Most weekends we don’t surface til the morning is nearly over, but recently, we made a special effort.
We rose early, packed a picnic and headed out onto the fear-inducing 401 express-way. I say fear-inducing because of the crazy, don’t-give-a-s**t-about-my-life-or-anyone-elses kind of driving that goes on there. Weaving, tailgating, undercutting, overtaking on the inside, texting, transporting an over-sized sofa longways up in the back of a pick-up… the list is a long one. The best rule to apply is ‘drive like everyone else is an idiot’, because it sure seems like a transformation takes place when your average, polite and placid Canadian gets behind the wheel. Mind you, K says road rage is universal and I guess he’s right.
It’s a jungle out there – short slipways mean you have to be pretty aggressive about joining a stream of fast-moving traffic promptly, and poor signage and lack of lane discipline means cars changing lanes at merges and exits like stressed toddlers who can’t decide between the sandbox or the swing. They move to one side, then back again seconds later, then to the other side, then back across two lanes. This is no laughing matter on a six-lane highway. As a result, fatalities on the freeway are an almost daily occurrence here. It seems an emphasis on health and safety isn’t too pronounced, unless applied to germs. Canadians DO seem a little pre-occupied with germs – hand sanitiser is EVERYWHERE. You can even get little hand-sanitiser holders to attach to your bag to carry your little hand-sanitiser in so you need never be without it and (heaven forbid) venture out unprotected!!! Perhaps it forms a vehicle proof shield…will have to ask someone…
Anyway, I digress. We were on our way to Niagara Falls. The sun was shining and the Humidex was reading in the 40’s so the city was under a Heat Alert (as if there weren’t enough ways to die already!). Leaving Toronto behind us we followed the QEW, passing vineyards, fruit farms, a haunted shipwreck and a sign that told us God Loves You (truth be told, I didn’t catch that last little gem until our return journey, after sunset, when it was illuminated to bestow its insight on the weary traveller in as enlightening a way as possible – a light shining out of the darkness – very literal).
A Tale of Two Cities
In Niagara it is very much a “tale of two cities”, or even three cities. The town itself is shabby and unloved. It exudes an air of resigned indifference, like someone inappropriately dressed for an activity but continuing nonetheless. Then you cross over to the part inhabited by the casinos and hotels. The area is better maintained, the listlessness is gone, replaced by an homage to Americana. You cannot help but feel like a tourist in this setting, it is a stereotypical package experience. Leaving behind the noise and hub-bub, the adjurations to part with your hard-earned cash and the fast food smells, you finally enter the part that is funded by the Parks Commission. There are hanging baskets suspended from the street-lights and colourful flowerbeds, manicured lawns and well-maintained pavements. The three areas contrast starkly with one another.
We parked the car ($5 for the day :-)) and found a shady spot on a wooded cliff overlooking the falls below. Apart from the appearance of some GIGANTIC ants, the picnic was refreshing and relaxing after our three-hour journey, and we were soon ready to embrace the heady excitement that Niagara had to offer. It began with the towering Tyrannosaurus Rex at the Dinosaur Adventure Golf course, complete with smoking volcano and Dino roars! T-Rex was accompanied by various friends; a woolly mammoth, Brontosaurus, triceratops to name a few. There were street performers and a decorative fountain – the standing water covered over with a grill to thwart suicidal children. Then we were into Centre Street with its Guinness Book of Records Museum, slot machines, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum, the Test Your Strength hammer game and it’s host – armed with a loudspeaker for ultimate humiliation, and all the huge figures and images hanging from the buildings. But we weren’t here for the kitsch so we continued down the hill, past the Sheraton, until the roar of the falls was loud in our ears.
We walked the entire length of Niagara Parkway, making our way through the throng of humanity, drinking in the views and enjoying the cooling effect of the spray in the merciless sun, stopping at the end for some corny photo opps in the Souvenir shop and some delicious frozen yoghurt. Families were out in force and the atmosphere was friendly. Everyone was damp and happy, despite the heat. The crowd was your usual tourist mix from various sources and the fashion show alone was enough to give even the most fragile self-esteem a boost – it’s amazing what some people choose to wear…body restrictions be damned!!
The Boat Trip
As the sun sank lower in the sky it was time to queue for the experience we’d all been looking forward to: our ride up to the falls on The Maid Of The Mist. This wet and wild experience has thrilled visitors to the falls since the 1800’s.
Because it was late in the day, the lines weren’t as long and the light was great for photos. We bought our tickets and made our way to the lifts for the ride down to the damp and drippy tunnels leading out to the dock. En route, we paused for a photo, “STAND ON THE CROSS IN THE GREEN BOX AND SMILE, 1, 2, 3 GREAT!” and were handed our blue plastic waterproof smocks, including a baby-sized one! Then we were out, blinking in the buttery, late-afternoon sunlight and moving slowly down the ramps towards the boat.
Four boats operate within 20 minutes of one another, ferrying the unending lines of sightseers up to the Horseshoe Falls, disappearing into the mist and reappearing in a few minutes, as though moving between worlds. The waters are dangerous, swirling with currents and fast-moving eddies and churning over submerged rocks. Training for the Captain and First Mate is rigorous and even after qualifying it takes a good five years to feel comfortable bringing a vessel to within 300ft of the towering 170ft falls. Once in the basin directly below the falls, the captain pushes the engines to maintain a steady position against the 7 to 8 knot current, giving the illusion of forward movement.
Back on the ramp, the stewards counted out the limit for each load, leaving one solitary chap employed to maintain this break in the crowd with a typically Canadian method of crowd control; rubber bullets, water cannon, barriers? I hear you ask…No, he was armed with a dust-pan and long-handled sweeping brush! A few shifty opportunists snuck past when his back was turned but when their jealous friends tried to join them, drawing attention to their surreptitious sneaking, they were all sternly told to go back. Of course everyone did, immediately. Well you don’t argue with a guy with a broom, do you?
Once on the boat, the kids were enthralled, even little S! The voyage lasted about twenty minutes and we had freedom to move around to see views from all angles – I won’t try to describe it… look at the photos and see for yourself.
After all the adventure, the kids slept on the way home and missed the glittering condos, the periodic, diffuse flickers of intra-cloud lightning and the red river of brake lights snaking through the darkness on the ribbon of expressway. After a 380km round trip, we were finally home with memories of sights and sounds we would have for a long time to come.