September 30, 2012

Rain gives life to those North Country waterfalls


---- — The soundtrack in the woods has changed entirely in the past two weeks. The sound of water is back. Rainfall has replenished the trickles, gurgles, whooshes and crashes that make the forest seem lush after what was at times a dry-to-the-point-of-crackling summer. The contrast is very noticeable. 

We are fortunate in the North Country to have countless waterfalls. Many of us have a special waterfall where we take visitors or where we go for the great fishing in the pool at the bottom or where we fulfill a subconscious need to be near the sound and movement of water. 

The Adirondacks are home to big falls as well as falls that are at high elevation. OK Slip Falls near Indian Lake is one of New York’s tallest, reported at 250 feet. Fairy Ladder Falls on Gill Brook cascades from about 3,200 feet off Nippletop, one of the High Peaks east of the Lower Ausable Lake.

There is a waterfall for every mood. We have waterfalls that are spectacular, turbulent, magical, dangerous, inspiring and soothing. Many of them are accessible on short footpaths from nearby roadways. Waterfalls in every town have witnessed memories full of picnics, proposals, and personal contemplations. Many families save their favorite waterfall photos for Christmas cards and special frames.

The sound water makes can give you your bearings when you are lost and relieve your thirst before you even taste it. The quality of the water that falls from every height is connected to the forests that overhang and surround the flow. The shape and character of each falls depends on the underlying geology. The water chemistry and the fluid dynamics change over each cascade.

When I have pointed out to youngsters in the Champlain Valley that all the waterways and waterfalls that flow near their homes will eventually arrive in Lake Champlain, we have wondered how long it would take for a drop of water to make the journey from the headwaters to the Lake. It would be an interesting calculation and would no doubt be different depending on many factors. 

In his 2008 book called Lake Champlain, A Natural History, Mike Winslow talks about how long the water that flows through our watershed stays. “The average drop of water spends a little over two years in Lake Champlain. The retention time varies, depending on the lake segment… [By] comparison water spends 191 years in Lake Superior.” As old as it is, our watershed is not at all set in its ways.

One of the beauties of moving water is its power to make a person slow down and even be still. Local waterfalls that are easily accessible even for those who are vehicle-bound include the LaChute in Ticonderoga, Wadhams Falls on the Boquet, Roaring Brook in Keene and Paradox Creek in Crown Point. The waterfall that flows over the Palisades from Split Rock is only accessible by boat. It’s narrow and wiry but spectacular. Two great books and several websites list additional waterfall destinations in northern NY. Fall is a good time to get a good family portrait for the holidays or take an outing with someone who needs inspiration.

Elizabeth Lee is a licensed guide who lives in Westport. She leads recreational and educational programs focused in the Champlain Valley throughout the year. Contact her at