North Georgia is the home to so many waterfalls that some say the original name for the region in Cherokee translates roughly into “Land of a Thousand Waterfalls.” Now through August 9th plein air paintings of over two dozen of them can be seen at the Sautee Nacoochee Cultural Center in White County.
In 2018 local artist Jennifer Long Herrera saw an online list of popular northeast Georgia waterfalls and decided to try and visit them all. Inspired by their beauty she started doing small sketches. She soon moved from pencils to oil pastels, then started filling her backpack with the supplies to create full color acrylic paintings on site. Now almost every weekend, weather permitting, she hikes to an area waterfall and spends a couple of hours painting.
From July 3rd through August 9th Jennifer’s waterfall paintings, as well as a selection of her drawings and sculpture, will be on display in the Sautee Nacoochee Cultural Center’s Hallway Gallery. The exhibit, titled “Falling Water and Fanciful Flights,” features paintings of 38 waterfalls located in northeast Georgia. Most were painted entirely on site in two to three hours.
Jennifer finds the combination of fresh air, exercise, negative ions, and the challenge of trying to capture constantly moving beauty with paint on paper to be a blissful experience. Luckily the area still has many more waterfalls to explore. After visiting the most well-known waterfall trails Jennifer discovered the website www.gawaterfalls.com that lists GPS coordinates and directions to over 450 north Georgia falls, many that do not have official trails leading to them. During this time of social distancing she has focused on the waterfalls closest to her home in Mount Airy, mainly exploring and painting the ones located in the Lake Russell Wildlife Management Area.
The Sautee Nacoochee Center is open following CDC and OSHA Guidelines for Phase 2 Opening as defined by the State of Georgia. It is located at 283 Highway 255 North, Sautee Nacoochee, Georgia 30571. Hours of operation are Monday – Saturday 10 AM – 5 PM and Sunday 1 – 5 PM. Current Social Distancing Guidelines do not permit a traditional opening reception for this exhibition, however Jennifer will be at the gallery for informal “Meet the Artist” afternoons on Saturday, July 11 and Sunday, July 26th from 2:00 to 5:00 pm. She will be pleased to talk about her process and the inspiration behind her work.
Further information about the Sautee Nacoochee Center can be found at https://snca.org/
A few weeks ago I was excited to read that the nearby unofficial trail leading to Tabor Falls had more waterfalls further down the creek. I tried to go visit but was met with a closed bridge and had to go paint elsewhere, but I kept thinking about the other falls and wondering when I could get to them. I am still trying to stay within Habersham county while we are sheltering in place so every possibility feels important to explore. One Saturday (4/11) I decided to drive by and just see if the bridge was open yet, and lo and behold, it was. The bridge did not seem to have actually been repaired, but the weight limit was lowered and there were cones on either side to keep any traffic away from the sides, which I am guessing are the most dangerous?
Honestly, the state of the bridge does not inspire much confidence, but I know my car cannot weigh 5 tons so I drove slowly on across right in the middle. I made it safely and in just another few minutes was at the gate at the beginning of FS 89A. I parked and easily made the walk I remembered to Tabor Falls. Though it is not an official trail it seems like it has been getting continual use. It is easier to follow than it was when i first visited it last year. The descent to Tabor Falls involves a steep bank so I did not go down, but continued on to what is called Lower Tabor Falls. I only stopped long enough for a few pictures and then kept going.
I had the GPS coordinates for both Peaceful and Tranquility Falls in my phone so once it seemed like the trail had completely petered out I started tracking using the GPS. When a second tributary joined the one I was following I crossed over and then started up that one. It was then that I started what could truly called bushwhacking. I could see on the app where I wanted to be, but had no line to follow. I crossed the creek several times, went over logs, under logs, through rhododendron and then up an incredibly steep bank. At the top of it, out of breath, I checked the GPS again and it seemed I was very close to where I was supposed to be, but I saw no waterfall. I slowly worked my way through the undergrowth in the direction it appeared to be on the GPS until I heard the water. I was on the cliff to the side of the top of Tranquility Falls and there was pretty obviously no way down from where I was. Since the climb had been strenuous I was not anxious to immediately go back down and then have to do it again so I decided to head on and try to find Peaceful Falls.
I think it took me another fifteen minutes heading up stream to get there. It was not far but I worked hard for every bit of progress made. I like to think of myself as fairly brave but I have a very healthy respect for slippery surfaces. I approach both wet rocks and wet leaves with quite a bit of caution and this trek has plenty of both, but it was absolutely worth it. I do not think any of the pictures I took really captured how lovely the site is. The water falls around 25 feet down layers of rock with lots of moss.
I had brought my watercolors and yupo paper so the painting went fairly quickly. At the end I used the white pigment straight from the tube without mixing it with water to add the water back in. I think it has a fairly unique feel to it, not as fluid as the other watercolors have been, but not quite like the acrylics either.
It seems like the sky is more blue every day and the new spring leaves glow almost neon green. When I finished the painting I lay down on a huge rock and just soaked in the sun and the view above and around me. I felt like I could stay there forever, but eventually I did have to make my way back.
By the time I got down the steep bank close to Tranquility Falls I was starting to get tired and concerned about the time. I did not try to find Peaceful Falls but just searched for the established trail so I could head home.
The next Saturday I set out again to find and paint Peaceful Falls. It was a cooler day and there had been more rain during the week. I found the creeks a little fuller and the leaves on the trail a little slipperier. I thought it would be fairly simple to trace the same route I had taken the week before once the path ended, but I ended up going past the fork and having to backtrack and search for the nice crossing place I had used before. Even once I crossed in the same place the path I took up the creek seemed different until I came to an amazing tree I remembered. It looks like something straight out of fairy tale and I may make a trip back just to draw this tree. I found its shapes and patterns absolutely fascinating.
This tree is now my mental marker… to get to Peaceful Falls turn right and go up the bank, to get to Tranquility Falls go around the the tree to the left and head straight up the creek. There are even more downed trees and branches crisscrossing the creek on the way to Tranquility than there are heading to Peaceful. Again I earned every step forward I made. It was the first time I have traveled straight up a creek rather than following a path on one side or the other, but the because of how steep the land on the edges is there does not seem to be another option. My over 20 year old hiking boots did a great job on rocks, leaf covered banks, and even through rather deep mud. The site of the falls is another gorgeous one. There are very dramatic rock formations around it that would make great paintings by themselves. I saw where I had been the weekend before on top of one of the rocks and I was very glad I had moved slowly and not just blindly pushed through the undergrowth.
It took a few minutes to find a spot flat enough to set up my chair. The only spot that would work was really quite wet and I had to use a few small rocks to keep it sinking into the mud, but it worked. I spent about the normal two hours painting in acrylics on the larger sized paper I have decided I prefer. Again I was especially enraptured of the way the new green leaves glowed against the clear blue sky. I spent a lot of time trying to get those colors right for top 1/4 of the painting. I hope that the feel of spring comes through.
I had to skip a weekend because of the push to get as many SBA PPP loans underwritten as possible over the past couple of weeks, but today I was able to head back and paint the fourth waterfall off this trail. Lower Tabor Falls is the smallest of the four, but still a very pretty site.
I crossed the creek and explored several places trying to find the right view. The places where it seemed like I could set up my chair had too many limbs between me and the waterfall. I ended up finding a nice spot on a bank and just sat on my drop cloth with my feet almost in the creek. I never forget how comfortable my little chair is, but sometimes I do forget how stiff a person can get sitting painting without it.
The cycle of seasons did not stop just because I was not able to get outside for a week. The leaves are much fuller now and the light was incredibly green. There was no sky visible from where I sat which makes for a much different feeling painting. I tried to capture the new density of foliage and the green light. I think if I had had another hour to devote to the trees I could have accomplished both better, but I had to be back to town by 3 to play taxi. Though I have now painted all four waterfalls on and off this trail I do not feel done with the area. I think I could very happily paint each of them again.
Continuing my Habersham County only waterfalling, this past Saturday I visited Filmy Fern Falls down Pumping Station Rd. This beautiful site is just a mile walk down the gated, but very well maintained, gravel road also known as FS 187. At the end there is a steep but short descent off the road and across a small creek. It was not a strenuous excursion at all and there were no odd details like the week before. It made for a very relaxing day. One other group, a small family, did show up while I was there, but we kept our distance. I painted on the larger format paper again and spent extra time on the trees above the falls. I think they show an improvement over the last few.
As we finish our third week of staying home in an attempt to slow the spread of this new virus I don’t think anyone would disagree that this is the strangest Spring we’ve ever known. The weather gets more beautiful every day. Leaves are budding on the trees and our yards are filling with the color of flowers. Spring is my favorite season, and in the South it is especially gorgeous. Yet the joy of watching everything come to life becomes surreal when experienced simultaneously with the spread of sickness and panic. Uncertainty about the what the next days, weeks, and months will bring contrasts completely with our Lenten preparation. Counting down forty days of asceticism to an assured day of rejoicing is a comforting ritual. A viral spread with an unknown trajectory, schedule, and snowballing effects on every part of the world as we know it is quite the opposite. As I have the privilege of comfortably working from home with a fully stocked pantry and a healthy family I am aware that what seems strange to me is catastrophic for many many others.
In spite of my white liberal guilt, or perhaps because of it, last Saturday my desire to get out of the house and out to paint a waterfall was extremely strong. Social media comment sections have been full of people blasting others for filling up the parks and hiking trails. Many mountain communities are begging people to stay home, and some of the most popular trails and sites have been closed. I understand the logic of that. I do not wish to be part of the problem and even in normal times I vastly prefer solitude in the woods. I decided that if stay within Habersham county and restrict myself to waterfalls I know are unlikely to have many (if any) other visitors I would not be harming anyone. I was excited when my research led to the discovery that Tabor Falls, which I visited last year and is less than four miles from my house, is just the first of four falls along the same creek system. They are on an unofficial trail off a gated forest service road so I made sure I had the relevant GPS coordinates saved and got an early start.
The drive from my house really is extremely short so it took only minutes for me to see a Bridge Out sign. I had only a moment to wonder if the bridge was before or after my next turn and then I was at the blockade. I turned around and parked so I could consult the GPS for alternative routes. There was one long meandering possibility, but if I knew one end of the forest service road I was heading towards was gated then the other end probably was too. It did not seem like a risk worth taking. There are two other waterfalls I had painted before in the general area. Both are more known than Tabor but neither are especially popular. The closest is Nancytown Falls so I headed there.
At one of the trailheads for Nancytown Falls there is a smaller waterfall right by the road with a nice large parking area. It is not grand, but is very picturesque and I painted it over the winter. I had thought I might do a quick sketch there before walking up to the other, but when I arrived I found the area full of piles of belongings and a strange sign almost explaining why. It offers much to ponder but I did not let myself venture down that rabbit hole. I had the momentary thought that I should just go home, that this was another sign I wasn’t supposed to be out painting, but it was fleeting. I parked a bit farther down the road and set off.
The walk in is less than a mile on a thin but well maintained trail. It is not strenuous at all. The weather was perfect and no one else was there. I had hoped that all the rain we got over the winter might have washed out some of the fallen trees and brush that keep Nancytown Falls from being as pretty as it could be, however when I arrived I saw that it was just as clogged up as I remembered. There are a lot of pretty sections, but it is difficult to find a full view of them all together. I did a fair amount of scrambling around the rocks testing different spots for interesting compositions but most felt too precarious. I ended up choosing the only spot flat enough that I felt confident I could set my beloved chair without the risk of a tumble. It was a wet sandy spot, so I had to find flat rocks to keep the front legs from sinking.
The fallen trees really do distract from the view of the falling water, but I decided to just go with that. The purpose of my outing was greater than just trying to end up with a beautiful painting of a waterfall. I wanted to be outside in the sun and fresh air. I wanted to practice getting distant trees rendered better. And I especially wanted to continue to experiment with the watercolor on the yupo paper. All of those could be accomplished painting the fallen trees. I had brought my watercolor pencils as well as some tray watercolors so instead of using a ceramic marker to sketch like I do with the acrylics I used a brown watercolor pencil instead. I had gotten most of the most important lines sketched in and was trying to decide if there was any chance I could draw the most prominent fallen tree as a Dryad or if it would just look like a female version of Groot when a breeze came through. It felt good as the day was warm, but it took my paper right out of lap and blew it over the rocks to the water below. It then traveled over another set of rocks and into a pool below.
My sigh could probably be heard a mile back at my car. I could not go straight down to where the paper was lazily drifting around in circles. I had to climb back off the rocks, go back down to the trail, cross the creek and then climb back up on the other side. It is funny that just thirty minutes earlier I would have balked at the bouldering necessary to reach my yupo, but I did it quickly, without falling in, and with a fairly long stick in my grasp. I had to wait until it circled back close to where I was perched but I was able to fish it out. It was damp but otherwise completely unharmed. My drawing was even still there. I have been fascinated with how watercolors and alcohol markers can be so smoothly applied to and then lifted back off the plastic paper, but now I can also sing its praises as a waterproof option for plein air painting near water. It really is amazing stuff.
Once I got back settled, making sure to keep one hand gripping the paper at all times, it took a little over an hour to make my painting. I really enjoying experimenting with combining the pencils and the paint, adding extra water to “erase,” and using the other end of my painting brush to scratch back into wet areas to create white lines. It is not a painting that will end up in a frame, but it served its purpose. There are a few details that I think are nice and I like the way the colors are more muted and soft than my normal pallet. I ended up having a lovely day despite all the strange things that seemed to want to keep me from having my afternoon of plein air painting. I am very thankful that Habersham County offers so many natural places to explore without the risk of crowds.
Winter and weeks of seemingly endless rain are not conducive to plein air painting. However, despite the pandemic, Spring is finally here and I have found a new favorite waterfall. I first visited it before we were all social distancing, but as it has no official trail and few people seem to know of its existence, it is perfect for these strange times. I do not know if there is a much better spot for getting out of the house but continuing to avoid people.
I originally hiked to Cliff Creek Falls the weekend of March 7th when the rain finally stopped and it started feeling like spring. The combination of the welcome sunshine and the knowledge that the area waterfalls were running strong made me extremely eager to get out and paint one. The weekend’s calendar featured more commitments than I would have liked but I was determined to make it work. Saturday morning I decided on this one because it was relatively short bushwhack down an easily accessible road just a little past Tallulah Gorge in Rabun County. The tight schedule inspired me to take my new alcohol markers instead of my paints.
I got the GPS coordinates for the the waterfall, a starting point, where a logging trail could be followed, and where it was best to make the steep descent to the base of the falls from Hiking the Appalachians website. The drive took just a little over 30 minutes. The forest service road at the end was mainly smooth. The coordinates were easy to follow and the walk in only took about 15 minutes. It was not an especially beautiful hike. It must not have been that long since the area was logged, but the sky was so incredibly blue and bright that it made up for the lackluster vegetation. The first ten minutes were fairly level, then the last five were straight down. It appears that in 0.1 miles, I descended almost 200 feet!
There were quite a few downed trees and a lot of underbrush once I got to the base of the gorge. I could hear the waterfall but not see it. I had a momentary worry that I would not be able to get to the base and find a good place to sit and draw, but that was not the case. I was soon right under it, marveling that this was not a well known and commonly visited site. Cliff Creek Falls really is a gorgeous waterfall.
I truly did not have much time so I got right to work with my new markers. After mentioning that alcohol markers had sparked my curiosity, I was given the lovely gift of four (two grays, a black, and a clear blender) Copic markers and some Yupo paper so I could start experimenting. The markers are very nice, leaps and bounds above any I have ever used before, but what is really fascinating is using them with the Yupo paper. It is absolutely different from paper, canvas, panel, or anything I have ever drawn or painted on before. Because it is not water soluble you are able to work back into the marks you have already made. I am still learning and have accidentally lifted some lines that I would have liked to have kept, but I like the media.
I spent just about an hour on my sketch before I had to head back out. It is darker than it probably needed to be, but I like how painterly it looks. I felt like I got some interesting textures but missed being able to capture color as well. The hike back out was pretty brutal. I started too fast and soon had to stop to catch my breath. I tried to cut back and forth across the slope but I was still knackered by the time I reached the ridge. I must admit I may have never been so happy to see my car as when I finally reached it that afternoon.
It was not until I got home that I realized I had lost my favorite hat and my blue tooth ear piece. I searched my backpack, coat pockets, and the car without success. I had to go ahead and fulfill my obligations, but I kept thinking about the missing items all evening. The next morning I decided the best thing to do would be go back and do the hike again, look for my stuff, and see how the Yupo would do with some watercolors. I set out earlier on Sunday and with more confidence about where I would go and what I would find. The weather was once again perfect and I got to the site easily. I shifted my vantage point to a spot a little to the left of where I had worked the day before and started playing with my watercolors. I have never been a huge fan of watercolors because they are so unforgiving. However with the Yupo if I didn’t like a color or a shape all I had to do was go back in with a bit of water and lift it out. Working with it was a delightful experience and the whole thing took just a little over an hour. The finished painting is very different from my other waterfall paintings, but I am very pleased with it.
Hiking out the second day was not nearly as difficult as the first day. I paced myself better and did a lot more switchbacks as I looked for my missing hat. I never found it, but I did discover my earpiece deep in a pocket when I was looking for something else. I used a hiking GPS app to record my trek in and out so that I could use it to return in the future or share the path I took with others wanting to visit waterfalls that really are far from the beaten path.
The two weeks since the first two visits have been rather surreal ones as I shifted to working from home, my son was told not to go back to campus after Spring Break, and my daughter switched to online classes. I have taken walks around the neighborhood each day as well as spending time working in the yard to fight cabin fever, but the whole time I have been itching to be out hiking and painting. There is no better cure for worry and gloomy thoughts than the combination of fresh air, physical exertion, negative ions, and focus on the beauty of nature.
Yesterday’s sublime spring weather was perfect for another visit to Cliff Creek Falls. This time I took my regular kit of acrylics and 140 lb paper. I have recently gotten a larger pad of it, which did not want to easily be zipped into my backpack, but I eventually prevailed. I had no obligations for the day so I knew I could take the extra time needed for the larger surface area if necessary. Interestingly it took me the same two hours for a 11×15″ painting as I usually spend on a 9×12″ one.
The walk in was uneventful, though it was nice to see the signs of spring along the way and at the base of the falls. I sat in almost the same place as I did when I painted the waterfall. Again I was extremely comfortable in a lovely place, so blissful. I got a little sunburn on my arms but even after the painting was finished I did not really want to leave. I ate a snack and then laid back on a flat rock and did some forest bathing for a bit before I hiked out.
The painting turned out decently. I like how I added some of the leaves of the tree right in front of me in the upper left hand corner, but the distant trees gave me a bit of trouble. I think I need to get a smaller brush and practice making more delicate strokes for branches. The silver lining of this big black virus cloud is the absence of a commute combined with longer days means I will have time to enjoy more sunlight daily. I have plenty of trees in my own yard that I can use for models in the afternoons after I finish work. Hopefully more sensitively rendered trees will be posted soon.
Today I went plein air painting for the first time in over a month and a half. I did not have time for a long drive or hike so I just went four miles down the road to paint an easily accessible but pretty site I had passed when I painted Nancytown Falls over the summer. Even without a hike or a dramatic waterfall it was wonderful to be out in the fresh air, listening to the water, and with paint and brushes in my hands. I do not know how I had let so much time go by without doing something I know brings me joy. Even if I cannot go to a waterfall every weekend I hope I do not let so much time pass before the next one.
I must admit that when I first starting painting today I thought maybe I was too out of practice. I could not quite seem to capture the way the mix of green, brown, and orange leaves created a muted backdrop behind the creek. Right when I thought maybe I was capturing it there was a dramatic shift in the light. I realized the sky, which had been perfectly blue when I sat down, had faded to grey and the air was cooling. I wondered if I should just take a few pictures, pack up, and head home. Painting landscapes in the studio is not as fun and I don’t think I capture them as well, but it probably is something I need to practice.
I was gazing up at the sky above the scene trying to decide what I wanted to do when I heard a rustling over the sound of the rushing water. I was looking in just the right direction to see a heron take off from the upper part of the creek. It was fairly large and quite close. I do not think I took a breath as I watched it fly up and over my head, across the road, and into the woods on the side. It was sublime, a perfect moment in the midst of a lovely afternoon.
The magical feeling did not disappear when the heron did. The light shifted again and even the fallen leaves seemed to have a glow to them. The colors on the pallet started cooperating. I was able to finish the painting in time to stay on schedule. The rest of the afternoon and evening felt altered by the experience. My mood stayed lifted and even mundane tasks and responsibilities seem a bit nicer. I am so thankful the life offers such blisses.
Last April I went to Moccasin Creek Trail with the intention to continue past the very popular Hemlock Falls to a lesser known but more striking waterfall almost a mile further up the creek. Despite having correct instructions I ended up following the wrong fork of the trail and ended up clogged up in rhododendron. On my way back I found the right spot to turn and ford the creek, but the water was high and the weather still a bit on the cold side. My courage failed me and I decided to just paint Hemlock Falls instead.
This weekend with almost drought conditions, 90 degree weather, and new experience getting soaked for the sake of following a trail I decided it was the right time to try again. I took my daughter, her friend, and our dog along. Despite the morning being overcast the parking lot at the trailhead was almost completely full when we arrived. There were a couple of places where the trail felt crowded for a minute, but luckily overall people were spread out enough. I was surprised to find the trail to be almost as muddy in many places as it had been in April. I had thought then it was because of all the rain, but it seems there are lots of springs all along the way. There were still some places where the plants seem very thirsty, but less so than on other trails I have been on recently.
Hemlock Falls itself is not one of my favorites but the hike leading to it as some really beautiful views. We only paused at the first falls for a minute and then continued on. The trail thins immediately, but is still clear. When it forked my daughter wanted to follow the way I had gone last Spring, but I knew I wanted to go the other way and cross the creek. Since she does not really understand how much more water I dealt with crossing earlier in the week (a post on my adventures down in the gorge is coming soon) she was concerned I would not safely make it across. She went with me as far as it was possible to go without getting her feet wet and then protectively watched me splash the rest of the way over. We had made plans on when and where to meet back up, so they went back and I headed on up the trail. It was immediately obvious that not many people make the crossing. The trail was there, but very thin and a bit rough in places. There were a couple of spots where recently fallen trees required a bit of bushwhacking to get around and there were a few more muddy parts to pass through. The trail climbed up away from the creek for a while and I wondered if I had made a mistake again, but I carried on. The trail seemed to get more and more overgrown, but never disappeared completely. After passing some huge rock outcroppings that would be interesting to return to sometime I started hearing the sound of water falling. The trail led straight down the steep bank to the incredibly picturesque falls. I really am surprised that more people do not make the extra trek to see them.
There are big boulders and a lot of fallen branches between the trail and the best view of the falls. I almost settled for an easy to get to, but not completely ideal place to sit. Again my recent experience in the gorge gave me the confidence to climb across and set up where my view of the scene was perfect. Not long after I got comfortably settled in my wonderful little chair the clouds started moving out of the way. The sun brought more sparkle to the water and gave the moss a wonderful glow. Even though it had been hot and humid on the trail the falling water cooled the air where was I was sitting. A few times a breeze came through strong enough to sprinkle leaves through the air which added to the magic.
I spent my normal 2 hours painting. I brought a new brand of white paint with me and was pleased that it seemed brighter and more opaque than my last tube. I am writing about this hike before the one I did on Thursday because I think the painting from that day may need a bit of this new white paint it help it feel completely done. I was a little late meeting the kids and the dog back at the lower falls, but they had enjoyed themselves and did not seem concerned. The clouds came back and thunder started to rumble on our way back, but we made it to the car right before a little shower started. I am thankful for another lovely day walking to and painting the waterfalls of North Georgia.
This past weekend I had a lot going on but I still wanted to get out and paint a waterfall. I needed to find one that did not involve too long of a drive or walk. Even though online descriptions of Nancy Town Falls call it “unimpressive” I decided its incredibly close location made it worth checking out. It was less than a ten minute drive and then about a thirty minute walk to get to the falls. It is not the most spectacular waterfall I have seen in north Georgia, but unimpressive seems a bit harsh. The criticism may have to do with how difficult it is to see the different layers of the falls from one vantage point. I had to climb around a bit to really get a feel for how and where the water was falling. There is also the issue that the area is a bit overgrown and there are several trees that have fallen over the rocks. Taking this into account I decided to paint a more close up view of one of the more dramatic parts of the falls. Since time was limited I only spent about an hour painting rather than the two hours that is typical. I touched up the painting a bit once I got it home. There is another waterfall right next to the forest service road the trail turns into on the loop back. It is smaller but more picturesque. It will be a good option to go paint if I have another day that does not allow for a long drive or long hike.
I have painted 4 waterfalls between the last time I posted one and the one I painted yesterday afternoon in Union County. Two of them are on canvas and two on paper and for various reasons they just don’t seem quite done. I will write more about them and the process of finishing them when they are ready to post, but yesterday as I set out my goal was to not only paint a waterfall, but to have a finished piece before I hiked back out.
Blue Hole Falls is a small waterfall on the trail to High Shoals Falls. The trail head is off Hwy 17 about half way between Helen and Hiawasee in Union County. It is about an hour drive from my house but only 30 minutes from church so I packed a change of clothes and left right after service. It was a beautiful drive up the mountain and my car did great doing its first small ford. The parking area was incredibly full when I got there but I found a place of the side of the road, got changed and headed down the path. It is a fairly steep descent with a lot of switchbacks. It took about 20 minutes to get to Blue Hole Falls which I think it one of the most beautiful sites I have visited. It feels straight out of a fairy tale. There were only a couple of people there and I was tempted to sit right down and start painting, but I felt like I needed to see the other water fall first. It was less than 10 minutes to get down to High Shoals Falls. They are much taller and more dramatic, but there were tons of people climbing and wading around them. I took a few pictures and decided it would be a place best painted in the fall or winter when less people are interested in swimming.
When I got back to the Blue Hole spot there was only one other person there. A woman was sitting way over to one side reading so I chose the other side. I could not see her and I don’t think she could see me. I set up to start my picture and had about 15 minutes of bliss before the people started arriving. And they did not stop. Families with children from several different countries showed up to swim and enjoy the day. Then a small film crew filming what they keep referring to as “the montage” of young actors playing in the water. They did not ask me to move but they were fine with using every other bit of space.
The fairy tale mood could not withstand all my company, but I actually was still able to focus on my painting and try and create a picture that captured what the spot looked and felt like without the crowds. Several times people tried to speak to me about the painting and I did not even realize I was being addressed at first. I guess after 18 years of motherhood I am pretty good at tuning out background noise. At the end of two hours of painting I had a piece I was really quite pleased with. I think this is my favorite one, though it may be tied with the one of Becky Branch Falls. I think it is possible that having to focus on ignoring portions of my surroundings might be good for the painting. If I had been asked a month ago if I could enjoy painting surrounded by people as much as when I am by myself I would have said no way. However 3 of the last 4 sites I have painted have had crowds. The experience is different of course, and I do not get into the same deep contemplative state as when it is just me, the trees, and the falling water, but it is still delightful. I am so thankful to be able to keep having such joyful experiences.
Panther Creek Falls’ trail head is less than a fifteen minute drive from my house and is one of the most popular trails in North Georgia. Most weekends the parking lot is full and cars are parked up and down both sides of old 441. I have hiked the trail several times before and did some drawing at the top of the falls last summer but I had never painted it. Almost every weekend when I am deciding which waterfall to go paint I wonder if it is the right weekend for Panther Creek. I usually decide it is not. It is a 3 1/2 mile hike to the falls and every time I have been there (even in the rain) there have been lots of other people there. But Labor Day weekend the weather was perfect and I had plenty of time so I set out early with my painting supplies and wonderful new early birthday present in my backpack.
When I got to the trail head around 9am there were already half a dozen cars parked by the bridge. I passed a few groups of people camping and saw a couple of people along the trail, but the vast majority of the time I had the trail to myself. It really is a lovely walk. A week or so later my daughter’s cross country team ran it. I think that must be incredibly difficult. The rocks and roots in several portions of the trail required my full concentration at a walking pace. I cannot imagine what running or even jogging it would be like. I am glad she and her teammates all made it back in one piece.
When got to the falls around 10:20 there were about 10 people already there enjoying its beauty. Most were sitting on a fallen log that crosses the beach area. The sand/soil was very damp so I would have probably had to try and find a place amongst them if it were not for the aforementioned present. I am now the proud owner of a little Big Agnes Skyline chair. At just barely over a pound in weight and small enough to fit in my backpack with my paint supplies it is incredibly easy to bring along. I had no idea how much I needed it until it was given to me. It is the perfect addition to my plein air adventures. Because I had the chair I was able to set up right at the edge of the water in front of a small tree. I was incredibly comfortable as well as partially hidden from my fellow waterfallers. More and more people arrived to swim, climb, and picnic. One man played simple melodies on a flute while he waded and watched his wife and grandaughters swim and climb. Other people’s sounds were not quite as relaxing, but with the sound of the falling water and my focus on my painting they were not all that distracting.
I spent about 2 and a half hours painting. I think I would have stayed longer but as the afternoon progressed and the sun moved across the sky my spot moved from shade to full sun. The added warmth combined with the change of light on the falls made me decide to call it a day a little after 1. As always the part of the trail that feels like a gradual descent at the start of the day felt like a steep ascent by the end. I know some people hike 20 miles or more in a day, but 7 feels like plenty for me. Overall it was a pretty spectacular way to spend the day.
The way paintings look to me while I am working on them outside really is quite different than how they look when I get back home. Sometimes it feels like the color has changed greatly while we travel. When I first started doing plein air painting I felt like the purity of the piece would be comprised if I worked on it after I left the site, but I am over that. I touched up some of the trees in the upper right hand corner of the painting back in the studio which I think made it a stronger painting.