A little over a week ago we returned to the scene of an ignominious hiking defeat suffered in March of 2014 at Eternal Flame Falls. Two blithe Virginia hikers, drunk on thoughts of spring, headed to upstate New York and were shocked – shocked! – to find snow on the ground. Even worse, the trail itself was solid ice, and so eroded that a steady foothold was nearly impossible. After an agonizingly slow slide down the trail and an attempt to follow the creekside path below, we threw in the towel on what we thought would be a quick, breezy, 1.3 mile hike. In an effort to avoid the steep, icy trail we then attempted to climb the walls of the ravine into which we’d descended. At last one section gave us enough roots to catch hold of and we were able to pull ourselves back out–thoroughly chastened and embarrassed.
While we were woefully underprepared a year ago, the hike’s promised payoff was too tantalizing for us not to try again: a natural gas leak behind a waterfall that purported to keep an “eternal flame” burning behind the falling water. June seemed an appropriately safe month weather-wise, and we made the falls our first stop on a road trip through Ontario and Michigan. We rose before dawn on the day of the summer solstice, and drove to the trailhead in the dim early light. As we pulled into the empty parking lot a small group of deer loped in front of the car, followed by a coyote that stopped to peer at us for several long moments before taking off into the woods.
We embarked into the same dark, quiet woods at 6 am. We strolled easily down the path into the ravine, meeting the creek at the bottom. Here, the trail begins to meander back and forth across the creek bed. However, the trail is very eroded and in some sections completely gone, so that much of the time the creek bed simply became the path. The falls were audible up ahead, but not yet visible. We had heard that occasionally the flame goes out and must be re-lit, so we were prepared with matches.
As we rounded a bend in the creek the waterfall was suddenly revealed before us–and the burning flame in all its glory. The water rains down a shale cliff, and directly in front of the flame, making for a magical sight:
Our hike took place on the longest day of the year, making it especially fitting that we found the flame burning brightly as we arrived. Although the summer solstice is the first day of summer, astronomically it also means the beginning of gradually shorter days and, eventually, a return to darkness. Even as we revel in these lovely, warm days, underneath is the call of the abyss. Summer will slip away, day by day, as the water that flows over the shale of Eternal Flame Falls gradually slows to a late-season trickle. The truth of the solstice’s passing away is inherent in its occurrence. The flame is bright but it will dim, the waters will dry, and the tale will be told again: Future hikers will wander in these woods, on icy winter days and warm spring days and brightly plumed October days. They will laugh; get their feet wet and their hands muddy; [they will go home with bruises and gashes all over their legs if they are so foolish as to press on in winter without the necessary gear]; and they will experience that wondrous moment when you round a bend and suddenly there is a flame flickering in a crevice behind a wall of shimmering water.
Go in the early morning, when the woods are silent and there is no one to share them with but the deer and the coyote. Stay as long as you can, play in the water, make a video of yourself singing the eponymous Bangles song, and take long lingering looks as you walk away. Just a few steps back down the path, and suddenly it will have disappeared.