Greg Westrich visited more waterfalls in Maine in 2019 than most of us are likely to see in a lifetime — some 50 of them just that summer, while researching his book Hiking Waterfalls Maine: A Guide to the State’s Best Waterfall Hikes(Falcon Guides, 2020, $24.95). A prolific author of Maine outdoors guides (including the invaluable Hiking Maine, now in its 4th edition, and a brand-new one, on the 100 Mile Wilderness), he was already familiar with plenty of the state’s cataracts, but he revisits trails often and took a meticulous approach to the book: its final tally, 67 waterfalls, leaves out some roadside falls and others that can’t be reached by trail, but Westrich says it’s a pretty comprehensive list of the state’s hikeable falls. “People kind of like to collect waterfalls,” he says — and he’s no different. We asked him a cascade of questions.
Is it even worth asking whether you have a fave?
I try to avoid the idea of favorites! When it comes to hiking, for example, the Maine hike I’ve done the most is up Borestone Mountain. I’ve probably hiked it 100 times, but it’s not “a” hike. There’s hiking it this day, hiking it that day, with this person, in this season, when it’s raining. Each hike is unique. That’s especially true for waterfalls, because every time you visit one, it’s going to be different. With the thin soil and granite bedrock in so much of Maine, water runs off, and then you don’t get much waterfall later in the season.
What’s the deal with old-time Mainers using “falls” to describe what’s basically just a stretch of whitewater?
You have to understand Maine jargon and how it’s different for different rivers. Roughly speaking, Maine is divided into two important watersheds, right? The Kennebec and the Penobscot. Each has a separate logging history, and it’s the loggers who named most of the falls. In the Penobscot watershed, a “falls” is a rapid. A “falls” you can run your bateau down. Whereas a “pitch” is an actual waterfall that you have to carry around, and most of the rivers around the watershed have a “Grand Pitch,” which is the big waterfall on that stretch of river. But the Kennebec watershed uses different nomenclature. I think it’s because so many loggers in the Kennebec watershed were French, but not so many in the Penobscot, and they developed different cultures and words.
The book, we noticed, doesn’t assign each falls a type or a category.
I use those identifying words — “horsetail,” “plunge,” and so on — in the descriptions, but I didn’t set out to classify each because most waterfalls don’t neatly fit into one category. For me, a lot of times, the rock is more telling and means more to me than how the water is falling. In the central highlands, for example, there are a lot of falls where the underlying rock is black slate. So you have waterfalls like Little Wilson Falls or Indian Falls, and the way that slate looks when it’s wet, with the water coming down it, makes those falls so different from, say, Tumbledown Dick Falls, which isn’t far away but goes over granite.
So you didn’t find all those falls kind of start blending together after number 25 or 30?
It’s weird, always working on a guide, because when I hike, instead of just being on the hike — which is important to me — I sometimes end up kind of writing it while I’m doing it: what I’m going to say, what’s important to mention, what wildflowers are out, what wildlife I see or see evidence of. With the waterfalls, I made the decision that I didn’t want to do what a lot of guides do and rate the waterfalls. First of all, depending on when you go, it’s going to be different. But also, maybe you like a waterfall that’s more of a ribbon, as opposed to a big surge of water — how do you rate that? It’s not fair to judge it that way. And deciding that helped me to just kind of be at each waterfall, as much as possible.
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