The Beauty And Danger Of Zoar Valley

11:25 AM, Oct 24, 2011   |    comments
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Incredible Vistas Like This Are Plentiful In Zoar Valley.

Zoar Valley in the Southern Tier is a study in contrasts. Like a pendulum swinging wildly between breathtaking beauty and life threatening danger. Zoar can be a perfect example of how a peaceful day in nature can turn into a traumatic, sometimes fatal experience.

The valley is incredibly beautiful, with Cattaraugus Creek winding through 400 foot cliffs, and ancient groves of trees secreted quietly within the valley. These groves contain some of the last stands of old growth forest in New York State, home to ten of the tallest trees of their species in New York, and one, a 128 foot Basswood Tree, that is thought to be the tallest in the world. With all of it's wild splendor, it's no wonder Zoar Valley is such a popular spot.

Don Shelters of the Zoar Valley Paddling Club has been exploring Zoar Valley for years. "The old growth forest that's in Zoar Valley, the hiking, there's over fifty miles of river sections on the river, Cattaraugus Creek itself, we canoe and kayak all different stretches of the river, there's the South Branch with the waterfalls you're not supposed to hike into, but you're allowed to kayak through, so that's mainly why I come here."

Zoar Valley may be one of the last truly wild areas in Western New York, with very few roads running through and fairly limited access in to it. The feral nature of the valley is surely one of the reasons people seek to explore it, but is also one of it's greatest dangers. The risks involved in hiking or kayaking through the gorge are many, and lack of respect can lead to serious peril.

Shelters warns, "When the river's running high, it can kill you, it can drown you. The cliffs are steep here, if you're not paying attention, people fall here all the time. It's a dangerous place to be, and we have to have respect, and we have to pay attention to what we're doing."

Captain Kevin Caffery knows a thing or two about the dangers of Zoar. As a pilot for Erie County's Helicopter Search and Rescue Unit, he's taken part in many rescues in the gorge, and he sees many of the same mistakes made over and over.
Getting into trouble here is double jeopardy! It's not only dangerous to the victims of the accident, but the rescue crew as well.

"We train a lot down in there, and we've been down in there an awful lot this year alone," Caffery says. "But again, you never know what can happen down in there. We don't like going in there, certainly, because it's not safe for us, biggest thing is for people to use common sense when they go down in there."

Common sense...that's the key! There are a few easy things one can do to avoid disaster when exploring Zoar Valley.

Shelters says, "If you're going to come down here, maybe you should have a head lamp, a lighter in case you need to have a fire. We want to make sure you have water to drink, and safety in numbers always helps."

Caffery agrees, "Get themselves a guide, or someone who's experienced down there, that's probably the safest way to go down in there. And don't go down there late in the afternoon, because it's like locking yourself in a closet, it gets pitch black down in there and it get's cold. If you're going to go in there, prepare ahead of time, and do it safely."

All these warnings aside, Zoar Valley is certainly one of Western New York's most beautiful areas, and as long as you stay safe, a trip into Zoar can be a memorable experience.

"It's a great place to come and visit, it's a great place to explore," says Shelters. "But use common sense, and safety should always be on our mind when we're hiking around in here."

A great guide to Zoar Valley and a number of other wild places in our region is "Secret Places Of Western New York And Southern Ontario". It's available at local book stores and


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