Still stunning despite the best efforts of capitalism.

Oscar Wilde is said to have commented that Niagara Falls is only the first of many disappointments that will be experienced by American newlyweds. I had not been there since 1965, well before I appreciated its significance. Cindy and I were looking for a place to go for a few days so we headed to the greatest natural spectacle east of the Rockies. The falls are so remarkable their beauty and glory are undiminished despite unbridled commercialism. So I must disagree with Mr. Wilde.

Gretchen Knapp, from Buffalo, gave us some hints on how best to proceed. One could spend lots of money on all sorts of tours but we settled on the Maid of the Mist, one of several vessels that take visitors past the US side of the falls, past Goat Island that separates the two, and then crosses into Ontario for a full frontal view of “The Horseshoe”, where a great deal more water crashes over the escarpment on its way to Lake Ontario and the Atlantic Ocean. Indeed, besides the sheer aesthetics, I think the ecological importance of Niagara Falls should be kept in mind: no aquatic organism could ascend the Great Lakes beyond the western end of Lake Ontario. Thus the only Atlantic salmon population in the lakes was restricted to Ontario, although that was fished out be the end of the nineteenth century. But once the Welland Canal was built that circumvented the falls, creatures of the ocean had a clear pathway to the other four lakes. And so commenced an invasion, led by sea lampreys and alewives, that changed the fish fauna of the Great Lakes forever. It is also interesting to muse that theoretically every drop of water in Erie, Huron, Michigan, and Superior will eventually tumble off the ledge.

The water never rests at Goat Island.

A purple loosestrife by any other name: would it be less invasive?

We spent several hours walking around Goat Island. You can see water in all of its configurations, calm ponds to raging rapids. Water roar is the dominant ambient sound. Over 4 million of cubic feet of water plunge over both sides of the falls on average every minute. I was amazed to learn that as great as that volume is, it would be twice that amount if half the total were diverted for the production of hydroelectric power. The unique nature of the place was quickly recognized for it became the first state park in the country, established by New York in 1885. Why it wasn’t grabbed up by the federal government as a national park or monument is curious. Gretchen, a historian, said that indeed it would have except that the state fought hard for its primacy and won.

The microclimate created by all the water is said to have endowed the island with a floral diversity unrivaled elsewhere in the country. Bridal Veil Falls is a smaller column of water that is accessed from Goat Island. The dripping water creates a seep or fen like plant community. We saw great angelica and several other species, but none more common than purple loosestrife that was particularly abundant in wetlands we saw on the Ontario side. Mid-summer is not a particulalry birdy time: apparently in November hundreds of thousands of gulls forage on the all the organic matter that go over the falls. We did see a small flock of Bonaparte’s gulls.

The next day we crossed the border to meet Kayo Roy and Marcie Jacklin at Ontario’s contribution to world gastronomy, Tim Hortons. It is the first time that I have been in Canada since the 2001 attacks made for tougher scrutiny of would be travelers. The guard asked why we were visiting and eventually I had to launch into a discussion of passenger pigeons: “You asked, mam.” After several minutes, I convinced here that although I might be obsessed I posed no danger to the country. Our rendezvous was in the town of Chippewa, which is the birth place of director James Cameron. Kayo is coauthor, with John Black, of the magisterial “Niagara Birds”, a beautiful self-published work filled with stunning photographs. Besides standard discussions on the avifauna of the region, there are neat essays dealing with various bird related issues throughout the year, My favorite is “Birds and Vinyards” by the owner of one of the areas largest vintners in the area. Suffice it to say, birds are fond of grapes. Marcie co-wrote, with Kayo, the section on passenger pigeons. We mainly discussed how to increase Canadian participation in Project Passenger Pigeon, since ppigeons were as much a bird of that country as it was the United States.

Looking nearly drowned from the copious spray, the travelers pause by the end of the rainbow.

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