Climbers prepare for gorge work
WATKINS GLEN--Even state parks need a little spring cleaning every year. After a long winter, no matter how bad the weather gets, the Watkins Glen State Park always has work crews scale the walls of the gorge, removing ice, loose rocks and debris to make the trails and pathways safe for a new season of visitors. The crews are part of a team of state park employees who not only work to clear the Watkins park, but five others throughout the state as well.
Sonny Howard has been working to help clear the gorge every spring for the past 11 years, working with a team of four other workers (called scalers). Last year, Howard was put in charge of the scalers in order to keep things running smoothly. The crews work for two months throughout April and May, working at Buttermilk, Robert Treman, Stony Brook, Taughannock Falls and Fillmore Glen State Parks in addition to Watkins.
"Watkins takes the longest," Howard said. "All the parks want to be open at the same time, so we have to spell it out what makes sense as far as travel time and all that is involved. [...] We get them all done as quickly as we can. That's what draws people to our region is the gorges, so we want to make it as safe as we can for everybody."
Watkins takes anywhere from 18 to 21 days of work depending on the weather. Howard said he got started scaling duty while working at a park in Ithaca as part of the ground crew who gathers the debris that are knocked down. He said he thought it would be an interesting job to do, so he decided to get some training and join the crew for himself.
"When I first started, basically the training you got was in-house, and it was up to the scaler to bring me along," Howard said. "It is kind of neat because some of the spots are easy jumps, and then it kind of progressively gets higher and trickier, so you got to kind of bring someone along as they are developing."
Howard said training now takes several days, and they often train every year in order to keep it fresh in their minds. He said the highest point in Watkins Glen is when they clean by the gorge entrance. Howard noted the favorite part of his job is not only the adrenaline rush of the work, but also the great view others may not have the opportunity to see from the gorge path. Howard added, it is a rewarding job knowing he is helping keep other people safe. He also said there are dangers associated with the job, adding while he has not had any injuries, beyond a few bruises and scrapes, every climber has to make sure they are aware of their rope placement while on the sides of the cliff.