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Freshet season brings new waterfall viewing opportunities on the back roads (7 photos)

The season of the “freshet” - flood or high water of a river from heavy rain or melted snow - is now upon us.

We don’t utilize the noun “freshet” very much, it’s a spring word, the flood or high water of a river from heavy rain or melted snow, is now upon us.

It is waterfall watching season because the water level transition is beginning throughout Northern Ontario. Waterfalls attract us any time of the year and for good reasons, they make us happy.

That’s why we go outside. Falling water is considered to be one giant ion generator – the vitamins in the watery air give off negative ions, which we take in as positive energy. Once the negative ions reach our bloodstream, they are said to increase our bodies' production of serotonin, which is the chemical responsible for relieving stress and depression, and for boosting our energy and happiness.

Indigenous Teaching

First, when searching out our favourite waterfalls we should be grateful for the water. Dr. Jonathan Pitt explains.

He is an Indigenous knowledge keeper and is of Anishinaabek and Haudenosaunee heritage. Cultural transmission is part of his research and the courses he teaches at Nipissing University through Aki or land-as-teacher. He also works as an Independent Consultant for post-secondary organizations as an Indigenization Advisor.

“In Nishnaabemwin water is called “nibi” and in Anishinaabek culture, women are water carriers and water walkers (men are firekeepers). Nibi is the blood of our Mother Earth, it is the giver of life as our women are also our life-givers, we must honour our women just as we honour nibi.

"As Indigenous people, water makes up much of our physical bodies, it is sacred and has energy – the memory flowing within us.

"An Elder once told me that water has the memory of everything it has passed through, known as water memory.

"As the First People, our children are drawn to water, it teaches us about ourselves and the world around us. Water is to be respected as it, like the other elements, of the Earth (Aki) such as wind and fire or skhode must be respected.

"Water is in our sacred Creation Stories. It keeps us alive. Water is used for the hide when we make our drums, it can also feel vibrations. We use water in our sacred ceremonies (e.g. drum/seasonal) and we as humans are often drawn to water - it is the necessity of life, for All Our Relations.

"Western euro-leaning science looks at water surveys, searches for water on Mars but does not see nibi as something other than a natural resource or commodity for consumption, in the fast-life world we live in there is no reciprocal relationship with nibi, which is common within colonized ways.

"In Kindergarten classrooms, children have water tables and engage with water as 'play' and later in the mainstream schoolhouse science labs and ponds as inquiry, problem-solving, critical thinking, hands-on, but missing a fulsome understanding. Students lack the understanding of the gift and responsibility we have as stewards to water.

"Simply reading a book by the water is not land-based learning or Akinoomaage or land-as-teacher. We must remember Honesty, to be honest with ourselves, one of the Traditional Seven Grandfather Teachings like Sabe, (Sasquatch) who is a water protector."

In 2019, he facilitated the creation of a resource entitled Honouring Our Women, A Resource for Educators to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Calls to Justice in one of his university courses which were interconnected with “nibi.”

At that time nearly all the Great Lakes in Ontario were at or above record levels. “Our water is wounded and needs decolonizing and cleansing as our minds and Spirits do as well. If we don’t take care of the water, how can we presume it will take care of us?” See this report.

Waterfalls of Ontario

Moving water, as Dr. Pitt said we are “drawn” to it.”

One person who knows this, better than most, is Mark Harris the author of Waterfalls of Ontario, he is the blogger behind Waterfalls of Ontario, started in 1999 and maintains the 38,000 members of the same name on Facebook with the help of a dedicated group of volunteers.

Nobody knows exactly how many waterfalls are found in Ontario. Harris’ book lists over 600, but he admits that there are many more.

“Many waterfall sites also have second or third smaller falls just around the corner from the main attraction," he said. "At places like Duschesnay Falls in North Bay, or at Sand River Falls near Wawa, it seems like the falls just keep coming!

"I continue to be surprised when someone posts a falls that I’ve not come across in 20 years. Even in areas that we thought were fully catalogued.

“I was contacted by Firefly books, the first book was released in 2003 and was one part guidebook, one part coffee table book.

"The book kept selling, not at huge volumes, but at constant demand. They ran out of stock and so we did some modifications and released the second and now there are four. Shortly after, Facebook was really catching on, so I started a group to support my website.

"We are now approaching 40,000 strong and there are now daily posts of photos, directions and questions about visiting waterfalls in Ontario. The Facebook group has brought together a number of like-minded people of all ages and backgrounds.

"While many are happy just to receive their daily dose of waterfall images, others are passionate explorers. We have lots of members in Hamilton, which claims to be the 'Waterfall Capital of the World.' But we also have members from northern Ontario, where the waterfalls are often remote, but somehow people are able to get to them.

“Waterfalls are the centrepieces of many hikes, whether it’s a long rugged hike through the bush or a short walk down a dead-end street in small towns and villages. They have also allowed me to explore parts of the province that I otherwise wouldn’t have visited. I love the thrill of hearing the sound of the water on the rocks, whether it’s the thunder of a large spray-filled river or the trickle of a little woodland stream.

"They serve as an excellent subject for photography, especially how they change from season to season. Some people like to sit and relax next to waterfalls for hours. But I’m always too busy trying to get to the next one! I’ve identified more than 600 in Ontario to date, but there are no doubt many more hidden off the beaten trail.”

Back Roads Bill appreciates “…the next one!” comment.

An interactive map on the Waterfalls of Ontario site identifies 500-plus waterfalls throughout the province that you can visit, and each is rated for ease of access and interest.

Harris makes an effort to exclude waterfalls that are found on private property.

“In recent years, and especially during the pandemic, we’ve lost access to a number of waterfalls. Bad behaviour by a small number of visitors can ruin things for the rest of us.

"Trespassing gives our hobby a bad name and can lead to more places being closed.

“Twenty-five years into this hobby and I am still finding new waterfalls from group members. The community aspect has been amazing; not only do we find new waterfalls, but it’s a great way to get updates on all of our favourites.”

Members often send photos that he can use for his web site.

“A few senior members of the Facebook Group, like Gary Smith, 60, of Hamilton, have visited hundreds of waterfalls over the years," Harris said. “I’ve been intrigued by waterfalls for as long as I can remember. But it has been in the last 15 years that finding waterfalls has been a passion for me. To date, I’ve visited and photographed 673 Ontario waterfalls and it’s been a great hobby. Visiting the rest will keep me busy in my retirement.”

The group attracts younger people too.

Says Ben Wright, 20, of Brantford, “Waterfalls are the reason I got into my career as a photographer, there’s nothing more beautiful and awesome at the same time. I started bringing my friends along on my trips and they really enjoy it. Since waterfalls can be found all across the province, the trip can be part of the fun.”

A rite of passage for many waterfall lovers is something that Harris calls the 'Thunder Run'.

This is a long, road trip from southern Ontario to Thunder Bay. Residents of the north get the perk of being able to save the long, boring drive out of Toronto.

“The Trans-Canada Highway, from North Bay to Thunder Bay passes by some of our biggest, most impressive waterfalls," Harris says. "Many of the best ones are easy to visit. Spring freshet is the time to go.”

His favourite waterfalls are the ones that are hidden in the woods, away from the crowds, but still easily accessible.

“One favourite is at Robertson Cliffs, north of Sault Ste. Marie. It’s just five minutes from the car, but a steep, muddy slope keeps most people away. At the same time, it’s impossible to not be impressed by the power at northern falls like High Falls on the Pigeon River near Thunder Bay." 

He laments, “I just wish that it wasn’t so far away!”

“Waterfalls draw visitors for different reasons. They are great places for photography, and recently, they’ve been destinations for the Instagram crowd… it’s hard to make a boring post about a waterfall! They can also be the big prize at the end of a long hike. Agawa Falls, which is still on my list, requires a four-hour hike both ways.”

To find the way to the falls, go to this website, see this story.

New Waterfall

Ian Byerley is a climber, he is soon to graduate as a teacher from Lakehead University.

“I utilize Waterfalls of Ontario as a source to scope out potential ice climbs and kayak runs,” Byerley said.

Back Roads Bill seeks out such places. Hmmm… enamoured by waterfalls I thought I too thought about submitting an unknown waterfall to Mark and his media; you can too; I joined the group!

“The website and book don’t list this falls, so you reached out to me [email protected]," said Harris. "I was happy to hear from you about this, and have had many similar interactions with users.”

You can see the submission on the Facebook page under the featured tab or at the website, look for the 'Show me the waterfalls!' tab (Northeast Waterfall Inventory – North Bay Falls).

The submission starts like this... 

“We are creatures of habit. We drive by 'sights' countless times and think about stopping but don’t. It will be the next time. Like many of the highway-viewed waterfalls, this one is a little different, it has no name.

"The tumbling falls on the east (right) side of Thibeault Hill is one of those locations.

"Out of the corner of our eye, it catches our attention as we drive northwards. In the winter the frozen formations are spectacular, the water flowing behind the translucent sheets of ice.

"Spring has sprung and the tumbling water is no longer hidden by winter’s ice face.

"It seems there is always a constant flow cascading over the rock-cut, halfway up the hill, so close to the edge of the highway. It is odd because there is no roadside sign, it was created unnaturally partially because of the highway."

"Where does that water come from and where does it go?

"You can’t see it above or below the vertical drop. Highway 11 North has been expanded many times but the falls seems suspended in time, perpetually flowing like a fountain.”

You can read the rest and when over that way take a look!

Why now?

Harris enjoys waterfalls throughout the year but agrees that spring is a special time, especially in the north.

“The spring freshet brings a lot of the northern falls to life after a long winter. If you want to be awestruck, this is the time to visit!

"Not only do rivers flow at their peak, but the lack of leaf cover means that you can see more than you might during summer. And there are no bugs!”

See the third edition.

When we see and hear moving water, we can feel a very real, often profound connection to the raw primal power of Nature.

It affects all of our senses in a very real way; we are mesmerized by the sight and they sound alright, but when the spray or mist touches you, well there’s nothing else like it on the back roads.