On Memorial Day evening, state DEC Forest Ranger John Kennedy got a call about missing hikers in Zoar Valley.
While local agencies headed to the scene, Kennedy set out from his base in Clarence to the beautiful – but potentially dangerous – 3,000-acre area of protected land known as the Zoar Valley Multiple Use Area, which is managed by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
"I'm probably like any other ranger or first responder or police officer, you just want the people to be safe," Kennedy said. "When I get a call about missing people in Zoar, sometimes it doesn't end well. Sometimes these things don't end the way you would like them to end."
In this particular case, things ended OK. On the evening of May 28, four hikers set out from the Forty Road Parking Area in the Town of Persia, the entrance point for the wild preserve that includes the south branch of Cattaraugus Creek.
A female hiker made it back to the parking lot, but her three compatriots were not back as darkness fell. She called 911, and the Gowanda Fire Department was able to help the three hikers back without incident.
However, the situation is one that Kennedy and other officials hope serves as a reminder for those enjoying Zoar Valley to mind the regulations, use caution and make safe choices. Zoar Valley has been the site of several unfortunate incidents in recent years.
While there have been rescues, there have also been serious injuries and deaths. There have been at least six fatalities at Zoar Valley over the last 15 years.
"We're bracing ourselves," Kennedy said, "but hopefully it's a safe summer."
Zoar Valley Multiple Use Area is a state forest, not an official state park, that includes Cattaraugus Creek and runs along the border of Erie and Cattaraugus counties, about 33 miles south of Buffalo.
The wild preserve is known for, as its DEC web page describes, "the spectacular scenery created by its deep gorge, sheer cliffs, flowing waterfalls, and dense forests."
But then comes the web page's next sentence: "Stay on marked trails. The MUA contains hazards associated with rocks, steep slopes, cliffs and swift water."
Officials urge those visiting Zoar Valley to stick to the safe gorge and creek areas, where access is only from the Valentine Flats Trail parking area (near the westernmost point of the MUA) and Forty Road lot. There are signs in kiosks in those lots with instructions of what to do and what not to do, where to go and where not to go.
"We are all for people enjoying Zoar," said Kennedy, who is one of three rangers who actively patrol Zoar Valley, a group that also includes an assistant ranger who spends the summer at the MUA.
"If you stay on the state lands and parcels, and follow the regulations, you can have an enjoyable experience," Kennedy said. "There are a lot of beautiful views on the land you are permitted on. When people do their own things, that's when problems kind of happen."
When rescue calls are made for hikers who go missing, "it gets a lot of people worked up pretty fast. We're concerned about getting the people out," said Gowanda Fire Chief Nick Crassi.
He added that the Memorial Day incident was "a generally simple one." The group of hikers were actually trespassing – they had left state DEC lands. Rescuers made their way to Cattaraugus Creek and shined bright lights upstream. The hikers saw the lights and it aided them in returning safely.
"I had a few firemen and rescue personnel go out with lights on to the creek bank and up the stream a ways to shine them upstream," said Crassi, who has been a part of many rescue efforts like these during more than 40 years with the Gowanda Fire Department. "It just so happened that when we shined them up in the gorge area, they could see us, and they worked their way to the lights."
Crassi said sometimes his teams will use sirens or air horns to help people find their way back. "Any way we can get their attention," he said.
One of the first steps in situations like these is to see if area agencies are able to provide helicopters to assist in the search; in this case, Crassi said none were immediately available. Crassi said that his department, a volunteer unit, has teams that do regular rappelling and water rescue training so they are prepared to respond to situations at Zoar Valley.
A key circumstance on Memorial Day was that the hiking party headed into the forest late in the evening. Zoar Valley closes at sunset.
"They went in late, about 7 or 7:30, which is way too late to go into the gorge," Crassi said. "It's dark within an hour and a half or two hours, so that doesn't work."
And Zoar Valley darkness is a different kind of darkness.
"One of the most important things, is when it gets dark, it really gets dark," said Crassi. "It's pitch black, and you're sort of stranded. A lot of people wander off and it's very difficult to find them. After dark, if we don't have an exact location, we won't go in. We try to stay out of there, because my guys can get injured like anyone else."
The Memorial Day incident was resolved before Kennedy arrived at Zoar Valley.
However, he made sure he was able to speak to the hikers.
"They were talked to pretty sternly by me," said Kennedy. "I told them there have been plenty of deaths when good-natured people like them fall because of it being pitch black. The regulations are in place to get people out of there before sunset.
"I'm always going to be a professional, but they're going to know the message: You dodged something bad that could have happened."
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There have been several incidents at Zoar Valley in recent years, for a variety of reasons.
Last August, Amanda and William Green of South Buffalo were killed when they slipped down a cliff more than 100 feet high. They were hiking with their children, who survived.
In May 2016, two kayakers were reported missing in Zoar Valley, then were found about 11:30 p.m.
In 2013, a 16-year-old was rescued after falling into the gorge and breaking her ankle.
In 2011, there were at least three incidents, none of which resulted in a loss of life:
- A 21-year-old North Tonawanda man who became separated from two friends at Zoar Valley was reported missing as night fell, but was found unharmed the next morning after spending a stormy night on the grounds.
- Six stranded hikers were led to safety around midnight after becoming lost in Zoar Valley after dark.
- A brother and sister from Erie County fell in Zoar Valley during a hike. The 23-year-old man was hanging on to a tree when he was rescued by the Erie County Sheriff's Office Air One helicopter, while the 21-year-old woman sustained serious injuries from a 100-foot fall.
In 2010, noted arts educator Simon P. Griffis died in a hiking accident at Zoar Valley.
Also in 2010, a rappel team rescued an 18-year-old college student from the bottom of the gorge after he was knocked unconscious in a 300-foot fall while hunting.
In 2009, a Buffalo woman died in a drowning accident while tubing at Zoar Valley.
In 2008, nine young Erie County hikers were rescued from a rock ledge in the Zoar Valley gorge at daybreak – by an Erie County sheriff's helicopter – after they were stranded there for about 10 hours by rising waters in Cattaraugus Creek.
Also in 2005, a 21-year-old man from the City of Tonawanda fell about 15 feet and suffered face and wrist fractures before being flown out by the sheriff's AirOne helicopter; and a Collins Center man survived a fall of at least 40 feet into the gorge.
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