We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Niagara · 15 May 08

The entrance to Niagara park

Dear Friends,

The first weekend Jim & I drove Isobel (Izzy aka Yvette) to Buffalo to go to the University of Buffalo for a degree in librarianship (a degree she obtained just this past weekend), we went to Niagara Falls. This past weekend on the last day the 3 of us would be there probably ever, we went to Niagara Falls.

Izzy and me

Jim and Izzy

I have been there a third time: when I was 16 (I am now 61). That first time I was probably in the park less than 3 hours, and much of it was on the Canadian side where I saw a clock made up entirely of flowers. And that’s all I remember of the park and falls then. The second time with Jim and Isabel (sometimes I spell her name with an “a”), her first weekend there, we made the same mistake: we stayed but two hours.

Mistake? Yes. This third time we got into Niagara (so to speak), and we did it by staying in the park for several hours during the day, and then on the spur of the moment returning after dark for a couple of hours walking everywhere very quickly. During the day we had wandered about slowly, to goat island:

to the three different high falls:

to the three sister islands :

and then got on the trolley and went round the park up to the Canadian-US dam, and down alongside the white rapids:

and then we walked some more. At night we confined ourselves to the falls, goat island and the rapids.

Daytime: after a while the park seems not just beautiful, but oddly calming:

the waters seemingly eternally (it’s only been going on for 10,000 years or since the ice in the last ice age melted) rushing onward, onward, and back from as far as the eye can see, lovely acqua colors, pure whites, and on the islands grey rock formations to get lost among.

At night: we were surprized when we returned at dark to find more people there than during the day, but we should not have been. It’s safe, commerce has vanished: no more boats called the Maid of the Mist, no more Cave of the Winds to climb down, no more vendors of food, souvenirs, tickets for whatever. In the darkness the roaring hits you. The guides on the trolley had said to return to see the rainbow lights from Canada on the falls, and the white headlights on the rapids, but these are as nothing to that continuous roar.

I can understand why 19th century European tourists were mesmerized and wrote so feelingly. The writers’s description of his or her encounter with Niagara formed in travel books a sina qua non and one can see each travel writer struggling to come up with ever new spectacular prose. I’m not sure Trollope had this vision from the Cave of Winds (it did not officially exist when he came), but his description does come from beneath the falls somewhere:

“And as he looks on, strange colours will show themselves through the mist; the shades of grey will become green or blue, with ever and anon a flash of white; and then, when some gust of wind blows in with greater violence, the sea- girt cavern will become all dark and black. Oh, my friend, let there be no one there to speak to thee then; no, not even a brother. As you stand there, speak only to the waters.”

There is nothing like this in England, for the confluence of these huge rivers and lakes does not exist.

There is a sort of thrill when you stand close and know if you fall in, you’re a goner in less than 3 minutes, but for me the stunner was a sense of very close by (especially when I paid 25 cents to look through a magnifying glass) seemingly uncontrollable power. Seemingly because the dam further up controls the amount of water allowed to flow through and thus preserves the falls from eroding too fast.

The park also is simply a beautiful park, with flowers:

flowering trees:

lovely park nooks; there’s a zoo (with sea lions and penguins), a geological museum, not to omit snack bar, movie-house, picnic areas, and bridges. I like a bridge.

It was a good way to celebrate Isabel’s achievement. She got many As, and has her MLS. We did not neglect going to the Olive Garden for a lovely meal and wine too.

This time Izzy was our photographer.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. From Fran:

    “Thanks for you pictures, Ellen, I enjoyed looking at them. Congratulations to Isabel on her degree!

    I’ve never been to Niagara Falls, but there is a very attractive – if smaller scale – waterfall near us, too: the Rhine Falls over on the Swiss side of the border, which are well worth a visit if any of you are ever in the region. The roar there, too, is absolutely deafening once you get close.

    Still on the subject of famous waters and tourism, what you might not be able to see is the source of the Danube, which rises close by on the German side: the still powerful and rich Prince of Fürstenberg has just withdrawn tourist access to it as it’s on his land – feudalism is alive and well in the Black Forest.

    Actually, it’s a pretty modest sight, so you are not exactly missing much, but it’s the principle of the thing.

    Elinor    May 16, 7:27am    #
  2. Dear Fran,

    Thank you for your comment and congratulations :). I’m happy to be corrected. I was just thinking of England and should at least have recalled the famous story of Sherlock Holmes and his arch-enemy going over some mid-European (German? Swiss?) falls. My blog is narrowly anglocentric.

    And I know I need to read more on Niagara Falls. Offlist Judy told me of a novel by Joyce Carol Oates; in my house I have a fat book I meant to read when reading travel books about 2 years ago (a French book translated: Pierre Berton’s History of Niagara Falls). I’ve only read the travel books which are skewed.

    It is that sound that I thought was finally what made the deepest impression on the mind and memory. I was alive to the beauty of the place and waters, and knew the closeness of death was part of the moving thrill. You can get quite close to the edge—I imagine since it’s impossible to fence off places to commit suicide from, the authorities have just given it up as hopeless. You’d have to fence off the whole park. I loved looking out at the horizons. The small islands called the Three Sisters have a real charm of retreat, isolation. A legend or history has it a hermit lived there in the later 19th century and the tour guide told us (whether true or not) a movie with Marilyn Monroe was partly filmed on the Three Sisters. Not, not named after the three graces, but the three daughters of a rich well-connected man who contributed money to the local community.

    But the thing for me that counted most was the continuous ceaseless movement-roar of the waters. A sense of eternity, foreverness in movement and no meaning beyond that, was there.

    Elinor    May 16, 7:38am    #
  3. As you know, I’ve been to the falls many times, beginning in the fifties. At that time Niagara Falls was a popular site for honeymooners, and that is where my parents spent theirs. I have taken Aubrey and Julia there, spending a night on our way to Stratford Ontario. Dawn, who has an aversion to Shakespeare, went with me on a tour of wineries in Canada and New York State. Each time I’d splurge on a night in a hotel right on the Canadian Falls with a view that is spectacular. The hotel always smelled rather like mildew and was not fancy, but oh the falls! There as we fell asleep at night to the roar (you’re right, Ellen, that’s the only word for it) of the waters lulling us to sleep, and awoke to rainbows shining through the mist rising from the water. Hmm; the hotel couldn’t have faced east; I wonder how that was possible?

    The area which was packed with souvenier shops and a wax museum when I was a child, now seems to be focused mainly on gambling. But nothing can cheapen the glory of the falls.
    Jill    May 16, 7:41am    #
  4. From Fran:

    “I was just thinking of England and should at least have recalled the famous story of Sherlock Holmes and his arch-enemy going over some mid-European (German? Swiss?) falls

    I’d forgotten that, but those were the Swiss Reichenbach Falls near Meiringen, Bern, quite a long and panoramic trip from us:


    The Rhine Falls are in Neuhausen, Switzerland, about a 40 minute drive from here, and said to be the largest in Europe:

    http://www.rhinefalls.com/ (http://www.rhinefalls.com/)

    They are very pretty and unmarred by any of those ugly skyscrapers you could see in the distance from the Niagara Falls – if full of tourist on days like this. It’s quite a thrilling but damp experience crossing them in one of the little boats you can see at the bottom of the picture or standing under them in one of the rock hollows.

    Elinor    May 16, 8:16am    #
  5. Fran, Jim corrects me by saying “there are falls all over the place” (i.e., the earth).

    Ellen :)
    Elinor    May 16, 8:17am    #
  6. Looks like you had a good time at the Falls, Ellen. We have visited twice and I found watching them was just mesmerizing. My two sons also were in thrall. Thanks for posting the photos. Mine are all pre-digital but I have very many. We only visited the Canadian side and never managed the Maid of the Mist etc. It’s a very busy place.

    The falls you are thinking of Jill are the Reichenbach Falls near Meiringen in Switzerland. Not a patch on Niagara but interesting nonetheless for their literary connection.

    So, what next for Isobel?

    My son also will graduate this summer – not until July and he hopes to take up his conditional offer to do the MA in print journalism at Sheffield University.

    We are planning a visit to New England this September and have booked that Sugarhouse … really looking forward!

    Have a good summer, Ellen,

    BARBARA HOWARD    May 16, 8:29am    #
  7. “Hi Ellen,

    Niagara: A History of the Falls was written in English. Pierre Berton was a Canadian historian, who, as far as I know, always wrote in English (although I’m sure a lot of his works were translated into French).

    Elinor    May 16, 1:11pm    #
  8. “All this talk of Niagara reminds me of a young relative who had visited the falls with her parents when she was about 6 years old. They had taken a trip in the boat that goes to the foot of the Falls. ‘What was it like ,Lydia?’ I asked.

    Her reply, ‘very wet, Auntie Clare.’ Kids! What a put down. She’s 25 now and still a natural wit.

    Elinor    May 16, 3:37pm    #
  9. Congratulations to Isabel – on both the degree and the pictures, which are wonderful. I don’t know if I’ll ever make it to Niagara Falls, but very much enjoyed “visiting” it via your blog. I did try to look at it earlier today but got an error message, but this time it worked!

    A thing I remember from Oates’ novel is a factual section about a few stuntmen who used to do stunts on tightropes over the falls – it’s hard to imagine anyone doing this.
    Judy    May 16, 4:16pm    #
  10. I thank everyone for their congratulations.

    Dear Fran, I don’t know what is worse: feudalism, or the new harshly aggressive behavior at the borders of Canada, just one result of unqualified militarism and capitalism. Others include the skyscrapers, casinos, and various very cheap motel blots on the landscape right around Niagara park.

    Dear Clare, she’s right. It’s very wet. The real barrier for me to going down to the cave of winds (under and behind the falls on a path which takes you out to a rock formation) or the maid of the mist (boats which take hundreds of people near the falls each day) is the raincoats. Blue for the boat, and yellow for the cave. They are huge and signal just how wet I would get. They also put me in mind of the Munchkins in the Wizard of Oz, a land where everyone wears blue, and another land (whose name I forget) where everyone wears yellow.

    Elinor    May 17, 9:30am    #
  11. I thought I’d add this beautiful poem by Adrienne Rich here as appropriate when one thinks of life’s goals:

    XIII (Dedications) from “An Atlas of the Difficult World”

    I know you are reading this poem
    late, before leaving your office
    of the one intense yellow lamp-spot and the darkening window
    in the lassitude of a building faded to quiet
    long after rush-hour. I know you are reading this poem
    standing up in a bookstore far from the ocean
    on a grey day of early spring, faint flakes driven
    across the plains’ enormous spaces around you.
    I know you are reading this poem
    in a room where too much has happened for you to bear
    where the bedclothes lie in stagnant coils on the bed
    and the open valise speaks of flight
    but you cannot leave yet. I know you are reading this poem
    as the underground train loses momentum and before running up the stairs
    toward a new kind of love
    your life has never allowed.
    I know you are reading this poem by the light
    of the television screen where soundless images jerk and slide
    while you wait for the newscast from the intifada.
    I know you are reading this poem in a waiting-room
    of eyes met and unmeeting, of identity with strangers.
    I know you are reading this poem by fluorescent light
    in the boredom and fatigue of the young who are counted out,
    count themselves out, at too early an age. I know
    you are reading this poem through your failing sight, the thick
    lens enlarging these letters beyond all meaning yet you read on
    because even the alphabet is precious.
    I know you are reading this poem as you pace beside the stove
    warming milk, a crying child on your shoulder, a book in your hand
    because life is short and you too are thirsty.
    I know you are reading this poem which is not in your language
    guessing at some words while others keep you reading
    and I want to know which words they are.
    I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn
    between bitterness and hope
    turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse.
    I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else left to read
    there where you have landed, stripped as you are.
    —Adrienne Rich. An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988-1991 W. W.
    Norton & Company, 1991.
    Elinor    May 17, 11:12pm    #
  12. From Nick:

    “I love the Niagara blog and photos – you are so brilliant at this kind of personal reflection.”
    Elinor    May 19, 12:24pm    #
  13. From Kathy:

    “I enjoyed your blog about Niagara Falls very much. It’s a beautiful place.

    Elinor    May 21, 1:37pm    #
  14. From Thao:

    “You went to Niagara!! Seeing those photos totally made me miss home. It looks like you had such a lovely time.”
    Elinor    May 22, 7:57pm    #

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