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Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Niagara Falls

I've been blessed to live all my life about a 90-minute drive from one of the great natural wonders of the world, Niagara Falls. It has given me the opportunity to visit on average of about twice a year.

There's much about the Falls that fascinates me. The natural history of how the Falls evolved to what and where they are today, the cultural history of how humans view, react to and have settled around the Falls, and the two strikingly different experiences of visiting the Falls whether on the American side or the Canadian side.

The Niagara River flows from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario and forms a natural border between the U.S. and Canada. Due to erosion, the Falls are actually moving; they have moved from their start near present-day Lewiston along the Niagara Escarpment, seven miles upstream over the past 12,000 years to where they are today at Goat Island. Through those years, the Falls have carved out a gorge, with the Niagara River racing toward Lake Ontario several hundred feet below the surrounding landscape.

Goat Island, seen in the center of the lower half of the picture below, is entirely within New York State. Canada is in the upper half. The island splits the river as the water flows towards the Falls. On the left is the wider portion of the Falls, known as Horseshoe Falls because of its horseshoe shape. The border between the U.S. and Canada bisects this part of the river. On the right side of Goat Island is a much narrower strip of the river leading to the American Falls. Just to the left of the American Falls, creeks within the island lead to a very narrow band of water streaming over Bridal Veil Falls. The bridge at the far right is the Rainbow Bridge.

This is how the Falls look today. Over the course of time, erosion will continue to drive the Falls around both sides of Goat Island, further back towards and around Grand Island, and eventually to the source of the Niagara River at Lake Erie.

Today we are lucky that time and geography have intersected to give us the current wondrous views of Niagara Falls. You get a better panoramic view from Canada, which no doubt has influenced the tremendous growth of its tourist area. For several miles along the Canadian shore of the Niagara River, there is a road and a walkway with unlimited views of the gorge, the Falls, and the river upstream. Look carefully and you will see a barge that has been stuck among the rocks since 1917. There is parking in this area giving access to these sights within walking distance, but during the summer tourist season, you have to get there early to get one of these spots. Otherwise, drive further upstream to a much larger parking area that offers shuttle service back to where you want to be.

Going uphill and into town you will find a vast array of hotels, motels, bars, and restaurants of all varieties plus some of the cheesiest tourist traps you can imagine, including wax museums and haunted houses. I remember when the Skylon and Panasonic Towers were the lone tall structures in Niagara Falls; in recent years, development of modern hotels now dwarfs the Minolta Tower. The Skylon Tower still stands pretty much by itself. Many hotels have been built with all guest rooms facing the Falls. You will pay handsomely for the view; if you want to stay in Canadian Niagara Falls on a budget, choose one of the smaller hotels that doesn't necessarily offer a view. A huge draw are the casinos; there is a casino on both the U.S. and Canadian sides.

Figuring prominently in the landscape is Rainbow Bridge, which connects the two cities of Niagara Falls, Ontario, and Niagara Falls, New York. There are customs and immigration stations at both ends of the bridge, so depending on what time of the day and year you are crossing the bridge, you may end up sitting on it for awhile as you wait your turn for a customs agent. Halfway across the bridge is the international border that bisects the Niagara River. The border point is marked by several flags; carloads of kids can marvel over the moment when half of them are in the U.S. and the other half of them are in Canada.
Niagara Falls, New York has not kept pace with its sister city across the river. Much of it is worn and tired-looking. The bright spots include the area surrounding the casino, which has seen some hotel development in recent years, and Goat Island. For someone who has spent umpteen hours over the years ogling the wide spectacle from the Canadian side, Goat Island represents a quiet, natural retreat in a state park.

To enter Goat Island, you will drive over a stone bridge crossing the river rapids that lead to the American Falls. Once on the island, you will follow a road that winds through the island's forest until you reach a large parking area. Park here if you want to get out and stay awhile. You can visit some of the island's attractions, take a trolley tour, or visit the restaurant that has a view of the rapids and part of the Falls. From here you can get a very up-close and personal view of the edges of the American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls. Here are some photos taken on Goat Island.

If you continue on the road, you will get a tour of the rest of the island. One place to make a short stop that does not charge for parking is Three Sisters Islands. You can only park here for 20 minutes, but it's enough time to walk over to the edge of the rapids that lead to the Horseshoe Falls, as seen in the picture above. All views from Goat Island are awe-inspiring. Most of the island is covered in trees and grass, so it makes a stark contrast to the steel forest on the other side of the river. The island is completely surrounded by the rushing water of the rapids leading to the Falls on both sides of it. I sometimes make the 90-minute drive just to visit Goat Island.

Niagara Falls is spectacular to see from any angle, and it is literally possible to see it from all angles. Besides the views from the river's edge, you can take a helicopter ride over the Falls, a walk through tunnels underground on the Canadian side to get a view from behind the Horseshoe Falls, or a walk down wooden stairs on Goat Island to stand beside the Falls. With all the ice that builds up over the winter, these stairs have to be rebuilt every spring. My favorite view is from the Maid of the Mist boat rides, which you can access from both countries. Boarding from a safe distance away, the boats ride along the river into the center of the horseshoe where a nearly permanent column of mist exists. With water spraying from three sides of the horseshoe-shaped falls, millions of droplets collect in this central location and rise with air currents. The Maid of the Mist boats go right into this spray zone, enabling passengers standing on the decks to experience the power of Niagara Falls. Everyone is issued a disposable poncho. Gone are the days when guests were issued rubber raincoats that left you feeling as if you'd stepped out of a humid junkyard.

The peak tourist season of Niagara Falls is the warm summer months. For a vastly different experience, consider visiting in January or February when it's below freezing. The mist will have drifted over the nearby land, coating the trees, buildings and any sort of structure with ice. Certain areas will be closed off to the public because there's too much ice to walk safely on, but park workers do a marvelous job at keeping certain areas clear of ice so you can safely enjoy the spectacle. If you're really lucky, you'll see huge chunks of ice in the gorge below. You will need to dress warm, but the view is well worth the effort.

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