I recently returned from a six-day photography trip to West Virginia, where I spent a lot of time photographing waterfalls, including Douglas Falls.
This wasn’t my first visit to these falls (the profile photo on the “About” page of my website was taken on the same falls four years ago) but it was certainly the most dangerous I had ever seen the falls.
On my previous visit, the flow of water over the falls was low, so it was safe to walk out on the mostly dry rocks. This time, by contrast, because of recent heavy rainfall brought by the tail-end of Hurricane Florence in mid-September, the north fork of the Blackwater River had turned into a torrent, making walking out on to the slick, partially-submerged rocks a perilous undertaking. It was only by wearing Stream Trekkers traction grips over my hiking boots and exercising caution with every move that I managed to avoid falling.
The bottom of the falls is reached by scrambling down a steep, rocky descent. And, at various places along the river, there are other, even more treacherous vantage points which, if you climb down to them, offer alternative compositions. Shooting with a friend, Riley, he asked me nervously at one point, “Are we gonna try to climb down this one?” referring to a fifteen-foot drop which required lowering oneself backwards over the riverbank on to a rocky outcrop below, to which I replied, “What the hell! I might as well die out here doing what I love as die at home in the safety of my bed.” So, down we went, taking it in turns to scale down the sheer precipice and helping each other climb safely back up again. The lead image resulted from this tricky, blind descent.
Among photographers, Douglas Falls is one of the favourite West Virginia waterfalls on account of its dramatic location, the endless compositional possibilities afforded by the huge rocks strewn along the riverbed and the scalloped layers of rock that border the stream, which I used as a foreground element for the third image.
The other extraordinary feature of these falls is the other-worldly, reddish colour of the rocks. While the unusual colour may increase the visual interest of the falls, it is, in fact, the result of a man-made disaster, as acid mine drainage from a disused coal mine upstream seeped into the river some years ago, killing the aquatic life in its waters and staining the rocks this garish colour. Clean-up operations have been ongoing since the leakage and it is reassuring to note some fish have since returned to the river.
While I thoroughly enjoyed my exhilarating visit to Douglas Falls, there was one big disappointment: West Virginia’s famous fall colours have failed to materialize this year. Because of Florence, many trees were stripped bare of leaves before they had a chance to turn. And those leaves that are still on the trees remain stubbornly green, as you can see from my photos. Talking to several local people about this disappointing phenomenon, it is apparent that West Virginians feel non-plussed by the non-appearance of their famous fall colours this year. In a state whose efforts to transition from heavy industries, such as coal, to a cleaner future based in part on service industries, such as tourism, it will be bad news indeed if one of the effects of climate change turns out to be the disappearance of autumn.