In two months, my new North Carolina Waterfalls book will be out and everyone can finally see all the discoveries I’ve made since the last edition. I’ve been revealing a few of them periodically, but I’ve held back on the most amazing ones until now. I’m going to reveal the four most exciting discoveries I made while working on the book. But you’re going to have to wait until the book comes out to see the photos and obtain directions. Sorry, I know it’s a tease. But hey, I gotta do what I can to sell as many books as possible.
As a night photographer, I love waterfalls that work well for light painting with my LED flashlights and colored gel filters. But I never could have imagined that I’d find one that creates its own light. That’s right, Firefly Falls literally glows in the dark! I’ve seen some pretty amazing things in nature, but Firefly Falls tops the list hands down.
When I first saw it, I suspected the glow came from dinoflagellates. These unicellular organisms are common in salt water and certain species of them are bioluminescent. I visited the famous Mosquito Bay on the island of Vieques a few years ago and witnessed the glowing phenomenon. Everywhere the water was disturbed, it glowed!
A biologist friend told me that dinoflagellates were common in freshwater, as well as saltwater, but they are rarely in high enough concentrations in fresh water to be visible. He was intrigued by what I described and wanted to see it for himself. When I took him to the falls, he was almost speechless. He said he was not aware of anything like this in the world, much less in North Carolina. The samples he collected contained an extremely high concentration of Noctiluca scintilatton, which produces a particularly bright light when disturbed. In the typical creek bed, there isn’t enough disturbance for it to light up, but at the falls, everything glows.
My friend isn’t sure why this particular stream has so many dinoflagellates compared to others, but he has initiated a study to find out. He suspects it has something to do with the area’s history. It turns out that this creek was the site of dozens of illegal moonshine stills in the first half of the twentieth century. The theory is that the grains and other ingredients used to produce the moonshine, as well as some of the liquor itself, must have spilled on the creek banks and seeped in the soil and then slowly leached into the stream. Seems that alcohol to a dinoflagellate is like candy to a baby.
Hmm, maybe Intoxication Falls would be a better name.
I’ve always lamented the fact that the extreme southwestern part of North Carolina has few significant waterfalls comparted to other regions of the mountains. However, one of the falls that is here would have to make my top 10 list. And not only is it a beautiful waterfall, the history behind is incredible.
While talking about waterfalls with the district ranger of the Tellico Ranger District in Nantahala National Forest, he mentioned that I might want to check with the FBI about potential waterfalls in the area. I was puzzled at first, but then he explained that back in the late 1990s dozens of FBI agents swarmed the forests in the southwestern part of the state looking for Eric Rudolph, the Olympic Park Bomber. If anyone knew about undocumented falls, it would be these guys.
The ranger put me in touch with the FBI’s field operator at the time. He told me about four new waterfalls they had discovered, most of them unremarkable. But when he told me about one of them, it sent chills down my spine. Rudolph Falls was the primary hideout for Eric Rudolph during the five years he eluded the FBI.
It’s a free-falling waterfall, with a large cave-like grotto behind the curtain of water. But the flow is so heavy, you can’t see through it to see the grotto. The agent told me his men had passed the waterfall on a number of occasions but didn’t pay it any attention until one cold winter day when they saw a faint yellow light behind the falls. After hesitantly walking through the curtain of water, they discovered a large campfire. Scattered about were various items that they suspected belonged to Rudolph. When Rudolph was finally captured behind the Sav-A-Lot in Murphy, he confessed that the waterfall had been his primary hideout.
I have to admit that I include Rudolph Falls in the book with some trepidation. I certainly don’t want its inclusion to glorify Rudolph in any manner. And I wish the FBI hadn’t named the waterfall after him. Hideout Falls would be more appropriate, I think.
North Carolina fans of The X-Files will remember a show in which the Brown Mountain Lights was used in the plot. On the show, the main character was an underground organism that causes hallucination while it digests its prey, rather than unexplained lights. I’ve always been intrigued by the Brown Mountain Lights, and wondered if we will ever know the truth about them or obtain definitive photos or videos. Well, I’m not wondering any longer, and this is not a hallucination. Not only do I have photos and video, I have a waterfall to go with them to boot!
I was exploring a small remote stream in the Dobson Knob area near Linville Gorge. It was getting dark and I still had several hours of bushwhacking to return to the car, so I decided to camp by a small overhanging waterfall. The falls isn’t suitable for typical night photography, so I went to sleep without thinking about doing any photography. But when I woke in the middle of the night to answer Mother Nature’s call, I just about peed my pants. All around the waterfall were glowing balls of light. About the size of a volleyball, they seemed to dance in the air, moving in all directions, and even going behind the falls and through the curtain of water. I was captivated.
Obviously, I got my camera out. And I returned for the next four nights to make still and video captures, while making notes about the lights. Then I contacted the Brown Mountain Lights researchers at Appalachian State University and told them what I had found. They were skeptical at first, but as soon as they saw my photos and video footage, they immediately started packing their gear. They spent two full months researching the lights at the waterfall, with at least one team member present every night. The lights appeared each night.
Seeing the dancing balls of fire is spellbinding, but what is really amazing is what causes the phenomenon and how it affects persons who view it up close. Yes, the researchers have finally solved the mystery of the Brown Mountain Lights! You won’t believe what they discovered. But I’m afraid you’re going to have wait to learn the secret. The researchers have agreed to stay quiet until the waterfall book comes out in June. And in July, National Geographic will be running a special feature about the lights using their research and my photos. Exciting stuff!
Okay, I’ll give you just a little tease. Remember in the movie Cocoon when the old and feeble folks swam in the pool that contained the pods? Remember what it did to them? Turns out that concept isn’t so far-fetched after all!
I love researching the history of waterfalls. One particular waterfall hike that has always intrigued me is the route along Snowbird Creek, near Robbinsville. The trail leads to four waterfalls. There’s an old car by the trail, several miles from the trailhead. It’s the kind of car you see in the gangster movies, and it’s full of bullet holes to book. I’ve always wondered about the history behind that car. Rangers at the Cheoah Ranger District told me they didn’t think the car was involved in any illicit activity, but the car was no doubt abandoned before they were even born. How could they know for sure?
I decide to take advantage of my new friend from the FBI, the one who showed me Rudolf Falls. Remarkably, we were able to make out the VIN number on the car. Imagine our surprise when we discovered that the car had been registered to Al Capone! Turns out, it was used during Prohibition to transport moonshine from the stills along Snowbird Creek to Chicago, although it isn’t known whether Capone himself ever drove it. The trail follows the old logging railroad bed. When all the trees were cut in the early 1920s, the tracks were removed. The old route was then used as an access road for moonshiners to get into the Snowbird backcountry.
I asked the agent if he would test the bullet holes in the car. I had always figured local hunter used the car for target practice. Wrong again! All of those bullet holes tested to the same period as the Prohibition era. The agent did some more digging and discovered that the car was involved in a shootout between Capone’s men and federal agents. Two of the gangsters died, and one of the agents was seriously wounded. The car was so damaged in the shootout it couldn’t be driven out. It was left to rust away.
I was hesitant to tell the district forest ranger what we had discovered for fear that they would remove the car and put it on display or something like that. It’s an integral part of our forest history and I feel it needs to remain where it is. Fortunately, the ranger agreed. But he said they were going to change the name of the trail to Al Capone Avenue. And they’re going to change the name of Middle Falls on Snowbird Creek to Gangster Falls, as that was the location of the largest still on the creek. He said they might even start selling Mason jars of special “Al Capone Moonshine” at the visitor center. Cool stuff!waterfalls