Creating Your Own Adventure by Russell Dunn
In the Spring 1997 issue of Kaatskill Life (a quarterly magazine devoted to the Catskills), I wrote an article entitled “Hunting for Waterfalls.”
Little has changed since that piece was written. People still love to get out and hike to waterfalls.
As it turns out, there are way more waterfalls regionally than you would ever imagine, and many are close at hand. To put it another way, you don’t have to travel far to see a waterfall. Some are virtually in your backyard.
A number of waterfalls, to be sure, are well known and heavily visited. They can be read about in articles, books, guidebooks, and readily located. They are easy to find.
But suppose you have a sense of adventure coursing through your veins, and you want to find waterfalls on your own without any help?
How do you go about doing that?
To begin, I would recommend that you purchase a New York State Atlas & Gazetteer, which is a collection of large-scale topographic maps that, while showing rivers, lakes, and mountains in broad detail, best serves you as a highly readable road map. A New York State Atlas & Gazetteer will get you to the general area that you want to explore. Sometimes, waterfalls are even identified on the map.
“I have used both National Geographic and Delorme software programs.”
The second and most important purchase is a topographic map of the area you are interested in checking out, or a topo software program that you can use in conjunction with your technology. I have used both National Geographic and Delorme software programs. Topo maps show in much greater detail the topography (relief) of the landscape you will be negotiating. Streams are indicated by blue lines; certain waterfalls by short blue slashes across the blue lines. Some waterfalls are indicated by the name, but these are the exceptions rather than the rule.
Most waterfalls, however, require a bit more diligence to find on maps, since only the big or famous ones are depicted with blue slashes. Ideally, what you need to look for are areas where topographic lines bunch up as they cross a blue line. This suggests the very real possibility that a waterfall will be present. The problem here is that the lines only bunch up noticeably when a fairly good size waterfall is present. Waterfalls less than 15─25 feet high probably will not reveal themselves if you are scanning topo maps using this technique.
But all is not lost. You can also look for where lines bunch up on each side of a blue line, indicating a gorge or chasm, and waterfalls are often in close proximity to such land features.
“Google Earth, for sure, ends up both tantalizing and teasing.”
New technology, of course, keeps coming into existence. Now, we have Google Earth. By using this program, you may be able to locate, or at least make a good guess, as to where a waterfall might be. The software program essentially allows you to look down vertically at the landscape below. You can zoom in to look closer, but at some point, the picture begins to blur and becomes indistinct, so that you can’t get too close. Google Earth, for sure, ends up both tantalizing and teasing.
Another problem with Google Earth is that even big waterfalls look fairly flatten when seen from directly above. It is hard to really tell the size of what you are looking at or if, indeed, it is a waterfall. This is especially true for smaller falls. The trick is to look for a lot of white splotches on the river where the water has been churned up. It may be indicative of a waterfall or, minimally, rapids.
A nice feature of Google Earth is that it allows you to get an exact GPS coordinate of the site you are interested in, as well as its elevation. If you have a hand-held GPS unit, you can then use the GPS coordinates to guide you unerringly to the waterfall.
“The trick is to look for a lot of white splotches on the river where the water has been churned up.”
There are other more traditional ways of locating waterfalls. I have spent a fair amount of time in the New York State Library going through old, regional history books. You’d be surprised at just how much information can be found about old mill sites where either a dam, a waterfall, or a dammed waterfall provided hydro-power. Once you figure out the location, you can go to the site to see if there is a waterfall on the stream.
If you have a chance, it’s worth going to a postcard show (yes – we do have them in our area) to look for antique postcards and stereoviews. So many cards feature natural wonders. In the case of waterfalls, the postcard typically includes a caption identifying the name of the waterfall and the village where it is located. For example, “Rainbow Falls, Keene Valley”. While this information may not tell you exactly what stream the waterfall is on, at least it gets you pointed in the right direction. On occasion, I have brought postcards along with me and shown them to villagers, hoping that they might recognize the waterfall by image or name and be able to direct me further. Generally, this “hit or miss” is more miss than hit.
There have even been instances when I have inadvertently stumbled upon a waterfall simply by listening and being attentive. Waterfalls produce sound, particularly in the spring when they are driven by mammoth releases of snowmelt, and sound can guide you to an off-trail waterfall. Just make sure that you don’t venture out with a group of talkative companions.
No doubt, there are people already using drones to look for waterfalls, but I suspect that the use of drones in the woods, other than for search & rescue, is likely to become restricted or outrightly prohibited as time goes on.
Anyhow, I hope these thoughts will be of help to you. But remember, whether or not you find a waterfall, half of the fun is simply getting out and having an adventure!
Mr. Dunn is the author of a plethora of waterfall, kayaking and hiking guides of the North East. Most of which can be found right here on Dig The Falls!