Sunday, 19 October 2014


(from my introduction to Waterfalls of Southwestern Cape Breton, coming soon)

While waterfalls are not inherently dangerous, it is ones own actions at a waterfall site that can create the situations where harm can befall even the most experienced hiker. While I have encountered dangerous situations at waterfalls, and have suffered many accidents, sometimes severe (broken ankles, severe lacerations, wasp swarms), there are simple common sense precautions that you should keep in mind while you are visiting a waterfall to ensure that your visit to the falls is not memorable for the wrong reasons. Remember, many of the waterfalls listed are located in undeveloped areas, far from convenient access to emergency personnel, and deep in the ravine at the base of the falls, cell phone reception can be very difficult to obtain, even if there might be a signal at the top of the gorge.

First and foremost, take into account that the rocks around a waterfall are slippery. It is inadvisable to stand at the precipice of the falls, or to climb the falls themselves unless you have proper safety gear. Standing at the verge of a waterfal may be exhilarating, but even a small distraction could lead to a serious fall. When a site requires me to descend the falls for good photography locations and I am facing dangerous conditions, if I do not have the proper gear with me, I will walk away, every time. Even to take photographs over the precipice of a fall, I suit up with a climbing harness and secure a safety line. Some falls have side trails that snake up alongside the falls with appropriate foot and hand-hold and ropes, and these can be approached with caution, but a simple caveat: never trust a rope you don't know with your life.

Dress appropriately. Dont go cross country, up and down steep sides of gullies, or creek walking in bare feet or sandals. Wear shoes that are comfortable when they get wet, because odds are, they will become so. Bring along an extra pair of shoes and dry socks. Avoid cotton clothing, which does not shed water, and try to dress with synthetic fabrics which wick the moisture away from the body much quicker. Wear a long sleeved shirt, between the thorns and twigs you will encounter bushwhacking, it also gives the no-see-'ums and mosquitos less skin to swarm.

Bring hydration. Many of these hikes can be very strenuous, and ensuring proper hydration is a necessity, especially on hot days. Bring more water or juice along than you will think you will need. Dont drink the water from the streams! You should ALWAYS consider any water from any
source to be contaminated with disease causing organisms until properly treated.

As an urban society, we are very accustomed to turning on the faucet and having treated water flow out. In the woods, these streams are untreated and even if it looks clear, cold and delicious, it is likely filled with millions of microscopic organisms which COULD make you seriously ill. Remember, watercourses are where the wildlife go to drink, and defecate, not to mention human interaction upstream of where you might be. Those crystal clear waters may contain E. coli and  salmonella, or hookworms and tapeworms.

Modern filtration options work, TO A DEGREE, to help purify the water but do not completely clear out the risks of water-borne disease. Many portable filters that you bring with your water bottle only filter out 85% of the bacteria and the chemical water purificatin tablets do an admirable job, but most brands on the market today still leave your water tasting and smelling like chlorine. The best method of water purification is to simply boil it.

Bring along snacks. In the worst case scenario, and you do become stranded in the woods, overnight or longer,  its best to be prepared with foods that have a high caloric value from carbohydrates along, such as energy bars, (fresh or dried) fruit snacks, lunch meats and the like. I tend to carry at least two litres of water, a bottle of fruit juice or powder, and water purification tablets. I bring along beef jerky, trail mix, dried fruits and M&Ms to eat, and if I were to be stranded for several days, this gives me enough to survive on.

Know your terrain. Many of these sites are in the deep wilderness, and getting lost is no fun. When in doubt, keep the stream within eyeshot. Check into seasons when hunting is occurring in your area, and dress appropriately in hunter's orange. Contact Natural Resources offices for this information.

While bringing a cell-phone can be helpful, remember that many places you will find yourself in
chasing down these waterfalls, there is little or no cellular service.

Keep your hands free. Many of these areas are dangerous with sheer drops and steep gorges, and keeping your supplies in a backpack gives you the freedom to break a fall, balancing or holding on for dear life if the need arises.This is especially important while taking your photographs at the waterfalls, hop-skipping on rocks to get that perfect angle. Having a good hiking stick along with you makes it easier to balance, to test the depth of pools and the creek while you are walking upstream. Many high-quality walking sticks, nowadays, have the attachments to work as a monopod for your camera as well.

Prepare a waterfalling kit. This should include your snacks and water bottles, as well as dry, lightweight and breathable clothing. Long sleeved shirts and lightweight slacks are best as they offer protection from fly-bites, scratches from thorns, raspberry patches, poison ivy and twigs. Longer lightweight clothing will also give you more protection for the elements should you become stuck inthe woods for any period of time. A good rule of thumb is to include something reflective in your clothing choices as well.

Carry a traditional compass and a copy of the local paper topographic map in addition to your GPS receiver. A word of advice is to always use the "cookie crumbs" function your GPSr on when you begin your trip into the falls to make it easy to find your way back to your parking location. Always bring extra batteries for your GPSr.

Other items you should also pack in a waterfalling kit is a first aid kit, trail-marking tape, sunscreen, a Fox40 signalling whistle, and insect repellant. I generally carry a fairly heavy pack to deal with whatever situations I might come across in the wood, and it would be smart to pack a more extensive pack if you are delving into the deeper woods on overnight hikes, much like we might find in the Cape Breton Highlands.

I also have in my pack, in addition to the above: rolled-up hip-waders, a length of one hundred feet of dynamic rope, a climbing rig and climbing gloves, flint and steel, fire starter, a fold-down rain jacket, a fold down fishing rod , a small tackle kit, snare wire and a tarp along with me. I carry a Bowie knife with me in a sheath on my belt, and a machete for deeper excursions. I've also found that much can be fit, comfortably, in a load-bearing tactical vest with molle attachments to customize it to your needs. These are available at most army surplus stores.

I make sure that when I enter the woods, it is with the knowledge that if I do get lost or injured along the hike, I can easily survive with a few days worth of caloric intake and make a basic shelter and fire.

Its best to be prepared for the worst, in case something happens. If something looks unsafe, dont attempt it. Come back another day better equiped if necessary. Use common sense and caution.

AND BRING A BUDDY! ! While the allure of hiking alone in the woods is appealing, surrounded by nothing but unspoiled nature and yourself, having a friend along in case something happens is just plain good sense. This is the one maxim that I most often ignore, in chasing down the waterfalls for this book, I have gone deep into the woods, along steep tracks and dangerous locations by myself, and while I am an experienced woodsman, if something should happen to me while I 'm out in the woods alone, there will be no-one there to get me to safety, or bring assistance back to where I lay, hurt.

While bringing a cell-phone can be helpful, remember that many places you will find yourself in
chasing down these waterfalls, there is little or no cellular service.

Remember, also, that you arent the only denizen in the woods. Nova Scotia has it's fair share of wild animals that you should respect. Remember, these woods are THEIR homes; you, in your pursuit of the waterfalls along the brook, are the visitor in their domain. Our province is home to many animals that could pose a safety risk to you in the woods, but simple knowledge can be
invaluable no matter why you are in the woods.

Black Bears are common in Nova Scotia. Most times, a bear will flee from the area before you even know it is there, having heard or smelt you from a long ways away. Some bears have become used to humans and may not avoid you as a matter of course. If you come across a bear in the woods, and it has become of aware of you as well, talk to the bear in a low tone,  wave your arms to make yourself look larger, back away slowly, and leave the area.

A defensive bear will not respond to these actions, especially if it perceives you as a threat or if it is defending a food source or its young. It may use loud vocalizations such as huffing, blowing air loudly through its nostrils, exhaling loudly and "popping" its teeth. It may swat the ground with its fore paws, lowering its head, and drawing back its ears. As well, a defensive bear may resort to bluff charges. The bear is feeling threatened by your presence and is trying to get you to back off.

If you come across an agressive bear, stop and face it. If you are out in the woods with others, stay together and act as a group. Make sure the bear has a clear escape route. Slowly back away, watching the bear and wait for it to leave. Use a whistle or airhorn, or bear spray if you  have that handy.

Use of a bear-bell on your backpack will produce enough noise to generally keep bears away in the first place. DO NOT turn and run - this may trigger a predatory response in the bear. DO NOT climb a tree - bears are excellent climbers. If you are attacked by a bear, DO NOT play dead. Yell, throw rocks at it, hit it with sticks. In other words, do everything in your power to convince the bear that attacking you is not a wise action for it to pursue. When you have scared  it away, leave the area immediately.

Coyotes are also prevalent in Nova Scotia. They have made the news many times recently, and have been responisible for several hiker's deaths. They often travel in packs consisting  of several individuals. As with a black bear, do not approach the animal, and if you are confronted by a coyote, do what you can to make yourself seem larger, use your walking stick to hit it, but DO NOT turn your back on it, and DO NOT run away from it. It will percieve this as an action of  prey and chase you down.

Moose are not especially abundant in southwestern Cape Breton Island, but are found aplenty in the Cape Breton Highlands, which we will touch on in later books. However rare an encounter with them might be, it pays to be aware of how to deal with one. While they are awe inspiring and picturesque when seen in their natural element, remember that they are a wild animnal and can pose signifigant danger, especially if they become agressive. Their broad horns can cause signifigant damage, both in lacerations and by being thrown by the animal. Standing at nearly 7 feet at the shoulder and can weigh up to 700kg (1,500 pounds), they can trample you, and as an agile animal with very flexible joints and sharp hooves, they are capable of kicking with both their front and back legs, able to do so in all directions including sideways. They generally only attack when they become startled, and many times this can simply be the presence of an accompanying dog on your waterfalling journey barking at it. A mother with her calves will charge if you come between them, but as the moose is not carnivorous, they don't tend to chase  people when they run away.

Signs to watch for out on the trails that a moose has become agressive towards you are when it stops eating and stares at you. The moose lays its ears back and raises the hair on its hump. It licks its lips or clicks its teeth or if it lowers its head and walks towards you. If you are attacked by a moose RUN. Place a strong barrier between you and the moose, heavy deadfall or the like. If you get knocked to the ground, curl up in the fetal position,protect your head with your arms and do not move until the moose is a safe distance away from you.

Also, be aware of the smaller animals in the woods, such as skunks and porcupines, which are found in every corner of Nova Scotia, and while they might not be as dangerous as bears and coyotes, they can be harmful to your dogs if you travel into the woods with them. Bees, wasps and hornets are common in every part of the province, and it is advisable to carry an epi-pen with you if you have an allergy to such. Yellowjackets like to make their nests in a bare patch of earth and a cleared trail in the woods is a perfect place for them. I've been several times on the trailsand very little can ruin a hike more than a few score hornet stings all over your body.

Be aware of poisonous plants in Nova Scotia as well. Poison Ivy and Poison Hemlock are common, so be aware of these plants appearances before you go bush-whacking across a field in search of a waterfall. Do not eat mushrooms you find along your way, there are severla species of poisonous mushrooms in the province and unless you are one hundred percent sure of what you are eating, leave it alone.

AND as a last word, always ALWAYS let someone know where you are going. Simple as that. If you get lost or hurt in the woods, it will be much easier for Search and Rescue to find you if they have a basic idea of where you were headed out for in the first place.