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By David A. Ramsey • Mar 17, 2019 at 12:00 AM

"The trail we will be on today is rocky, muddy, steep and extremely slick. No matter what—you have to stay on the trail. Should you decide to get off the trail, there is a very good chance you will not survive. So repeat after me: On the trail, I live—off the trail, I die. Once more, with feeling: ON THE TRAIL, I LIVE—OFF THE TRAIL, I DIE. Everybody got it? Now, let's go have some fun!"

Sounds a bit like dialogue from an episode of "Survivor" or "Naked and Afraid," right? Actually, these were the words of my fifth-grade teacher, Maynard Blevins, prepping my classmates and me for a hike to Red Fork Falls, the first real waterfall most of us had ever seen. On that day the intense experience of standing in clouds of mist, directly below a 70-foot, plunging, roaring giant that could kill us, was thus etched into our eleven-year-old psyches. Yep—we stayed on the trail.

I don't think I've yet met the person that doesn't like waterfalls. Maybe part of it is because waterfalls are said to produce negative ions, which are believed to increase a person's level of mood-elevating serotonin. How else do we explain the relaxing, positive feeling we get from sitting near falling or flowing water?

The Tennessee Blue Ridge is a waterfall lover's paradise. Unicoi County, arguably Tennessee's most mountainous county in proportion to its size, has more than thirty named waterfalls, including the more than 700-foot Buckeye Falls. Greene, Carter, Washington and Johnson Counties also have their share of falls and cascades, as do adjacent counties in western North Carolina and southwest Virginia.

Unfortunately, a waterfall's striking beauty and positive effect on our minds and emotions often belie its inherent dangers. Name almost any waterfall in our region of around 50 feet or more in height, and you can be fairly certain it has claimed one or more lives since its discovery. Red Fork Falls, mentioned earlier, has been the site of several such tragedies over the years, hence the dire warning from our teacher before he led us there.

Yet, for many people, it seems the closer they get to a waterfall, the further behind they leave their common sense. And with the massive increase in the popularity of phone cameras, hold-my-beer selfies and social media, it's no wonder more people than ever are getting killed or badly injured around waterfalls. Follow a few simple rules, and you might just get to share the story of your waterfall experience with the people that care about you. For example:

– Never climb on the face of a waterfall or the rocks nearby.

– Stay on the established trail to and from the falls.

– Rocks near waterfalls are almost always slicker than they look.

– Underwater currents can be incredibly strong near big waterfalls.

– Don't drink and dive. Remember: Alcohol–Waterfall–End it all.

– Waterfall deaths often involve ignoring one or more of the above.

Almost without exception waterfalls, throughout the world, exist in places of exceptional beauty and wild surroundings, such as state and national parks or national forests. As such, most of these scenic gems are protected by law. Even waterfalls that exist on privately owned land are typically free of development or human disturbance in their immediate surroundings.

There are several excellent guides to waterfalls in our region, including these two by Johnny Molloy: Hiking Waterfalls in Tennessee and Waterfalls of the Blue Ridge. Both are available at Mahoney's in Johnson City.

Some of the more interesting waterfalls in northeastern Tennessee and vicinity include:

Lower Higgins Cr. Falls –Cherokee N.F., off Hwy 19W/352, Unicoi Co.

Elk River Falls – Elk Park area, off Hwy 19E, Avery Co.

Red Fork Falls – Unaka Mtn. Wilderness Area, off Hwy 107, Unicoi Co.

Blue Hole Falls – Stony Creek area, off Hwy 91, Carter Co.

Gentry Creek Falls – Laurel Bloomery area, off Hwy 91, Johnson Co.

Rock Creek Falls – Rock Creek Recreation Area, Unicoi Co.

Sill Branch and Buckeye Falls – Clarks Creek area, off Hwy 107, Washington Co.

Lots of things about waterfalls attract us to them, their scenic beauty, peacefulness, mystery. But there is something else that lies at the core of our fascination with these natural wonders — we know that water is the most powerful force on Earth. Thus waterfalls, particularly the big ones, exist as perfect, ancient symbols of Nature's unyielding power.


David A. Ramsey is a regionally and nationally recognized outdoor photographer and writer from Unicoi, TN. His recently released book, Rocky Fork: Hidden Jewel of the Blue Ridge Wild, is available at Mahoney's in Johnson City and online from his website at www.ramseyphotos.com

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