What's the big deal about Niagara Falls? I've lived within 100 miles of it for most of my life. I know that folks from all over the world have it high on their "must-see" list, and that 11 million people a year lean on the railings and gaze into the mist. What do they see in it? I didn't know, so I asked.
Mark and Debby sounded as if they had just walked off the set of Coronation Street, they were the biggest Falls boosters I talked to all day. "Canadians are lovely," said Debby, "they really are! The nicest people I've ever met. Everybody's been putting themselves out for us and we've been going everywhere by bus and the bus drivers are brilliant!" From the way she enthused, I knew that the bus drivers in Manchester were not brilliant.
Why Niagara Falls? "I've always wanted to see it, basically," said Mark, " I mean you see it in all the films and everything, don't you?' And was it up to expectations? "A lot better." chirped Debby, " It's not just like the films, its even more." When I met them, Mark and Debby had spent five days in Niagara Falls and would spend two more before returning home. "We've been all the way up and down [the gorge and the river]." "And it's cheap. Where we come from it certainly isn't. We can't believe the big portions they serve you in restaurants."
In 1859 Anthony Trollope wrote that he too needed some time to appreciate the Falls. "My raptures did not truly commence until the first half day. Their charms grow upon one like the conversation of a brilliant man."
I thought that Debby and Mark's conversation was just fine. They summed up the Falls as "It's really good." Mark and Debby walked off, hand in hand, still staring into the mist of the Falls.
I found a couple who were actually on their honeymoon. Alice wasn't sure about the Falls "It doesn't look real. It looks as if somebody just plunked it down." Bill said they chose Niagara Falls "because it's supposed to be romantic." And is it? "You bet!" Alice and Bill said in unison. I didn't have to ask them any more questions.
Mike from Buffalo thought that the Falls had got bigger since he was here last "but that was such a long long time ago, I would have been maybe only 4 or 5." Mike was 6 when I spoke with him, his father said that Mike was at the Falls last year when he was 5.
Then I the philosophic type - a guy staring off into the distant mist. Did he come from far away to contemplate the big questions of life? Did the Falls inspire great thoughts? "I'm wondering whether or not those people are going to survive." said John indicating the Maid of the Mist. Far below the boat was ferrying its load of passengers, each covered in a blue poncho, close to the bottom of the Falls. The little boat fought the current then spun around and breezed downstream.
As it turned out, John and Mary Lynn were not from so far away: Burlington (about 40 miles down the road). They've visited the Falls "hundreds of times" and love it. Mary Lynn promises that she doesn't work for the Niagara Tourist Board but gushed a torrent of praise for Niagara. I asked her what's the best season to visit.
"I don't know. I love every season because it's so different and it's so beautiful. For example we were here before Christmas and we went out to the greenhouse and saw magnificent poinsettias and a real Christmas feeling there. And we were just there now and saw hydrangeas, daffodils, tulips and irises and it was spring. And I'm dying to get back in the summer for the great foliage. And of course the fall is just magnificent. What can I say?"
Mary Lynn should have had a word with Marci. She came down from Toronto for the day with Michael. Michael seemed to love Niagara but Marci "thought it would be bigger. It doesn't look real. After all it's one of the Seven Wonders of the World, isn't it? Well, isn't it?" Mike added "along with the Hanging Gardens of Babylon." Marci didn't hit him for the remark, so maybe the romance of the place was effective.
Michael said that Niagara didn't exactly make him proud to be a Canadian, rather "lucky - we didn't do anything to deserve this!"
Anna Marie was holding up Elaine to the 25¢ binoculars, helping her get a close up view of the American side. Ilsa, Kim and Alexander, all under 6, all from Scarborough, were nearby. "They've been here before. When the kids see a photo of the Falls or when somebody mentions Niagara, they love it. Last night we told them we were planning to go to Niagara Falls and they got very excited."
Anna Marie complained, as she hoisted another child up to the binoculars, that the facilities weren't exactly designed for kids. "The Falls should be for everybody, this [indicating her binocular-hoisting] is difficult, and even the washrooms aren't designed for kids."
Peter works for the Niagara Parks Commission. I met him as he was patrolling the walk, picking up the few papers that visitors had left on the grass. What did he think of the Falls? "I've lived here all my life and I took it for granted. Since I started working here I started to see a lot of things like I never seen before. You look at he people and it's amazing." "It's a wonder of the world, you know - it makes you wonder."
Does he ever stare into the mist, and what does he suppose people are thinking when they do? Peter had a sure answer "They're waiting for the Maid to appear. There a story that the Indians sacrificed young maidens, well women, eh? And when you look into the mist you can see her sometimes. Now I've never seen her, but maybe that's what they're looking for. I've looked, but I've never seen her. If I do then I won't know what to think."
Peter glazed over a little and I could see him imagining the Maid appearing out of the mist. "And another thing, you gotta see that the cleanliness around here is amazing. We keep it that way - and the flowers."
Nobody I spoke to with the possible exception of Marci (who thought that the Falls didn't look real) was disappointed. Thomas Moore wrote to his mother "I feel as if approaching the very residence of the Deity." Gustaf Mahler was delighted, he exclaimed at the Falls "Endlich fortissimo!" (At last fortissimo!)
Anthony Trollope wrote that "Nothing ever disappointed me less than the Falls of Niagara." And later "The cool green liquid will run through your veins, and the voice of the cataract will be the expression of your own heart. You will fall as the bright waters fall, rushing down into your new world with no hesitation and with no dismay; and you will rise again as the spray rises, bright, beautiful and pure. Then you will flow away in your course to the uncompassed, distant and eternal ocean." On my Saturday at the Falls, nobody told me this in those exact words, but they were probably thinking something like that.