Niagara Falls never really gets old. Being able to see it without hordes of tourists is the silver lining to a difficult time. It just keeps doing its awesome thing, regardless of whether humans are selling tchotchkes or not.
I had spotted a deal at the Embassy Suites in Niagara Falls, one of the hotels that has a a large selection of rooms overlooking the Falls themselves. We’d stayed there on one of our previous trips to the area. Now, in the midst of the pandemic, an overnight there to celebrate our 29th anniversary will likely be what suffices for an “away” vacation this year, although I still have the remainder of this week off of work. What makes the area ideal is that many of the attractions we were interested in were outdoors. The Falls, themselves, of course–as I mentioned, they never really grow stale, although the constant crush of tourists can be a bit tiring. Well, this year, I’d heard, the town was almost empty–a fact we confirmed upon arrival. But before that, we spent time at two other attractions –the Butterfly Conservatory and the Botanical Gardens, and the hiking trails of the Niagara Glen.
The Butterfly Conservatory is essentially a greenhouse geared towards raising butterflies. The moment you enter, you are surrounded by them–apparently around 2,000 of them, representing 45 species, many of them from tropical climes. We didn’t get to see the video about all the various types, and we definitely didn’t get to see all 45 types, but we likely saw close to 20 of them. The largest of them, the gorgeous Blue Morphos, were everywhere but had the annoying habit of folding up their wings when they landed to have a snack of orange slices, so I was unable to photograph any except one that seemed to have a broken wing. But I did get lots of photos of other types.
The Botanical Gardens were also lovely, particularly the formal parterre garden with its sculptured hedges, a gorgeous rock garden, and the rose garden–where the roses were a little past their prime, but where many lovely, fragrant examples remained. There was also a larger area focused on trees and shrubbery planted around winding paths and a pond with several fountains.
In contrast with the beautiful, but artificial beauty of the planned gardens, the Niagara Glen provided an example of the largely-untouched Carolinian forest and geology of the Niagara Gorge. The Glen is located downstream of the Falls , just north of the Whirlpool. Descending down the cliff face at the top via a set of stairs, the hiker can take a number of trails, all of which are rated at least “moderate” in difficulty–and I found myself wishing I’d worn my hiking boots instead of my walking shoes. The paths down to the cliffs overlooking the rushing Niagara River were twisted, steep, and wandered around and sometimes in between huge boulders and chunks of the sedimentary limestone that the river has carved out over the past few thousand years. In geologic terms, these formations are incredibly recent, formed starting about 12,000 years ago when glaciers retreated from the Great Lakes area, leading to the formation of the Great Lakes themselves as meltwater drained through the region. The Falls was originally at the mouth of the Niagara River, in the Queenston Heights area, but over time, the water carved its way deep into the stone of the Escarpment and the Falls moved further and further south. But then something happened to stall out the process:
“However, about 10,500 years ago, through an interplay of geological effects including alternating retreats and re-advances of the ice, and rebounding of the land when released from the intense pressure of the ice (isostatic rebound), this process was interrupted. The glacial melt waters were rerouted through Northern Ontario, bypassing the southern route. For the next 5,000 years, Lake Erie remained only half the size of today, the Niagara River was reduced to about 10 percent of its current flow, and a much-reduced falls stalled in the area of the Niagara Glen.
About 5,500 years ago, the melt waters were once again routed through Southern Ontario, restoring the river and falls to their full power.”
A subsequent rather violent encounter with an ancient buried riverbed created the Whirlpool just upstream, likely temporarily turning the Falls into a series of huge rapids until the continued process of erosion recreated them south of the new Whirpool.
The Niagara Glen, as mentioned, is just north of this area and was likely where the Falls was situated for thousands of years, and just downstream from where the Whirlpool formed violently. It’s not surprising, thus, to see the huge chunks of rock that dot the Glen–likely left behind from the rushing waters from the once-proximate Falls.
And then there were the Falls themselves. We could see them from our hotel room (#2112–I got to pick my room, and I couldn’t resist), and after a lovely patio dinner at the Keg, we walked down to enjoy them up close. It was as if they were any other regular, city park on a summer’s night instead of one of the world’s iconic tourist destinations–not unlike what we’ve seen at the Hamilton waterfront on a weekday. There was almost no traffic, and certainly no need for a cop to direct folks across the road as there had been the last time we were there. Families and couples strolled up and down the park, easily keeping physical distance. There were plenty of spots along the railing to get up close to the water. It served to put the focus entirely on the actual Falls, rather than on the accompanying tourist apparatus. No one was in any hurry.
Part of it did make me a little sad and wistful. I could see the American falls across the gorge, see the Seneca casino, and I could see the nearly-abandoned Rainbow Bridge. An invisible wall separates Canada from the US right now, but there it was, glimmering just across the river. I thought of how many times I’d crossed that very bridge, whether for a quick day trip or a longer journey, with barely a second thought. That was a different world, and I have no idea whether we will ever see it again. When–if–that border reopens, what will the US look like? Will I ever want to go there again?
But the resilience of nature reminded me that in the midst of a summer unlike any other in my lifetime, when so many of my favourite things are out of reach, some things are right where they’ve always been. There are still new things to discover and experience, and things I’ve seen many times to gain new appreciation for. And for me, there was the added joy of having my husband by my side, as he has been now for 29 years.
Postscript: I’ve learned in the past day that not far from the relatively serene, uncrowded areas where we spent our day in Niagara, large crowds had gathered in the Clifton Hill area, where most of the tackier elements of Niagara Falls are concentrated (including amusement park-type attractions that really should not have been open). It was a stunning contrast to the relative peace and attention to safety that we encountered. We shall see what comes of that.