After bushwhacking into Flat Creek Falls in Panthertown Valley, a friend told Thomas Mabry, “You’re just like the honey badger — you’ll go anywhere, and you’ll do anything.”
The comment, notes Mabry, a retired lawyer and Asheville resident, is how he wound up with his nickname, “Badger.” Meanwhile, his obsession with photographing waterfalls across the state is how in 2014 he became the administrator of the North Carolina Waterfalls Facebook group (which has over 35,000 members).
Despite his nickname, Mabry is quick to discourage others from badgering around waterfalls. After all, the slippery wet stones that make these natural wonders flow so beautifully also make navigating the surface tricky and potentially deadly.
“We don’t want to encourage that sort behavior,” he says. “It’s just too risky. And at the top of the waterfall — don’t even go there!”
Xpress recently sat down with Mabry to discuss special tricks for photographing waterfalls, debates among waterfallers (a self-selected nomenclature among fanatics) and his favorite outdoor spots in WNC.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
Do you have any special tricks for photographing waterfalls?
Slow shutter photography would be a major trick one would use to photograph waterfalls. You get that milky smooth texture in the waterfalls. That’s the first thing.
The second thing would be composition. That’s so important in photographing waterfalls. The only difficulty with composition is that sometimes you have to take some unusual positions with your tripod in order to get the composition that you want. And that requires going out into water, hanging out on rocks [or] positioning your tripod up against trees.
You also sometimes have to put yourself in positions that somebody else might think of as perilous. Of course, we try to be as safe as we can, but I also want to get the composition of the waterfall as best I can.
There are other factors that are involved, too. Presently, we have a lot of flowers that are blooming in Western North Carolina, so you want to get the rhododendron blooms in the pictures. If you’re photographing at sunset, you want to try to that in the picture somehow as well.
Most of the time, it’s not great to photograph during the day. Cloudy days are much better than sunny days, although sometimes you can get sunny days to work if the sun is behind you to make shadows on the waterfall. And the waterfalls are always changing. You can go to one waterfall and it’s different all seven times that you’ve been there.
What recurring debates do you have to monitor on the Facebook group?
Some waterfalls have access issues because they’re on private property, or you have to use private property to access them. Another issue is that some access points are somewhat dangerous. There’s a waterfall off of the Blue Ridge Parkway named English Falls. The access is very difficult. And so when people go there, we try to caution them that this is a difficult access and most people shouldn’t try it.
People also get into the “I discovered this waterfall” debate. Well, there’s not many waterfalls in Western North Carolina where people haven’t already been.
Speaking of waterfalls on private property, are there any that you wish you could visit and photograph?
Yes — Eastatoe Falls near Rosman. It was on the cover of [Kevin Adams‘] book, North Carolina Waterfalls [third edition]. People abused the access, in the sense that they would go on the property and leave trash. So the owners decided not to allow people on the property; but they’re now allowing people back on the property a couple of times of year.
As a rule, [North Carolina Waterfalls Facebook group] tries not to publish photographs where we know people have actually trespassed to get to a waterfall or if it’s on private property — though most people will gain access to those types of waterfalls because they’ve asked permission beforehand.
What’s your favorite waterfall in WNC and why?
Because waterfalls are so different, I divide them up into three different heights. My favorite of the larger waterfalls — that’s above 100 feet high — is Flat Creek Falls near Panthertown. The medium size would be English Falls. That’s the one I mentioned earlier. It’s about 60 or 70 feet tall, and it’s off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Access is difficult, but it’s a beautiful waterfall. The smaller waterfall is Little Bradley Falls. It’s near Saluda, about 30 feet high, and it’s really pretty.
What attracts you to waterfalls?
I like the peace and serenity of being around a waterfall. I like the chase. I’ve been to 2,200-plus waterfalls in the past seven years. It’s a lot of fun and very challenging. We go to places that a lot of other people might never go. I feel blessed to do that physically and to have the skills that are necessary to do it. But you know, I think probably as far as the concentration, we have more beautiful waterfalls here in Western North Carolina than anywhere that I’ve ever seen.
Our group is a labor of love. But it’s one of those things that I enjoy doing because I love waterfalls and I want people to have access to waterfalls. It’s great for people to get outside instead of staying in the office or staying at home. And there are a lot of people who love waterfalls.