From its headwaters in the hills of eastern Appalachia, the Cumberland River drains a large section of the Cumberland Mountains into the Ohio River. With average discharge rate of over 200,000 cubic feet per second, it’s not a small river. Early settlers of western Kentucky and Tennessee came through this area, going through the Cumberland Gap, a pass through the Cumberland Mountains.
A sudden drop in the Cumberland’s course gives us the beautiful Cumberland Falls, a site that I visited frequently during my childhood, as it is only a couple of hours away from where my grandparents lived. I love waterfalls, and I was fascinated by Cumberland Falls, which looked very different every time I saw it. Once it was barely a trickle, to where one could go stand underneath it. (Though I was never given the chance.) Another time it was roaring, with such flow that it looked like Niagara.
I always loved Cumberland Falls because it seemed to me like a small version of Niagara, and I was obsessed with that famous waterfall after seeing a film about it in the IMAX. I never visited Niagara as a kid though, so Cumberland Falls was the next best thing. Of course, usually the water levels weren’t so high to give that exhilarating feeling really powerful waterfalls give. The flow rate at Cumberland Falls is far less than the discharge at the Ohio River, but at an average 3,600 cubic feet per second, it’s still a good deal of water.
My most recent visit to Cumberland Falls was on a whim. We happened to be passing by on our way south, and I wanted to take my kids to see it. We made our way through the beautiful forests of Eastern Kentucky and had a lovely picnic in the park before walking down to see the falls.
I could tell just from the river level that the falls would be raging. Kentucky had been getting lots of rain, and river was flooded and brown. The area around the falls had changed since my last visit, which was probably over twenty years back. A sluice station had been set up for kids to play at mining, though we learned that the materials they were running through water came from the gift shop, at anywhere from six to ten dollars a bag. Each bag had some cool gem stones or arrowheads in it. A good business idea, but a pass for us.
I was disappointed that the area right at the brink was closed off for construction, though no work appeared to be going on. We had to walk downstream to an observatory area that afforded us a nice frontal view of the falls. Wow, was it going. I have never seen so much water going over that 68 foot drop. Not anywhere close. It was incredible.
Even my girls, who often favor complaint over enjoyment of the destinations I pick for us, were awed by the sight of it, and they went down to the closest viewpoint and just watched it for a bit. It’s not as pretty in these flood conditions, with the brown waters and all the debris, but it’s so powerful and loud.
About a month before we visited, somebody went over Cumberland Falls in a kayak. I always wondered if you could pull this kind of thing off (something I always think about with waterfalls) and apparently I’m not the only one. This wasn’t an accident – this guy was sponsored. GoPro paid for the ticket he got from the park service! I thought that was awesome. And of course, he filmed it. What a great adventure stunt. One that he couldn’t have done again on the day we were there. Holy smokes, what a raging torrent.
We spent some time looking at the falls and then made our way back to the car. There is some great hiking to be done in the area, but we had miles to go before we slept. We made sure to have a big drama over the gift store on our way out. The girls wanted to spend the little money they had left, and after running back to the car to get their purses, running back, and picking out something they believed they could afford, they found that they did not, in fact, have enough money, and were mad at everybody on account of this.
During all of this I was sitting on a bench at the parking lot, people watching, or people listening, to be precise. The dialect of speech in Eastern Kentucky is so interesting! I loved listening to the conversations, both how people spoke and what they talked about. A different world all together from what I have always known, yet also a familiar one. My own people were mountain folks from these parts, my maternal grandfather’s people having first crossed the Cumberland Gap in 1707. But I was raised in Texas, where I had a totally different experience than I would have if my parents had stayed in Kentucky, and I’ve raised my own family in Oregon, mostly. Like leaves blowing in the wind, our story meanders across space and time.