My Turn: Park workers strive for a safer river

Pocono Record
Friday, September 4, 2009

A Message from Superintendent of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area


Photo by Aviator Dave. CC.

By JOHN J. DONAHUE - Superintendent of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area

As the Superintendent of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area and the Middle Delaware Scenic and Recreational River, I commend the Pocono Record editorial staff for their efforts to encourage safety on the Delaware River for swimmers and boaters alike. I would be remiss, however, if I did not point out that the Pocono Record was mistaken when it assumed that the Recreation Area has not imposed mandatory life jacket wearing during high water events. In point of fact, I was the superintendent who has led the way for greater safety by signing the new regulations during this very wet year for mandatory life jacket wear. It was DWGNRA that is leading this new direction for safer river recreation during challenging conditions.

I always hesitate to speak about successful efforts to prevent drowning since any record of safety is as fragile as the next human life that is lost. However, I am very proud of my staff’s efforts during this unusually safe year for us on the Middle Delaware Scenic and Recreational River.

While we lost one soul in a deep pool up at Adams Creek, no one has drowned in our section of the river for more than a year.

In addition to the mandatory life jacket rule we initiated, we also close the river completely at or near flood stage. Our fine protection rangers, interpretive rangers and maintenance workers are extremely expert at evacuation and rescue of stranded visitors whether they have wandered too far out on a cliff, broken a bone on the Appalachian Trail, been bitten by a rattlesnake or are simply lost in the woods in the cold and dark nights that blanket our forests.

We have added more Spanish-speaking employees to ease communications with some of our largest user groups and constantly monitor changing conditions.

Our 24-hour dispatch operation coordinates efforts with the volunteers and professionals in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, five counties and the 22 townships within the park boundary.

This year we brought in a safety intern through the Student Conservation Association who specializes in analyzing problems and making public contacts. His presence and interaction with people all summer at danger hot spots along the river has helped us maintain the best record we have ever had to date. There is no way to prove what prevents drowning, but we believe that our constant vigilance can and does make a difference.

As the individual responsible for the health and safety of every person who enters our spectacular recreation area, I am always intimately engaged in every major incident that occurs within the park boundary. No serious event takes place in DWGNRA that I am not one of the first people contacted.

I consider my responsibility for the safety of every visitor to be a sacred trust. I am notified at any time of day or night when these problems arise. Every individual who works in the park carries that same concern for the visitor in their heart. Whether we are performing a rescue or recovering a body, we proceed with the same empathy for the victim’s family as our guiding light.

Unfortunately constant vigilance is never enough. Yes, we are planning for new signage, rules, greater coordination with other similar parks and educational efforts that are bound to reap a bounty of safer river days for many people.

But enjoying the challenges that nature has to offer involves personal risk and personal responsibility. We sometimes underestimate the power of the river or overestimate our own skills. Today we mark 15 months without a tragic death in this part of the Delaware River, but we only do so in full knowledge that greater powers than our own are at work and we can never have hubris about the next day, the next swimmer, and the next rescue. What I can assure the public is that the best National Park Service employees in our nation are vigilantly making every effort possible to provide the best and safest visit possible for all five million visitors every day of every year.

John J. Donahue is superintendent of the Delaware River National Recreation Area.