Pennsylvania has few waterfalls along rivers, with Ohiopyle’s along the Youghiogheny a prime exception.

Another is Nelson Falls, along the Cowanesque. It is hidden nearly in plain sight, but in what to many people is an obscure and oft-forgotten corner of Tioga County, Pennsylvania. It is, according to the metricated Mid State Trail guide, 220 meters’ walk from PA Route 49, a major inter-county truck route from Lawrenceville to Coudersport.

Lawrenceville is chiefly notable in PA for being confused with a gentrifying neighborhood in Pittsburgh, and Coudersport might be seen by many only for signs pointing 71 miles from Woolrich, but those are other stories. It’s more important for now approximately to pronounce the supposedly Native American name of the river, said to mean “covered in briars,” as ‘kow-a-NESS-kee,’ then move on closer to the present day.

Spring of 1936 was an historic flood time in Pennsylvania. Active hydrology sometimes reactivates geology, as that is when it is said the Cowanesque River decided to begin short-cutting a long meander between Elkland and Nelson. This process, usually pictured only in textbooks, confirmed itself further in 1946, another flood year, when the waterfall became perennial.

On July 3, 1958, a Thursday before a holiday weekend, Congress authorized a flood control project along the Cowanesque River. When Cowanesque Lake was eventually built between 1975 and 1980, unfortunately too late to help avert a score of deaths and destruction of priceless glass artifacts when a levee broke in the middle of the night downstream at Corning, NY during 1972’s extratropical depression Agnes, the waterfall shortened not only due to continuing erosion above, but the impoundment of its pool as a reservoir. Sometimes the waterfall entirely disappears when the dam closes during high water, which has prevented (through Federal fiscal year 2014) an estimated $299,369,000 of flood damage.

While returning from Pinnacle State Park in New York, we together with Dan Glass stopped briefly to view the falls.

On that January weekend, there was only a bit of snow on the ground, but cold weather had frozen most of the lake’s surface. We remembered a post in the Pennsylvania Waterfalls Facebook group regretting that nearly all photos of this falls were from the edge, which is how the trail from the road reaches it. The edge is fast eroding, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rightly prohibits climbing down from it to swim or to get a better view.

Nelson Falls

As luck would have it, Neil and I were again in Tioga County the following weekend, with an additional thickness of snow. I had recently been given a DJI Phantom remote control quadcopter “drone” and a GoPro camera. Although ice cover on the lake could be thin an uncertain distance from an opening directly at the falls’ plunge, weeks of sub-freezing temperatures and new-fallen snow gave confidence in at least being able to ski out onto the lake. Nearby, parking lots are typically plowed to accommodate ice fishermen.

So, after breakfasting at Me-Ma’s Country Kitchen in Tioga, Neil and I returned to the shoulder of Route 49. I had both snowshoes and cross-country skis. Neil happened to mention he had never tried snowshoes, so since I was going to use the skis out on the lake, we decided on the spot to try putting the snowshoes on Neil’s feet. The tailgate of a pickup truck proved to be the ideal height for me to strap them on to his feet, then Neil set off, with me following behind with the skis and the drone case.

Adjusting the snowshoes for fit.
At the edge of the falls.

I am an inveterate rule-follower, so prior to packing the drone in the truck, I had searched the ‘net for rules that might govern this activity. Even though there currently appear to be gray areas in regulation befitting a Pennsylvania winter sky, since I wasn’t making any money from potentially posting a video to Facebook, and we weren’t near an airport or the White House, I was unable to find a reason why not to fly a drone near the falls.

So, while Neil snowshoed carefully over to the point near the falls where the signs indicate to go no further, I chose a different more stable path down to the lake shore and skied out to where I could see around the point of land.

Peter and drone on the lake.
Drone high up!

I launched the drone, recovered it in the snow, checked the video from the first battery’s worth of flying, then tried a second time to obtain clearer footage. Neil’s chosen garb of hunter orange stood out well against the expanse of snow and ice.

With our task accomplished, we moved on to further exploration of the frozen Northern Tier. I posted the best minute of the drone video to YouTube, to learn that I should have used iMovie to substitute mellifluous music for the drone’s droning. Social media can be a good way to learn what you don’t know, and to support each other’s explorations.