COPAKE FALLS, N.Y. Standing on a boulder overlooking a turquoise pool beneath an 80-foot-tall cascade of water, Russell Dunn recounted the legend of Bash Bish Falls.
"An Indian maiden named Bash Bish, accused of being unfaithful, was strapped to a canoe and sent over the falls to her death," said Dunn. "If you look into the mist, you can see an image of the beautiful maiden as the splashing water murmurs her name."
That's one version of how the falls got its name. "The other is that it's onomatopoetic, suggestive of the bashing and bishing sound of falling water," he said.
Dunn can tell you plenty more about the spectacular waterfall 40 miles southeast of Albany. It was painted at least five times by Hudson River School painter John Frederick Kensett. In 1858, "The Great Blondin" walked a tightrope across the Bash Bish gorge, imitating his famous feats at Niagara Falls. Various inns came and went over the decades. Several people have fallen to their deaths as they climbed its steep cliffs.
A licensed guide, outdoors writer and retired medical social worker, Dunn has researched and visited hundreds of New York waterfalls in the course of writing a series of guidebooks. Black Dome Press recently published the fourth, "Mohawk Region Waterfall Guide." The previous guides cover the Adirondack, Catskill, and Hudson Valley regions.
Dunn has visited more than 320 waterfalls described in the books, returning to some of them several times to make certain his trail descriptions are clear and accurate. Usually, he is accompanied on his travels by his wife, Barbara Delaney, another licensed guide and co-author with Dunn of "Trails with Tales," which describes 30 hikes through history-rich areas of eastern New York and western Massachusetts.
Bash Bish Falls is located in Massachusetts, just over the border from New York, but one of the trails that leads to it, the Bash Bish Falls Trail, begins in Taconic State Park near the town of Copake Falls, N.Y.
Because Dunn wants his books to serve as historical texts as much as guides to pretty picnic spots, he includes extensive references in the back. The "Hudson Valley Waterfall Guide," for instance, has more than 70 pages devoted to footnotes, bibliography, and index.
Dunn and Delaney are often called upon by community groups to lead "history hikes" to destinations that are rich in cultural as well as natural history. Waterfalls are often steeped in history, since they provide energy for industry as well as inspiration for poets and painters.
"One of the things that appeals to me in working on the books is the sense of adventure in searching for these natural treasures," said Dunn, who divides his time between a home in Albany and a camp on the Great Sacandaga Lake, 40 miles to the northwest in the Adirondack foothills.
"I've always collected old postcards, and it's fun to have one of a waterfall that was very popular in Victorian times and try to find it again," Dunn said. "It's exciting to find a beautiful place people have lost track of over the years. Of course, we've also been to many desolate gorges and ravines looking for waterfalls, only to come up with nothing."
Dunn includes old postcard pictures of waterfalls as illustrations in his books.
The popularity of waterfalls is evident in the large number of Web sites devoted to them on the Internet. One site, the World Waterfall Database, seeks to catalog the world's most significant waterfalls and rate them according to size, beauty and other factors.
"I'm not certain just what quality a waterfall possesses that intrigues me so," writes Dean Goss of Jericho, Vt., co-creator of the World Waterfall Database. "Maybe I like the sound, maybe I like the geometry, perhaps I am awed by the power water has over rock, perhaps the negatively charged ions that remove impurities from the air has something to do with it."
The sound of a waterfall has much to do with its appeal, Dunn said. Like the wind howling through hemlocks or waves pounding on the shore, "waterfalls are the voice of nature, powerful and majestic, beckoning and mesmerizing," he writes in "Hudson Valley Waterfall Guide."
And they offer an ever-changing show over the seasons: splashing into pools reflecting brilliant foliage in the fall, freezing into dramatic blue pillars in winter, surging with fury in the spring, and trickling languidly over mossy ledges in midsummer.
"I think people today have the same reaction to waterfalls as the Victorians did," Dunn said. "We're fascinated by the sublime and the awesome, mesmerized by these entities of rock and water."