I don’t remember the first waterfall I ever saw. However, I do remember the biggest. The year was 1988 and I was on a school trip from South Carolina to Canada. This was my first journey to Niagara Falls.
Back then, Niagara Falls was still a tourist destination. However, there weren’t the big hotels, a modern day visitor’s center, or a ferris wheel.
Twenty five years later, I have my own back to the future experience. I experienced Niagara Falls with the same feelings and emotions as that 13 year old boy. Niagara Falls is just as powerful and awe inspiring now as it was then.
This time I comprehended what that that boy had experienced. And I realized there was so much more to Niagara Falls than just a waterfall.
A man and a boy meet at Niagara Falls
On this late May morning, I walked the streets of downtown Toronto as the morning sun cast shadows on the buildings. I arrived at the bus station a few minutes early, sleepy yet excited for my first trip to the Falls in years.
The bus departed a little after 7 am headed for Niagara Falls on a quiet, warm Canadian morning.
As a boy, my bus experience was different. Leaving the US, we traveled through New York and arrived in Niagara Falls. Instead of tourists and locals, this bus was filled with teenagers – many of us who were leaving the country for the first time.
An overcast day didn’t dampen our spirits. We threw on our oversized rain jackets and boarded Maid of the Mist (the closest I’ve come to a water vacation since I hate cruises) to get up close with the Falls. Water was everywhere and it was nearly impossible to see.
However, the thunderous roar of water was deafening.
Even without a clear view of Niagara Falls through the mist and clouds, we could feel, taste, and smell the water as we soaked in the experience.
I don’t remember a lot of details other than the boat, the blue rain jackets, the roar, getting wet, and straining to see the most powerful water I had ever seen. Yet the memory of that experience is as fresh and vivid as ever.
Fast forward 25 years later and 38 year old me was just as excited as 13 year old me. As Holly picked me up from the bus station, we drove straight to Niagara Falls. This time, the skies were clear, the sun was shining, and I was experiencing the Falls from above rather than below.
Shortly before 9 am, I made my way to the rail as the mighty Niagara river poured over the edge and dumped incomprehensible amounts of water – tumbling an average height of 188 feet with 6 million cubic feet of water per minute.
None of that mattered as I stared at water so powerful that mist was thrust into the air and the bottom was a tumbling torrent of invisible chaos . The water numbers were incomprehensible. So was the experience.
A travel photographer’s journey to Niagara Falls
As a nature lover, some of my favorite things to photograph are landscapes. Millions of people have taken photos of Niagara Falls. However, in my attempt to become a better travel photographer I wanted to capture a unique moment here.
At 9 am, we were the first in line through Journey Behind the Falls. We walked along the corridor as a constant roar echoed throughout the walls. Looking into an opening, a white and gray sheet of water sprayed the walls with power and force.
It was all a blur – much like those visions of a 13 year old getting soaked in a boat looking up at a force of nature he couldn’t really see or comprehend. As a man, my mind looked beyond the image as I could feel Niagara Falls thunder through my soul.
As we reached the observation deck, we prepared for the downpour. On this journey to Niagara Falls, I traded that blue rain jacket I wore as a thirteen year old for a yellow one. Standing on the observation deck, the water was so powerful I couldn’t look at the belly of Niagara Falls without getting soaked.
I turned my back, protected my camera with my body, and whipped around to take a picture only to be soaked again and again.
After each photo, I wiped the drops from my camera. Maybe this wasn’t an experience to photograph but a travel experience for something more than just the eyes and a lens.
Think of the worst downpour you’ve ever experienced. This was what it was like sitting underneath Niagara Falls. Only the sun was shining, there were no clouds overhead, and everyone else above me was dry and warm.
Did I get a great photo of Niagara Falls from this force and fury of nature on the Niagara river? I did. Yet I couldn’t help but flashback to that 13 year old boy getting soaked on Maid of the Mist.
Niagara Falls isn’t something to see. It’s something you experience.
Niagara Falls – a place to experience
The roar of the Falls. The drops of water pelting your face and jacket on a warm, sunny day. That feeling of awe and an incomprehensible appreciation of how big this is. Realizing that being here with the sun, water, and sound was all that mattered in the moment.
As I left Niagara Falls, I spent the rest of the day playing golf and hiking a secret trail to Whirlpool. I rode around the town of Niagara. I met locals, heard stories, and experienced a small slice of this community beyond the tourists and water soaked photos.
Twenty five years later, the 38 year old man understood what that 13 year old boy experienced but couldn’t comprehend. Niagara Falls is a place to experience – from the Falls to the town to the secret locations no one visits.
For anyone who comes to Niagara Falls for a couple of hours to take photos and check this place off their bucket list, they may be in awe of the Falls but overwhelmed by the tourists.
For those who see Niagara Falls but fail to experience it remember the photos, tourists, and a massive waterfall . Today, a thirteen year old boy and thirty-eight year old man understood what it means to be here.
Go beyond what you see, use all five senses, and walk to explore the sights, sounds, and scenery of Niagara. Niagara Falls wasn’t meant for tourists. It was meant for explorers.
Have you visited Niagara Falls? What’s the difference between visiting a place and exploring it?
Thanks to Holly Goertzen of Niagara Parks for driving me to the Falls. The Journey Behind the Falls was paid for by Niagara Parks. The journey back to that 13 year old boy experience twenty five years ago was priceless. The two of us together, man and boy, shared our experiences and explorations of Niagara Falls.