Niagara: The word conjures up a classic vision of mist rising from the crashing waters of the world’s greatest waterfall. But there’s another side to Niagara, a beauty that’s breathtaking, unique, and — as I found out this week — sometimes a little scary.
A friend of mine, Dennis, lives in the Niagara region, and a few days ago I made my way down to see him and discover its mysteries. Dennis knows the area well, and we headed straight to the Niagara Glen, a beautiful stretch of parkland and hiking trails running along the Niagara River.
It was a grey fall day, the kind you get when you live near one of the Great Lakes, but that made for good hiking weather. And we had a hike ahead of us, through some of the most amazing woodland I’ve set foot in.
In truth, the Niagara Glen is more of a chasm. To reach the hiking trails, we had to climb down an open metal staircase that clings to the side of a sheer cliff about 30 feet high. And from there we started walking, along a trail that led through a piece of rare Carolinian forest that was like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
It was a landscape out of the Lord of the Rings, with huge chunks of rock strewn here, there and everywhere through the woods, as if a giant two-year-old had left his toys lying wherever they fell. And here and there the trees parted and we got a glimpse of the angry river, surging over its rocky bed toward the power plant below. It took us about 20 minutes to reach the river itself, but to get down to the shore we had to get down one last, steep rocky shelf, without aid of a footpath.
“If you’re brave, we can climb down,” said Dennis. I looked at the six-foot drop. There were enough strategically placed rocks to make a descent, if we were careful. “Why not?” I said, and climbed down to the landing below. Dennis came right behind me.
◊ ◊ ◊ Here is a hotel in Niagara Falls you could stay in ◊ ◊ ◊
I was choosing a route down the final drop to the riverbank when I noticed Dennis — who is as old as I am and not what you might call an athlete — about to climb down a steep and dangerous-looking piece of rock. As I turned to warn him, he lost his balance and suddenly was in mid-air, flying head over heels in a complete somersault. And as I watched in horror, he landed flat on his back among the rocks below.
My heart leapt to my throat. “Oh my God,” I thought. “He’s killed himself.” And even if he was just injured, how was I going to get him out of this inaccessible spot, or even find my way back to the stairs to get help? I rushed down, to find him still lying where he had fallen. “Are you all right?” He looked up, a bit dazed. At least he wasn’t dead. “I bumped my head,” he said, “and I think I hit my ankle on a rock.”
I collected his glasses and we got him on his feet. And miraculously, in less than a minute he was full of life and back in hiking mode. The backpack he was carrying, filled with a couple of plastic water bottles, had taken most of the impact. And through some crazy piece of luck, he had landed on the one piece of soft earth in a landscape of solid rock.
So on we went, although I was keeping an eye on Dennis. But he was full of life, leading us down pathways full of scarlet maples and mossy banks and the odd piece of wildlife, like this garter snake making the most of an exceptionally warm autumn. The rocks contained their secrets, as well, like trilobytes, sea creatures that live at the bottom of the ocean, and sea lilies, which still inhabit the Atlantic. And at one turn of the path, a giant boulder that had been bored through by some natural force — water? lava? — to make a perfect wormhole, with a ready-made spout.
Sooner or later we reached the end of the trail and tried to find our way back. But now, like the characters in the Blair Witch Project, we found that whenever we climbed up, the path led down again, and when we climbed down, we found ourselves heading back from where we’d come. Somehow we found our way back to the staircase and the real world. Had all of this really happened?
Dennis had a scrape on his head to prove it, and a sore ankle, but thankfully nothing worse. And I had a camera full of pictures — so if you’ve read this post, you’re a witness too.