Beauty of Vermont gorge masks danger


RICHMOND, Vt. -- Huntington River Gorge may be one of the most beautiful spots in Vermont. It is also one of the deadliest.

At least 20 people, most in their 20s or 30s, have died, and hundreds have been injured while swimming in the gorge over the past four decades. Seemingly placid waters mask strong currents that quickly sweep over waterfalls and into whirlpools.

Last year, the chief of the state's public safety commission called the gorge the "single most deadly place in the state."

How to change that has been a matter of debate for decades in this town 14 miles east of Burlington. Some have lobbied for more signs to warn of the danger, others for a fence, and a handful of people think the gorge should be destroyed.

The debate reached a new height in 2005 after a 19-year-old student at the University of Vermont in Burlington slipped on some rocks, fell and drowned. It has continued since a local man, Gary Bressor, bought the property in October and into the current swimming season.

"There is buzz about it," said Dan Martin, president of the Richmond Land Trust. "I haven't heard any new ideas, just a lot of the same ideas. Some people don't want to do anything about it, but some people want to take drastic measures."

Bressor, a local carpenter, formed a limited liability company and purchased the gorge for $20,000. When he was growing up, he swam in safer parts of the gorge, and he said he wanted to ensure that it was left unspoiled.

"I didn't like the direction that the talks were going with what to do with the gorge," he said. "I thought it would be easier to own it than to fight people."

He has placed several signs on one side of the gorge warning of its dangers: "When the water is high due to rain or snowmelt, especially powerful currents can easily sweep you over the falls and trap you underneath the water."

Some worry that the signs are concentrated at only one entrance to the gorge, where a plaque memorializing many of those who have died has stood for years.

"I would like there to be better public information, dissemination of the dangers of that spot," said Rebecca Mueller, the town librarian.

But Mueller does not think it is plausible, or necessary, to keep people out of the gorge. She would rather see them educated about the risks.

"But like you can't necessarily tell a 19-year-old to slow down from driving 80 miles per hour, you can't necessarily tell them not to take a dip in the cool river," Mueller said. "And if you're drinking or smoking dope, your risk goes up."

Most residents said they knew where to swim in the gorge and when to stay out of it.

"It's not the locals who are dying in the gorge," said Don Morin, a contractor who said he would like to ban swimming there. "There are a lot of people who have lived around here all their lives and never gone near it."

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, many of those at the gorge were of college age.

Caitlin Andrews, 19, and Greg Berkovich, 20, both students at the University of Vermont, were climbing a hill near the warning signs. "I always heard lots of people died here," Andrews said as she looked at the memorial, "but I didn't know this many."

Andrews, whose legs were bruised and scratched from the rocks, said she "just heard about this place, all the time," and wanted to see it for herself.

"Plus, it's beautiful," she said.

Andrews said people were aware of the dangers and tried to be as careful as possible.

"We just go swimming in the shallow part," she said. "There's not much else you can do. You can't change the water, and you can't stop people from going in."

Jeff Wagg of Richmond said he would like to do just that. He thinks that the gorge should be destroyed, or at least that some of the more dangerous parts should be blasted out, as they were in the 1970s after a state police officer died there while trying to retrieve a body.

"My take on it is that what's attractive about the place is its beauty. That's also its problem," Wagg said. "So I think it should be considered that if human life is the most important thing here, it's worth considering taking out the beauty."

But for most others, beauty is the reason it should stay.

"I don't really think you can do anything," said Tara Smith, 33, of Richmond, as she took a walk past the gorge. "They should just keep it all the way it is, and has been, and people should just be more careful."

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