Waterfalls are special places. They attract us to visit their realms, where they tumble over ledges in a froth of white, making a visual and audio splash into our lives.
However, waterfalls have dangers. Waterfall visitors drown in heavy undertows like that at Laurel Fork Falls near Hampton. Others perish while climbing alongside or even in cataracts, like occasionally happens at Unicoi County’s Red Fork Falls. Still others get hurt trying to reach remote off-trail cataracts like Painter Creek Falls in the Sampson Mountain Wilderness.
Every warm season, we have accidents around waterfalls, and believe me, I am no alarmist. However, make visiting a waterfall an enjoyable natural experience, not a precursor to an emergency room. Do not climb on slippery rocks or atop a falls. Lovely waterfalls often hide lethal danger. Crabtree Falls in Virginia has claimed 23 lives to date. Great Falls at Rock Island State Park in Middle Tennessee has been the scene of over 100 recorded deaths the last 6 decades.
Developed areas can be just as dangerous as undeveloped areas. As one ranger put it, “It is just the nature of rocks and water and cliffs. You can build observation decks and post signs, but people will be careless and use poor judgment.”
The hazards are real. When playing around a waterfall, remember “a single slip could be your last”.
Here are some axioms to follow while visiting waterfalls:
Stay on developed trails and do not stray from observation points or platforms.
Watch your footing. Rocks may be slippery, and algae-coated areas are unforgiving.
The top of any waterfall is, of course, the most dangerous part. Avoid the temptation to lean over a ledge at the top of the falls.
Exercise caution on the trail to the falls, as well as around the falls themselves. Waterfall trails are often treacherous—steep and rocky with sheer embankments.
Be especially cautious when taking photographs. You are likely to pay more attention to your camera than to your footing.
Watch children carefully. Children should always be under the immediate supervision of an adult.
Watch your dog. I saw a golden retriever, who seemed surefooted but did not understand the concept of slick rocks, fall off a 12-foot drop. He was fine, but its master was nearly injured scurrying down to him.
Never hike alone.
On any hike, carry a small daypack or fanny pack with useful items and extra gear. Most people consider ten items essential: matches, a compass, a map, a knife, a flashlight, sunglasses, fire kindling, extra food, extra clothing, and a first-aid kit. Add dry bags to the list for waterproofing and organizing. In addition, carry an adequate supply of water. Do not drink any surface water unless it has been boiled for one minute or treated.
The proceeding list may seem long, but the first six essentials can fit into a small pack or bag. Extra food and clothing (a few candy bars and a raincoat or sweater) do not take up much space. Avid hikers sometimes keep a daypack filled and ready to go, checking the contents occasionally, testing batteries, restocking first-aid supplies, and adding to food reserves as necessary.
That way, you are not only prepared at the waterfall, but on your way to the waterfall. Now go have fun.