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Tuesday, 01 September 2009

Getting Misty-Eyed at Niagara Falls

Written by Kristen Hamill
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“I don’t see it. Where is it — down there?” I pressed my face to the car window as we passed over the bridge taking us across the border into Canada. It was close to midnight by the time my plane had landed in Buffalo and we’d made the half hour drive north, but the Niagara Falls are lit up at night, and we were eager to get across for the view.

“It’s there,” said Taylor, “You’ll see it in a minute.”

Getting Misty-Eyed at Niagara Falls, Kristen HamillI could hear and smell the falls before I saw them. When we rolled down our windows at the immigration checkpoint, everything smelled wet.  It wasn’t a moldy, damp laundry sort of smell, but cool and earthy; like the way grass smells after a rainstorm, but multiplied ten times in intensity. I’m not sure if it was the blast of cool mist or the anticipation of finally getting to see one of the world’s most impressive natural wonders, but I felt far more awake and energized than I should have after an eight-hour workday and three-hour journey. It’s believed that the high concentration of negative ions in the air around Niagara Falls, charged by the turbulent water, lowers serotonin levels in the blood — easing tension, boosting energy, and contributing to a sense of overall well being.

We rounded the corner and turned onto the main road above the cliffs overlooking the falls. High-powered red, blue, yellow, and purple lights illuminated the water from behind, gradually alternating in color.  Every few minutes or so, a wave of spray would blow towards tourists lined at the railing. Some were wearing waterproof ponchos, others dripped from head to toe as they struggled to shield their cameras under wet t-shirts and sweaters.  Despite the "No Parking Anytime" signs, we couldn't help but throw the hazards on and run out to take a few pictures in front of the glowing mist. Many people believe the Canadian side offers the best views, and although we didn’t get back across the border to compare, I would have to agree.  Most of the viewing areas in New York were directly above or right next to the falls, not allowing for the full panoramic view of all three you get from Canada.

It’s a common misconception that there is one “Niagara Falls”. I’ll admit that I was a little shocked to get across the border and see not one, but three waterfalls flowing into the Niagara River. The falls were created at the end of the last ice age, about 12,000 years ago, when most of the area was covered with ice sheets two to three kilometers deep. Over time, the ice retreated north, allowing water to flow from Lake Erie over the Niagara Escarpment, a ridge that extends across the Great Lakes region from Wisconsin to New York, creating the three waterfalls we know as Niagara Falls.

Horseshoe Falls, situated on the Canadian side, is the largest and most recognizable of the three. It has a drop of 173 feet and is approximately 2,600 feet wide.  Horseshoe Falls ranks third out of the world’s waterfalls in terms of volume of water, behind Congo’s Boyoma Falls and Laos’s Khone Falls. On the U.S. side of the border, American Falls is 1060 feet wide and varies between 70-100 feet high because of the large boulders at its base.  Bridal Veil Falls is significantly smaller at only 56 feet wide with a drop of 78 feet.




Getting Misty-Eyed at Niagara Falls, Kristen HamillAll three falls provide an enormous source of hydroelectric power to the region; at peak flow the amount of water approaching the falls can reach up to 202,000 cubic feet per second. The Niagara Power Project, a joint Canadian and U.S. enterprise, generates a capacity of 2.4 million kilowatts. With such a large amount of water flowing at a rapid speed, erosion is major concern. Up until the 1950s when water diversion projects were built for the power plants, Horseshoe Falls was eroding at a rate of more than one meter a year. It’s estimated that at the end of the last ice age, Horseshoe Falls was actually seven miles closer to Lake Ontario than it is today. Today, as much as three-quarters of the water from the Niagara River is diverted to American and Canadian power plants before it even reaches the falls.

There are a number of ways to view Niagara Falls, some more exciting (and heavier on the wallet) than others. The walkway is the easiest way to get a look at all three falls from the Canadian side.  At one point on the walkway, you are situated right on the edge of Horseshoe Falls, separated from the water by only a chest-high railing.  If you decide to invest in a poncho, this is the spot to use it.  If you don’t mind getting a little wet, the Maid of the Mist boat tour is a must. The 30 minute tour pushes off near Rainbow Bridge, in a relatively calm section of the river, heads past the American and Bridal Veil Falls, and into the curve of Horseshoe Falls, where the serious soaking begins.

Another way to get up close and personal with the falls is on the Cave of the Winds Tour, which takes you to the base of Bridal Veils. The tour begins with an elevator ride that takes you 200 feet into Niagara Gorge. Special walking shoes and a bright yellow poncho are provided for the slick wooden walkway up to Hurricane Deck, where you will stand just 20 feet from the roaring torrents. The “Cave” of the Winds does not actually exist anymore; Aeolus’ Cave, named after the Greek god of winds, was destroyed in 1954 after a massive rock fall and subsequent dynamite explosion shattered the remaining overhang.

And for the adrenaline junkie, Niagara helicopters offer a 12-minute aerial tour of all the major sites, accompanied by commentary on individual headsets.  The ride costs $100 per person, but is well worth it for the fantastic views.

As with many national parks and eco attractions, there is no shortage of tourist traps on either side of the falls, with everything from wax museums, a tropical bird aviary, shopping centers, a glow-in-the-dark mini golf course, and souvenir shops lining the main road. Not to mention the two towering casinos that dominate the skyline and seem to use half of the power generated by the falls to light up at night. Despite the wealth of cheap tourist attractions, there are a number of museums for those interested in learning more about the history behind the falls, including the popular Daredevil Museum in New York, which displays the stories and equipment of some of the most infamous stunts in Niagara Falls history.




Between 1901 and 2003, 16 people have gone over the falls with various contraptions—wooden barrels, steel barrels, rubber balls, jet skis, and nothing at all— and eight have survived.  The museum details the account of each daredevil’s stunt, from the first jump in 1901 when Annie Taylor (and her pet cat) conquered the falls in a barrel pressurized with a bicycle pump, to Robert Overcracker’s deadly jet ski attempt in 1995— when his parachute malfunctioned mid-fall with his jet ski already plunging below him.

Getting Misty-Eyed at Niagara Falls, Kristen HamillDay or night, winter or summer, the falls never cease to amaze its 14 million annual visitors. Photographs and movies have captured the beauty of Niagara Falls, but without standing at its edge, inches away from the racing current, you’ll never know its unbelievable strength. Whether you go for the thrill of a ride through the thrashing currents, the legends of daredevils with nerves and barrels of steel, or for a breath of fresh ionized air above one of the world’s most breathtaking views, Niagara Falls deserves a spot on every traveler’s must-see list.

©Kristen Hamill

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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