Friday, May 25, 2012

Falling for Falls

I was quite surprised, at least for a few seconds, at the announcement from the Hamilton Conservation Area that they were closing the stairs at Webster's Falls, as of tomorrow (May 26). Surprised because that is the only realistic way one can conceive of getting safely from the top of the falls to the bottom (or vice-versa). But safety is a slippery slope on a spectrum, and the stairs are definitely not the easiest stairs to manage. That's where I see the HCA's valid concern, and the easy drive in to park above the falls to hike down the stairs to access the base of the waterfall has made the descent a busy one.
Perhaps ease of access by car has assured Websters Falls the kind of success that can ruin a place. I personally avoid Websters during weekends and holidays for the crowds that overflow the capacity of the road system, the parking lots, the bathroom facilities and the quiet and powerful enjoyment I would otherwise derive from being there.
The path less taken, will now be the only route in, on foot, approaching from the east along the gorge following the Bruce Trail side trail to the base of the falls along Spencer Creek. The level of commitment to the journey here means there will be some filtering-out of people seeking the experience at the base of the falls looking up: it is a longer hike and at times more difficult with tricky footing along the edge of the ravine. The payoff is the beauty, being in a place where you can really feel like you have left "civilization" behind. The rugged moss-shouldered boulders, the sharp cliffs, the swirling, rushing water and the dark ferns, pines and hemlocks crowding out the noise and sights of human-created form.

The attraction of nearby nature has become more widely sought-after among the general population, and the resultant demands placed on nature - and let's be frank, we are talking about fragmented remnants of a much much larger lost wilderness - are increasing. Websters Falls serves as a local example of the kind of toll being exacted at these tourist attractions.
What is the solution to the problem of success? More local wild places. A recognition of the value of saving ("conserving") what we have, but also a commitment to restoring what we have lost. Expanding the bounds so that the point of contact is closer to where we are, not a drive-to or drive-through experience, but a walk, cycle, transit accessible experience.
We know people enjoy natural spaces, we know the benefits that accrue those who seek it out; but we cannot sustain the current supply of limited tourist hotspots. Something is going to give, and we know the trampling feet will outpace the ferns, grasses and reeds, and the fragile ecology of our remnant forests.


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