America's Top 100 Western Waterfalls
Beisel Jr, Richard H. (author)
Outskirts Press, 2008
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Reviewed by Bryan Swan
Richard Beisel created and authored the International Waterfall Classification System as a method to universally classify and categorize any given waterfall based on the amount of water present in the waterfall. The system is moderately sound and we employ it on this website as another metric to compare waterfalls. After publishing his first book, Beisel set out to document the best waterfalls in the United States using this system and this book is one of the two results of that project.
Beisel uses this classification system, among apparently many other factors (and I suspect a heavy dose of personal favoritism) to rank and rate the 100 best waterfalls west of the Mississippi River as he sees it. Now, before I get into it, let me stipulate that Beisel acknowledges that his rankings are largely subjective and he rules in factors such as surrounding scenery, whether there are other waterfalls nearby that can be visited at the same time, and whether there is any notable history to the waterfall. With that acknowledgment this book is so thoroughly flawed that it can only be viewed as a subjective work, regardless of the author's intent to use his rating system to provide a balanced comparison of waterfalls across the country.
So, here we have the companion to the "Top 100 Eastern Waterfalls" book, which the author deliberately split to a separate entity because he notes that the waterfalls east of the Mississippi just can't hold their ground to what we have out west, which is an entirely logical way to go about such a project. He's also stated a desire to spread out the representation over the whole west to provide waterfall hunting opportunities to all regions. To us this seems a counterproductive practice considering he was trying to level the playing field of East versus West - you simply cannot compare waterfalls in Washington, Oregon, California and Montana to those in Kansas, South Dakota or Missouri. Geographically it may not be an even split, but dividing the book's content at the Rocky Mountains would be a much more logical way to go about things.
So on to the content. Like the "Eastern" book, Beisel lists his choices for the top 100 waterfalls on the west side of the Mississippi River. Like the "Eastern" book, there are flaws in the figures presented and uneven distribution of the waterfalls covered - California is heavily represented while Washington, Montana and Alaska are scarce. However, unlike the "Eastern" book, Beisel doesn't appear to have done his homework for this volume.
While discussing and debating the ordering of a "Top X list" is generally a practice in subjectivity, the undeniable air of personal influence on the list presented in this book severely discounts the credibility of such a work. The obvious choices for such a ranking of the best waterfalls in the Western US are present - Yosemite Falls, Shoshone Falls, the falls of the Yellowstone River, etc. But beyond the well known juggernauts, many of the higher rated entries are those which are very well known but not nearly comparable to the truly great waterfalls in the United States. Further, the segregation of some waterfalls but not others deviates from a consistency that really needs to be in place - the well known waterfalls (4) of Havasu Creek are grouped into one entry, likewise for the two major falls of the Merced River in Yosemite National Park (Vernal and Nevada), but the Upper and Lower falls of the Yellowstone are given independent entries.
As one progresses deeper into the book, however, the influence of the author's feelings become much more apparent. For example, California's tiny though exceptionally scenic McWay Falls is listed as the 15th best waterfall in the western USA, while Yosemite National Park's Wapama Falls - a cataract the World Waterfall Database has rated as the state's second most impressive fall and one standing over 13 times the height of McWay Falls - is rated as the 58th best. Another standout comparison, one I myself am very qualified to comment on, is the ranking of Washington State's Nooksack Falls (88 feet tall) a full 10 places higher than Washington's most powerful waterfall, Snoqualmie Falls (268 feet tall). Running off a list of these sort of perceptive liberties would take much too long, but rest assured we have only scratched the surface here.
Now as far as the selection process for this book goes, there is a disproportionately large number of waterfalls from California listed. Yes, California has a lot of waterfalls, but due to its much drier climate and the fact that the mountainous regions of the state retain very little groundwater, really noteworthy waterfalls are not nearly as commonplace as one might assume. In comparison, the states of Washington, Oregon, Montana, Alaska and Hawaii all harbor just as many significant waterfalls - in some cases many, many more - as California does, yet they are all scarcely represented in this book. Instead, included are waterfalls like Spearfish Falls in South Dakota (45 feet) - which the author himself calls "diminutive". When authoring a book built around the idea of ranking the 100 best of anything, "diminutive" is not a term that one would expect to see used whatsoever. Spearfish Falls isn't the only waterfall which is found mentioned in this book that could be described as such, however. Wabena Falls in California (40 feet), Ousel Falls in Colorado (60 feet) or perhaps the most deserving of such an adjective, Falling Water Falls in Arkansas (10 feet) all could be construed as just as insignificant or more so.
All of these flaws, however can be traced to the subjectivity of the author, and anyone writing a book such as this is more than entitled to his or her opinions - though obviously the more heavily one's opinion influences, the less seriously the author can be taken. This all takes a back seat to the biggest issue with this book. While excluding literally hundreds of legitimately spectacular waterfalls throughout the western states, the author chose to instead give mention to Wichita Falls in Texas. The town of Wichita Falls was named for a small set of rapids that were destroyed in a flood in the late 1800s. The city, feeling it had no identity without its namesake "waterfall", constructed a 50-foot tall artificial garden-style waterfall which began operating in 1986. Beisel ranks this artificial waterfall as the 53rd best waterfall west of the Mississippi River. This gives it a better ranking than the previously discussed 1,341 foot tall Wapama Falls in Yosemite National Park (ranked at #58). Whatever the reasoning behind this decision, the inclusion of an artificial waterfall and subsequent ranking of it as more significant than at least one of the best waterfalls in the country should be evidence enough that the author has little credibility.
The next point I want to address is a problem that has reoccurred in both of Beisel's other books. Many of the figures he uses to compute his ratings are extremely inaccurate. Whether old data was used to calculate these numbers and it has since been corrected, we do not know, but it certainly hadn't been corrected at time of print, so I think its safe to say the author has (had?) a poor grasp on his data. For example, he cites California's Ribbon Falls as having an average annual discharge of 2 cubic meters per second (about 70 cubic feet per second). This may be accurate at the HIGHEST level of flow of Ribbon Creek, but it only flows for about half the year. He then suggests that Yellowstone National Park's Tower Falls has an average flow of 1.3 cubic meters per second (about 45 cubic feet per second). In reality not only does Tower Creek have a drainage area roughly 20 times as large as Ribbon Creek, but its partially spring fed and retains a much higher amount of winter snowfall into the summer, so it flows consistently pretty much all year long. Further he cites Oregon's Multnomah Falls as averaging 6.5 cubic meters per second (230 cfs) - a figure that is bare minimum 100 cfs too high - while suggesting nearby Eagle Creek averages only 3 cubic meters per second (105 cfs). Eagle Creek's drainage size is 4x that of Multhomah Creek and it is by far the largest stream on the Oregon side of the Columbia Gorge flowing into the Columbia River between the cities of Corbett and Hood River. There are dozens of such errors in flow figures and even more errors in the heights the author has reported, so one has to question the ratings pulled from his International Waterfall Classification system.
The last major issue with this book is the amount of simple geographic research, or lack thereof, put into the content. There are so many errors present which could be corrected by simply referencing USGS Topographical maps, Atlases or other sources of geodata that we seriously question whether the author actually visited many of the waterfalls he has written about. As a native of the Pacific Northwest, the one that stands out most to me is his entry for "Eagle Creek Park", referring to the various waterfalls along Eagle Creek in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge (there is no "park"). I've hiked the Eagle Creek trail dozens of times myself, and while the author identifies 6 of the major waterfalls along the trail, he incorrectly assumes there are only 8 waterfalls along the trail when anyone who has hiked the trail can count more (there are over a dozen waterfalls found within the 6 mile length discussed), and additionally incorrectly identifies the height and form of half of the falls he writes about along this trail. Given, much of the incorrect information doesn't have a major bearing on what is being discussed and can only be seen as semantics, but with so many errors present the author's credibility not only as being knowledgeable on the topic of waterfalls but as a writer in general have to be seriously doubted.
On the plus side, whether this was by design or not, this book has better quality photographs than the previous two the author has published. It appears, however, this is due to the author using pictures largely taken by others. Better is a relative term though, and the photographs still look like they came from a cheap laser printer. The production quality of this book is right on par with Beisel's previous work. The book was self-published, printed by Outskirts Press and lacks any semblance of professional handling. Let me make clear that I'm not intentionally trying to slam this book or anything, it simply is that bad of a product. I know the author intended well with this project of his, but I might go as far as suggesting this might be the worst book on the subject of waterfalls I've yet read.