For its early settlers, the sheer size of the New World was daunting. Its lakes were wider, its mountains taller, its valleys deeper than anything they had seen at home. Few images conveyed this more powerfully than the awesome vista of Niagara Falls. One seventeenth-century explorer described it as “a vast and prodigious Cadence of Water which falls down after a surprizing and astonishing manner, insomuch that the Universe does not afford it's parallel”. Today it remains one of Ontario’s must-see sites, so with my family visiting Toronto and assisted by a hapless tour company, we made our way to one of Canada’s most famous spectacles.
First, a stop at Niagara-on-the-Lake, which is situated exactly where Niagara River flows into Lake Ontario. A picturesque town with a cultivated charm and colonial style buildings, it was briefly the capital of Upper Canada (Ontario’s predecessor) at the end of the eighteenth century, before witnessing multiple battles in 1812 when the Americans razed it to the ground. Today the old courthouse and apothecary stand alongside sweet shops and a Starbucks, and the town is known for its water-sports, theatre festivals and wineries. Niagara’s ice wine is celebrated internationally: the grapes are collected in winter nights when the temperature falls below -8°C, giving a concentrated, sweet (and delicious) wine.
Then, after brief stops at the Floral Clock and Whirlpool Rapids (both of which are exactly as they sound), the Falls came into view. Ahead of us, the American Falls; just next to them, the narrow band of the Bridal Veil Falls; and on the Canadian side, the larger Horseshoe Falls, the most powerful waterfall in North America. They’re not the tallest falls in the world – far from it – but their sheer force is impressive. As we joined crowds of tourists bedecked in coloured ponchos on the Hornblower cruise that took us right up to the cascades, the vast magnitude of water crashing into the gorge became vividly apparent and we were utterly drenched by the spray. Amazingly some people have survived a journey over the top – in 1903 a 63-year-old schoolteacher and her cat rolled over in a barrel and lived to tell the tale – but others were less successful.
The waterfalls are a significant source of the area’s hydroelectricity, with large turbines on both sides of the border, and in the nineteenth century industrial developments nearly destroyed Niagara Falls’ fledging tourist industry. Today, however, the site’s natural beauty is safeguarded by a treaty between the US and Canada that guarantees a minimum waterflow, and a small Las Vegas has sprung up alongside, with casinos, a Hard Rock Café, and the Skylon Tower (seemingly a prototype for Toronto’s larger CN Tower). As night fell, a dramatic firework display paid tribute to this awesome natural spectacle, illuminated in technicolour against the dark sky. Technology might have changed our perceptions of the world over the last four hundred years, but Niagara Falls can still astonish and inspire.