Of Cataracts and Wriggling Waters

George Washington National Forest

George Washington National Forest

There are plenty of well-known waterfalls here in western New York State. In this eroding foothill region, we not only have that world-class cataract known as Niagara, we also have hypnotic falls at Letchworth, Stony Brook, and Watkins Glen state parks, not to mention Taughannock Falls near Ithaca and a host of other lesser knowns, all of them glacially-toned and fascinating in their own ways.

A falls is a vertical or nearly vertical drop of water. For the sake of argument let’s say it should have a minimum height of five feet, with water flowing over it for most of the year if not all of it. A cascade is a type of falls with a steep or moderate slope, as opposed to being upright. Basically speaking, there are three classes of waterfalls.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

First, there’s a ribbon falls, whose height is notably greater than the width of its brink, or crest. (In a moment I want to describe a ribbon falls I recently visited in Virginia, the highest falls east of the Mississippi River). Secondly, there’s what is known as the classical falls, whose height is basically equal to the width of its crest, or top. And thirdly, there’s the curtain falls, whose height is notably smaller than the width of its crest. All three classes of falls can be found in my rivertop country.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat counts is our emotional response to waterfalls. A gentle falls usually has a soothing or relaxing effect on those who take the time to pause beside it. A large one may command respect and wonder, even the suggestion of infinity, as one gazes into the unending break-up and regathering of waters. Whether a wriggling thread of water or a thundering cataract, a falls can elicit awe. I enjoy contemplating a site from below or above the falls, which is safer, of course, than getting sucked in physically like the Maclean brothers do while rowboating in the movie A River Runs Through It.

Crabtree Falls is located in the George Washington National Forest of Virginia. It’s OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAknown as “the tallest falls east of the Mississippi River.” From Charlottesville, we made a visit to this falls that cascades from the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains with a drop of more than 1000 feet. The cascade of this ribbon falls can be divided into five major parts, with its greatest singular drop measuring 400 feet in height. Mind you, this is water falling all year round, even during the driest parts of summer.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWith a three-dollar parking fee that’s paid near the base of the falls, you are ready to follow this vertical tributary of Virginia’s Tye River, some 30-miles southwest of Charlottesville. The lower end of the trail, approaching the bottom-most falls, is paved. The trail then becomes dirt and climbs a series of nine switchbacks to the top of the falls, about two miles into the sky. Wooden guardrails edge the well-kept path and its overlooks. Signs are posted that warn you of slippery algae that coats the rocks if you dare step beyond the rails. To date, 23 people have tempted fate and fallen to their deaths at Crabtree Falls.

After a climb of 1.7 miles from the valley you arrive at a wooden bridge near the top of Crabtree where you can have a great overlook on the valley floor and Blue Ridge Mountains. The hike can be taxing but should be rewarding in any season, weather-permitting.

We climbed it on a misty, foggy day. Because of the fog we never had much of a long-OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERArange view, except in sudden moments when the clouds parted briefly and reminded us how small human nature is when we can see the world beyond.

The power of waterfalls comes from any number of atmospheric directions. It can apprehend us from the top of a ribbon structure. It can come from classical perspectives like that of the majestic Niagara, or from a quieting curtain falls, like the one you might consider swimming underneath, or casting a fly to for the mystery of what lies under.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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4 Responses to Of Cataracts and Wriggling Waters

  1. Junior says:

    I would say that, despite the fog, the writing and the pictures effectively convey the vertical scale of Crabtree Falls. Richard sent an email this morning about a girl from Liberty University falling to her death yesterday after going off-trail.

    • Junior, Thank you. Ugh, there went another one. Similar stories are becoming all too frequent. Could be suicide or murder, but probably another case of not respecting the character of natural formations.


  2. Beautiful description, Walt. Obviously, falls are not something we get to enjoy much here in the Sunshine State. Until this post, I had never realized that there was another definition of ‘cataract.’

    • Jim, Since you mention it, I may have been running on assumptions for the definition of “cataracts” and realize I should’ve checked the definition before printing. Hopefully I did. It’s like a mother of waterfalls. The massive ones like Niagara or Victoria, or lesser ones with an infinite feel. Where the mountains kneel down to the sea and to the sunny lands like Florida.


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