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Gorgeous -- but high-risk -- gorges

On bright-blue summer days, visitors are drawn to the imposingly picturesque splendor of Zoar Valley, Letchworth State Park and the Niagara Gorge.

They come to hike, eat a picnic lunch, go whitewater rafting or take a dip in the water on a hot afternoon.

The settings are beautiful, but they also can be lethal:

At area parks in the last two weeks, three people have fallen to their deaths.

"Any step can be your last step here," said Rebecca Richardson, a stay-at-home mom-to-be from Gowanda, who went on a group outing to Zoar Valley on Tuesday.

In two of the accidents, the victims were at the parks late at night and had climbed over barriers meant to keep visitors from the edge of the gorge.

Officials say that some visitors -- particularly those from outside the area -- aren't cautious enough while using the parks and that too many people go into potentially treacherous sections.

"It's a great view, but it's a scary place to be, looking down on that," Kyle Parmenter, a chef from Randolph, said as he gazed up to the top of the gorge from the bed of Cattaraugus Creek's South Branch on Tuesday at Zoar Valley.

With barriers in place in some areas, and clear warning signs posted throughout the parks, officials and park users wonder if anything more can be done to keep people safe.

And longtime neighbors and park explorers say they don't want to see the pristine beauty of Zoar and other parks marred by additional safety measures.

"As far as the creek goes, let it be, let it be. That's why you come here, to see it like it is," said James Wells, a retired Buffalo State College physics professor who lives on Point Peter Road, near Zoar Valley, on land that has been in his family for at least four generations.

The natural charm and cooling water drew Parmenter; his daughter, Courtney, 5; and his girlfriend, Megan George, to Zoar Valley on Tuesday.

"She's doing great. She's enjoying it. This is her first time out on the river," Parmenter said as he watched his life vest-clad daughter in the shallow waters.

Over at Devil's Hole Ravine along the Niagara Gorge, Brian Long, an unemployed student from Lockport, was visiting the park for the first time in about six years with his girlfriend, Megan Schaefer, and her son, Dominic, 6.

The group was sticking to marked trails and staying behind safety barriers.

"People start venturing off on their own on the rocks, and that's when they get into trouble," Long, 36, said Wednesday.

Others have more sinister reasons for visiting, such as underage drinkers and marijuana users who want a secluded area where they can engage in illegal behavior.

The parks are breathtakingly beautiful, but they can be "deceivingly dangerous," said Patrick McGlew, a project director for the regional chapter of the Nature Conservancy, which owns about 400 acres of land in Zoar Valley.

Over a 12-day period, three people fell to their deaths:

Shortly after midnight June 22, a 21-year-old Niagara Falls, Ont., man fell into the Niagara Gorge from Otter Street.

The man, who was with a group of friends, climbed over a retaining wall and lost his footing, said Constable Nilan Dave of the Niagara Regional Police.

"It's a dangerous place," Dave said. "It's a clear drop-off."

On June 28, Simon P. Griffis, a 48-year-old arts educator who lived in Buffalo, was killed in a fall as he hiked above the South Branch in Zoar Valley. Cattaraugus County sheriff's officials said Griffis fell about 150 feet into the gorge, in the Town of Persia, where his body was found by hikers that afternoon.

Last Saturday, Andrew G. Brinkman, a 19-year-old college student from Amherst, slipped and fell about 300 feet into the gorge at Letchworth.

Brinkman was there with his girlfriend and two other friends and climbed over a 2 1/2 -foot-high stone wall at the rim of the gorge near the Lower Falls, parks police told The Buffalo News.

"They want a little bit better view of what's below them, or they think nothing's going to happen to them. They get too close to the edge," said Kevin Kretschmer, owner of Adventure Calls Outfitters, a rafting service that works in Letchworth and on Cattaraugus Creek.

While there are no readily available statistics showing whether serious accidents are on the rise at the parks, the recent fatalities have heightened concern about safety.

State parks have seen an 11 percent increase in visitors this year over last year, according to the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Those visitors are more active, with more hikers and more joggers who use the stairs that lead into the gorge as part of their workout, said New York Park Police Lt. Patrick B. Moriarty, who is based in Niagara Falls.

"I guess the problem comes when people don't take it seriously, when they're not prepared and they might not know their physical limitations," Moriarty said.

These visitors include more out-of-town guests, drawn by guidebooks and Web sites that tout the parks' natural charms, McGlew said. "In the past, I think it was local people who knew the area," he said.

The state owns about 3,000 acres at Zoar Valley, under the Department of Environmental Conservation. Visitors there have been known to wander from publicly accessible land onto the nearby privately owned land, and this is a big problem, officials said.

It also is easy to go off marked trails to try to get closer to the top of the gorge. That is not a good idea because, for example, the soil at the top of the gorge can easily give way, and the gorge itself is made of slippery, brittle shale, veteran users said.

"It's the natural beauty, but, of course, people are unprepared," said Dennis Ackley, a Rite Aid drugstore manager from South Dayton who owns 46 acres in Zoar Valley and was riding an all-terrain vehicle to his property Tuesday. "They don't respect the danger."

In short, some people decide to go into areas they shouldn't be in, which is what happened with the victims at the Niagara Gorge and Letchworth.

Police did not say alcohol was a factor in those falls, but it has led to bad decisions in other cases, McGlew and others said.

Officials have taken the issue of safety at the parks seriously.

State Sen. Catharine M. Young, R-Olean, helped form a task force several years ago to improve safety at Zoar Valley, bringing together law enforcement agencies, nonprofit groups and other stakeholders.

The Nature Sanctuary Society of Western New York, which owns about 120 acres next to the 3,000 state acres in Zoar Valley, launched a South Branch Education and Outreach program that grew out of the task force.

Volunteers talk with Zoar Valley visitors and hand out maps and safety information, and warn people not to trespass on private property, said Steve McCabe, the society's president.

The effort is paying off, he said, noting that fire and rescue personnel didn't have to respond to any accidents in the South Branch gorge in 2009.

But this year brought another fatal accident, and officials continue to wonder what more can be done to improve safety.

Already, there are numerous warning signs and plenty of detailed information on official Web sites, and the Niagara Gorge and Letchworth are well-protected by barriers. So visitors need to pay attention to those signs, stick to marked trails, be careful going into the gorges, wear proper footwear and bring a cell phone and water, Moriarty said, especially in hot, humid weather.

Beyond that, people need to take personal responsibility for their own choices, said Jackie Wells, wife of James Wells.

"Unfortunately," she said, "you can't save people from themselves."

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com

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