A wealth of Waterfalls

In search of Juneau's most spectacular cascades

Posted: Sunday, July 08, 2001

When the clouds close in and the rain is unrelenting, people who love waterfalls head for the hills.

Waterfalls abound in Southeast because of the rainy climate and mountainous terrain, and Juneau residents don't have to venture far to see some of the most spectacular waterfalls in town.

Many locals point to Ebner Falls and Nugget Falls as the best, followed by a handful of others.

"One of my favorites is Nugget Falls," said Forest Service District Ranger Pete Griffin. "It's several hundred feet tall and that's just astounding to me."

Nugget Falls, just east of the Mendenhall Glacier, is a good example of how most waterfalls in Southeast were formed, said local geologist Cathy Connor.

The water that feeds the falls cascades down a valley carved by Nugget Glacier, a tributary to the Mendenhall. Nugget Glacier was smaller than the Mendenhall, so when it advanced and retreated, it gouged a more shallow trough in the rock, creating a drop to the deeper valley below carved by the Mendenhall, said Connor, a geology instructor at the University of Alaska Southeast.

"To have a waterfall you need some kind of big drop in the bedrock, so the real story is how did you get that change in bedrock," Connor said. "There are different reasons, but around here they're mostly glacial reasons."

However, miners left a mark on local waterfalls, too, said David Stone, author of the 1980 book "Hard Rock Gold," a history of Juneau mining. A century ago miners tapped Nugget Creek above the falls for hydroelectricty and built a wooden dam still visible at the top, said Stone, noting the dam made the falls more spectacular.

"Water is coming off over the top of the dam and rushing down, so the falls are more dramatic than they were originally," Stone said.

Tourists gravitate toward the mammoth cascade, said Becky Cook of Gastineau Guiding, which quenches clients' thirst for waterfalls by selling hiking tours to Nugget Falls. Cook takes people to the bottom of the waterfall, accessible from the beach at Mendenhall Lake, or to a more distant view on West Glacier Trail.

Ebner Falls, which thunders down the Gold Creek valley off Perseverance Trail, is another popular attraction, she said.

"It's loud and it's an untamed waterfall," said Cook of the falls, named for William Ebner, a mining operator on Gold Creek in the late 1800s who tapped the falls for hydroelectricty.

Ebner Falls also is favored by Mary Lou King, author of "90 Short Walks Around Juneau."

"It's a strong force, and it demands total respect," King said.

King, an avid hiker, also recommended the AJ Falls, accessible by a short path off East Loop Glacier Trail near the Mendenhall Glacier.

The AJ Falls is another throwback to Juneau's gold rush days, said Stone, the mining expert. When miners tapped nearby Nugget Creek for hydroelectricity, they delivered the water through a tunnel to a power plant once located near the present-day visitor center. However, the miners needed a way to flush out glacial silt from the system to prevent clogging the power plant, so they diverted some water through a separate pipe, creating AJ Falls, an entirely human-made cascade, Stone said.

King, the author, said the size of the falls depends on whether the pipe that feeds it is clogged.


"Sometimes it's big and sometimes it's little," King said. "When it plugs up, it's a little waterfall."

King also noted a waterfall along North Douglas Highway, one of a few local cascades accessible by road. The waterfall apparently does not have a name, although some call it Twin Falls because it changed from a single cascade to a double, King said.

Connor, the geologist, likes the gentler falls on Sheep Creek off Thane Road near the salmon hatchery. The Sheep Creek Falls and Ebner Falls in Gold Creek likely were formed much as Nugget Falls, said Connor, noting smaller glaciers probably carved shallow troughs, called hanging valleys, that dropped to a deeper valley gouged by a large glacier.

"Gold Creek and Sheep Creek were both probably filled with ice and their glaciers were joining a big glacier that occupied Gastineau Channel," she said.

Connor sometimes seeks out waterfalls to relax and ranks the Sheep Creek Falls as one of her favorites.

"I think they mesmerize you and make you get beyond your day-to-day little worries," Connor said. "It gets you up there to another level."

The study of human response to the sound of moving water and other noises has evolved into a curriculum at the California Institute for Human Science, a graduate school and research center in Encinitas, Calif. The institute calls the study of human response to sounds "psychoacoustics."

The institute's Dr. Jeffrey Thompson says research has shown certain sounds in nature affect human pulse rate, respiration, temperature and other functions.

"Recent advances in technology and research have yielded a wealth of information concerning sonic waveforms and their effect on the body and brain," according to a paper by Thompson. "Certain sounds have been found to have a direct effect upon physiological systems."

Thompson said research on moving water, including ocean waves, did not specifically study the sound of waterfalls. However, he said cascading water would sound similar to white noise, thought to promote relaxation by masking extraneous sounds.

"If you take white noise, which is all the frequency spectrum, and you put it through a modulated filter, it sounds like a waterfall," Thompson said.

The allure of waterfalls is not so technical to King, the author.

"They inspire a certain amount of awe that water can be so beautiful," she said. "I think we all like things in motion."

Kathy Dye can be reached at kdye@juneauempire.com.

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