What must we do to solve the Glen Onoko dilemma?
Jim Thorpe Fire Chief Vince Yaich is beyond frustrated. The volunteers and first responders who risk their lives during rescues at Glen Onoko Falls near Lehigh Gorge State Park wonder why there seems to be no official understanding of the magnitude of the problem, and if there is, why more meaningful steps are not being taken to address the problem.
With each new call to rescue a hiker or swimmer in distress or one who has been injured, the pleas for action intensify, and, yet, nothing seems to happen.
The latest incident occurred during a weekend when a hiker misguidedly decided to take a shortcut off an approved trail, fell and was seriously injured.
It took about four hours and nearly four dozen rescue personnel from Jim Thorpe and nearby communities to reach the victim and carry him to safety and on to the hospital. Part of the operation had to be undertaken with emergency lighting because darkness had set in.
“I say the same thing every time, and it’s just falling on deaf ears,” Yaich told Times News reporter Terry Ahner.
The trail has been extra dangerous this summer and early fall because of the heavy rains we have experienced, in some cases nearly twice the normal amount for this time of year. One hiker wrote: “This is a difficult hike up the falls, especially if it has rained the day before.”
Officials say that the park is open every day from dawn until dusk.
Jim Thorpe, the community closest to the park and the scenic falls which attracts thousands, especially at this time of the year when the leaves change color, bears the brunt of these rescues, and borough officials want the state to step up enforcement of those who thumb their noses at the posted safety rules.
Borough officials have recommended that park officials become more aggressive in enforcing the regulations that have been set up for the public’s safety, but when I first wrote about this issue, the park manager said that because of jurisdictional complications, the state would prefer to educate parkgoers rather than ticket them.
The falls are not in Lehigh Gorge State Park but on neighboring state game lands managed by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Glen Onoko’s rough boulder-and-gravel trails are not maintained. This then becomes the simultaneous challenge and danger for hikers.
One of the problems is the clientele who enter the park to make their way to the falls. Many are from outside of the immediate area, so they are unaware of the many accidents, incidents, even deaths that have occurred here. What they see is this magnificent natural wonder that calls out to them like a siren’s song.
The parking lot signs warn of various dangers is often overlooked or ignored. Many hear of this retreat through word of mouth. Some website searches will mention the dangers in passing, but they focus more on the breathtaking beauty of this special spot.
The signs are explicit, but the macho spirit of, especially, younger hikers will often trump common sense. Officials have recounted how needless accidents have occurred by young men showing off for their girlfriends or others as they inch perilously close to the edge of the falls.
One sign says: “This trail is extremely dangerous. Follow these rules to be safe — hiking boots only; no sneakers or flip-flops; no drugs or alcohol; stay on trail; good physical condition of hiker. People have been seriously hurt or killed by not following these rules.”
Another says: “Danger! People have been seriously hurt or killed in this area. Extreme caution should be urged at all times.”
I was surprised that the Lehigh Gorge State Park website says nothing about some of the common dangers with which we who live in the area are acquainted. The only reference says “in an emergency, call 911 and contact a park employee. Directions to the nearest hospitals are posted on bulletin boards and at the park office.”
Park Manager Rex Brandish said that he and his staff have been providing increased patrols and try to educate park visitors not only about the breathtaking characteristics of the area but also about the dangers lurking throughout the park and at the falls.
By the same token, state personnel do not want to spook prospective parkgoers. They know that taking in the beauty of nature in a pristine wilderness is a delicate balance between enjoyment and safety.
Although there are no official records, I have calculated through newspaper and other reports that at least 15 people have been killed and more than 80 injured at the falls and park in the past 40 years. This does not include rafting and swimming accidents that have resulted in death and injuries in the adjoining Lehigh River, which has its own set of safety issues.
By Bruce Frassinelli | firstname.lastname@example.org