From Rochester we headed west to see Niagara Falls. John had just driven by them twice, on the way to and from Toronto with his friend Ken, but he was willing to go again so I could see the giant waterfalls. Ten years in New York and I had never seen the famous river on the New York State-Canada border! We spent one afternoon walking around above the falls, and the following morning looking at the river downstream.
Niagara Falls are a truly spectacular sight – a set of three separated water falls dropping over 165 feet into the gorge below. The widest of the three is Horseshoe Falls, where the Niagara River falls over a semi-circular cliff connecting Ontario to Goat Island, part of the New York State Park surrounding the U.S. side of the falls. American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls fall between the U.S. mainland and Goat Island, separated by Luna Island. Luna Island is so named because in the past one could stand on the island and see night rainbows in the mist off the falls during a full moon. Due to reduced flow and the nighttime illumination, this effect is no longer present.
We learned all sorts of fun facts about the falls. For instance, 12,000 years ago the cliff was located 7 miles downstream. The force of the water has been eroding the rock and elongating the gorge by as much as six feet per year, likely less now that both the U.S. and Canada divert a substantial portion of the flow for hydropower. In the 60’s, the Army Corps of Engineers built a dam to stop the flow over the American Falls so geologists could study the rocks. They determined that it would be too expensive to attempt to either stabilize the cliff to stop the upstream creep of the falls or to remove the rock from below the falls. The dam was removed and the flow restored. We also, of course, read about crazy people who attempted to go over the falls in a variety of vessels – many of whom did not survive.
On our walk all around Goat Island, we came across the “Cave of the Winds” tour, and decided to join it. A cave was discovered behind the Bridal Veil Falls in 1834, during a particularly harsh winter that froze the river and stopped the flow over the falls for four days. The cave was named for the sound of the falls echoing in the cave. Walking down a long set of stairs to enter the cave behind the falls was a popular tourist activity until the 1920’s, when a rockslide rendered the cave unsafe; in the 50’s it collapsed altogether. Despite the absence of an actual cave, the Cave of the Winds tour still persists. Access is via an elevator that replaced the staircase in 1924, and the tour allows for close proximity to the bottom of the falls on wooden platforms. These platforms are disassembled for winter and reassembled each spring, an enormous undertaking! We were a couple weeks late for the full experience at the falls – the guides had started taking down the Cave of the Winds platforms and the Maid of the Mist boat stopped running on October 24, so our tour was limited. In particular, the “Hurricane Deck” was closed, but we had a great time viewing the awesome power of the water from a slightly drier distance.
In addition to the fun facts stated above, we also learned of the Niagara River “Whirlpool” at the Niagara Falls Visitors’ Center, so the following day we drove a little ways downstream to check out Whirlpool State Park. We had a great time hiking the trail in the Niagara Gorge, watching the amazing power of the rapids in this high volume river. We stood at the top of the whirlpool for some time, examining the chaotic dynamics of the huge rapid forming the whirlpools and debating whether or not the rapid is runnable in a kayak. John was sure that it was, but I was not so sure – it certainly would be risky! That evening I did some research, and found that indeed, the river has been paddled. Launching in this section is illegal after deadly attempts in the 1970’s to create a whitewater rafting tour of the river, but that does not stop thrill-seekers from trying! One pair’s trip down the river led to a second run in 1982 with a permit, the only legal kayak run down the rapids. A more recent run in Jackson Fun kayaks ended with less fanfare; I hope to find a chance to watch the video of that run – I can’t imagine those small boats in that huge water! And if you want to experience the river up close, a jet boat will take you up to the whirlpool from downstream, but not beyond to the rapids pictured below.
After visiting Whirlpool State Park, we drove into Ontario. Finally driving west out of New York State brought with it the combination of sadness, satisfaction and joy I felt when I finally made the decision to leave New York City and move back to the Pacific Northwest.