By Rick Miller
The Zoar Valley Multiple Use Area — nearly 3,000 acres of state-owned land straddling Cattaraugus Creek — is a gorgeous natural attraction.
There are shale cliffs rising up to 400 feet above the creek along the Zoar Valley Gorge separating Cattaraugus and Erie Counties.
There are also waterfalls along both the Zoar Valley Gorge and the South Branch of Cattaraugus Creek.
Both are beautiful sites where individuals have fallen to their deaths.
The latest Zoar Valley death came in late July when a town of Boston man, who was a 2017 graduate of Hamburg High School, slipped and fell while climbing a waterfall to get a photo.
Before him, in August 2017, a married couple fell to their deaths while hiking along the gorge. Their 4-year-old son was found severely injured with them, and their 7-year-old son was found wandering the park, also injured.
State Department of Environmental Conservation officers patrol the gorge on a regular basis, warning the thousands of annual visitors when they break the rules. A few rules to be aware of are that there is no alcohol allowed, no glass bottles and no fires.
Drowning is another possibility in the fast-moving waters of Cattaraugus Creek and the South Branch. Swimming is prohibited in the Zoar Valley Multiple Use Area, but the rule is often ignored during hot summer days.
Another issue on the South Branch is trespassing on neighboring property owned by The Nature Conservancy and includes the “Big Falls,” as they are called. It is an area that has registered a number of injuries and deaths over the years.
William Cain of Gowanda has served for more than a decade as a volunteer for The Nature Conservancy along the South Branch, advising visitors where the state’s property ends and The Nature Conservancy property begins.
The Nature Conservancy bought several properties along the South Branch from landowners who grew tired of littering and vandalism on their property.
Cain likes to think that he and the state DEC officers who have prevented people from heading too far upstream from the Forty Road parking lot on the South Branch have helped saved some lives.
The state DEC officers, state police and Cattaraugus County Sheriff’s Office deputies mount occasional mass arrests of trespassers on the South Branch. The trespassing fine in Persia Town Court is usually $250.
Besides saving lives and preventing serious injuries, Cain noted that the effort has kept volunteer firefighters and special ropes teams from having to mount rescue efforts as often.
The Nature Conservancy property begins about 900 feet upstream from the former Forty Road bridge that once spanned the South Branch.
Cain said that before the section of the creek was closed, rescue parties had to be called almost weekly during the summer months for accidents.
“We get people coming here from all over,” Cain said, adding Zoar Valley’s attractions are all over the internet on Facebook, YouTube and web pages.
He said visitors usually want to go to the falls, two miles from the parking lot. Most of the injuries and deaths involved people 25 and younger.
Cain walks up to people heading upstream on the South Branch and explains that they are headed toward private property. Many turn back. Some don’t. To Cain it’s a means of preventing the need for a rescue that invariably puts other lives at risk.
Cain and other volunteers hand out literature and tell them where the boundary is and where it’s safer to go. They have no arrest powers.
A Zoar Valley Task Force, made up of volunteer firefighters and law enforcement was established by State Sen. Catharine Young, R-Olean, prior to the campaign to restrict access to the upper portion of the South Branch.
“We have to be able to control access,” Cain said. “The DEC, Sen. Cathy Young and local firemen like it because it has eliminated many accidents and emergency calls.”
Stay on trails and away from the edge of cliffs and use common sense for a fun, but safe visit to Zoar Valley, he advised.