Before my very last day on what has been a trip that has impacted upon me in a way that I cannot encompass with mere words, I had one last treat up my sleeve. My visit to Toronto has come at a cost; I've departed the pleasantly balmy California, and re-entered the ice-box that most accurately describes the present state of Toronto. However, there are some days where that cost is a trivial one in comparison to the enrichments offered by a fantastic excursion, and today was one of those days.
Niagara Falls is one feature, in one place, on this one Earth, but it means something different to many different people, depending on which part of the world you reside. For the Canadians, it's a magnet for the tourism industry, and to some, it's a economical way of harnessing energy. For South Africans, I imagine it's refreshing to survey something other than Victoria Falls. For me, fundamentally as a geographer but also as an explorer, arguably one of the same, the Niagara Falls represents something of an international natural treasure; something moulded not by blueprints on strict schedule, but by Mother Nature, at her pace and direction. It's something that one should espy upon at least once in a lifetime, and today as I awoke at 7:30am, I knew that I was in for a real treat.
So as to not get burdened by a long and complex journey there, involving multiple changes in the most out-of-city locations, I decided to comfort the experience by going with a tour. Unsurprisingly, the bus was almost full on the way there, and multicoloured as well. Just from my hostel, three French ladies and one Spanish gentleman accompanied me; we each found an available seat and the journey began. Toronto was blessed by a untarnished sky, and for the first time since my arrival, I obtained my finest view yet of its architecture.
Our tour guide was bubbly, even for a Monday morning- always an aspect to consider when deliberating whether to offer a gratuity or not. Unfortunately, perhaps a tad too excited, as often he would deliver his strand of interesting information in one deluge of words, showering the windscreen with spray as he attempted to pronounce some of the more obscure words; occasionally to an extent where I felt he required windscreen wipers on the inside! I admired his enthusiasm; if I had to take the same tour everyday for a year, I would get progressively less exhilarated.
Prior to our visit to 'The Falls' as they are more commonly referred to, we negotiated a pause at a Vineyard Boutique, in perhaps not the least surprising of spots. After all, we had been cruising along flat terrain for at least half an hour, with what I could gather from episodes in between short powernaps, were vast expanses of farmland, and the evidence of last year's fruition. On behalf of the tour company, we were offered a complimentary session of wine tasting, which although not completely connected to the Niagara Falls, was a delightful way of punctuating a long journey.
Andrew was the sommelier today, (the person who pours the wine if you're not a connoisseur, and if you're not, you join the club with me.) I have been acquainted with a few various labels at home for the last few years, and have served wines as part of a watering job, though I can't protest much knowledge. I couldn't, for example, distinguish a particular brand from its aroma, and similarly would find it almost impossible to identify on which date it was bottled. However, I can tell whether it's a sweet or dry edition; a skill that unfortunately isn't going to help me get recruited to the industry, but it was all I required today. We were offered three separate wines; the first, according to Andrew was the driest white on the market. The grapes were harvested in October, though that little gem of information didn't add much to the palette. The second sample was 20% sweet and an Iced Wine, which I'm not surprised Canada is famous for, although I have to admit, I found it almost too sweet.
I soon realised that this wasn't demonstrative of a 'proper' wine tasting session. None of us were discussing the wines, or if we did, we were acknowledging our first sips with a slight cocking of the head, a moment's contemplation, and then an approving nod. Other than that, the session was a very successful exploration into each others journeys. The third and final sampling came in the way of an Iced Red, which Andrew dutifully informed us was one of the rarest wines in North America. (It's something to do with the thickness of grape skin.) And as I took a glass, and decanted the drop of this prestigious Vin, I did something that confirms the unlikelihood of me landing a job in sampling. I contorted my face into the most abstract of expressions, and declared in such a volume that silenced the room for a time thereafter, "wow, that's strong!" What I actually meant was 'sweet' and so not only had I made my opinion known to the entire boutique working force, but had been entirely inaccurate in my doing so. I departed shortly after, in shame.
In a further attempt at maximising the suspense, the tour guide drove us to the whirlpools and incidentally, I never caught his name within his welcoming speech. (Why is it that the most coherent will inform those of their name perhaps five times in two minutes, whilst those who didn't make it clear first time round, refuse to repeat?) Anyway, we arrived at the whirlpool. It's a little bit like a lay-by for water; the Niagara River flows into it, proceeds in the potholing of the whirlpool making it deeper, and then it leaves this eddie and continues it's flow downstream. From only one vantage point, you can't appreciate the eddies, but certainly I grasped a sense of scale. We engaged in a photo session, I aided parties who requested one all together, and then we were escorted back onto the bus, ready for one final stretch to 'The Falls'.
We had been granted just over two hours at Niagara Falls, which may seem a tad excessive to view a couple of waterfalls, but when you factor a brief luncheon and a wander around the attractions, then it's almost the perfect duration. When I bring up 'attractions', I am referring to a ream of amusement arcades, miniature theme parks and a host of various hotels and spas. Having said this, I found the abode nearly isolated of any tourist activity. The weather had turned overcast by now after this morning's meteorological ecstasy, which had probably drawn many to the spas and the massage parlours; well, what else do you do in a place like this when it rains? I decided to overcome a small bout of disappointment on the lack of what had been forecasted clear blue skies, and take a ride on the Ferris wheel.
I have been meaning to do a Ferris wheel ride. In Seattle, I had planned one, but the last day it rained religiously from dawn to dusk, and I scored it from the itinerary. In Los Angeles, the Santa Monica Pier's Ferris wheel exercised a strict 'two-person minimum' policy, so I devoted my ticket to the roller coaster instead. But this one was perfect. By far the largest I've happened upon in this journey, and very relaxed with the fact I was a solitary tourist, the only reservation I had was monetary. Nonetheless, I did get value for the bills I dispensed into the ticket boothe; I had a pod all to myself, and we made three complete revolutions. Enough time, therefore, to take in the panorama and then to document it on film. As I made the first ascent, I obtained a clear view of the dimensions of the tourist attractions. Rows of hotels seemed to stretch out for miles, slowly fading away as a low pressure front moved in to obscure.
On each revolution's peak, the encapsulating sweep of the Niagara River and the focal point, the American Falls. Niagara Falls is a collective term for three separate water cascades: American, Horseshoe and Bridal Veil. Through the glass, I overlooked American Falls, enchanted by the coercion of the feature. From what appeared to be a rippleless river, flowing to velvet's degree of serenity, and then an immediate transition: an expeditious chute into a menacing cauldron of frantically bubbling water vesicles, surfaced foam and froth like yeast in mass production, and a continuous issuing of spray to fill any void of dry air in the vicinity. Not bad for a $10 Ferris wheel ride!
Though a view from the air is always encouraged, a chance to be up close and personal with such natural commotion was an opportunity not to be missed. I strolled the promenade, battling against a strong polar breeze and a spray, which seemed to be either a light drizzle or the discharging vapour from the falls below. Nevertheless, I was captivated by the vista, which was now a lot clearer. I could make out small birds, seemingly unaware that a couple of feet from their beaks was one of the deepest watery plunges on the planet. I could make out the smoothed rocks which would await them at the bottom, and watched as water would crash into them, and thereupon rebound in an emission of vapour, as if these ancient boulders were aerosols in perpetual fusillade.
Of course, this doesn't compare to Horseshoe Falls, shaped such to fit the label. As I approached, the first aspect of the experience that caught my attention was the sheer volume. A continuous low-pitched roar, rumbling from the depths below was vibrating the very ground I stood upon, and when I placed my palm on the wall beside me, the same vibrations. The fact that mere water did that, and does that right now as I type, and now as you read, and the very fact that it will not cease to do this in the future is one of those incredible simplicities of life, which astounds millions each year.
I was employed in one long gaze at the falls, hypnotised by it's sublimity. Nature is seldom predictable. Weather continually fluctuates, volcanoes can erupt without warning, earthquakes alike. The Ash Tree can grow for centuries, across a country, and then in one single year, hundreds can become infected by disease, and thousands of others are slaughtered in fear. And yet, here I was today, viewing one of the very few predictable performances this Earth provides. I knew, and others that crowded around me, all similarlarly knew that the water above would flow over the edge, and cascade to join the river below, before continuing its journey. It's driven by gravity, and executed every second of every day, has been for thousands of years in an identical way, and will continue to for many more millennia. So why did I find this foretold process such a stimulating sight? Why was I surprised at the display of sheer, yet the expected scale of power? I had seen many waterfalls in my life, but this seemed such a novelty. For a landmark to empower over human emotions in this way is a tribute to the beauty of the physically diverse planet we live on.
I have witnessed so many of these spellbinding natural configurations on this trip. From the glaciers of Alaska to the coastlines of the west coast, and the mountains, volcanoes and rivers I've observed in between, to the Niagara Falls, the American landscape hasn't failed to amaze and excite. I have trekked across tundra, explored wilderness at its purest, and shared my enjoyment with the flora and fauna lucky enough to call it 'home'. At the end of the day, it's a spiritual experience. In these small heavens of stillness, the experience is moving. Whether uplifting at the time or not, the very fact that bare rock and a torrent of water can authorise over human feeling, human emotion, over our very soul, is what makes mere existence on this planet so rewarding.
Having just returned from one amazing adventure, I have never felt more privileged to be living on such a wonderful planet. Memories of my American experience will remain with me forever, and just in case you want to visit some of my favourite days, below on the right hand side is a list of my 'best bits'. This year sees another very busy year for me as I start a motivational speaking programme around the country, film for a brand new series, and work on writing my first book. In September, I leave Norfolk to study Physical Geography at the Royal Holloway, University of London. I'm really looking forward to it all, and you can follow my every move on this site. Since it's launch, Geography with Dan has received over 40,000 views. Please do come back and see what I'm getting up to.