prevent problems before they arise. Gorge safety rules, Wheal said, “are not just the warning labels on a weedwhacker. These are things where students have lost their lives and have gotten really injured.”
Gorge injuries and fatalities are a perennial problem. Despite the signs of danger this past week, Wheal said “there were a lot of college-age students swimming in the muddy water.”
Wednesday’s rescue was the second on Six Mile Creek in six days. On Aug. 9, firefighters rescued a woman who fell from an unmarked trail and sustained serious injuries.
The department is hopeful that with awareness, students returning to Ithaca this weekend can enjoy the gorges safely. “There are a lot of safety rules out there,” said Wheal, “but these ones are really important.”
“Have fun, but be safe,” said Covert.
Images courtesy of the Ithaca Fire Department.