Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

RIP Glen Onoko Falls

Maybe it is just me, but it seems as though there are often natural treasures near to where we live that for some reason or another, we don’t get around to visiting. I grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, but it wasn’t until I moved to eastern Pennsylvania a thousand miles away, did I realize how many spectacular destinations I never visited in the 16 years I lived there. I guess you just think that those places will always be there, and you will get around to exploring them at some point.

There are plenty of places like that in eastern Pennsylvania too. Work brought me east almost 33 years ago, and I can easily generate a long list of hikes, waterfalls, gorges, etc. that I would like to do or see, but haven't gotten around to yet. Given that I am not getting any younger, I should probably stop procrastinating. One of those places, less than a 40-minute drive from my home, is Glen Onoko Falls on state game land property adjacent to the Lehigh Gorge State Park. Earlier this month, the Pennsylvania Game Commission decided to close the trail to the falls as of May 1, 2019 -- citing that the trail was too dangerous, and it would cost too much money to make it safer.

Well, nothing like an incentive like that to get me to the falls on this gorgeous day, just a few days before the area would be permanently off-limits. Apparently, a lot of other people had the same idea. We arrived just before 9:00 a.m. when the trails officially open and there were already scores of vehicles in the parking lot. We noted the warning signs about the dangerous trail and began the ascent. At first, the trail isn’t very steep or difficult, but eventually becomes a more challenging climb up slope, over wet rocks and muddy sections. In parts, I was focusing too much on the climb and not losing my footing so didn't take photos.

Along the trail, people were cheery; many noted that they had never been to the falls before either. Others indicated that they were regular visitors. All were saddened by the news of the pending closure.

I was struck by how many families were hiking with young children. One man had a toddler in a backpack and his other three young daughters with him. In this risk-adverse culture that suffers from nature-deficit disorder, I was thrilled to see so many people of all ages enjoying the outdoors and the challenge of the hike. It was also refreshing to see so many teens and college-age hikers off their phones, except to take photos of the magnificent scenery. And maybe, just maybe, there was a bit of public defiance in action.

The Destination: Glen Onoko Falls, one of three falls along the trail.

As I write this, almost 19,000 people have signed a petition to keep the falls open.

We chose to come down the same part of the trail we climbed, definitely a bit more tricky than going up. We were back to the trailhead by around 11:00 a.m. and had probably passed 100 other people. Swarms of newcomers were walking towards us and the various parking areas were all full. I suspect that by days end, there will be several hundred visitors to the soon-to-be-banned trail. I hope everyone treks safely today. And I am glad that we went early.

According to one report, “at least 10 people have died along the steep, rocky and slippery trail since the 1970s, and there have been scores of serious injuries, straining the all-volunteer rescue squads that serve the mountainous area 85 miles (135 kilometers) north of Philadelphia.”

Lenape (Delaware) Indians traversed these forests long before the Moravian missions came, or the loggers of European descent, or John James Audubon – who sketched and painted birds of the area. Anthracite coal was discovered in the area in 1791, and the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company moved in building dams, locks and canals along the Lehigh River (derived from a Lenape name) – the river that the water from the Glen Onoko Falls flows into and a waterway that was critical for the Industrial Revolution in the U.S. The Lehigh Valley and New Jersey Central railroads moved coal and tourists through the area later in the 1800s. (For some history of the region, see here or here.)

Many visited the magnificent Hotel Wahnetah, which was first known as the Glen Onoko Tavern. Legend has it that Princess Onoko of the Wahnetah tribe jumped into the falls in mourning over her lover. One version of the story is that her father had the guy thrown over the falls. Maybe their ghosts push unsuspecting hikers off the ledge. Or maybe, some people just do stupid things.

It was a wonderful hike and the falls, especially after heavy rains, were spectacular. Waterfalls are among my happy places. And now, I am sad that I didn’t come sooner and more often.

I was one of the people who signed the petition, on April 16th before I ever even saw the falls. I am one of many who believe that the PA Game Commission should transfer the parcel of land with the trail and falls to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources which manages the adjacent state park. I know of many land transfers that have provided additional land to the Game Commission, which manages nearly 1.5 million acres in the Commonwealth. Some of these large tracts are very near to my house (and I do visit them fairly often). The primary purpose of Game Lands is for the “management of habitat for wildlife and provide opportunities for lawful hunting and trapping.” Recreational uses are “secondary.” Heck, I would be willing to buy an annual permit to support these protected lands and help keep the trail open.

I am deeply saddened that the carelessness (or stupidity) of a few have led to this natural treasure being declared off-limits for all those who were regular visitors or to those who always meant to get there.

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