No swimming allowed: 2 drownings despite signs posted in Lehigh Gorge
Two recent drownings in the Glen Onoko area of Lehigh Gorge State Park have state officials taking a harder look at educational and enforcement efforts at the site.
The body of Jersson Lajara, 20, of New York, was recovered from the river on June 30 after he was swimming with friends and wentunder the water.
Several weeks earlier, Angel Rivas, 24, of Hazleton, drowned, also while swimming with friends.
Two signs, one in English and another in Spanish, have been posted stating “not a designated swimming area.”
“Swimming is illegal in that area, but we’re not going to arrest people,” Terry Brady, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources said earlier this week. “We will tell them it’s illegal, get them out of the water and try to direct them to Beltzville State Park, where they can swim. Our rangers are trying to educate and say, ‘here are alternatives.’ We don’t want to discourage people from gathering.”
Even before the July Fourth holiday hit, emergency responders had 11 different calls to Glen Onoko. Reasons ranged from a slip-and-fall to lost hikers to the two drownings.
Frustration is boiling over for Jim Thorpe Fire Chief Vince Yaich.
“We had no trouble before the early 80s, when the state paved it all the way up from Main Street, put the parking lots in and waived the flag saying come here,” Yaich said. “You’re not allowed to swim there, yet so many people are doing it and nothing is done. There has to be some type of enforcement and some type of consequences when people are doing that.”
Lehigh Gorge State Park includes a 26-mile stretch of the Lehigh River. As the area becomes more and more popular, ranger presence will continue to be adjusted, Brady said.
“Our rangers are doing the best they can,” he said. “The launch area there at Glen Onoko is one of the most popular areas around.”
Following the most recent drowning, people have posted a wide range of suggestions on social media, including closing that area of the park.
Brady said, however, because of the multi-facet use of the launch area, that can’t be done.
“It’s an access point,” he said. “It’s a take out point for a lot of the rafting trips that come down the Lehigh. People do have to be aware, however, that it is a rocky terrain. It flows very fast after a rain. It’s challenging terrain for even the most gifted swimmer.”
Yaich said he also has concerns about the condition of the launch area used for the most recent recovery effort.
“We had a real tough time getting the boats out in the water,” he said. “I think they could dress those trails up a little bit and put a ramp in. There are other issues. Alcohol is prohibited in the park, yet on nearly every rescue I’ve been a part of, I’ve either seen alcohol right out in the open or smelled it on individuals. There needs to be enforcement.”
People have also been spotted wearing flip-flops and entering the heavy rapids without flotation devices.
“People have to be smart,” Brady said. “It’s not worth risking your life over.”
Though much of the coverage area technically belongs to Lehigh and Lausanne, Jim Thorpe is the first to respond to Glen Onoko incidents because of quicker access.
The complexity of the rescues usually require multiple departments.
“When we get called out, we’re usually pulling from, at a minimum, four other communities,” Yaich said. Lehighton sends eight or nine guys, Lehigh and Lausanne comes. Nesquehoning comes. That is leaving those communities at risk as well if something should happen there.”
Glen Onoko is not on an island by itself. Brady said across the state, park officials are seeing similar incidents of drownings or near drownings.
“When you have a prolonged heat spells people looking to get in the water, whether it’s somewhere you’re supposed to be or not,” Brady said. “The Youghiogheny River runs right through Ohiopyle State Park in Fayette County and it’s a similar scenario.”
Over 20 deaths have been recorded on the lower Youghiogheny River in the past 30 years, with most related to boating, according to media reports.
Yaich is hopeful a future meeting can help sort out some of the issues and lead to action.
“The day after the latest incident, I talked with one of the new rangers there and his supervisor and they did seem receptive to sitting down and looking at some different things,” Yaich said. “In their defense, they did put a sign up that says it’s not a designated swimming area, and a sign in Spanish. That’s a lot more than we got from previous personnel.”