The landscape’s lure is fraught with danger
We love our waterfalls — let’s keep them safe for everyone
I’ve written before about my younger brother, Peter, who died along with a couple of friends when they ran off the escarpment at Ball’s Falls. I think of him a lot, of course, I’ve missed him since his death. But he’s come to mind more lately with the challenge our new-found status as Waterfall Capital of the World presents to wayward walkers and their risky behaviour on slippery surfaces.
I’d never been to Ball’s Falls until many years after my brother’s death. I went with a friend. We explored the area upstream from the falls, following it until it came to the escarpment precipice.
Across the stream was a rusted chain-link fence, spoiling the view and clearly not there when my brother went over the edge.
We found a place to climb the fence, clambered over and scaled the slope down to the bottom. I’ve been climbing the escarpment in some way or another since my childhood. Whereas once I played with friends in the Red Hill Valley on our many hikes to Albion Falls, now I walk along the trails and climb the stairs.
I gathered some stone and built a little cairn to his memory, tucked over in a space that would withstand time, and we climbed back up and over the fence and went home.
Years later, I was in Scotland — not to climb Ben Nevis, the highest peak in Scotland, but I did, because, well, it was there. I wasn’t alone. There was a charity challenge happening. The idea was to see how many times you could go up and down the mountain in one day.
It took me all day to go up and down once and when I got back to my room, I was too tired to even eat, my legs felt like rubber. But I was passed, several times, by groups of the same people. Running that day was a boat race where people sailed from peak to peak, climbing each one before heading off to the next. Ben Nevis was the day’s stop. The place was packed.
There were also two helicopter rescues, which, of course, stopped people in their tracks as they marvelled at the skill of the rescuers and chastised the foolhardy who ventured off the clearly beaten trail to attempt a shortcut through deceiving terrain.
The rescues were reported on the nightly news and discussed at the dinner table with locals who condemned, with no mercy, those who would tempt their fate on the mountain, its weather unpredictable, the bucolic landscape with sheep grazing the green slopes seemingly safe and easy to manage. One woman had particularly harsh words for the danger such fools put the rescuers in, as they risked their lives hanging out of helicopters and heaving bodies toward safety.
I’ve been rescued myself, carried off a ski hill in the Rockies, twice in fact, but not through dangerous skiing. And there were times when I was hiking in the Rockies when I thought, if I don’t move, I’m going to have to be carried off this mountain in a helicopter. The image fuelled me as I climbed higher and higher. The challenge met, I reached the top. Coming down was always harder.
There is no doubt that getting out and into nature is a good thing for people. I’ve just returned from the Yukon and I couldn’t soak up enough of the trees, sky, water, rocks and just plain uninterrupted wilderness for as far as the eye can see.
I stood at the edge of several natural tourist attractions, with nothing to stop me from falling to my death except for my respect of the place I was standing in and the danger I know that comes from a slippery rock or a twisted root that trips your toes.
Our waterfalls are not in the grand majestic landscape of the Yukon, where people are primed to be on guard and who go there for the sense of wilderness.
Our waterfalls are contained within a large urban area, where people look out for cars, not bears.
They are too accessible to those who have no respect for the danger the escarpment presents.
We created these waterfalls. We need to develop them as a tourist attraction in a way that allows people to explore them safely, maybe by creating viewing platforms to accommodate those ignorant of the danger nature presents.
But we don’t need any more rusted chainlink fences, that’s for sure.
Margaret Shkimba is a writer who lives in Hamilton. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can “friend” her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter (@menrvasofia)