October 26, 2021

Cliff-jumping concerns linger a year after Virgil man’s death

Troy Ludolph, 17, of Newark, leaps from a high ledge above Second Dam on Thursday.

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Troy Ludolph, 17, of Newark, leaps from a high ledge above Second Dam on Thursday.

ITHACA — A little over a year has passed since a Virgil man died at the Second Dam in Six Mile Creek, and yet people could still be found swimming and cliff jumping there Thursday afternoon.

The regulations haven’t changed, said Julie Holcomb, the city clerk of Ithaca. “There is no wading, bathing, swimming or cliff jumping allowed at either the first or second dams,” Holcomb said.

Eric Richardson, 20, of Virgil, was swimming with friends in Second Dam, a small reservoir along the creek, on July 26, 2015, when he jumped into the water from a cliff and failed to resurface, the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Department said at the time.

The Second Dam is an area nestled back in the woods along Six Mile Creek used as a summer hangout and a hot spot for cliff-jumping. After parking at the Mulholland Wildflower Preserve, it takes about a mile-long hike to get to the site, with terrain ranging from easy walking paths to uphill trails that are climbed by holding onto roots and trees.

The Second Dam itself is a secluded gorge surrounded by trees and some stone faces at the edge. There is a wooden cross among the trees with Richardson’s name carved into it, as well as the dates 1995, the year he was born, and 2015, the year he died.

Despite the risks, the site has long been a popular spot for visitors from across the region, including Cortland County, though no local residents were there during a visit Thursday.

“I’ve been coming to this spot (Second Dam) for once a week for the past six to seven years,” Edward Rotella, 29, of Syracuse said Thursday. Rotella said he understands why the city has been trying to prevent the activity that goes on at the dam, but believes that people will continue to swim and jump from the cliffs.

“It’s a nice spot to swim,” Rotella said. He even had his 2-year-old dog, Kiera, with him on the hot afternoon. “I have to bring her at least once a week or she’ll whine at me.”

Rotella said the worst injury he had seen at the spot was someone climbing and slipping down the hillside. “I’ve never seen someone get hurt from jumping into the water.”

After Richardson’s death, the Sheriff’s Department has been working to increase the patrols on the pathways to the cliffs. A group of rangers patrol the gorge and make sure people are not in the water where they don’t belong, Holcomb said. “If someone is wading knee or ankle deep, or kids are in the streams trying to catch crayfish, nobody usually bothers them,” she said.

The gorge rangers have been around since the mid-1980s, said Jeanne Grace, city forester and ranger supervisor. Four people are employed as gorge rangers and they work in teams of two and patrol every day, Grace said.

The main role of the rangers is to educate the public on what is allowed at the gorge and to protect the environment.

Rangers cannot write tickets, but they can report problems to the city police or the Sheriff’s Department to handle, Grace said.

Rangers go through a training program required by the state as well as CPR, first aid and radio language and use, Grace said.

Rotella said the rangers have been a presence at the Second Dam when he has visited. The rangers usually just ask someone to stop jumping or to get out of the water, Rotella said. Within the last few months, rangers went so far as to escort him and the group he was with back to the parking area. “Most of the time the rangers are nice,” Rotella said.

Friends Blake Jackson, 18, and Troy Ludolph, 17, both of Newark, Wayne County, were also jumping Thursday. “I’ve been here twice in the past two weeks,” Jackson said, “We’ve been having tons of fun here.”

One time last week, the rangers sat there for an hour, Ludolph said. “Soon, they just called the cops.”

Ryan Springs, 22, of Washington state, went to Ithaca College and heard about the gorge from friends.

“Ever since I started college three years ago, I’ve been coming here,” Springs said. He said he doesn’t jump from the cliff; he only swims in the area. Springs also said he hasn’t seen someone get seriously injured. “Most of the time, it’s people being stupid and drinking and doing drugs (who get hurt),” he said.

When it comes to the rangers, Springs said he understands they’re doing a job, but he thinks people leaving trash in the scenic area is a bigger problem than people swimming.