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GIVING BACK: River keeper
August 10, 2017

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WILMINGTON - As she walks atop the steep bank of the West Branch of the AuSable River, its raging whitewater jetting through the Flume Falls beneath her feet, Wilmington's Diane Kirby is happy to see not a trace of litter at what's become perhaps the Olympic Region's most popular swimming hole.

"I think seven or eight years I've really started the cleaning binge because I just couldn't stand coming here and seeing it," Kirby said Monday, Aug. 7. "I've not been down here yet this morning and almost my soul is feeling good because there is nothing from yesterday."

Not only is the Flume one of the area's most popular swimming holes, it's also one of the Adirondacks' most lethal spots, and one that has become garbage-laced many times during the summer. A stroll through this riverside-trail Sunday was the latest trash collecting mission for Kirby.

"Yesterday morning was bad," she said. "They must have had a real big party here Saturday night."

Sunday marked the end of lacrosse week in the area in and around Lake Placid. With around 10,000 people descending on the region, Kirby said overcrowding and garbage left behind by visitors at the Flume has become commonplace during the first week of August.

From Monday through Sunday, Kirby cleaned the Flume area each day of lacrosse week. And on one weekday afternoon, while dozens of lacrosse players swam, jumped and drank beverages, she counted more than 50 cars up and down the shoulders of state Route 86. Looking down at the place she protects, Kirby estimated as many as 150 people were occupying this wilderness area.

All these people were at this dangerous spot just a month after an Ithaca man drowned in the aerated pocket where some of these visitors were also jumping, though the water level was down. Others stick to the more calm swimming area mere yards away, but Kirby does not understate the danger of the Flume Falls considering the steep cliffs and oscillating water levels and characteristics.

As for that aerated spot, she refers to it as "The Deadpool." And along with cleaning up, she just wants to help avoid more accidents here in the future, perhaps during a future lacrosse week when the water level here is as high as it was a month ago and visitors are unaware of the heightened dangers.

At a certain point, it comes down to randomness and a numbers game.

"There were 56 cars parked from the bridge all the way down the road," Kirby said. "And even if you did two people per car - which we know it was more than that - that's a lot of people."

Kirby typically only cleans up the Wilmington Flume once a week during the summer, but during more busy times like lacrosse week her hauling out a couple of 30 cases of empty Busch Light cans - her retrieval this Sunday morning - is not uncommon.

"And it's almost always beer cans and beer bottles," Kirby said. "That's what's a little distressing to me is all of the drinking that goes on, and they are swimming in the river. On a normal day, maybe five or six (empties), and maybe sunglasses or towels."

With the beer cans and bottles, Kirby also most typically finds towels left behind.

"And you know they are hotel towels," she said. "They are white, brand new, in terrific shape."

All those towels in decent enough shape get donated to the church thrift store in town.

As for the garbage attracting animal visitors, Kirby said she's never seen a bear rummaging through, say, the three bags of garbage left at the Flume during lacrosse week last year. But she has seen some impressive deer.

"I have seen the biggest deer I've ever seen in my life," she said, "literally I'm tromping along here looking around. And by that big rock, there it was."

With the KOA campground up the ridge on the opposite side of the river, Kirby said many of the visitors she sees come to the Flume use unofficial trails leading from the campground less than a quarter mile away. On this late Monday morning, as a father and son walk wearing running sneakers on the other side, inches from the cliffside leading into the river, Kirby naturally gets nervous. In the past, she's seen others illegally camp in this vicinity on rocks near the river, despite the state Department of Environmental Conservation law that prohibits camping from within 150 feet of a waterway.

And then there were those two GoPro-wearing kayakers who dropped their vessel into the raging AuSable at a more dangerous spot even higher above the whirlpool location where people have perished in the past. Kirby watched them from the bridge by the road above.

"There's all kind of crazy stuff that goes on here," she said.

Despite how people use or misuse the Flume area, the beauty of this spot hasn't wavered for Kirby. And that's why she doesn't want to see the opportunity to come enjoy this be removed for visitors and tourists alike. She just wants to see more respect for this humbling chasm that reflects Mother Nature's power and potential.

"I can't come here and not pick up," Kirby said as she bent down to retrieve a small piece of paper while walking back up to state Route 86. "Then it emerges into doing both sides of the river."

"It is a beautiful spot," she continued. "I don't want the state to rope it off or block it off."

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