Best known for his detailed guides to waterfall guidebooks, Russell Dunn is a waterfall monomaniac. His love of nature and the water that tumbles through it has resulted in five waterfall guidebooks (four covering regions of Eastern New York), an excellent collection of stories of Great Sacandaga Lake, and most recently he has teamed up with his wife, Barbara Delaney, to pen history-filled trail guides to the Adirondacks with the informative Trails with Tails series.
His meticulous attention to detail makes his books useful not only on the trail, but also for preparation. Packed with years of know-how, he covers everything from waterfall safety to networking with other enthusiasts and collecting information on the web. His books are packed with all the information a beginner would need to get out and start enjoying these scenic places. Russell is sure to put in several hidden treasures that even the seasoned hiker is sure to have overlooked. We talked with Russell about his waterfall obsession, his books, and what is next for him and his wife.
What do waterfalls mean to you and why devote your time to exploring and writing about them?
That’s an interesting question, and one that I may never be able to answer in an exact way, for there never was a specific Eureka moment for me. I started off with an interest to climb the major high peaks in NYS; then I sought out the lowest points and became a caver. I suppose waterfalls became a compromise between the two.
In terms of meaning, the Victorians’ notion of the “sublime and awesome” comes most readily to mind when I view a waterfall.
You have mentioned that your personal goal is to “popularize” waterfalls. Your guidebooks have certainly attracted a lot of people to waterfalls. Why popularize them and by what means are you trying to reach that goal?
At the heart of this is a conviction that most people don’t fully realize how close they live to waterfalls, or how accessible they are. My guidebooks provide a way for readers to re-discover the wonders of nature around them.
On the other hand, those who buy my guidebooks will never have the same sense of adventure that I experienced seeking out the waterfalls in the first place. When you refer to a guidebook, everything is explained in detail and predetermined. You never have that true sense of adventure that comes from wondering what may lie around the next corner of the woods. I can’t begin to tell you how many lonely, desolate ravines I have hiked through looking for waterfalls only to find nothing in the end. Readers of my books will be spared those misadventures – and yet it was those misadventures, and the sense of the unknown, that made the hikes exciting for me.
Your books feature plenty of historic photos and illustrations of waterfalls rather than photos. What is the significance of using historic imagery rather than recent photos?
My goal has been to put waterfalls into a historical context, for it is only then that you are able to really understand their significance. One hundred year old postcards give readers an opportunity to compare the waterfall of today with how it looked a century ago. That’s a pretty novel and interesting concept; I think you would agree. As it turns out – probably to no one’s surprise — the same waterfalls look pretty much today as they did a hundred years ago (minus the hulking factories that blighted the ones that were industrialized).
Your Adirondack Waterfall Guide covers the major waterfalls of the ‘Dacks, as well as many others, but certainly not all the park has to offer. With so many waterfalls, how do you decide when enough is enough? What leads you to choose one location over another?
The Adirondack Waterfall Guide was my first book – I have written four more since then. If I could do it all over again, I would include many more waterfalls in the first book than I did, and I would call it “Adirondack Waterfall Guide – Eastern Section.” Then I would write the sequel, “Adirondack Waterfall Guide: Western Section.” (truth be told, I am working on just such a sequel now along with several other projects).
Your Hudson Valley Waterfall Guide includes a lot of history for each waterfall site. Historical background info, as well as the antique imagery, seems to be an increasing theme in your books. You even co-authored trail guides with historic narratives in the Trails with Tails series. Why so much focus on the history of these locations?
As a youth I was more interested in Anthropology (the broad study of history) than of the history of localities. This has changed somewhat in my later years. I have come to realize that in order to understand something – even seemingly as simple as a waterfall – you need to put it into a historical context. Hence, my zeal for history.
You have authored guides covering the Adirondack, Hudson, Catskill and Mohawk regions, and your new book reaches into western Massachusetts. Do you have any plans for a Finger Lakes or Western NY guide?
The answer is “no.” Rich & Sue Freeman, whom I greatly admire, have written a wonderful guidebook called 200 Waterfalls in Central and Western New York. I wouldn’t try to outdo them (and hopefully they will return the courtesy). On the other hand, it would undoubtedly be fun to write a book called “Waterfalls & Wineries of the Finger Lakes” – I don’t think that has been done yet.
Based on your book sales, do you see an increase in waterfall popularity?
The answer is resoundingly yes. Everybody loves waterfalls. I have tried to write books that will appeal to hard-core hikers, Joe six-pack enthusiasts, couples and families, and even to those with disabilities (hence, the roadside waterfalls).
Increasingly nature preserves are formed around waterfalls which serve as a centerpiece, so I think humans’ appreciation of waterfalls will only increase with the passage of time.
On the dark side, waterfalls’ popularity may increase dramatically for utilitarian reasons as we run out of fossil fuels and turn to hydro-power. If this should happen, it’s quite possible that some of the aesthetics of waterfall viewing will be compromised. I am truly in debt to my publisher – Black Dome Press out of Hensonville, New York . They have done a fantastic job of bringing the waterfall series of books to light.
Some feel that certain waterfall locations are better off being unpublicized. The dilemma many of us as authors face is that we enjoy and appreciate pristine and peaceful locations and want to share them. But by doing so we risk ruining the very aspects that we enjoy. How do you feel about this trade-off?
I think the concern raised is a valid one. My wife and I were recently in China where they have a lot of people (1.2 billion to be exact, give or take a couple of million). It seemed that everywhere we went – even to temples of solitude – you would find yourself amongst 10,000 other visitors, so there never was a sense of solitude. The sacred places are literally being loved to death. This seems to be particularly true in some sections of the Adirondacks, like the High Peaks for instance, but not so much in the Catskills, Shawangunks, Hudson Valley, and Berkshires (which I have also written about). The irony is that if you love the wilderness to death, all you find in the end is what you left the cities to get away from – namely, more people and all of the noise and clutter they bring with them.
But to answer your question – yes, I would feel badly if some infrequently visited waterfalls began to be over-run (particularly if they became abused) by hoards of visitors or partiers.
You and your wife recently retired and became NYS Licensed Hiking Guides. Are you running any waterfall-focused tours?
Thank you for asking. Every year we host an annual weekend of waterfall hikes at Trails End Inn in the Keene Valley area of the Adirondacks. We have been doing it for 8 years now. Every year we fill up the inn during what typically is the “mud season” – a time of low occupancy — so the inn comes out ahead, and so do those who participate in the outings, for they get to see waterfalls pumped up to full volume by spring’s snow-melt.
We also lead history-oriented hikes in the Capital Region, be we can only manage so much without it beginning to cut into our time for writing and exploring.
What makes New York waterfalls so appealing/special/unique?
New York State waterfalls may not be as big or high as some of the waterfalls out west, but what they lack in height they more than make up for in terms of their majesty and variety. In the springtime New York State waterfalls are thunderous and awe-inspiring; in the summer they turn into entities of rock and moss as well as water; in fall they are adorned by the glorious colors of autumn, and in winter they become glacier-like. Where could you find such variety and beauty anywhere else? New York State really delivers the goods.
What waterfall would you say is your favorite and why?
My favorite waterfall is Kaaterskill Falls in the Catskills – a 231-foot, two-tier waterfall that has a fabulous history associated with it. When you stand at the base and look up at it, the fall is absolutely magnificent to behold. Historically speaking, it was one of the few waterfalls that were commercialized instead of industrialized. My favorite Adirondack Waterfall is Rainbow Falls (on a tributary to the East Branch of the Ausable River), although O.K. Slip Falls (very close to the Hudson River) would be a close second.
What should we expect next from you?
Water must be my motif. In 2010 Black Dome Press will publish my Kayaker’s Guide to the Capital District Region, but it will be a kayaking guide unlike any other that has been published. The guidebook will not only contain hundreds of river and lake accesses, but will go into tremendous detail about the incredible 400 years of history that accompanies each of the outings. In the end I guess you could say that history is the common denominator for all of the guidebooks I have worked on.
Interviewing / Presentation