There's a reason for this. Niagara Falls is actually made up of three falls: American Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, and the Horseshoe Falls. The Horseshoe Falls is the one which is the most famous and largest of the three. Virtually all of the pictures you see of "Niagara Falls" are of this one. It's crescent line, a cool term I learned that means the place where the water crests over the rock. wraps in a horseshoe shape nearly 3,000 feet around. Water spills over this at a rate of 675,000 gallons per second. The main part of the river creates the Horseshoe Falls, and is therefore shared equally by Canada and the U.S. with both countries having parks at either end of the crescent line. The American and Bridal Veil Falls both lie on the U.S. side of the Niagara Gorge, and are created by two islands which lie in the stream of the Niagara River, Luna Island and Goat Island. Bridal Veil Falls is no more than maybe 50 feet wide, while American Falls is rather large, over 1,000 feet along it's crescent line. However, since these both lie on the U.S. side, the best view of these two falls is from the Canadian side. Also, due to the nature of the mist that the Horseshoe Falls create, it's best view is also on the Canadian side.
So naturally this is where most people go to view the falls. This, over the years, has created a rather ironic contrast. On one side of the border sits a country known for its culture of consumerism the world over with a view of restaurants set back behind the trees and a few souveneir shops. Standing on the Canadian side, viewing across the gorge, the only thing you really see on the skyline are the tips of a few hotels above the treeline, the marquee of the Hard Rock Cafe, and a hot air balloon ride that is tethered to the ground which rises and falls occasionally. On the Canadian side of the gorge is a massive skyline filled with a Seattle-esque "space needle", skyscraper hotels by Sheraton and Marriot, and casinos. Also the other Hard Rock cafe is visible, and the gawdy, colorful facade of the MGM building. There's also some sort of skyride which goes up and down on its steel frame with blinking lights and one of those "gravity drop" rides operated by the World Wrestling Federation called "The Pile Driver".
When I got out of the cab outside the Hard Rock Cafe on the U.S. side, I immediately headed toward the sound of rushing water and found myself soon standing at the edge of the American Falls. I stood there for a second, then headed straight for the bridge which spans the gorge into Canada. I have never been in Canada, so this would be a totally new experience for me and I wasn't quite sure what to expect. I've always heard horror stories from people about how if you have the slightest infractions on a criminal record that you wouldn't be allow to enter the country, plus recently there's been the whole SARS thing. I was anxious that my 14 year old public intoxication charge would prohibit me from walking a few thousand feet into the Great White North for the day.
It amazes me the ease with which we can travel abroad into our neighboring countries. A couple of years ago while I was in San Diego, I walked across the border into Mexico. Basically this involved a one way turnstyle and... well, that was pretty much it. Of course coming back in was much different: declaration of citizenship, metal detectors, etc. Crossing into Canada was not much different. On the U.S. side of the bridge was the one-way turnstyle, after which you walked along the sidewalk over the gorge. Midway across the bridge is a little bronze plaque afixed to the rail of the bridge marking the U.S.-Canadian border. The rest of the bridge is devoted to automobile traffic except for the sidewalk. At the other end of the bridge, I entered a small building where a Canadian customs officer sat at a desk. I handed him my driver's license and he turned to a computer, typed in my name, handed it back to me and pushed a buzzer under the desk, unlatching the door that led into Canada. I'm doubtful he was looking up any information on my name or license ID number because, it didn't take but a second and he barely looked at the screen. I think he was simply logging my entry.
I stepped once again into the sun and headed down to the street that runs along the edge of the gorge. From here I could see the full view of the American Falls and the Bridal Veil Falls, and in the distance, the Horseshoe Falls. Plumes of mists hundreds of feet high rising out of the gorge. I walked the all the way down to the edge of the Horseshoe Falls, looked over, snapped pictures, and... well, that was pretty much it. I mean, there's only so long you can look at a water fall. There were tons of people everywhere plus the traffic. The traffic on the Canadian side is, literally, only feet away. In some instances along the walkway from the border bridge to the Horseshoe Falls, there is only 6 or 7 feet between the roadway and the rail guarding the lip of the gorge. The hotels loom over you and aside from the flower gardens which line the streets and the small park on the other side of the street, it's not much different from standing on any other city street with loud bus engines and honking horns.
Getting hungry, I decided to walk some up into the commercial district and get some lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe. Pasta with pesto and grilled veggies. It was rather good. I like going to Hard Rock Cafe's, if noting else, for gawking at the memorabilia and eying the bar maids lecherously. While waiting for my food I looked at all the guitars mounted on the walls and the stage costumes in their glass cases. While dining, I watched the videos on the TV screens. As an interesting note, I had never seen the video for "Radio, Radio", which is arguably my favorite Elvis Costello songs. The beginning of it begins with the old RKO Radio Tower clip and my first thought was, Rocky Horror Picture Show. Interestingly enough, immediately enough, after "Radio, Radio" they showed the "Time Warp" scene from RHPS. Man, am I a music nerd.
After eating I walked out of the restaurant and headed up onto Clifton Hill, which is the touristy part of the area apparently because, all I kept thinking the whole time as I headed further and further up the street was "Gatlinburg". If any one reading this has ever been to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, you know exactly what I'm talking about: trinket souveneir stores, "old tyme" picture studios where you can dress up in western wear, pancake houses, Ripley's Believe It Or Not museum, haunted houses, arcades, ice cream vendors, pizza by-the-slice shops, "4D adventure rides", Dinosaur putt-putt golf. It looked exactly like the main drag in Gatlinburg, minus the mountains in the background.
I ducked into one of the souvenier shops and rummaged around for some reasonably priced things I could find for friends and family. I got myself a cigarette lighter, basically just a cheap disposable one with a Niagara Falls sticker plastered over it. I got Robin a shotglass and my kids those ink pens that you can write in like, 10 different colors. The place was apparently run by an Indian/Pakistani family. I guess things aren't so much different in Canada after all.
Canadian booty in hand, I descended down Clifton Hill and made my way back across the border. In U.S. Customs I had to again produce my driver's license which the officer used to pull up information about me on his screen. I had to state my citizenship, how long I was in Canada, where I lived, what my purpose was in Canada, what I had purchased while abroad and was bringing back with me, who my employer was, etc.
I debated on leaving just then, but decided I might as well see the rest of the American side. I'm glad I did. While the best view may be had from the Canadian side and while there is certainly more things to do in terms of entertainment on the other side of the gorge, in my opinion, the best experience to be had is on the American side. Visiting the rest of the park on the American side further bolstered my opinion of the way our country and states handle their natural/historical parks - and I've been to quite a few. There is a conscious effort to protect them from the encroachment of commerce and industry us much as is reasonably possible. Despite the power of the almighty dollar, lawmakers along with conservancy groups have done a wonderful job preserving, protecting, restoring and maintaining our natural and historic treasures. As I wandered across the foot bridge onto Goat Island, I began to appreciate this. Only a couple of hours ago I was walking along a sidewalk overlooking the gorge with its waterfalls mere feet from honking, stinking traffic. While the city of Niagara Falls, New York was certainly all around me - you sure couldn't tell. The park is set off from the nearest roadway by at least 150 yards. One small road does lead onto Goat Island to the restaurant there, but it doesn't provide any means for "thru traffic", so what traffic there is, is slight. And quiet, no buses except for the trolleys which run through on compressed propane - they're quieter than your average automobile.
Goat Island sits off the mainland in the stream of the Niagara River, but not by much. This small stream which is cut from the river by Goat Island is further cut again by Luna Island, which is was creates the three falls. Once on Goat Island, you can take another small bridge onto Luna Island and stand at an observation point that is between American and Bridal Veil Falls. Goat Island got its name from a former owner who lost all of his livestock on that island one winter, except for a stubborn, solitary goat. Luna Island got its name from "the old days". Before the massive amount of electric light that came into the area, one used to be able to view "moonbows" over the island at night. During full moons, the light created ghostly bows of light in the mist generated from the American Falls.
At the base of the Bridal Veil Falls is "The Cave of the Winds". There is a cave behind the falls, that was blasted out by the back splash. At one point, it was over 50 feet wide and 100 feet deep into the side of the gorge. In the old days, it was actually possible to go behind the falls and into the cave. Falling rock has long since blocked the entrance, but in keeping with the spirit of this attraction there still exists a series of wooden walkways at river level in the gorge which take you right up the base of the Bridal Veil Falls. You take an elevator down 170 feet through the bedrock and walk out a tunnel onto the wooden walkways. For 8 bucks they give you what is basically a yellow garbage bag with a hood and some sandals that you get to keep. Not a bad deal. There is a simple observation deck where you don't get very wet, but up on the hurricane deck. Man, if you don't mind getting wet, that is the place to go. Make no mistake, you will get wet. And the water tastes so sweet. It's kind of like what you would imagine standing on the deck of a ship in a hurricane (hence the name). The water crashes onto a huge boulder at the base of the falls and crashes onto the walkway. My "Soopageek the Conqueror" picture as I call it, was taken immediately after my trip onto the Hurricane Deck.
After "The Cave of the Winds" I at last made my way down to Terrapin Point, named for the large boulders which used to sit near the crescent line of the Horseshoe Falls of the U.S. side. The boulders were said to have looked like large turtles lying on their backs. In the old days, there used to be a series of bridges out onto these rocks with an observation tower actually on the rocks in the stream of the Niagara River, right on the edge of the crescent line. Today, the area out to these rocks has been filled in and filled over to create a wonderfully sculpted viewing area with a large grassy park flanked by winding pathways down to the edge of the Falls.
Unfortunately, the view of the Horseshoe Falls is not nearly as dramatic as it is from the Canadian side. The mist plumes rising out of the gorge makes for a fuzzy, hazy viewing experience. I sat on the knoll and watched the people walking around. The sounds of children laughing mixed with the roar of the rushing water. I smoked a cigarette and rested there, my legs stretched out, one hand propped up behind me in the cool grass. I watched the mist as it rose so amazingly high, nearly obscuring the skyline of hotels across the gorge, almost blocking them out. Maybe it's not so unfortunate after all.
I made my way out of the park up into the city. Things were very quiet. A girl sat all alone looking bored in the souveneir shop she was tending. It was beginning to get dark and the trees which lined the streets and sidewalks were filled with dim, electric light. I passed by an open-air mall lined with restaurants, shops, and street vendors. The smoky odor of cooking food filled the air and everywhere people mingled. Music poured out of a night club at the other end of the strip mall, but otherwise everything was quiet, serene even. The atmosphere was like, well, it reminded me of camp. I know that sounds crazy, but it had the atmosphere of those long evenings at summer camp as a kid. People were laughing and enjoying themselves, but it wasn't rowdy or rambunctious. The affection of friends, lovers, and families was almost tangible, blowing through the trees with the summer breeze. I half expected to turn a corner and find a bonfire glowing on s'mores covered mouths singing Kumbaya.
I found the Hard Rock Cafe nearby, which was where I was to meet J.C. when I called him. I decided to go inside just to check out the memorabilia before calling. Blur's "Song 2" was blasting over the speakers as their video flickered on the overhead monitors. I'm sure I made at least a couple of audible wooo-HOO!'s as I looked at an old Hendrix Fender and Johnny Rotten's plaid bondage pants. The atmosphere was much more like that of other Hard Rock Cafes I had been in around the country. Feeling it now, it occurred to me that it had been lacking on the other side of the gorge. It may have been simply because it was now night... or maybe because across the gorge it was just more "touristy". But whatever the reason, I couldn't help but smile when the waiter began to shout: loud ...so loud... loud enough to be heard over the din of the song pumping through the speakers and loud enough to be heard over the clinking of forks against dishes and loud enough to be heard over the packed restaurant all talking at once and... quite possibly, loud enough to be heard over the roar of the mighty Niagara itself. Standing beside him on a chair was a young girl with straight brown hair and huge blue eyes. Her mouth was crinkled into the gawky, metallic smile of a teenager, beside herself with embarrassment as the waiter proceeded to announce to everyone that it was her birthday. With a one and a two and a three on the waiter's lead everyone shouted a rousing "Happy Birthday" followed by applause. As cornball as it may be, it's those brief moments that, even in a room full of strangers, you feel like part of a larger community. It doesn't matter where in the country or where in the world you're from. It doesn't matter what you do for a living, what you drive, who you fuck, or what your politics are. For that moment you're simply a part of the human spirit where the blushed face of a girl is just as powerfully moving as any dumb old waterfall.
The entire set of photos I took that day, as poor quality as they are, can be found in my Gallery.