If you’ve taken the Cave of the Winds tour at any point in the last twenty years, there’s a good chance that you may have met Travis Saturley.
Travis has likely greeted over a million visitors with his warm smile and in-depth knowledge of Niagara Falls history. His love for his hometown always shined through as a tour guide during the tourist season.
Many times I have personally witnessed Travis engaging with tourists and giving them a memorable experience.
During the off season, Travis is one of the expert deck builders responsible for braving the raging waters underneath the Bridal Veil Falls. He did it all with a childlike sense of glee that few people ever get to experience while they’re at work.
For a little over a year now, Travis Saturley has been the park manager in charge of Whirlpool Park, Deveaux Woods, Devil’s Hole and the Reservoir. In my opinion, there’s no better person for the job.
Reminiscing about his days at the Cave, Travis says, “It was a good time. I miss it.”
I worked at the Cave of the Winds briefly as a tour guide 17 years ago, and that’s how Travis and I met. Like all of the other tour guides, I looked up to Travis.
When I saw recently that Travis became the park manager for the Niagara gorge, I breathed a sigh of relief.
As a teenager, Travis was the very first person who educated me about the importance of keeping our river clean. He also taught me about Nikola Tesla and Niagara’s history with hydropower.
Travis took a civil service exam and waited patiently for years before being told that he’d landed his dream job.
Says Travis, “Ironically, this park was the one on my wish list. I thought it was impossible, and for a couple of years I interviewed for other parks and turned them down. Then they figured I fit best at this park and informed me last spring that I got the job.”
Travis Saturley is no slouch when it comes to the Niagara gorge. “I’ve been trying to improve everything that I can,” he says, “Before I even got in with the parks, in my twenties the gorge was my go-to place to hang out. I trained my dogs in the gorge and I’d go fishing down there. I’d go down there to get my head right. During that time, I’d be down there sometimes four to five times every week.”
Travis and I both share the same affinity for the Niagara gorge, one of the last remaining sanctuaries that us locals have left. This summer, while I was hiking down in Whirlpool, two incidents occurred that made me want to reach out to Travis for this interview.
I ran into a State Parks employee who was carrying a sack and a grabber, picking up garbage down in the lower gorge. This may not sound like a revelation to some, but I spent years advocating for this simple task. I even co-founded the Niagara gorge cleanup with my Tuscarora brother Randy Greene. Seeing an employee (her name was Katie) picking up garbage, I literally jumped for joy.
We struck up a conversation and she told me that Travis was her boss. That made perfect sense to me, because I know that Travis is a man of action who cares about keeping our natural wonder clean.
Says Travis, “Seeing a negative review of anything to do with Niagara Falls used to get me angry. We can’t let our reputation be that our city is a crappy place, and have people around the world thinking that. We’ve got to send people away with a positive attitude about our parks and our areas because it’s ours. Keeping the gorge clean is a top priority of mine.”
I’ve heard this sentiment echoed by local business owners, who depend on search engine reviews to draw tourists to their establishments. Travis has his finger on the pulse, and that’s a win for local businesses.
The second incident in the gorge occurred while I was hiking back up the stairs. I noticed a heavyset woman who was red in the face and sweating profusely. She was leaning against a rock and she looked like she was going to pass out. People were hiking past her, so I stopped to see if she was alright.
She told me that her name was Jennifer and she took a trip to Niagara Falls by herself, to see the waterfalls. Someone had told her that the gorge trail was easy, but when she’d gotten down to the bottom she realized that she had made a big mistake. “I had no business being down there,” she said to me. She admitted that she was overweight and she said she refused to be airlifted back out, saying “That would be mortifying.”
Two students from Niagara University gave her some water, and Jennifer and I spent an hour walking back up the stairs; stopping periodically. She said, “If there had just been a sign at the top that clearly spelled out the difficulty, I would have never gone down there!”
This is a problem during tourism season, and every year several people have to be rescued out of the gorge by emergency services. Not everyone is fit for the rugged hike, in the same way that some people shouldn’t hike the Grand Canyon.
Travis is aware of this issue. “We are working on getting better signs to inform the public that this is a real hike and it’s not for everyone. There’s no way to make the gorge less difficult but we can definitely do better at making people aware of what they’re getting into.”
Now that Travis is in his new position, I was curious about his feelings regarding possible commercialization of the lower gorge. Says Travis, “You and I kind of view those things similarly. I’m totally against commercialization of the gorge. I had a request for a permit to sell concessions and stuff down in the gorge this year. Absolutely not. It needs to stay natural.”
Spoken like a true Niagarian. For those of us who love the peace and serenity of the gorge, we can sleep well knowing that Travis is now the overseer of our world treasure.
Some of us “gorge rats” have been exploring the trails for a long time. Travis is no exception. He still remembers vividly his very first time entering the gorge.
“My father passed away this spring,” says Travis, “My first trip down in the gorge was with my dad and I remember my first trip down the Devil’s Hole stairs. I went down there with my dad to go salmon fishing. I was five years old and my dad made me carry this big tackle box. Between that connection with my dad and my deep connection with the gorge, that’s where my head is at with my job. It’s very personal to me.”
Travis continued, “When I first got the job I started driving around and looking at things that needed repairs. I noticed the railings were in dire need of repair. They’d been put in sometime in the 1960’s and I don’t think they’d ever been replaced since. So we just finished making them more safe.”
Travis is not some transplant shipped in by New York State Parks. He’s a lifelong resident of Niagara Falls.
New York State Parks Spokesperson Angela Berti expressed her admiration for Travis to the Reporter, saying “First and foremost, I’m proud of Travis because he’s a wonderful human being and I consider him a friend. I was super proud when he got this job because that’s what we need is people who take a personal pride in what they’re working on.”
She continued, saying “It’s not to say that people before us have not had that pride, it’s just different when you grow up in that place. For me, it’s important that a local person is the steward of local places and I’m super stoked about Trav getting the staff rallied around this beautiful place and doing the right thing. He’s doing a fantastic job.”
Travis emphasized his current focus on bringing his staff together to get things running smoothly. Aside from fixing the railings, his first year on the job has included little projects like fixing picnic tables and putting in new grills.
Says Travis, “I travel and look at other parks and see how they’re doing things. When I see parks with high standards, I want to emulate that.” Before he worked for State Parks, Travis would often hike the gorge with a garbage bag and fill it up with trash on his way back. Needless to say, we need more people like Travis.
“I feel like we’re influencing the public by keeping the gorge clean, and they’ll keep it clean.” Says Travis, “There’s going to be people who will throw garbage on the ground right next to the garbage can. There’s always going to be those people. We clean up after those people for the majority who don’t act that way. It’s not everyone, but there’s a few who don’t respect it the way we do and we clean up after them so that everyone can enjoy our parks.”
Listening to Travis speak about his love for the Niagara gorge was humbling. Not only is litter unsightly, but heavy rains lead to runoff and that garbage makes its way down into the river, threatening the aquatic wildlife. The Niagara gorge is also one of the largest estuaries in the world, boasting a wide variety of endangered birds.
As for his future plans for the four parks he’s now managing, Travis shared his determination to help make Niagara Falls a year round destination for tourists and locals alike.
“We’re working on a project at Whirlpool, at the bathroom building,” he says, “It’s going to be transformed into a year round usage building. The public will be able to go in, and there will be a fire going and you can warm up. There will be an interpretive staff which will tell you about the history of the park. It’s going to be awesome. There will be cross country skiing and other activities that will increase the length of the season and make it year round.”
Travis knows that safety and cleanliness are at the core of a thriving tourism industry. He also has ideas for expanding the recreational element without jeopardizing our natural wonder. His wisdom is rooted in his background as a tour guide, which required speaking one-on-one with countless tourists over a career that spans two decades.
It’s not just a paycheck and it’s not about getting credit – for Travis, the work is his reward.