I hear them before I see them. The thunderous roar of Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada, almost mutes the babble of tourists swarming the observation deck. Mist from the falls clings to me as I move closer to the railing at the foot of the falls.
There it is—glistening, emerald waters arching at least 20 storeys down a U-shaped, 2,600-foot-wide crest. This is Horseshoe Falls, the largest of the three falls that make up Niagara Falls. In the distance, just across the Niagara River, I see American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls, located in New York state in the U.S. Beside the leviathan that is Horseshoe, they seem puny. We are separated by the Rainbow Bridge, an arched bridge above the river, which connects the two countries. I won’t be crossing it to reach the American side as I don’t have a U.S. visa. My eyes keep straying to the 37,470,338 gallons of water plummeting down Horseshoe’s cliff every minute. Great plumes of mist rise from it and never really clear, as if transfixed; like me.
Niagara Falls made it to my bucket list when it almost stopped in its tracks. In early 2014, a cold wave hit parts of Canada and the U.S. and partially froze the three waterfalls. I remember seeing photograph after photograph of icicles clinging to the rocks surrounding Horseshoe Falls. The American and Bridal Veil falls looked deathly white and still, as if holding their breath. Those frozen images radiated immense power and held me in a curious thrall.
Karen Mariano, my pigtailed, 50-something guide, has lived in the town of Niagara Falls all her life. I ask her whether she ever tires of this spectacle, practically in her backyard. She laughs, and says I’ll know better when we ride 150 feet below the Welcome Center in an elevator. “Journey Behind the Falls” involves donning bright yellow rain ponchos, and descending into the Cataract and Great Falls Portals: the two, dimly lit tunnels built right behind Horseshoe Falls.
The tunnels’ walls are lined with plaques commemorating the history of Niagara Falls and the daredevil stunts attempted here over the past century. I learn that the falls are almost 12,500 years old. Millions before me must have experienced the same fascination I feel today. Some took it to newer heights. For instance, in 1901, an American schoolteacher scooped up her cat and brought her along to ride in a barrel over the falls. The unlikely pioneers emerged unscathed. The second person to attempt the feat a decade later broke his kneecaps and jaw. I have humbler aspirations, delighted just to watch a section of Horseshoe Falls from a door-like opening in the tunnel. About five feet separate me from the water, all spray and roar beyond the barricade. A toddler ahead of me stands with her mouth agape at what must seem like a mythical mist. She occasionally waves her tiny palm in the air, trying to grab hold of it.
Karen nods at her and tells me she still feels like that little girl sometimes. She has known the falls before jazzy hotels and casinos sprung up in the area. Every autumn, she waits for the trees around the falls to turn yellow-orange, for the mist to turn to frost. She also remembers couples getting married on the cruise to the falls. There’s no getting enough of Niagara, she says.
After emerging from the tunnels, it is time to plunge right into the heart of the falls. A 30-minute boat ride will have me sail past the two American falls and take me very, very close to Horseshoe Falls.
I look around at the 200-odd tourists on the upper deck of my boat. Beneath identical red rain ponchos, everybody seems to be having their own private moment with the falls. An elderly couple beside me are holding hands and silently watching two different waterfalls. Two teenagers nearby furiously click pictures on their smartphones. We pass the moss-covered rocks piled at the base of the 100-foot-tall American and Bridal Veil Falls. I’m reminded of those surreal waterfall animations I’ve seen in films.
We are rapidly heading towards Horseshoe Falls. It feels like someone has magicked time; everything is happening too fast. Selfie sticks come out in a flash and groups huddle together for photographs. I give my own drenched camera a break and watch seagulls bobbing on the Niagara River below. In seconds, Horseshoe Falls looms above us; its water seems to crash down in slow motion. I am a mere 15 feet away from the falls, soaked and barely able to keep my eyes open through the spray. Only when the boat recedes do I notice the rainbow crowning the falls.
An hour later, I buckle myself into the seat of a helicopter. For 20 dreamy minutes, we will soar right above the falls. For the first time today, all three falls fit into one sweeping frame. Both American falls look like streaks of white painted on the vast, blue Niagara River, but Horseshoe looks like a wild, smoking sea creature. I also take in the dizzying vortex of the Whirlpool Rapids, a four-kilometre whitewater stretch on the river where waves soar to 15 feet.
The pilot tells me how some scientists speculate that American Falls could dry up in 2,000 years. Niagara Falls will disappear in 50,000 years due to erosion of its bedrock, he says. Horseshoe Falls now erodes at the rate of one foot per year, and has moved back 11 kilometres in 12,500 years. Bleak as it sounds, it is difficult to imagine that the mighty Niagara Falls can come to an end. It looks indestructible from this vantage point.
Later that night I hop aboard a boat on the Niagara River for a night cruise. My heart thumps in sync with the loud music playing on the deck. I’m surrounded by boisterous groups and move to a quieter spot, beside a couple in a world of their own.
Under the coal-black sky, Niagara Falls is lit up in the colours of the rainbow. Every few minutes or so, the colours change, going from pink to blazing red to mythical purple. I remember my conversation earlier that day with Gene Pellerin—the man who lights up Niagara Falls every night. He sits at the Illumination Building to the north of Horseshoe Falls, and operates 21 massive, xenon lights which have been in use since 1946. The lights were used in England during the Second World War to spot aerial bombers. Pellerin had told me that he doesn’t really plan colour schemes: “I just play it like the piano and watch the falls light up at my touch,” he’d said.
As the clock strikes nine, brilliant fireworks explode in the skies, and my boat fills with “Oohs,” squeals, and smiles. I glance at the couple next to me, who previously had eyes only for each other. Their faces gleam under the fireworks, contrasted by the rivers inky waters bobbing beyond them. All of us watch the lights pop and whistle in the sky—the most perfect goodbye to the falls I could have had.
Appeared in the March 2016 issue as “Feeling The Thunder”.
Journey Behind The Falls includes walking on the upper observation deck and in the tunnels beside Horseshoe Falls (www.niagaraparks.com; mid-Apr-mid-Dec adults CAD16.75/₹800, children between 6-12 CAD10.95/₹540, visitors under 5 free; mid-Dec-mid-Apr adults CAD11.25/₹560, children CAD7.30/₹360). Hornblower Niagara Cruises run tours all year round. Fireworks can be seen on the night cruise between May and September, Friday to Sunday (www.niagaracruises.com; adults CAD19.95/₹980, children 5-12 CAD12.25/₹600, visitors under five free). Helicopter tours depend on the weather (www.niagarahelicopters.com; 12-min tour; adults CAD140/₹7,000, children CAD87/₹4,300).
Of the many options available, you could stay at the Old Stone Inn at Niagara Falls city, which was built to be a flour mill in 1904. This quaint stone structure now has rooms with antique furniture, and a charming restaurant and bar (www.oldstoneinnhotel.com; doubles from CAD85/₹4,100).
Kareena Gianani is the former Commissioning Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.