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Western N.Y. deaths reminder of local hiking risks

Western N.Y. deaths reminder of local hiking risks

Use caution in places with steep cliffs, other risks — including Plotterkill Preserve
Western N.Y. deaths reminder of local hiking risks
Gracie Tworek and Jill Nikolski hike on an official trail at Plotterkill Preserve in Rotterdam on Tuesday.
Photographer: Eric Jenks/For The Daily Gazette

ROTTERDAM — The risks of hiking in beautiful but extremely rugged terrain — even in a public nature preserve — were reemphasized this weekend with the death of two parents and serious injuries to their two children after they fell down a cliff in a western New York nature area.

A teenage girl lost her life in a similar long fall down a cliff near the large waterfall in the popular Plotterkill Preserve in Rotterdam in 2015, prompting calls for safety improvements and $600,000 in state grant awards in 2016. But so far, there's been no major work to improve the sprawling preserve.

A plan for the safety improvements has been developed but still needs sign-offs from state agencies providing the funding, said Schenectady County spokesman Joe McQueen. Construction, once anticipated to start this year, probably won't start until 2018, he said.

"With all the different pieces, it takes a little longer than you might think, but everyone thinks we're moving in the right direction," McQueen said.

In the western New York incident, which occurred Sunday, William and Amanda Green died after falling down a 200-foot cliff in the Zoar Valley Gorge in Erie and Cattaraugus counties, a state-managed nature and recreation area. Their 4-year-old son was critically injured, and their 7-year-old son suffered a broken arm and ankle. Authorities continue to investigate what happened.

It's a reminder to use caution in places with steep cliffs and other risks, including the Plotterkill Preserve, officials said.

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Schenectady County owns the 632-acre nature preserve in Rotterdam, which contains deep ravines and waterfalls, surrounded by primitive trails. The preserve has been the scene of a number of accidents over the years, including the fall that killed 17-year-old Carly Sinnott of Clifton Park in May 2015. The Mekeel Christian Academy student was hiking with her long-time boyfriend and other friends when the accident occurred.

Sinnott's death led to a push for new safety measures, and in 2016 state Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, R-Rotterdam, helped the county secure a $350,000 grant from the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, plus an additional $250,000 in state capital funding. The county is also spending about $45,000 of it own money.

The county subsequently hired an environmental design firm to design specific improvements and that work is laregely done, though McQueen said the involved state agencies still have to give their approval.

The work is expected to include establishing stable viewing areas for the two main falls, improving trails and replacing a wooden bridge over the Plotterkill that is currently too narrow for easy use by emergency responders carrying a stretcher. The trail at the Mariaville Road trailhead will be widened, with other work including drainage improvements, new signage, and "anchors" that will assist emergency responders making high-angle rescues in the gorge area.

There has also already been a new emergency access point established, said Dean Romano, director of operations at Rotterdam EMS, which provides emergency medical response in the preserve. That significantly improves emergency access hasn't been publicized, he said, because authorities don't want hikers to start using it.

Romano said he understands that the process leading to the improvements seems slow.  "I know it is not an easy thing to create an emergency response for inside that preserve, and it's more important that it be done right," he said.

He said the volunteer Plotterkill Fire Department has plans for a number of rescue scenarios inside the park and he has complete confidence in it, but people hiking in the preserve need to use common sense — wearing proper hiking footwear, and bringing water and food if they're planning an extended hike. There have been instances of people calling for emergency help simply because they're thirsty, hungry or tired — something the state Department of Environmental Conservation and other rescue agencies have also seen among back country hikers, as cellphone reception improves in remote locations.

"The biggest problem we have is people not following the warning signs," Romano said. "The park closes at night for a reason. If you're going to wear flip-flops in the Plotterkill Preserve, don't plan on hiking the whole preserve."

There have been a couple of medical calls to the preserve this year, he said, though nothing as dramatic as in 2015.

The Plotterkill, however, isn't the only scenic or remote place in the Capital Region where hikers have run into trouble in recent years.

There have been two emergency ropes rescues on the Canajoharie Creek in Canajoharie this summer, including one in which 13 people had to be rescued — that in an area where such rescues were previously.  The Poestenkill Gorge in Troy has been the site of numerous incidents over the years, including a fatality last March. The scenic Kaaterskill Falls in the Catskills, meanwhile, has undergone about $1.2 million in stare-funded safety improvements in recent years, including fencing and trail improvements, following a number of accidents, including fatalities, the most recent of which was in November 2016.

In Albany County, meanwhile, the popular Indian Ladder Trail at John Boyd Thatcher State Park remains closed, after a rock fell from above and struck a woman on the trail in June. The Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation said plans are being made for rock experts to come in and remove loose rocks, but there's no timetable for the trail to reopen.

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 395-3086, swilliams@dailygazette.net or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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