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Published: Saturday, 7/19/2008

Falling for Niagara

BY MARY ALICE POWELL
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE
Cable car passengers get a bird's-eye view of the whirlpool rapids. Cable car passengers get a bird's-eye view of the whirlpool rapids.
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It's a wow! It's a wonder.

Niagara Falls is a magnificent example of Mother Nature at her best, surrounded by hundreds of manmade attractions.

After a ride on the Maid of the Mist boat through the falls, which is a must on almost everyone's plans, the city of Niagara in Ontario and the surrounding region beckon with many entertainment choices for families.

The Maid of the Mist ride through the thundering waterfalls was the highlight of our three-day visit to Niagara. Each passenger was issued a plastic raincoat with a hood. Even then, those of us who chose to grip the railing for the best view, hold tight to our raincoats, secure the hoods, and protect cameras in plastic bags got drenched. The pounding, rushing falls were closer to the railing than we expected and the mist was heavier than pictures portray. It was a great half-hour adventure, well worth the $12.50 ticket, and even the six-hour drive to cross over the Canadian border into Ontario.

A destination for honeymooners, daredevils, and sightseeing tourists for more than a century, Niagara is like other wonders of nature. It remains the same; always there to tweak the senses with its magnitude while all around it, commercial enterprises pick up where the natural landscape leaves off. The one exception to Niagara's spectacular, constant water flow was in 1848 when an ice jam in the river stopped the flow for several days.

Collectively the area that attracts 12 million people a year and straddles the Canadian-American border is known as the falls. In categories they are the American Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, and the Canadian Horseshoe Falls.

The Canadian Horseshoe Falls are the largest and the focal point of the Maid of the Mist ride. The falls are labeled Canadian, but according to the United States Geological Survey, one third of the falls are in the United States. The Bridal Veil Falls are located next to the American Falls between Luna Island and Goat Island.

Boat passengers learn through narration that the falls are a chapter in the ice age. According to Niagara Parks, the entire Great Lakes basin and the Niagara River are a legacy of the last ice age 18,000 years ago. As the ice advanced southward, it gouged out the basins, and as the ice melted it filled the basins. One third of all the fresh water in the world is in the four upper Great Lakes: Michigan, Huron, Superior, and Erie.

The overflow from these lakes empties into the Niagara River and is destined to plunge over the falls. Once over the falls the water flows down the Niagara River to Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River, and to the Atlantic Ocean.

An island in the Niagara River splits the water flow. The smaller flow forms the American Falls and the larger flow forms the Canadian Horseshoe Falls. The American Falls are five feet higher but the Canadian falls are twice as wide.

The Maid of the Mist is the most popular daytime excursion to see the falls, and we found the ticket and boarding system for the crowds to be well-organized. There are also helicopter rides over the falls by Niagara Helicopters. After dark the falls take on a totally different look when they are illuminated by colorful lights. It is customary to walk to see the lighted falls in the evening after dinner or perhaps before or after gambling at a casino.

The Journey Behind the Falls, the Niagara Spanish Aero (cable) Car, and the Great Gorge Adventure are other ways to absorb the beauty and magic of the falls. Ticket holders are taken by elevator to tunnels behind the falls in the Journey Behind the Falls. The aero car travels a distance of 1,770 feet, 250 feet above the Whirlpool Rapids. The gorge adventure takes visitors by elevator down to the Whitewater Boardwalk at the edge of the Niagara River Rapids.

Once visitors have seen the falls by day and by night and taken advantage of other water adventures associated with the falls, there are enough side attractions to cover an extended visit to Niagara.

While Niagara is said to still be a honeymoon destination, it is also popular with families. The area is commercial far beyond the falls. As an example, the Adventure Pass includes stops at the Butterfly Conservatory, the White Water Walk, Maid of the Mist, and the Journey Behind the Falls. Tickets include transportation. The Butterfly Conservatory is located at Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens where there are said to be 2,000 butterflies. Light fare is served at the Butterfly Caf.

Attractions within the city include theme parks, shows, exhibits, and souvenir shops that line the streets of Niagara in an almost carnival atmosphere and spill out of the city. However, visitors should remember that visiting Canada is not as inexpensive as it was a few years ago when the American/Canadian money exchange rate was in our favor.

In the Clifton Hill district in downtown Niagara, attractions that appeal to all ages include Guinness World Records, the Haunted House, Believe it or Not by Ripley, and the House of Frankenstein. Thrill-seekers can ride 175 feet high in gondolas on a Ferris wheel.

White beluga whales and amusement rides make Marineland a popular stop for families.

The Skylon Tower is a pricey place for lunch and dinner, but a ride to the top affords a panoramic view of the city and all of the falls. The three decks at the top of the Skylon are a revolving dining room, the Summit Street Caf, and an observation deck. The elevator attendant announces that it will take 52 seconds to go 520 feet to the top. There is a charge to ride to the observation deck.

Near the Skylon, the IMAX Theater claims to visually strap viewers in a barrel for a hair-raising ride over the falls.

Contact Mary Alice Powell at: mpowell@theblade.com

If you go:

•Adult Americans traveling into Canada are requested to show a birth certificate and photo ID or two pieces of current photo IDs at the border. For children, birth certificates are requested.

• Transportation: Taxis are plentiful in Niagara Falls. All-day shuttle passes are $6 and $1 for children.

• Information: www.niagarafallstourism.com

Falls Trivia

•The volume of water flowing over the Canadian Horseshoe Falls is 600,000 gallons per second and over the American Falls, 150,000 gallons per second. Because of two hydroelectric plants that draw water into reservoirs before the falls, the volume can vary depending upon demand. The flow is greatest during the day in June, July, and August.

• The first daredevil to go over the falls in a barrel was a 63-year-old schoolteacher. In 1901 Annie Taylor was strapped into a barrel in a special harness. She survived the plunge over the Canadian Horseshoe falls. Five of the 15 people who have dared to go over the falls in various contraptions died.

• Of the several high wire tightrope walkers who traversed the Niagara Falls gorge, Jean Gravelet, a European known as the Great Blondini, entertained the crowds by crossing his rope on a bicycle, walking blindfolded, pushing a wheelbarrow, cooking an omelet, and carrying his manager on his back.



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