A vivid rainbow arced above the horseshoe-shaped Canadian falls. We leaned over the railing to gaze down at the Maid of the Mist, creeping closer to the base of the cascade.
“The boat looks like a toy, doesn’t it?” I asked.
“We’ll ride on it tomorrow,” my mom promised.
The boat ride was the part of the trip I most looked forward to. I’d been to Niagara once before, as a kid on a family vacation. I didn’t remember a lot about that trip, beyond the tunnels behind the falls and a really tacky wax museum dungeon.
My parents had visited Niagara Falls many times, starting with their honeymoon. The waterfalls were an easy four-hour drive from their farm in Michigan, if they drove through Canada, so they’d jaunted over for quick getaways with several of their friends.
My parents had hit upon a coupon book available at the Visitor Center in Sarnia, Ontario, just over the Blue Water Bridge from Michigan. For one price, you could pick which five of the many attractions around the falls you wanted to enjoy. We’d work through our book in the morning, which gave us time to enjoy the tacky thrills of Niagara’s Clifton Hill neighborhood.
After dinner with the animatronic animals of the Rainforest Café (Sorrell’s choice), she and I went to the Clifton Hill branch of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. It was much like our local outlet in San Francisco, except for the Niagara Falls room dedicated to the people who had traveled — by choice or not — over the falls.
The first to survive the plunge over the falls was a woman. Annie Edison Taylor had herself sealed in a barrel and towed toward the plunge in October 1901. The 63-year-old retired schoolteacher had hoped to find fortune, but died destitute 20 years later. The Ripley’s museum also featured a video of Roger Woodward, a seven-year-old who survived being swept over the crest in only a life jacket and swim trunks. Sorrell was particularly impressed that, after he was pulled out of the river by the Maid of the Mist, the first thing Roger asked for was a glass of water.
When we’d finished with Ripley’s, Sorrell and I walked back along the river to meet my parents. Cart after cart sold light-up toys that Sorrell craved, but she was also smitten with the colored lights illuminating the falls. Every couple of minutes when the colors changed, Sorrell took another photo on her disposable camera.
We started the morning donning flimsy plastic raincoats and descending into the tunnels behind the cataract. Sorrell was disappointed that she couldn’t actually touch the water, which I figured was guaranteed to take your arm off. The Canadian falls drop over 680,000 gallons of water per second.
Historic photos lined the tunnels, so we added an educational component to our gawking. The photos showed how far the water had eaten the rock away over the years. Since the first European saw them in 1678, the falls have retreated over 1200 feet, about five feet a year until conservation measures began to be taken.
Our next adventure was the ride on the Maid of the Mist. Wrapping ourselves in another disposable raincoat, Sorrell and I slipped through the crowd toward the rail at the front of the boat.
Of all the ways to appreciate Niagara Falls, the boat snuggling up to its feet is by far the best. The roar of the water is so loud that it blots out all else. The spray soaks everything. Your vision fills with a sparkling sheet of white that pounds past at two to three feet per second.
My thoughts echoed Sorrell’s: “I didn’t know it was so big.” At more than 160 feet tall, the falls’ rim stands as high above the surface of the water as a 15-story building. The boat that had seemed so big when we climbed onto it suddenly felt just like a Matchbox toy.
The flapping of the cheap blue plastic raincoats marred most of my photos. After we returned to the dock, one of our fellow tourists offered to take a photo of Sorrell and me. We look like drowned rats, but our smiles are genuinely happy.
The walk along the river west of the falls impressed Sorrell much less. Part of that disillusionment was that we waited an hour in the hot sun to get into the rickety old elevator down.
Still, I loved visiting the river. Mist cooled the shadowy cement walkway. The paved path paralleled the Class 6 rapids and whirlpools that had spun for ages. Down in the canyon, the river was green and white, rather than the blue nearer the falls where the deep water reflected the sun. It seemed wilder and even more dangerous.
I would’ve also taken the cable car across the chasm, but Sorrell was done standing in lines. She wanted lunch and ice cream, not necessarily in that order.
We caught the shuttle bus — also included in our coupon book — back to the falls and had a great lunch in the Edgewaters Restaurant overlooking the cataract. My parents had enormous French dip sandwiches big enough to feed us all twice. I had a salad and Sorrell had fish and chips — followed by an ice cream sundae as big as a small loaf of bread.
I asked my mom what her fascination with Niagara Falls was. Her answer surprised me, since it was all encompassing. At first she liked going there because it was in a foreign country. For a girl who hadn’t traveled much, going to Canada was a convenient first step into the larger world. Then she was fascinated by the area’s history, which includes several battles of the War of 1812. Finally, she finds it fascinating to get so close to geology in action.
One final experience lay ahead of us: a simulator ride called Niagara’s Fury. It was the only option in the coupon book my parents hadn’t tried before. We put on yet another disposable raincoat, then walked into a darkened round theater that projected a movie that filled our fields of vision. Mist drenched us as the field of ice on which we seemed to be standing broke up. The simulated ice floe beneath us rocked from side to side, gathering speed as it plunged toward the falls — and over the lip.
We landed with a bump. Sorrell laughed.
Of course, afterward there was the obligatory hour spent in the gift shop, but I got the feeling that Sorrell had really explored and experienced one of the wonders of the natural world.