I think we’re starting to get used to the sight of so many rivers and waterways. Still, each time we pass one, I like to know the name. As we passed one very wide river with fishing boats and fisherman casting there lines out over the smooth waters, I asked if my husband knew what it was called. Just about that time, we came to an over pass and a sign that said “Erie Canal.”
I was stunned. I knew the manmade waterway had once played an important part in the growth of our country but still, this large stretch of water was amazing. In Syracuse, we visited a canal museum where they used to weigh the river barges for tolls. The boats were towed beneath a large portico. Locks lowered the water, the boat was weighed and the tolls paid. They could only process four boats a day. Nevertheless, this three million dollar project paid for itself in three or four years. Traffic must have been incredible.
They say the Erie Canal was also the gateway to the mid-west. I didn’t really understand that until I visited the museum. Then it all made sense. Immigrants got off the boat in New York or Boston, purchased tickets on a canal boat, spent several weeks flowing over the canal and then crossed Lake Erie on boats to the new territories of Indiana, Illinois and beyond. The river journey was much easier than the arduous overland route and made the new land in the west more accessible to thousands of immigrant families.
With our passports in hand, crossing over the Rainbow Bridge into Canada was easy. We entered our six-story hotel and looked out over the city which seemed like no city at all, mainly dark, green trees. We quickly snapped some pictures and sent them to our kids. Several texts later, I got an announcement from my cell carrier.
“What do you mean two dollars a text!” The phones were shut off and not used again while in Canada. I could walk back across the bridge in less than ten minutes but my phone rates tripled. Paper borders provided a culture shock…the first of many for us, I’m sure!
Niagara Falls is as impressive as you can imagine. We’ve seen the pictures a thousand times, but you can never really get the feel of the falls until you stand beside them and hear the roar, feel the spray that never ends, or turn just right and see a sparkling rainbow so close you can reach out and touch it. That’s the falls. Powerful. Beautiful. Breathtaking. Majestic.
The falls have a rich and detailed history of barrel-riders, tight rope walkers and one lone, little boy who survived after his motorboat failed and went over. Most of the daredevils lost their lives not in the falls themselves but downriver where the Niagara River makes a sharp ninety degree turn. The resulting whirlpool trapped many would-be famous people.
Canada recently changed their gambling laws. Now the government owns and operates the casinos. The area just above the falls contains a casino and has caused an explosion of high-rise hotels. The area reminded me of Lake Tahoe where too much is crowded into too little habitable space. Down the road is a hill with tons of memento shops, a Hard Rock Café, Planet Hollywood, and a Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not. We’ve been there and done most of that, so we headed down river.
The Niagara Parks department has handled the Niagara area for years. They’re completely self-sufficient and have done such a great job of maintaining their grounds, they’ve become a horticulture center complete with a school. They even have a butterfly conservatory. I’m not usually a fan of butterflies but I was amazed by the delicate varieties.
Finally, the river flows into Lake Erie. I had never seen any of the Great Lakes. It was startling to see an endless ocean with tiny, tiny lake waves. Niagara on the Lake sits at the mouth of the river. It was settled in the seventeen hundreds by Loyalist Americans fleeing the Revolutionary War. Across the river, on a point, an American fort still stands. The city has lovely shops, eateries and magnificent old homes. Someone said it reminded them of Martha’s Vineyard.
When I think of Canada, I think of snow and cold. Of course, I know it’s not that way all year round but I was still slightly surprised by the hot, humid weather and the variety of rich vegetation. “Oh no,” said one Canadian shop clerk. “Our summers are short but spectacular.”
It seems most Canadians celebrate their spectacular summers with flowers. Every storefront, home and light pole had baskets of hanging flowers in brilliant colors. Canadians also celebrate summers with time spent in their parks. As we left Niagara on the Lake, a band was warming up to play an afternoon concert. Couples had brought their tables and lunch. They sat sipping wine and playing cards. As we drove back along the Niagara parkway, we saw more families, enjoying the warm summer day, their beautiful country and their amazing flowers at a slower, easier pace. I think I was more than a little envious.