You’re listening to Parks and Landmarks, an exploration of the underrated, outdoors. I’m Sean Bull.
This episode may contain sound clips of flowing water. If you don’t have easy access to a restroom, you may wish to change the channel, and come back in ten minutes to hear the weather. Though, there’s always a chance Rob predicts rain, in which case, it’s over, and I would have sent you away for nothing. If you have to pee, you’ve been warned. Now let’s see how many times I can say waterfall in the next minute.
Waterfalls are cool. This series is usually based on my personal opinion, but this is one statement I don’t think I have to justify. “Waterfalls are cool” is as close to fact as any opinion gets. No one in the history of man has ever been anti-waterfall, and even people who are neutral on the topic probably just have yet to experience one in person. Today I’d like to discuss waterfalls at length, covering what they mean to our culture, and highlighting some you can travel to see within a reasonable distance.
So, you’re standing on a riverbank, looking at a waterfall. The rush of water pushes all other sounds to the background. What do you feel? The repetitive noise drowns out your background thoughts. You can contemplate, if you want, but it’s just as easy to think about nothing. A waterfall invokes peace, and facilitates clarity of mind.
This is reflected in how we portray waterfalls in popular culture. Think of a movie scene that features a waterfall; what did the falls mean symbolically to the story? Often, a natural waterfall serves as a reprieve. In “A Quiet Place,” the main characters live their lives in constant fear of monsters, which will hunt them down with supernatural hearing. Our heroes speak only in sign language, and take care to muffle their every action. But when they travel to a waterfall, its white noise lets them relax for a while. They can speak aloud, without fearing for their lives.
The peace a falls represents isn’t always so literal. In the first “Hunger Games” movie, Katniss finds her friend, Peeta, injured but mercifully alive, hiding amongst the rocks of a waterfall. They have been running for a day straight, from one deadly hazard to the next. Amid the rushing water, they are reunited, and can at least take comfort in knowing they’re both still alive.
So that’s natural waterfalls. People have always been drawn to cascades for their beauty, and the tranquility they inspire. But the symbolism of an artificial waterfall is more complex.Some are grand statements of financial and engineering prowess, and some are utilitarian, serving an actual purpose. Let’s talk about one of those, first.
Every day, the residents of Dane County produce millions upon millions of gallons of sewage. Most of that makes its way to the Madison Metro Sewerage District, where waste is separated from water, and that water is treated. Once the water is clean, it’s returned to roughly where it came from, via two pipes. The majority rejoins the Yahara River watershed, via a pipe that leads to Badfish Creek. The rest is pumped out to the Sugar River watershed, where it flows into Badger Mill Creek just east of Verona. As this water exits the pipe, it tumbles over a pile of boulders, aerating it for the fish below to enjoy. You can easily see this part of the water cycle at work, as it’s visible from the Military Ridge Bike Trail.
You can often find artificial waterfalls within exhibits at zoos. This, I think, is for a few reasons. Much like at the Badger Mill, it naturally aerates the water, which at a zoo, might otherwise become stagnant. Of course, a waterfall provides immersion for the people viewing, much like the painted landscape on the exhibit’s far wall. Most important, I think it helps the animals act more naturally. As an example, consider the river otters at the Henry Vilas Zoo. Their exhibit is right in the middle of the zoo, and the otters are on display from two sides. As they swim, and play on the rocks, people leer at them from the other side of glass walls. These people are loud, they stare, and I’m sure that makes most animals a little nervous. But the river otters, at least, have a three foot waterfall, right in the middle of their enclosure. I would imagine this benefits them the same way as it might benefit a person: it provides white noise, and reduces the impact of the chaotic world around them.
If we’re honest with ourselves, most artificial waterfalls are not built with a practical function in mind. They are, at the very least, an aesthetic choice, if not an outright flex by their owner. After all, there’s power in a fall’s very nature. They exist in the wild because water carved away the weak rock below the cascade. Only the strong can survive a stream’s constant onslaught, so constructing one where it shouldn’t exist is a display of power, wealth, and ingenuity.
Such is the case with Thunder Bay falls, one of the natural wonders of Northwest Illinois. At least, I thought that was the case, as I saw a picture of it in an Illinois tourism brochure. I paid the falls a visit, and it turns out that not only is it closed to the public, it isn’t natural in the slightest. Marketing failure aside, Thunder Bay Falls is a great example of the purpose of an artificial waterfall. It belongs to the Galena Territory, an association of homes surrounding two golf courses and an artificial lake. That lake is held in place by an earthen dam, but rather than have a plain concrete spillway for excess water, they chose to make a beautifully intricate waterfall, with lots of little details that make it look completely natural. Though it’s closed to the public, there’s a viewing area, presumably for members of the country club.
Surprisingly, you can find a more accessible waterfall at a private company. Epic Systems is famous for the over-the-top architecture of their campus, so it comes as no surprise that they have one of the best fake waterfalls in the area. Directly west of their visitor parking lot, a stream meanders through a courtyard between their original cluster of buildings. The stream gradually builds, passing over little rocks, until it tumbles into a wide pool, twenty feet below. Maybe it’s because I look like a software developer, but I’ve never had any issue walking around Epic after hours, and the waterfall is always a highlight.
Those are examples of waterfalls that attempt to look somewhat natural, but some of the more interesting ones are stylized to fit in their environment. High-end hotels and shopping malls will often have waterfalls that look pretty, but don’t make much of a splash. A multi-story slab of marble or glass, with water rolling down, carefully controlled. When Madison College remodeled its flagship Truax Campus, they planned to have such a waterfall in their main atrium. Ultimately, they cut back on that element to save money, opting instead for a simulated falls. In the Truax Gateway today, hidden speakers play the sound of running water, and a three-story wall of sandstone sits in the waterfall’s place. Cascading over the rocks is not water, but vertical bars of LED lights. They change color often, but default to blue, a reminder of what could have been.
Before I go, here’s a few quick recommendations: The only truly nearby falls are at Pewit’s Nest, by Baraboo. They’re small, but worth a trip on their own. If you want to go bigger, go to Northern Wisconsin. Copper Falls State Park is absolutely worth the hype, beautiful, especially in autumn. Similarly, Bond Falls, in the U.P., is a great weekend trip. And for the summer, Matthiessen State Park in Illinois is my absolute favorite, it’s the only one of these parks to which I’d bring a swimsuit. I’ll link information on all of these in the digital version, at WORTFM.ORG.
If you’d like to suggest a topic for Parks and Landmarks to cover, please send it my way, at email@example.com. Tell me about your favorite underrated spot outdoors, or whatever you feel is related. This segment’s title is intentionally broad, so just go for it. I’d love to hear from you guys. Again, that’s s-e-a-n dot b-u-l-l at w-o-r-t-f-m dot org. For WORT News, I’m Sean Bull.