It’s impossible to visit Niagara Falls without contemplating one’s own mortality. There are signs everywhere reminding you of it: Mind the railing. Do not climb. Memorials and plaques for those who survived and those who didn’t. After explaining the falls’ long history with barrels and daredevils, even our three-year-old cocked her head and applied her favourite question, “Why?” Why would people do that? We’re sorry Child. We have no answers.
Once in 2010 while visiting the falls during early spring, a sudden siren and helicopter overhead punctuated the normally monotonous white noise of crashing water. Two things were certain: they were looking for something, and they couldn’t find it. We left that day filled with dread, later learning that 20-40 people jump each year. One every week or two.
Perhaps there is a clue as to why people fall, or why people jump, in the poem “Niagara” by Cuban revolutionary and exile to the United States, José María Heredia.
How the sight of you confounds my spirit,
Filling me with terror and wonder!
Where is your beginning? Who has been nourishing
Your inexhaustible source as the centuries go by?
What powerful hand
Has ordained that on receiving your mighty waters
The ocean does not inundate the earth?”
Our morbid preoccupation with life and death at Niagara Falls is matched only by our sense of awe. The vast power of the falls is astonishing. Breathtaking. If you are willing to walk twenty minutes back to the main lookout, you can bypass the official parking lot (that costs $20) and instead park for free up at Dufferin Islands nature trails. This strategy isn’t just good for the wallet, it’s a better design. Instead of getting the view immediately by car, you have to actually work to get to the falls, but in the meantime you experience the pleasure of discovery.
From Dufferin Islands parking we walked alongside the Niagara River in the same direction as the flowing water. The sound of the falls became increasingly loud. We passed the impressive and deserted Beaux-Arts style Toronto Power Generating Station. We stopped to read a small plaque memorializing the Japanese exchange student who in 2011 climbed a rock to take a photo, slipped, and fell over the falls to her death. We passed the Niagara Scow, mored just upstream from the perilous precipice since 1918. And all of a sudden in one heart-in-your-throat moment we were on top of the falls, looking down, immersed in the relentless white spray of nearly four million cubic feet of water falling every minute.
Of course the Canadian side of the falls is designed for the quick tourist stop. The public architecture ushers visitors across the wide stony lookout dotted with quarter-guzzling telescopes to the Maid of the Mist boat ticket counter, into the souvenir shop and Behind the Falls walk-through tours.
Smart tourists will visit off season because in spite of the year-round nighttime colour spotlights, chintzy keepsakes and inordinate number of selfie sticks, the natural spectacle is undeniable particularly during the winter when people are sparse and it’s easier to imagine coming across the falls prior to civilization. The whole landscape is spiked with frozen crystals and ice and snow, and it is just awesome. At just an hour from Paris we’re grateful to be able to experience Niagara Falls in all seasons.
Unbiased, of course, we declare the Canadian side of the falls better than the American side for three reasons: 1. The Horseshoe is hands-down the most dramatic and impressive part of the falls, and being on the Canadian side you can get up close and personal to it. 2. America opted to designate its side of the falls as a state park (thanks, America!) so the view from Canada remains splendid and natural, while 3. Canada’s development of the falls into some kind of funfair means it has all the amenities – places to eat, drink, gamble and stay over. The American side by contrast is a limited small town, with relatively little choice in where and what to eat (particularly for vegetarians, we once noticed).
Further on from the falls and worth the extra walk is the Skylon Tower. Amelia is hooked on an ABC book featuring the sights of Toronto. She knows every letter by heart – A is for the AGO, B is for Blue Jays, C is for Casa Loma – so likened the Skylon Tower to the CN Tower. Which, as her parents, was adorable. So for what we considered a nominal fee we climbed to the top for an amazing lookout and perused an interesting collection of construction photos inside the observation deck. If you’d like you could also experience the novelty of lunch inside a 1960s-ish revolving dining room.
At the bottom of the tower, arcades engage a powerful sense of nostalgia.
The town of Niagara is often visited for its casino, but there is more to it than that. In and of itself it is an attraction steeped in the nineties. We drank coca-cola vanilla malt, ate Hershey’s kisses, and watched My Girl. Like any tourist town, its interesting to think of the people who actually live and grow up there. Perhaps similar to Orlando where Cass grew up, there is a splendid natural wonder at the core, but the surface is riddled with contrived experiences. Many names are even familiar to Orlando: Jimmy Buffet’s Margeritaville, Planet Hollywood, Hardrock Cafe, IMAX, Ripley’s. We chickened out at the doors of the Rainforest cafe. Just too strange. For whatever reason (probably some higher power, spiting us), Amelia was drawn to the kitschiness; she called it “craziness”, which was somewhat redeeming.
The stories of people and the falls benefit from a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction quality. The first survivor of the falls, Annie Edson Taylor, was a Michigan school teacher who went over as a publicity stunt, only to die in old age as a pauper. She said immediately after her stunt, “No one ought ever do that again,” and of course many people did. One man survived the plunge only to later slip on an orange peel and die from complications. In 1930 a man survived in his barrel, but the barrel got stuck on rocks behind the cascade, and he suffocated. His tortoise – estimated to be 150 years old – went with him, and survived. It does make us wonder, particularly at this juncture in our lives where we are settling down and establishing ourselves, what’s next? What giant leap (or fall) – or unexpected orange peel slippage or miraculous tortoise survival – comes next?
There is an interesting graphic that shows how water from the Great Lakes empties into the St Lawrence River and eventually to the Atlantic Ocean. Niagara Falls is an important pathway in that chain as water transitions from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. Lake Ontario is the last stop in the Great Lakes, the basin, the catchall. It’s nice to think of Paris within this chain of interconnectedness as the Nith joins the Grand River on its path south to Lake Erie, our water flowing along in a small contribution toward something bigger than itself.