Niagara Falls

Pictures don’t prepare you for Niagara Falls.

The pictures are everywhere, of course. The Falls show up in magazines and newspapers, in travel brochures, in movies and TV shows, on billboards, and all over the Internet, often as props in advertisements. They have been used to push trains and bus lines and gasoline, which are at least logical, but also coffee, paint, breakfast cereal, and even cigarettes (“L&M: As proud a part of the American tradition as Niagara Falls.”) ViewMaster, the ubiquitous 3D viewer of the 1950s, produced a three-reel set of Niagara Falls images: my family owned a copy, which I regularly flipped through, trying to get a sense of the place I’d heard so much about. It didn’t work. The closest anything came to actually matching reality was the exhibit produced by Canada for their pavilion at the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962: visitors filed through a dark room where one whole wall was filled with a life-sized video of Niagara’s falling water as seen from behind, from the Table Rock viewing area, halfway down the Falls on the Ontario side. Speakers filled the room with Niagara’s sound, and the floor quivered underfoot, as the rock beside Niagara quivers. It was an impressive attempt. But even that fell far short.

The view from the main platform at Table Rock. My daughter Sara is facing the camera at left, bare-headed. (1990)

Nothing can convey the overwhelming power of this place, except a visit.

I first came to Niagara Falls in the summer of 1983, in the course of research for my first book on the Great Lakes region, The Late, Great Lakes (Knopf, 1986). On that first visit, geologist Larry Chitwood and I descended the elevator from Goat Island to the Cave of the Winds, at the base of the American Falls, and walked the slippery wooden boardwalks that, despite thick coats of preservative, are soaked so thoroughly by the spray from the falls that they have to be rebuilt every year. On my second visit – in 1990, with my wife and our then-17-year-old daughter – we chose to try Table Rock instead. In each case we were given disposable yellow waterproof ponchos, dropped more than 100 feet in an elevator, and ushered close enough to the Falls that we could almost touch the falling water. The tons and tons and tons of tumbling, thrashing, pounding, falling water. The Niagara River carries the massive outflow from four of the five Great Lakes – the world’s first, third, fourth, and tenth largest salt-free seas, containing almost one-fifth of all the fresh surface water on the planet – and even with half of the river’s flow diverted through penstocks to power much of the State of New York and the Province of Ontario, the Falls are one of the three largest waterfalls in the world. On an average summer day, roughly 2.5 billion gallons of water flow over their brink every hour. Six million cubic feet per minute. More than 3000 tons per second. Faced with those figures, the mind boggles and refuses to comprehend. It is a few bazillion times bigger than a breadbox, and that is as good a description as you are likely to ever get.

The American Falls. The last ribbon of water at the far end of the brink is divided from the rest by Luna Island, and is considered a separate waterfall, called Bridal Veil Falls. (1983)
The Canadian Falls, also known as the Horseshoe Falls, carries roughly 90% of the flow. The Maid of the Mist tour boat, at center, provides a sense of scale. (1983)

On that first trip, Chitwood suggested dinner at the Table Rock House, the brink-of-the Falls restaurant on the Canadian side that has been there in one form or another since 1853. I demurred: he was along on the trip as an expert source, and I was paying the expenses for both of us. He cast that reason aside. “This one’s on me,” he said. “It’s an opportunity we cannot miss.” There was a table remaining by the window, which we took, dining extravagantly on steak and fine wine while the combined outflow from Lakes Superior, Huron, Michigan, and Erie thundered over a cliff just beyond the glass. Darkness crept in and the lights came on, bathing those megatons of pounding water in a soft, ethereal, magical glow. Chitwood was right: there could not have possibly been a better end to our visit.

Enjoy the (totally inadequate) pictures.

The American Falls from the Cave of the Winds boardwalk. From this angle, it is easy to see why Bridal Veil Falls (at the far right) is considered a separate waterfall. (1983)
The brink of the Canadian Falls, from the main Table Rock viewing platform. (1990)
The Canadian Falls rainbow, from a vantage point close to the Table Rock House restaurant. (1990)