We say that waterfalls are dangerous, but that’s not quite true. What is true is that people put themselves in dangerous situations at waterfalls. A waterfall doesn’t reach out and grab people and fling them over the top. People get too close, too careless, too caught up in the moment, and the next thing you know they're in trouble. A waterfall doesn’t care if you have a job to return to or a spouse and kids waiting at home.
Admittedly, the very nature of hiking on trails and viewing waterfalls means that you are putting yourself into a potentially dangerous environment. The answer is not to stay home, but to use common sense. Just as you wouldn’t cross a street without looking both ways, you shouldn’t blithely scramble around a waterfall without considering potential dangers. Keep these and the following notes in mind on your next waterfall outing.
Don’t Go Near the Top of Waterfalls
It’s foolish to get too close to the top of a waterfall. Always follow this rule of safe hiking: Never put yourself into a position where you will be harmed seriously if you fall. When you stand at the edge of a cliff or waterfall, the slightest distraction can startle you.
Don’t Climb on Waterfalls
Experienced rock climbers wouldn’t attempt some of the things casual tourists do at waterfalls. It is simply not safe to climb a waterfall without proper climbing gear and training. You might think it’s no big deal as long as you don’t go very high, but it only takes a few feet to twist an ankle or break a leg.
Stay Out of Swift Currents
Stream currents are stronger and the water colder than most people realize. If you fall in, you can quickly lose control and become trapped in the current. Never cross a stream anywhere near the top of a waterfall.
Be Aware of Slippery Surfaces
The most common mishap at waterfalls is slipping on wet or algae-covered rocks. Admittedly, some rocks are not slick even when wet, and you can safely walk on them. The trouble is that these rocks are difficult to tell them apart from the dangerous ones. Even dry rocks can be slippery. It’s impossible to see the waterfalls in NC (or anywhere) without stepping on a few rocks, but you can do it sensibly. Until you are sure of the footing, crouch low and inch yourself along.
WHAT’S OUT THERE TO GET ME?
Invariably, when having a conversation with someone who doesn’t know me and has just learned that I spend a good portion of my life traipsing through the “wilderness” of the North Carolina mountains—and, heaven forbid, actually sleeping on the ground—the first question I’m asked is, “What do you do about bears?” My answer is that I don’t do anything about bears. They do their thing and I do mine. In all my travels while preparing both editions of the North Carolina Waterfalls book, I never encountered a bear, although I did once have a tense encounter with a skunk. But plenty of bears do live in the North Carolina mountains, so there is always the possibility of seeing one.
As long as you use common sense and leave bears alone, they’ll probably leave you alone. Don’t throw food at them and don’t run from them. If a bear acts aggressive, stand your ground and raise your hands slightly to give the impression that you’re bigger than you really are. Shout or throw rocks if necessary. If a bear charges, it is most likely a bluff. It's a tough proposition to stand your ground against a charging bear, but that’s just what the experts say to do. If you absolutely must, throw your pack or lunch sack at the bear to give yourself an opportunity to escape. Do this only as a last result, though, since this only encourages bears to become aggressive.
Finally, the experts say that if a black bear does make contact and continues attacking, don’t play dead. That only works with grizzlies. If a bear does attack and continues, it might consider you a food source. In that case, you should fight back as aggressively as you can.
The second most-frequent question people ask is, What do you do about snakes?” Snakes and I get along just fine because I let them do their thing. Rattlesnakes and copperheads are most likely the only poisonous snakes you’ll encounter while visiting waterfalls in North Carolina, and it’s a rare occurrence when that happens. I encountered poisonous snakes less than a dozen times in my waterfall outings, and each time it happened, the snake and I agreed to leave each other alone. Snakes are good like that. Leave them alone, and you have nothing to worry about. But you have to be careful to leave them alone. Don’t step over a log without checking the other side, and don’t stick your hand in some crevice without looking in it first. Pay attention to where you put your feet and hands and you’ll be fine.
If you are allergic to bees, you surely know how to take precautions. Allergic or not, you should know that those mean little yellow jackets have a nasty habit of digging nests right in the middle of hiking trails. They like a cleared dirt area, and a trail provides that beautifully. If you see bees buzzing around, move quickly through the area. If you’re hiking with friends, keep in mind that the first person of the group stirs up the bees, while the second usually the one to get the most stings. So, you might want to take the lead. Just don’t tell your friends why.
Now here’s something to really worry about. I break out just looking at pictures of poison ivy in a book, so I definitely pay attention to it on the trail. It’s common all over the North Carolina mountains, especially in open and dry areas. Any area of the forest having some sort of human disturbance is likely to be home to poison ivy. The best medicine is definitely preventive. Learn to identify it before you hike, and just stay out of the stuff.
You might not know about this menace, but if you brush up against it while wearing shorts, you’ll quickly learn. Examine a plant closely and you’ll see thousands of tiny prickles all over the leaves and stem. They sting like fire when you brush against them. I’d almost rather be attacked by a swarm of yellow jackets than have to endure a patch of stinging nettle. I urge you to get a guidebook and learn how to identify this plant before heading out for a summer hike.
Twisted ankles and broken legs can result from walking on slippery or shifting rocks, stepping on roots along the trail, and jumping down short ledges when you should have stepped down. Common sense will help you avoid most problems, but the fact is that if you hike into the backcountry, you risk a twisted ankle. Wear good-quality hiking boots that support the ankles. Many people wear sneaker-type shoes, but which don’t provide ankle support. People who wear sandals on the trail are just setting themselves up for a busted toe or twisted ankle.
Hypothermia, the lowering of the body’s core temperature to the point that organs can’t function properly, is serious business. Symptoms include uncontrolled shivering and blurred speech. A number of factors contribute, but cool air, wetness, and wind are the main cause. Being dehydrated or hungry makes it worse. You might think this can’t happen to you. After all, you’re just out on a short hike to make a few photographs. That kind of thinking makes you a prime candidate because you’re not taking matters seriously. You could get into trouble before you realize it.
Hypothermia is most likely to occur on long or overnight hikes. Nature photographers, especially, put themselves into situations that increase the danger. We often remain still for long periods of time, sometimes even standing in cold water, and we can get so caught up in “getting the shot” that we don’t pay attention to physical discomfort. Ignoring a little discomfort is one thing, but engrossing yourself to the point of not thinking about safety is quite another.
If you hike alone, pay attention to your physical condition at all times. At the slightest hint of discomfort from cold—shivering, sluggishness, a slow mind—stop whatever you’re doing and make your body comfortable. Eat and drink lots of water. Don’t wait. A nasty symptom of advanced hypothermia is a sense of being too warm. Hypothermic victims often strip off their clothing because they think they are too hot, when in reality they are freezing to death.
Don't consider any backcountry water safe to drink, no matter how clear or pure it appears. Numerous bacteria and viruses are present in streams. Some, like Giardia lamblia, can make life miserable. Even spring water isn’t reliably safe to drink without treatment. Take water with you or carry a filtering device or purifier.