Burgess Falls

Sedimentary rock yields over time. Water laid it down and water cuts it away. On the Eastern Highland Rim, the Falling Water River has wrought marvels with its erosive force. Limestone layers that formed long ago are exposed on the margins of the river’s grand drops as it makes its way towards the Caney Fork River and Tennessee’s Central Basin. Many small falls and cascades mark the river’s course, but the largest is near its end. The Falling Water falls 136 feet in a limestone amphitheater, creating Burgess Falls.

I have lost my respect for humidity. Time on the dry side of the Oregon’s Cascades has me acclimated to different conditions. Now, on the banks of the Falling Water River in mid-June, I am being reacquainted with just how much water the hot summer air can hold. The humidity can only occupy me for so long, though. There is a bird in the water. When we first hit the trail, we noticed a wader and labeled it a heron, assuming it to be a great blue. Now, we are not so sure. Peering through the binoculars, our assumption is proven wrong. A black head with white cheeks and long feathers reaching out from the back of a pale but colorful crown — this is a yellow-crowned night heron.

We admire the bird, and the black vulture that lifts from the shade of a riverside tree nearby, then carry on downstream. I am having a hard time finding birds here. These songs which I’ve surely heard a thousand times are ones I’ve yet to learn, and the dense growth of the summer forest obscures the perches of flighty friends. I turn my attention to the trees instead. How many of these hardwoods can I recall? It’s a short hike, but in the end I count 17 species of trees whose names jumped readily to my mind, with a few more eluding my recollection. The trees easily outnumber the birds.

On a cliff, we look across an amphitheater at the sight that drew us here. Burgess Falls is flowing steadily over the brink, and though this view is nice we must get closer. Down at the precipice, the work of the Falling Water River is easily appreciated. Small stairsteps in the stream are a preview of the 136-foot drop that lies just ahead, and a few plants cling to clefts in the sedimentary layers along the margins of the riverbed. A watersnake braves the current, swimming confidently towards us til its eyes meet mine. It pauses, then darts into a hidden crevice, finding safety in a limestone lair. Late light shines on the walls around us, the sun hidden behind the impenetrable network of branches, trunks, and leaves above. I have been in many places like this before, and I am happy to inhabit this one tonight. It is sometimes harder to find than it is out west, but there is wild in Tennessee.

Back near the trailhead, we see the night heron again. Then another. Then another. They are feasting in the falls, looking for food in a river that is likely just a temporary home. They are migrating and breeding, and the macroinvertebrates that live in the rushing currents of the Falling Water River will sustain them on their journeys. A red-orange eye stares at me just above the whitewater. The bird it belongs to decides it would be more comfortable with more distance between us. Leaping above the tumult, it flies downstream. Wings beat through the thick air and vanish behind leaves of sweetgum, sourwood, hickory, and tuliptree.