Staying Alive

Being safe at North Carolina’s waterfalls

It is said 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.

Danger Will Robinson What’s Up With The Skull And Crossbones?

I’m an obsessive waterfall photographer, always on the lookout for the best vantage points. If the best shot is in a dangerous situation, I’m going to try to figure out a way to shoot it safely. But I can do things safely that would be extremely dangerous for some others to attempt. Not because I’m special in any way, but simply because I have 30 years of waterfalling experience under my belt. And I’ve trained in the proper use of ropes, so I can safely navigate steep rocks and shoot from the tops of waterfalls.

The problem is that when I show some of my photos, I could be giving a false impression about what is really required to capture them. I don’t want anyone seeing a photo I shot in a dangerous environment and getting the idea that it’s okay for everyone to attempt the same shot. It’s only okay if you have experience and use the same safety precautions that I use. Often, those precautions involve technical use of ropes, which is beyond the abilities of those without the proper training.

So the skull and crossbones is a red flag. It’s a warning that it isn’t safe to attempt the same shot unless you employ certain safety precautions. It doesn’t imply that there is anything special about the image or me. It just means that in order for me to capture it safely, I had to employ non-traditional methods.

Please take heed. This is serious business. There is a reason why I chose the skull and crossbones instead of a smiley face.

Common Sense Precautions

Don’t Go Near The Top

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. No matter how capable you are, when you stand at the edge of a cliff or waterfall, the slightest distraction can mean disaster.

Don’t Climb On Waterfalls
Experienced rock climbers don’t attempt some of the things you’ll see casual tourists doing at waterfalls. It is simply not safe to climb a waterfall without proper 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. It only takes a few inches of water in a fast-moving stream to knock you off balance. 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 from the dangerous ones. Even dry rocks can be slippery. It’s impossible to see the waterfalls in this book 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.

Support Those Ankles
Most people who hike to waterfalls in summer wear sneakers or sandals. Even in winter, sneakers are the choice for many people. If the trail is relatively tame and you don’t plan on creek walking, sneakers are fine as long as you watch your steps. But it only takes one loose rock or misplaced step to twist an ankle or cause you to fall. And when you’re creek walking, you can’t always see the next step. I recommend wearing ankle-supporting hiking boots for all waterfall hikes.

I know, wearing hiking boots won’t go over well for many people, especially when wading is involved. I wear wading sandals when I’m creek walking near the car or on relatively calm streams that don’t require rock scrambling. But for the tough stuff, I plunge through the creek in hiking boots and synthetic socks. Boots provide not only ankle support, but also insulation. Once you get over the initial shock from the cold water, the socks and boots act as a wet suit, allowing you to remain in the water all day unless it’s very cold outside. Wearing boots, I can even wade creeks during winter, something that would be impossible if I were wearing sandals.

Of course, there’s the issue of wet boots after your hike. I deal with this by always having an extra pair of boots in the car, so I can change into dry ones when I get back. And to dry the wet ones, I made a boot dryer that uses the car’s heater. Check out this short video to see how it works.

To see many waterfalls, you have to hike off trail. Even when a trail leads directly to a waterfall, you might want maneuver around to get into a better position for a photo. Just keep in mind that when you leave a trail, the possibility of injury increases significantly. Ankle-supporting hiking books are a necessity.

What’s Out There To Get Me?

Invariably, when having a conversation with someone who 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 all three editions of the waterfall book, I have encountered bears less than a half-dozen times. Each time, I considered it an honor.

As long as you use common sense and leave bears alone, they’ll 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. Shout or throw rocks if necessary. If a bear charges, it’s most likely a bluff. It’s a tough proposition to stand your ground against a charging bear, but that’s 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 works only with grizzlies. If a black bear continues an attack, 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.

Those mean little yellow jackets are very common in the North Carolina mountains and have a nasty habit of digging nests right where waterfallers are likely to step. Obviously, if you see bees buzzing around, you should 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 gets the most stings. So you might want to take the lead. Just don’t tell your friends why. Yellow jackets are most active from June through September, with August and September being the most active months.

Poison Ivy
Now, here’s something to really worry about. I break out just from 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 part 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.

Wood Nettle
You might not know about this menace, but if you brush up against it while wearing shorts, you’ll quickly learn. Examine a nettle 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 to endure a patch of stinging nettle. I’ve pointed out any known bad locations in the trail descriptions, but I urge you to get a guidebook and learn how to identify this plant before heading out for a summer hike.

Wood nettle is commonly called stinging nettle. I called it that in the last edition of North Carolina Waterfalls, but I decided to use the more accurate name in the current edition. Stinging nettle, Urtica dioica, is more common to the north. Wood nettle, Laportea canadensis, is the nettle you’re likely to encounter in the North Carolina mountains.

Regardless of what you call it, you don’t want to brush your bare skin against it. I can’t stand to wear long pants in warm weather, but I know it’s the smart thing to do if there’s any chance of encountering wood nettle. And, unfortunately, there’s always a chance on a summer bushwhack.

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 slurred speech. A number of factors contribute, but cool air, wetness, and wind are the main causes. 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. 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.

Hypothermia can happen during surprisingly warm temperatures. In winter, we usually go out more prepared for the cold, with hats and gloves and extra clothing. In spring and fall, it’s easier to be caught off guard, especially if it rains. The first time I explored Greasy Cove Prong from beginning to end, the temperature was warm enough for me to wear short pants and sleeves. But it poured rain, and I was soaked after just a few minutes into the hike. And then I had to wade in the flood-swollen creek. After a couple of hours, my hands started to feel numb and I was becoming chilled. Despite the relatively warm temperature, I was quite uncomfortable and realized that I was experiencing the very early stages of hypothermia. Since I still had a 4-hour hike back to the truck, I stopped exploring the waterfalls and hiked out as quickly as possible. After another hour of brisk hiking, I felt fine. But I knew that if I had stayed with the waterfalls, standing still for long periods making notes and taking pictures, the situation would have escalated.

Bad Water
Don’t consider any backcountry water as safe to drink, no matter how clear or pure it appears. Numerous bacteria and viruses are present in streams, and 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. I keep a LifeStraw® personal water filter in my pack at all times.