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Common Sense Rules For Swimming in Fall Creek

Both the Sun and the Journal are reporting that a rising Cornell sophomore, in Ithaca for summer classes, has died swimming underneath the Suspension Bridge in Fall Creek.

Update:Reports have now surfaced that the student was Douglas Lowe '11, 18, of Shelton, Conn. He was a student in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

Kelsey Space, a recent Cornell graduate, said she saw the man slide down the falls and into the water below. She turned away, Space said, then heard a muted cry for help and turned back to look at the water.

“I saw him flailing around in the water, like everyone does, because the current is so strong,” she said. Then he disappeared under the water, she said, and people at the scene tried to rescue him while others called 911.

Another witness said they heard the call for help, dove in but couldn't find the man.

“You can't really see anything under the water,” the witness said.

A terrible tragedy for somebody young and full of promise. May he rest in peace. Our thoughts and prayers are with the friends and family today.

Safety is obviously a huge concern with the illicit swimming holes that dot Ithaca's gorge, and it will be interesting to see if Cornell takes any further steps to limit swimming in the gorge, especially in light of the fact that this was a freshman who drowned. Don't forget, it was less than a year ago when a visiting student died in the same fashion. If the University is to take a heavier hand to regulating gorge activity, whatever happened to Carl Becker's 'freedom and responsibility'?

As a Cornell student, I often swam in the very same spot, fully aware of the deaths that had occurred in the swimming hole where I so enjoyed myself. And I would be lying if the appeal of the gorges, swimming, and cliff jumping in a sublime natural setting wasn't one of the primary factors that cemented my decision to attend Cornell.

My sophomore summer, an idyllic Ithacan summer with memories to last a lifetime, was highlighted by a 'Polar Bear Swimming Club' that some friends and I devised. Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, at the ungodly (for a college student) time of 7AM, we would trudge down to the swimming hole and reinvigorate our senses. (You can actually read a take on the 'club' in the first volume of The Muse.) And my last night as a student in Ithaca (for I stayed at Cornell a full month after I graduated, not wanting to leave, ) was capped off with some skinny dipping under the stars.

But through this enjoyment, I was always very concerned about the safety of others swimming in Fall Creek, and in light of this most recent drowning, I wonder if Cornell should or would do more to limit swimming in the gorges.

You see, I have always been a strong swimmer. I was tossed into the mighty Niagara River when I was three and never looked back. I am a lifeguard, an Eagle Scout, and a Wilderness First Responder. I was on a state championship swimming team in high school, and I have swam across many a lake in my day. Even today, suffering from fairly severe arthritis and my body unable to cooperate with me on land, I am a remarkably strong swimmer.

But for others, those who haven't ever had to swim against current for a minute, swim for miles at end, or tread water with bricks over their head for thirty minutes at a time, swimming in Fall Creek is a much more dangerous activity. True it's illegal, but there are some common sense rules that can make it safer, should you choose to break the law. These rules should be obvious to a bright Cornell student, but you would be surprised:

0) It's illegal, and people have died. So think it over again before you break the law and put yourself at risk.

1) Do not enter the water if the discharge as measured by the USGS here is over 50 cubic feet of water per second. It appears that it was yesterday evening.

2) Do not climb the waterfalls under any circumstance. (Except perhaps if it is frozen in the winter.) Wet, slippery, algae-infested rock with thousands of pounds of water pouring over it is never safe, no matter how agile you think you are. This appears to have what caused this most recent incident. (So there are already three risk factors working against the deceased's safety). If you slip and crack your head open, is doesn't matter how amazing of a swimmer you are.

3) If you are not a strong swimmer, do not let your feet leave the ground underneath you. And by strong swimmer, I do not mean barely able to pass the Cornell swimming test. I mean able to swim 500 yards and tread water for fifteen minutes without stopping.

4) Keep your head above water at all times. No diving or jumping. Treading water to cool off is the only thing that might be recommended.

5) Don't be foolish enough to think that alcohol and swimming mix.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on June 13, 2008 (#)

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