Today I returned to the Columbia River Gorge to collect more survey responses on the waterfall experience. Despite the weather being dry, getting people to engage with my questions was the toughest its ever been. I aimed to gather 22 more responses (same as both previous outings) but ended up falling short with a total of 16. Despite some disappointments, I am now past my half-way point in the number of responses I intend to collect. I now have 60 in total with 40 more needed to reach my goal of 100. This can likely be done over the course of two more outings. In order for these future outings to be successful, this question must be addressed: What about today made it so difficult to gather responses? The answer likely relates to how seasonal changes in weather impact levels of visitation, attitudes towards waterfalls, and being outside in general.
Upon driving into the gorge, I noticed raging whitecaps on the Columbia and could feel howling winds rattling the car. When walking towards Multnomah Falls, gusts of icy wind tore at my jacket and I witnessed other visitors attempting to take refuge from the cold. It took awhile to get any responses because most people were running to the viewpoint, taking a picture, than hightailing it back to their warm cars. They didn’t want to spend more time in the cold than necessary. I also noticed significantly fewer visitors overall. This trend relates to a concept discussed by author Rita Cannas called “the problem of seasonality.” Seasonal changes in climate have significant impact on visitation and can pose challenges for both visitors as well as local businesses that rely on tourist income. Cannas describes the issue of seasonality “in the hours of daylight and of sunshine, the variability of temperatures. In particular, the distance from the Equator impacts on natural seasonality and at high latitude destinations, especially in the Northern or Southern hemisphere, the problems caused by seasonality are most difficult to overcome” (Cannas, 43). Such issues certainly affected visitation in the Gorge as the combination of cold and early sunset imposed hardships that many people would rather avoid. Going forward, I aim to account for seasonal challenges by starting earlier to salvage daylight and visit Latourell Falls first as it often gets significantly less crowded than Multnomah later in the day. Temperatures will only get colder as winter arrives and I must prepare for the whatever challenges seasonality may bring.
Despite collecting fewer responses than anticipated, a couple of visitors shared unique and interesting perspectives. An uber driver who ended up at Multnomah from giving someone a ride expressed an unusually positive opinion on crowding. While most visitors were vocal about how crowding detracted from their waterfall experience, this person thought of crowding to be an essential and positive aspect of visitation. He stated, “I don’t mind crowding because waterfalls like Multnomah bring people together. I love that so many people find it worthwhile to get outdoors and see a waterfall like this one. Waterfalls are meant to unify, rejuvenate, and attract people.” Although waterfalls are often thought of as wild and lonesome places of sublime natural beauty, they do also have a unifying effect on people. This could be seen through the diverse mix of visitors who all flocked to view a distinct land form – Multnomah Falls.
A few more compelling themes regarding accessibility and waterfall discharge surfaced during this recent round of surveillance. A couple I interviewed explained how access via public transit was a major reason behind why they went to Multnomah in particular. Multnomah Falls can be reached via the Columbia Gorge Express – a bus that travels from gateway transit center in Portland to various locations in the Gorge including Rooster Rock, Multnomah Falls, and Cascade Locks. Despite public transit making it potentially easier for people to access the gorge without a car, the extremely limited amount of open trails around Multnomah Falls forces bus passengers to be stuck at the viewing area for hours on end. Such was the case for the couple I interviewed and they were displeased with their experience because of it. They stated how “it is very cold here and we are stuck here for two hours before the bus comes to pick us up. Its a shame that the fire closed access to the top of the falls because we are confined to such a small and developed area. Lovely view but it gets old when stuck in one place for so long.” It’s a shame that public transit efforts can lead to such a trying experience. However, upon talking with park staff, it seems like the Columbia Gorge Express is still a work in progress and they are grappling with its development.
After a week of minimal rainfall, waterfall discharge decreased and so did some people’s opinions on scenic beauty. Several respondents mentioned being disappointed by low flow, particularly at Latourell Falls. One respondent preferred Multnomah Falls over Latourell because of stream flow and height. She stated how Latourell was “Less impressive than Multnomah Falls- it is shorter and has less water.” Such responses were more common among people from the pacific northwest – particularly those who’d been to the waterfalls before under different conditions. Visitors from more arid areas were blown away by the waterfalls under all circumstances. The notion of stream discharge impacting the waterfall experience is discussed by Brian J. Hudson in Best After Rain: Waterfall Discharges and the Tourist Experience. In this article, Hudson concludes that waterfalls are “at their best” when at full flow. He also mentions how seeing photos of waterfalls at high flow can set visitors up for disappointment as real-time waterfall discharge rarely matches what people see in pictures. This is true for falls of all sizes. Hudson states how, in the case of waterfalls, “there is a common preference for flows in the upper range of stream capacity. Images of waterfalls found in travel and tourist literature and promotional material usually show them in full flow, very rarely when the discharge is slight” (Hudson, 12). Although variance in discharge can make waterfalls exciting and dynamic places, stream flow significantly impacts a visitor’s experience – for better or worse.
Cannas, Rita; University of Bologna. “An Overview of Tourism Seasonality: Key Concepts and Policies; An Overview of Tourism Seasonality: Key Concepts and Policies.” 3, no. 5 (2012): 40-58.
Hudson, Brian J. “Best after rain: Waterfall discharge and the tourist experience.” Tourism Geographies 4, no. 4 (2002): 440-456.
-Several quotes were taken from survey respondents-