12 September 2011

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Waterfall

By Kirk Woodward

[My friend and frequent ROT contributor, Kirk Woodward, and his wife, Pat, recently returned from a short trip north to a popular and famous natural wonder. He told me it had been a remarkable experience and he had some thoughts on the visit and the sight that he wanted to mull over and then try to articulate. His articles for ROT always having been interesting at the very least, I welcomed the offer to share his ruminations with readers of this blog. As you will see, he not only didn’t disappoint, but has a few cogent and quirky ideas to impart. ~Rick]

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"Keep in your mind," the theater set designer Robert Edmund Jones wrote, "some image of magnificence." What kind of image, exactly? He wasn't thinking of brilliant set designs, that's for certain. What he was thinking of, I believe, were natural wonders.


There are some things so American it's hard to believe, and some of them are in Canada. Case in point: think of a getaway site, and what comes to mind? There's the beach, of course, and the mountains, and all the places where George Washington is supposed to have slept. All these have various incarnations – which beach, which mountain, which historical marker? But there's only one waterfall that we're all on a first name basis with. That would be Niagara Falls.


Quick question: where is the second largest waterfall east of the Mississippi River in the United States? It's in the center of Paterson, New Jersey, where the Passaic River overflowed so disastrously after Hurricane Irene. Even in good times, it’s quite a sight after a heavy rain. It's not Niagara Falls, though, maybe because there's no Canadian side to it. It's also not surrounded by hotels. It's quite an historical area – Alexander Hamilton is intimately associated with it – and well worth a visit the next time you're in Paterson. But I'm pretty sure it's not the first natural wonder that comes to your mind.

On the other hand, there's a sort of magnetic pull to Niagara Falls, a pull that people have felt for literally centuries. There appear to have been tourists at the falls by the mid 18th century. Today tourists number in the tens of thousands daily, and Niagara surely is the most referenced honeymoon destination.

My wife Pat and I have been married for twenty-seven years, and we honeymooned far from Niagara Falls (we went, actually, to Stockbridge, Massachusetts). But when circumstances combined to give us a free weekend, fewer children at home, and a chance to travel, just the two of us, where we headed was Niagara Falls.


What's in a name? The word "Niagara" is so familiar to us that we may not wonder where it came from. I always assumed it was an Indian name, and that apparently is true, except that it’s not clear which Indians we’re talking about. The name may come from the Niagagarega Indians (as the French called them), or it may be Iroquois (a town called "Ongniaahra", supposedly meaning "cutting a point of land into two"), or it may be Mohawk (referring to a neck, like a neck of land).

One wonders how many honeymoon couples arrive at the falls still figuring out what their names are supposed to mean.


I got my driving directions on the Web, and followed instructions like a dutiful child. And we got there. My failure to study the map closely, however, meant that I didn't realize that, in terms of my mental geography, Niagara Falls is upside down.

There's a website somewhere that features "upside down" maps of the world, so that, for example, what we think of as the North Pole is actually the South Pole, and Antarctica and Australia are the north most continents. Those maps give me vertigo.

There's no logical reason I can think of why this should be so, because "north" is just a name we’ve assigned – we could just as easily call it “south” or “hast” or “Timbuktu.” I, like most of us, am simply accustomed to seeing the "North" pole (an arbitrary name for it) at the top of the map.

In the same way, my mind is programmed to assume that Canada is “north of,” and therefore “above,” the United States. As a result of this belief, I pictured the Niagara River flowing north to south from Lake Erie into Lake Ontario.

Ah, you say, but doesn't Lake Ontario's name associate it with Canada, and isn't Canada north of the United States? Yes, that's correct, which means that the Niagara river flows north.

To add to the confusion, at Niagara Falls, the Canadian side of the river is actually south of the US side.

This fact means that when I looked out of my hotel window on the Canadian side at the river flowing right to left in my view, it was actually flowing south to north, and not north to south as I believed it was.

I find in this turned-around experience a useful lesson for honeymooning couples. Never be certain you've got the geography of things straight. Surprises are always possible. Emotions, and socks, may not always be where you think they are.


Miles before we see the falls, we cross a bridge. In the distance, a giant column of smoke. "There's a huge fire over there," Pat says. "There may be a huge falls over there," I say. I'm right. What we see, miles away, is the spray from the Canadian side of the falls.

When we get to our hotel room, we look out the window and there's the entire Horseshoe Falls laid out before us, much of it obscured by a giant pillar of spray. Things aren't always what they seem.


Fancy meeting you here! Niagara Falls is portable. Ten thousand years ago it was almost seven miles upstream – that is, south (not north) of its present location. It's eaten its way through the rock inch by inch, foot by foot, and of course it continues to do so, although the rate of erosion is slower these days, because half the volume of water that used to flow over the falls is now diverted, through huge tunnels, into hydroelectric plants – at night, three quarters of the water is missing.

Because of erosion, the history of the falls is partly the history of buildings that fell down, and often into the river, when the ground under them weakened and finally washed away. You can see what remains of a number of these structures – pieces of walls built into the cliff sides. We've had an effect on the falls, but nature always wins. Change happens.


Thanks to my inability to follow simple directions, we took a rather lengthy drive through the American side of the falls before we found the bridge that goes to Canada. Traffic is absolutely abominable in tourist season, on both sides of the Niagara River. There's no speeding in town; you just can't, and the tour busses make the congestion even worse. On the other hand, imagine being a tour bus driver.

Anyway, I apologize for offending anyone, especially with so little information to back up my opinion, but to me the American side looked like a beach town, without the charm. What I saw was, mostly, dives. I was not impressed. On the other hand, I hear that the park on Goat Island, between the American and Canadian falls, is a lovely place, and you can walk down the side of the American Falls – we saw people ascending and descending the stairs along the waterfall all the time we were there.

But Canada! The Canadian side is as built up as the American, but it looks much less seedy, and the riverfront itself is lovely, with stone walls, grass and trees, numerous lookouts, and a corner of the sidewalk, right next to a well-designed lodge, where you can stand beside the falls as the water plunges over the cliff. You can walk down to this level of the hillside, or take a nifty little train car called the Incline that hugs the side of the cliff.


More on Canada: my wife and I have recently gone on a binge of watching Canadian entertainment. First we watched the wonderful TV series Slings and Arrows, and were particularly taken by the Canadian actor Paul Gross and his wife Martha Burns. We followed Gross to the TV series Due South, and on to a number of movies. Gross, who will appear with Kim Cattrall this coming season on Broadway in Noel Coward's Private Lives, is a fine actor with remarkable charm and a deftly humorous touch. Many of the pieces he appears in, particularly Due South, have as a theme the nature of Canadians – their patience, their calmness, their all-around niceness.

Our visit to Niagara was the first trip to Canada for both of us, and we expected it to at least in some ways resemble the Canada we had seen on TV. Our first encounter, however, was with a Canadian customs official at the bridge over the river, and he wasn't charming and he wasn't humorous. He seemed offended that we were going to Canada at all, and mystified that we were there for a weekend for pleasure. Why that fact surprised him, I can’t begin to imagine. He definitely had not been hired by the Chamber of Commerce. People aren't always who you assume they are.

Canada – the nation, Canada – owns the casinos on its side of the river, and a classy bunch of casinos they are. On the American side, at night, you see a tall building lit up more or less like, well, a slot machine. This is a casino operated by a Native American tribe. The metaphors for couples going to the falls are piling up, and this one involves taking a gamble.

Also – we have to face it – the Canadian falls is much more impressive than the American. It's shaped like a horseshoe, it's much larger, and it isn't half covered with rubble. Some years ago, engineers actually stopped the flow of water to the American Falls to remove the rubble, but they couldn’t. Make of that what you will.


How big are the falls? I have a hard time seeing it in itself; I need a standard of comparison. I always found myself first looking at a person, then at the Falls. People look pretty small in comparison.

Another way to compute the height of the Falls is in terms of buildings. The Horseshoe (Canadian) Falls is sixteen stories tall; the American Falls, seventeen. Out there, that's a tall building.

Still another way to get an idea of the magnitude of the Falls is to go to the top of the Skylon Tower, a 520 foot tall observation tower on the Canadian side, and look at it. You see the falls the way you'd look at it on a map. Just remember that north is south, and vice versa. Anyway, the view is something. Seeing the falls – itself of great height – from a great height encourages one to take the long view.

I had difficulty wrapping my mind around one of the oddest geological features of the falls known as the Whirlpool. The Niagara River rushes from the falls, down the gorge, south – I mean, north – into a sort of rock cul de sac. Finding no way out, it dashes against the rock walls, whirls around – sometimes clockwise, sometimes counterclockwise – and finally plunges out another channel. I couldn't exactly see this process taking place when I looked into the Whirlpool, but I believe the people who say it's so. Sometimes life makes your head spin.


Across the United States, the name Frederick Law Olmstead frequently comes up. He was unquestionably the greatest landscape architect this country ever produced. Olmstead believed that natural areas could be both developed and preserved. His first major completed project was Central Park in the city where I work, New York; he designed the parks in Louisville, Kentucky, and his firm designed Cherokee Gardens, the area in Louisville where I grew up; and his concern for the development of the area around Niagara Falls led to the creation of the first state park in the United States – the Niagara Falls State Park.

In tourist season the falls are illuminated from the Canadian side by giant spotlights with shifting colored gels, and on weekend nights there are fireworks. Our first night there, we walked down by the river about ten at night, and the area was filled with people laughing, talking, marveling. Entertainment doesn't always make one really happy. But this isn't just entertainment. This is Niagara Falls.


No account of the falls would be complete without mentioning that periodically people go over them, deliberately or accidentally, in barrels or just in clothes, for better or for worse. It is painful to dwell on the folks who decided to kill themselves by going over the falls, or who died when they accidentally fell in. Slightly better to think of those who went over the falls deliberately, with the intention of surviving, in what we might call a Leap of Faith, and survived (they didn't all). Much better still to think of the child who went over the falls wearing a life jacket, and was rescued by the boat called the Maid of the Mist in the pool at the bottom. Rescues do happen.


On our one full day at the falls, on a Saturday, we decided that the best way to see the sights in the area, especially considering the difficulty of driving anywhere, was to take a bus tour. Over six hours we rode south of – that is, above – the falls and saw the old hydroelectric plant and several amazing houses along the wide expanse of water that turns into rapids and then into the Falls itself. Then we walked into a tunnel under the falls, and watched the water crashing by from behind it. On down the river toward the North, we visited the lovely Botanical Gardens, the Whirlpool, and finally took the obligatory cruise on the aforementioned Maid of the Mist.

The company that runs these boats (they’re all called the same thing, and distinguished from each other by Roman numerals) has been in business for over a hundred years, and it knows how to operate an attraction. I thought we'd never get on a boat, the lines were so long. Instead, we got on the next boat, dressed in our biodegradable blue rain hoods. The ride goes past the American Falls – the best view we had of it while we were there – and past the relatively tiny Bridal Veil Falls next to it, and then on to the Horseshoe Falls.

The reason you wear a rain hood, as I'm sure you know, is that as you pass along the Horseshoe Falls you get very, very wet. I took off my glasses, which wouldn't have helped even if they'd had little windshield wipers on them, but at the center of the Horseshoe Falls, there's not much to see except water anyway. Tons, ages, worlds of water. When we got to the very middle, facing the Falls, I felt as if my brain were being rewired.

An image of magnificence, and it’s not a bad way to spend a honeymoon, either – getting your brain rewired.

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