Archived Mountain Voices

Waterfalls have a near mystical attraction

mtn voicesWe are attracted to water. Mountain paths always wind down to water ... down to springs, creeks and rivers. Water is the essence of our very being. Old-time mountaineers picked home sites according to the location and purity of springs. Long before the first Europeans arrived, the Cherokees had developed ceremonials focused on the spiritual power of running water. One of the prized sites for such purification ceremonies was a waterfall. It was there that the Cherokees could hear the Long Man speaking to them in the clear voice of the raging current.

Along with scenic, high-elevation vistas, waterfalls are among the most sought after natural attractions here in the southern mountains. They are dynamic places that seem to encourage contemplation. Their spray zones and grottoes are home to unique plants and wildlife. Ferns and salamanders that found no place else in Appalachia — or even the entire world — have their homes in the ecological niches provided by our high country cascades.

Whenever I’m conducting a natural history workshop that happens upon a waterfall, I ask the participants to contemplate a bit as to why waterfalls are so appealing. Inevitably, such qualities as constant motion, soothing sound, spiritual tranquility, natural beauty, and harmony of sight and sound are mentioned.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has published a thought-provoking brochure titled “Waterfalls — Great Smoky Mountains National Park” that’s available at visitors centers. In a section headed “The Joy of Waterfalls,” I was fascinated to learn that researchers have concluded that waterfalls “generate negative ions that make people feel good. Negative ions are negatively charged air molecules created by a number of natural and electronic processes, including ocean surf and waterfalls. Negative ion levels at large waterfalls are estimated to be 50 times higher than at other rural sites. Brighter moods, increased energy, improved physical performance, and better health are just some of the benefits that have been ascribed to exposure to high concentrations of negative ions.”

The same source notes that waterfalls also create “soothing white noise” — the sort of constant sound engineers try to duplicate in order “to help humans relax, concentrate, or sleep;” and furthermore, that the “cooling mist” found at waterfall sites creates “a 100-percent natural, energy-efficient form of evaporative air conditioning.” Negative ions, white noise, and evaporative air conditioning — hey, that’s neat stuff ... your waterfall visits may never be the same again.      

Famed Great Smokies explorer and author Harvey Broome once noted that “we see eternity in waterfalls — perfect motion working independently of humankind, fueled by nothing more than gravity and rain.”

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“Chunky Joe” Huger, waterfall aficionado par excellence, was quite naturally attracted to the Blue Ridge country early in the 20th century. Huger’s curious life and adventures are delineated in a book by Jim Bob Tinsley titled The Land of Waterfalls: Transylvania County, North Carolina, which is illustrated with black-and-white photos he has made of over 60 falls over a 40-year period. It’s a state of the art waterfall book, recording locations, Cherokee lore, and historical information for each of the sites.

“In the remote southwest corner of Transylvania County he called ‘the paradise of Cascadia,’ Arthur Middleton Huger, a picturesque South Carolinian of French descent, sketched and described plant life, revived Cherokee names from ancient charts, and gave ‘fitting’ names to waterfalls when they had none,” writes Tinsley. “Huger also wrote poetry under the nickname ‘Chunky Joe’ while he lived in the area. Mountain people had difficulty with the Huguenot way of pronouncing Huger; in one of his many letters, the botanist tried to explain: ‘When you enquire for me pronounce name (U.G.) you-gee, soft g.’”

Huger once wrote about what he carried during his continuous treks in the mountains: “I am obliged to ‘tote’ underwear, sketchbook, a flask of Frisky, and other inpedimenta.” No wonder footing was unsure for him at times. Slippery Witch Falls is on Mill Creek below the Sapphire Road. “Chunky Joe” Huger had trouble with his footing along the stream and told people the spillover was a “slippery bitch.” Mrs. Perry Hinkle was quick to point out that “the Frenchman,” as she called him, was inclined to drink and be a blackguard at times and no doubt cleaned up the description to ‘slippery witch’ for her own benefit.”    

Huger used yet another supposed Cherokee name to describe Whitewater Falls: “In my tramps I have seen many a ‘spatter-dash,’ but in boldness and picturesque beauty never one to equal the ‘White Thunders of Thornateska.’ Cascades and cataracts, as a rule, are in deep gorges usually shut in by densely forested ridges, but here one finds the first of Three Thunders beside the dash of the dazzling foam and the upward leap of a jet that shoots 12 or 15 feet — I call it the ‘plume of Navarre’ — before its storm of tumbling stars plunges into the depths. There is a wide panorama to the southeast, near-by the Vale of Jocassee, far below, hedged in by the forested billows of the Blue Ridge, and beyond for a hundred miles or more the ‘Under Hills’ of South Carolina, the remote region as level as that of the sea — and far more beautiful.”

Now that’s purple prose of the deepest hue, but Huger had seen a lot of waterfalls in his day and knew a good one when he spotted it. He was absolutely correct in noting that the Whitewater area provides an unusual situation in regard to overlooking both a gorge-waterfall site as well as vast portions of the surrounding region. Go have a look for yourself sometimes and see if you agree with “Chunky Joe.”

Editor’s note: This column first appeared in The Smoky Mountain News in October 2002.


“The Seeking of the Waterfall”

They left this home of summer’s ease,

Beneath the lowland sheltering leaves,

To seek by means unknown to all,

The promise of the waterfall.

— John Greenleaf Whittier

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