NORTH TONAWANDA – As Scott Ensminger got older and had less interest in crawling around on his knees in the mud, his boyhood fascination with caves turned into a grown-up passion for waterfalls and all their shapes – from skinny spills to wide pours.
“I used to go to Niagara Falls quite a bit,” he said. “But it was too commercialized with all the helicopters, so I started looking for the ones out in the woods that nobody goes to.”
For about two decades, Ensminger tracked them down by studying old postcards, topographical maps and talking to other waterfall fans. He posted his collected findings on his falzguy.com website. A Canadian publisher noticed and asked him to write a book.
His favorites are among the 101 chronicled with photos in “Waterfalls of New York,” published by Firefly. He enlisted two co-authors, and together he and his waterfall email correspondent acquaintances, whom he has yet to meet in person, chronicled 101 of the state’s most interesting falls.
Ensminger, 57, is a machine operator at Niagara Thermal Products, a Niagara Falls manufacturer of radiators and cooling systems for aerospace and defense firms. He also cares for his 84-year-old father, who contracted meningitis a few years ago. When he was about 12, he began making a hobby out of his interest in geology after his father, employed at the time as a rocket technician for Bell Aerospace, moved the family to Tennessee for about six months.
They lived near the Cumberland Caverns big “commercial” cave, which he loved for the rock formations that seemed to drape like fabric. Back in North Tonawanda, he continued to explore, and as a grown-up spelunker he started his first book about Niagara County when a geologist at a cave convention told him there weren’t many local caves because glaciers had flattened them.
He decided to see how true that was. After five years of research, he published his list of 46 caves in 1986.
So, most local caves are small, but they are part of local history. We hear a favorite of yours is the largest, about 2,500 feet long, in the Niagara Gorge in Lewiston. Supposedly lived in by Indians and hobos, its main entrance was filled in with concrete in 1962 to prevent collapse during the building of the Robert Moses Parkway. You managed to take a look anyway?
If you’re very small, there’s a two-foot- diameter pipe. (Once inside, he said, he found most passages were about three feet tall and three feet wide. Friends who went further than he did found calcite crystal formations and a waterfall.)
We hear the Niagara County Historical Society was so impressed with your cave accounts that it reprinted 500 copies of your booklet.
It needs to be updated. There’s a couple more I’ve found since then.
So, by about 1990, waterfalls started to fascinate you more than Western New York’s cramped caves. You’ve since explored about 800 falls this side of Syracuse?
Waterfalls are like snowflakes, everyone’s different. Different times of a year they look different, too. I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t like waterfalls.
That’s interesting that you tracked down waterfalls with postcards.
Somebody just sent me a bunch of old postcards of waterfalls. Some of the postcards I have are close to a 100 years old. It seems like back then there were more tourist attractions.
I had a postcard from Friendship, New York, that showed a waterfall 20 feet high. I contacted the town historian and she knew where it was.
Tell me about your favorites.
I like Tinker’s Falls. It’s in the Finger Lakes area, kind of near Syracuse. The falls has a huge overhang. You could drive a school bus behind it.
Watkins Glen State Park. That’s another favorite area. I think there’s 20 falls in the park.
It depends on what you call a waterfall. I wrote a lot of letters trying to find out what the minimum height was.
For the [state Department of Conservation], five meters is their minimum height, which is about 16 feet. If I was in a canoe, I’d want to know if there was a five foot drop ahead of me.
What measure do you prefer?
I like five feet.
Where are some of the best places to drive to?
One state park: Taughannock Falls, north of Ithaca. I like the height of it. It’s 215 feet. Letchworth State Park has three fantastic waterfalls. They’re all very wide.
At Watkins Glen, you can get up close and personal. There’s two waterfalls you can actually walk behind. Cavern Cascade, fairly close to the park entrance.
You can walk behind the waterfall, and there’s a little spiral tunnel. You can go up a staircase. I think there’s three tunnels you can go through, so it’s kind of like a cave. And Rainbow Falls. On the left hand side, there’s a trail that goes up.
What do you like about waterfalls?
The movement of water. The feeling of infinity. Waterfalls generate a lot of negative ions. There’s a theory that negative ions are supposed to make you feel good. I always seem to feel better around the falls. It’s more refreshing.
What are you working on now?
I’m still researching waterfalls and trying to take the perfect picture. The lighting has to be just right and the volume of water going over the falls has to be just right.
Have you ever traveled far away to see a waterfall?
In ’93 I went to Brazil. It blew me away. Iguazu Falls. It’s 100 feet higher than Niagara Falls and five times as wide. There’s a movie called “The Mission” that was filmed there. One of the James Bond movies has been shot at the falls.
When I was there, it was like in its natural state. The park is like the size of Erie County, and there’s one hotel in the park. It’s not as touristy as Niagara Falls is.
At Niagara Falls, they have those shiny aluminum railings around everything. It’s kind of distracting to me. In Brazil, they’re all saw-cut logs painted green. It just blends in. I spent four days. The falls are on the border of Argentina. It’s almost like Niagara Falls. It’s on the border of the two countries.
I’ve been kind of thinking of Iceland. I’ve read that it’s a fantastic place for waterfalls. I’ve always wanted to see geysers.
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