Be There When Lightning Strikes

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Intrepid explorer finds
 hundreds of waterfalls

Jennifer Loow has explored and documented more than 850 waterfalls, many hidden from main routes in mountain forests. Jennifer Loow has explored and documented more than 850 waterfalls, many hidden from main routes in mountain forests.

On an overcast day, when the sky is threatening rain, I find myself deep in the Pisgah National Forest, completely off-trail, with no sense of how to get back on. Fortunately, I am not alone.

Jennifer Loow serves as my guide in search of the lesser-known and out-of-the-way waterfalls in Henderson County. An unofficial authority of waterfalls in the area, Loow has photographed and documented more than 850 individual waterfalls, and I was on assignment to shadow her as she ventured in the woods to take in their beauty.
Loow, 44, has been wandering in the woods since she was a little girl. Growing up in Indiana, she had a backyard that was her woodland playground. “Every day I was out there, every day, my machete in one hand, a little knife in the other, blazing trails,” she says. When she moved to Hendersonville, she discovered a love for the diverse forestry. Unlike Indiana, there were hills, mountains and rushing rivers. A waitress at the German restaurant Haus Heidelberg, Loow spends her spare time exploring streams, creeks and rivers in pursuit of water propelled downward by gravity.
At first, Loow visited the obvious destinations, such as Hooker Falls, Triple Falls and Bridal Veil in Dupont State Forest. Loow was taken by the beauty of these, but quickly grew tired of continually going to the same places over and over. Then she remembered a waterfall guide book she had gotten as gift. Thumbing through it, she realized the book was her map to the beauty she longed to see. Loow started picking out the most difficult ones in the book to seek out, and eventually just started “creek-walking” to find her own.
So what exactly constitutes a waterfall?
“You can have a 30-foot cascade, but I would not call it a waterfall,” Loow says. A cascade is rapid, horizontally flowing water, going over rocks and logs. But there is no hint of falling to that. Something relatively small, eight feet in height, with an actual drop, is a waterfall. The largest she has encountered on a hike was between 50 or 60 feet.
SUBHED
Watch your step

On our hike, Loow leads the way, trail-bushwhacking, as she calls it. She forces her way through the thick and thorny underbrush. “I am not happy unless I come home muddy,” she says. When going to some of the biggest waterfalls she mentioned, she goes with a group of people who also are waterfall enthusiasts. Even hiking by herself, she’s never alone: she has her trusty friend Stick, a stout walking stick that she picked up on one of her adventures, only needing to shave the bark off. “I don’t know what kind of wood it is, just that it’s the same as my last one,” she says.
Stick is a constant companion on all her adventures, and has helped her cross many streams and rivers to reach waterfalls. Her No. 1 rule for crossing waterways is to be sure of every step. Any body of water call be deceivingly deep, especially when it’s flowing fast. She always makes sure to have three points of contact when climbing or crossing, and that is where Stick comes in. When asked about bears or snakes, she says that she usually carries repellant spray and a knife on solo hikes.
Although Loow goes off-trail, she does plan her hikes and take precautions. An app called Backcountry Navigator allows her to upload topographical maps of the area she plans to hike so that they are available without internet service in the woods. The key aspect of Backcountry Navigator, is that it tracks her real-time GPS location against the maps she has uploaded. In this way, Loow always has a good idea of where she is. If she does get injured, lost, or otherwise in the need of aid, she carries an emergency satellite beacon that will send out a distress signal, alerting her husband, her son, and the nearest search and rescue squads.
One of her most memorable trips to was to Scotsman Creek Falls in 2015. Her boyfriend, Christer, proposed to Loow at the top of the falls. After hearing yes, Christer produced a bottle of champagne from his backpack and uncorked it with the very machete Loow used as a child in Indiana, which he had obtained from Loow’s mother. “It couldn’t have been more perfect. I am not a romantic person, but I mean come on — how can you top that?” Loow exclaims.
On the day we set out, she tells me we’ll be heading to three different waterfalls, the locations of which she had already loaded into her phone. Off we go, starting out at trailhead FR 5032. After about a half mile, we plunge into the brush itself, pushing through briars and thorns, following small game paths to make our way easier. After 15 minutes or so of traveling like this, Loow stops me and points through the foliage, and tells me to listen. I can hear the musical flow of water, and just barely glimpse the fall itself in between the trees.
We make our way through more bushes and briars, to the full majesty of the Poundingmill Branch Falls. Because of the heavy rain during May, the water level is high, and the spray unavoidable. Loow is hesitant at first to set up her camera, knowing that the spray would distort the shot. Besides that, it was sunny; she prefers to shoot pictures under cloudy skies.
This seemed counter-intuitive: you would want the best light to capture the falls. But Loow explains that bright light reflects off the water, creating mini lens-flares. An overcast sky is better. She looks at each waterfall as having its own personality. “I feel like a waterfall deserves a good shot,” she says.
Although that day wasn’t ideal for pictures, Loow still sets up her tri-pod and takes a few videos of the higher water levels. Is there an end goal for her documentation, making a scrapbook, publishing the photos, writing a blog? “Not really,” she said. For her, it is all about the pleasure and peace she finds by being out in the woods and the beauty of nature. “That was always where I found my peace,” she says of her childhood adventures in Indiana.
Hiking our way out of Pisgah forest, Loow stops again. She listens closely, and scans the forest with her eyes. “I think that’s a waterfall,” she says. Without hesitation, she heads toward the sound. We carefully make our way through the underbrush, being as respectful of the wildlife habitat as possible. As the vegetation thins, I hear her exclaim ahead of me, “By George, that’s a waterfall!” Her face registers sheer joy. She didn’t know this waterfall was here – I’m not sure if anyone did yet. Regardless, it was new to her, another place of peace.

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