By Kyle Adams
HAINES FALLS — New York State Senator Cecilia Tkaczyk met with local leaders Sunday afternoon for a tour of Kaaterskill Falls, where one of several recent accidents resulted in the death of a Dutchess County woman.
The waterfall is a popular tourist destination, but the dangerous terrain and tendency of tourists to hike unprepared has led to numerous accidents and deaths over the years.
“I wanted to experience it firsthand and see and understand the challenges,” Tkaczyk said Sunday. “It’s a great asset in the area and we need to make sure that people can enjoy it safely.”
Tkaczyk, D-Duanesburg, was joined by Tannersville Assistant Fire Chief Stephen Tuomey; Jeff Senterman, senior program coordinator at the NY-NJ Trail Conference; Michelle Yost, coordinator of the Watershed Assistance Program for the Greene County Soil and Water Conservation District; Hunter Town Councilman David Kukle; and representatives of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
Tkaczyk saw firsthand Sunday the dangerous parking and walking conditions along Route 23A, where visitors park to access the trailhead to Kaaterskill Falls.
“Kaaterskill Falls is the Catskill Park hike,” said Senterman. “Even if you hike nowhere else in the Catskills, you’ll hike here.”
Those gathered noted that misinformation or a lack of information often leads to tragedy: the relatively short hike from the road to the falls, about half a mile, does not seem imposing, but slick rocks and the temptation to venture beyond the maintained trails can become dangerous quickly in the wrong footwear. As Tkaczyk hiked in Sunday, the group passed casual hikers in flip-flops and loafers, some shoeless, some carrying small children and walking dogs.
One family noted that they hadn’t planned on making the hike that day, so hadn’t dressed properly for it; they wore flip-flops and slick-soled sneakers. New York State Forest Ranger Robert Dawson, who made the hike with Tkaczyk’s group, advised them to stick to the marked trails.
According to Tuomey, local first responders have already responded to 18 rescue calls on hiking trails, nine of them at Kaaterskill Falls. Standing at the bottom of the falls, the group observed young girls taking photos of each other and parents holding small children high up on the edge of the “bowl” — a level break about halfway up the waterfall — from which a woman fell to her death last month.
Though signs warn of the dangers of leaving maintained trails, there are no laws or regulations keeping visitors from exploring dangerous areas, explained Dawson.
Tkaczyk learned of the challenges and dangers of rescuing people from the falls and other hiking trails, a complicated process involving many first response agencies, rope lines, and dozens of volunteer responders who put themselves in danger each time.
“One of the things that I’m cognizant of at this point is that the local emergency management folks are very challenged in meeting the demands of this area to help people stay safe,” she said. “So when they’re called out to respond to an accident on a trail, it’s very taxing for them and I want to make sure they have the support they need to be able to respond to concerns.”
One of the first things that struck her — that strikes anyone traveling to or through the area — was the parking situation. Rain kept many visitors away Sunday, but the two parking areas, the larger one known as Molly Smith’s and the lower, smaller one, were both nearly full to capacity, with people beginning to park on the sides of the narrow road.
“Just getting to the trailhead is one challenge,” she said. “The parking and road situation is clearly a safety concern.”
Some in the group, Kukle among them, raised the idea of creating a shuttle to carry visitors from parking areas in Palenville and Tannersville to the Molly Smith parking area to access the falls.
“I definitely support researching that and seeing if that is a viable option,” said Tkaczyk. “And there’s an opportunity at those shuttle points to educate people about approriate footwear, safety, etc. Education is really critical.”
Kukle added that a shuttle would help redirect tourists visiting Kaaterskill Falls to nearby communities.
“A lot of them put in the coordinates to Kaaterskill Falls and have never gone and experienced the region,” he said. “So economically, this is a very, very important part.”
Tkaczyk’s first piece of legislation to pass the state legislature and become law last year was the designation of the Mountain Cloves Scenic Byway, which links Platte Clove Road with sections of Route 23A (including the section containing the Kaaterskill Falls trailhead) and Route 214 in a 41-mile corridor. The designation allows for special protections and federal funding, which the Mountain Clove Scenic Byway Steering Committee (represented Sunday by Yost and Kukle, among others), has been working to leverage to solve the problems discussed.
Takczyk said she would be talking to the New York State Department of Transportation, which manages the road and parking lots, for its input into the issue, as well as talking further with DEC about strategies for protecting the wilderness in the area and enhancing visitor safety.
“It’s been very eye-opening,” she said.