Niagara Falls: Nothing’s ever just about nature

When I spoke to the owner of THE hostel in Niagara, Ontario, he couldn’t understand why I was staying only one night. “You’ll see when you arrive,” he said, “There’s so much to do here!” I couldn’t imagine what else there might be to do besides going to see the falls. Maybe a hike or something? Other nature-related events of which I was unaware? How unfortunately wrong I was.

American Falls in Niagara

I crossed the border into Ontario around 11pm-  yes back into Canada, and, yes, in a roundabout way via NYC. The border-patrol guard was incredulous, “So you’re coming to Niagara from Montreal, but you went to New York City first…and you have a car full of stuff…” I think the fact that I had everything covered up with a blanket in the back didn’t help my sketch-appeal. But apparently in Canada sketchy situations are dealt with 2 minutes of lips-pursed ruminating and a cursory flashlight into the back window. The guy seemed to think I was lying, but didn’t want to bother interrogating me or unloading my stuff, so he waved me through.

From there I drove through what seemed to be an office park. There were tall glass buildings with miles of parking lot and a roundabout traffic system booby-trapped with speed bumps and humps presumably to keep your attention on the road instead of craning to see the falls. I drove over a bridge through some mist that came off of what appeared to be the water system of a miniature golf course, and then I came to a neighborhood road lined with sad, run down houses with chain-link-fences and overgrown yards. I continued down this street to my hostel, which was really just a large old house that teetered like the Weasley’s Burrow and was situated directly across the street from two large chain hotels.

I had to phone the hostel because the front desk is only open till about 10pm. But the (presumably) owner was nice enough to get up and let me in close to midnight. The inside of the hostel looked as you might imagine – a confusion of hallways, staircases, and rooms that fit together as if they were halves of two different houses. The owner, a middle-aged man with a long ponytail and a tie-dye t-shirt talked my ear off as he struggled to unlock the door to my room. Eventually it opened. “It isn’t usually this bad,” he said, handing me the key and heading back downstairs. “Goodnight,” he called. I peered into my room and took in about 6 sets of bunk beds. Every one of them was empty. Well, more privacy for me.

The next day I got up around 9:00 and headed downstairs. The breakfast food, which consisted of fruit, yogurt, and home-made chocolate chip muffins that were slightly burnt on the bottom, was nearly gone. “How do I get to the falls from here?” I asked the owner. “Just go straight down this street until you hit Main, then take a right,” he said, “Main will take you directly there.” I thanked him, checked out, dropped my stuff off in my car and headed to the falls, ready to finally see this natural wonder of the world. But I was ill-prepared for the horror I’d have to pass through beforehand.

Niagara tacky theme park ferris wheelAs soon as I reached Main street, the scenery began to change. Instead of grubby front yards, there were brick sidewalks and cute lampposts. “This is nice,” I thought. But then the cute village-like appeal took a turn for the worse. A Ferris wheel emerged, and when I reached it, I noticed there was a fun house stationed in front of it. Continuing down the street, I saw laser tag stations, wax museums Niagara tacky theme park(yes, more than one), gaudy tourist shops that all sold the same ‘souvenirs’, Halloween costume shops, haunted houses, carnival-esque game centers, and any and everything else you Niagara tacky theme park wax museummight find at a fairgrounds or, to a lesser scale, Las Vegas. I literally felt bile coming up in the back of my throat. And the feeling was exacerbated by the early hour; since it was not much later than 9am, no one was out. It was a tacky, disgusting ghost town. I felt like I was in the Joker’s fun park.

Niagara Falls American FallsBut 10 minutes later I arrived at the overlook to the falls and breathed a sigh of relief. Seeing such natural beauty made up for having to endure the tackiness of the town and sad, downtrodden feeling of the neighborhood Niagara Fallssurrounding it. I was surprised to discover that it only costs $15 to take a ride on the Maid of the Mist, so I bought my ticket, donned a blue ‘souvenir’ poncho, had my picture awkwardly taken in front of a green screen all by myself (“just you?” the cameraman asked. I gave him a thumbs-up), and headed to the dock to board the boat.

Wind on Maid of the Mist at Niagara FallsMy boat-mates were mostly Asian tourists who couldn’t seem to get control of their blue ponchos in addition to older couples who paced from one side of the boat to the other, trying to get the best view. That boat ride made the trek to Niagara all worth it. If you go to Niagara Falls, go on the boat! It’s not terribly expensive, and the hour-long ride and view are well worth it.

In the Mist at Niagara FallsWhile aboard the Maid of the Mist, the captain told us (mostly inaudible) stories about people who have performed stunts involving the falls. Some of the most famous include Annie Taylor, a school teacher who went over the falls in a barrel she had constructed around the age of 60, Maria Spelterini, a mysterious young circus performer from Italy who disappeared after walking a tightrope across the falls, and The Great Blondin, one of the most famous of the tightrope walkers.

The best story involving the falls, though, is one that occurred completely by accident. In 1960, a young boy and his older sister were out on a boat on the Niagara river just above the falls with a family friend, when the boat motor cut out. The boat eventually capsized, sweeping the three of them towards the falls. The girl was rescued by some people on the shore, but the older man and little boy went straight over the falls. Miraculously, Roger Woodward, who was only 7 years old at the time, survived wearing only swim trunks and a life vest. He was fished out of the river by staff aboard The Maid of the Mist. Unfortunately, the family friend was not so lucky.

Leaving Horseshoe Falls in NiagaraYou would think that the souvenir shops would capitalize on Niagara’s history of daredevils and stuntmen (and women), but unfortunately all they sold were cheesy pictures of the falls lit up by rainbow colored lights with flowery clip art around the edges. Outside the gift shop, there was a cabana complete with a tiki bar and a guitarist wearing a straw hat (I kid you not). This little town really needs to embrace its nature (pun intended) instead of building a theme park near it in order to ‘entertain’ the tourists. News flash, tourists are coming to see Niagara Falls, not to hang out at some crappy step-child imitation of Las Vegas.

The saddest part of the whole ordeal happened as I was checking out at the store. I had bought a couple postcards and a book written by a local about Niagara daredevils which I found tucked away on a hard-to-reach shelf on my way out. Clearly books are not priority items here. I looked at the cashier and asked, “Do you have any pictures or postcards of Annie Taylor’s barrel?” She looked at me, clearly confused, “Annie who?” I sighed and handed her some bills for my items, “Nevermind.”

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