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From boy to man, a journey to Niagara Falls

Journey to Niagara Falls mist waterfall

A journey to Niagara Falls

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.

Niagara river Niagara Falls

Plunging over the edge of the Niagara river

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.

Journey behind Niagara Falls waterfall

Journey behind the Falls and a sheet of white and gray water

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.

water drops journey to Niagara Falls

A downpour of water under sunny skies

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 journey to the Falls

After many attempts, I got the Niagara Falls photo I wanted

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.

Jeremy Branham Niagara Falls

From boy to man, my journey to Niagara Falls

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?

Niagara Falls postcard photo

My Niagara Falls postcard photo

American Falls Niagara Falls

American Falls at Niagara

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.

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  1. It is an awesome experience. My first and only visit was earlier this month. I only had time to ride the Lady of the Mist. I definitely plan to return so our 6-year-old son can experience it. The ride on the Lady of the Mist can’t be described in words. I do recall my breath being taken away several times as the rush of the falls poured over me.

    • Sadly, this is the last year of Maid of the Mist Lance. I think it’s been there close to 100 years. However, they lost the bid for next year. I am sure the experience will be the same for people but it’s sad they are losing a piece of history there. Niagara Falls is indeed beautiful. Getting up close, you understand how powerful it is from the bottom. I am glad I had the experience as a kid and later as an adult. Gave me a greater appreciation and understanding of what I was experiencing.

  2. Lauren says:

    Hi Jeremy!

    It’s so nice to hear about your nostalgic trip to Niagara, i went there too as part of the TBEX tour. You got me thinking of my own childhood trips and how i’d love to go back and revisit them, maybe some would be depressing because as a kid everything just seems bigger and more magical and going back would make me feel like i’ve lost that sense of wonder.

    Cheers! :)

    • Thanks Lauren. I have to say that I wasn’t part of the TBEX tour. This was something I arranged on my own before the Thursday before TBEX. I actually took the bus from Toronto to Niagara Falls and went back again that night. While a lot of people have their own experiences to share from Niagara, I am glad I had a tell my story as a bit of a flashback. Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos of me there as a kid. I think my parents have those. That would have been fun to post.

      I haven’t revisited a lot of places I went to as a kid. However, I think I would agree with you about the depressing part. Everything would be bigger – aka more tourism, bigger hotels, etc. I don’t think I would lose that sense of wonder. I think those places I’m revisiting changed more than I have. I still had a sense of wonder of Niagara. But if it seemed more touristy and built up now, I think that’s what time does to tourist destinations.

  3. Mark says:

    Hi Jeremy;

    Glad you had a good time visiting your past. A few minor details:
    1. There was a ferris wheel in Niagara Falls when you were here in 1988, but not where you see it now. The largest steel ferris wheel of its time was not far away, behind Maple Leaf Village (now Casino Niagara) and facing Victoria Avenue, directly opposite the long time famous Italian eatery, “Mama Mias”.
    2. There were large hotels here in 1988, but not the proliferation that blankets the Canadian side today. Back then there was the very long time (still there) Brock Hotel (now Crowne Plaza on Falls Avenue at Rainbow Bridge), Oakes Hotel and Ramada (now Four Points Sheraton on the Falls). There were others that still exist, not so tall so you would have missed them then and now.
    3. I didn’t see a mention of re-experiencing the Maid of the Mist. If you’re not too far away, come back and do it this year. The company was sold and will only operate from the US side beginning next year.
    And, do come back. You are welcome any time!

    • Hi Mark. Thanks for the comments. Honestly, I don’t remember a Ferris wheel at all as a kid. Then again as a 13 year old boy experiencing Niagara Falls for the first time, you’ll have to forgive me if I didn’t notice it :)

      As for the hotels, I didn’t mean to imply there weren’t any when I visited. I am just saying it wasn’t built up then like it is now. It’s changed a lot so there weren’t the number of hotels then that there are now. As for Maid of the Mist, no I didn’t experience it this time. I stayed above the Falls. I learned on this trip that this was the last year of Maid of the Mist. I believe Hornblower is taking over on the Canada side. The Falls are losing a bit of history with that.

      Unfortunately, I don’t get back to that part very often. Even as a kid, Canada was a long way from South Carolina. Now, California is even further. However, I am glad I got a chance to see it again. I’ve been to Canada 5 times now and there’s still so many more places I want to see in the country.

  4. I am hoping to go back to Isle Royal National Park this summer. I first hiked this park as a 9 year old with my dad. It is interesting coming to vacation spots when you are older and trying to make sense of the experience you had as a child.

    • Agree Ted. My perspective of seeing places as a kid and then again as an adult are so different. I remember going back to Myrtle Waves in Myrtle Beach back in May. That’s where I worked as a lifeguard in high school. It was the coolest place to work and so many great memories. Now it looks like a bit of a dump. It’s funny how time and age affect our experiences and memories from childhood. We see places differently.

      Hope your trip back to Royal National Park rekindles all those great memories as a kid and that your experience this time is just as fun as your childhood.

  5. Artur says:

    Hi Jeremy!
    I’m going to visit Falls on July 4th. However, I’ll have 4 hrs only to visit the place. What is one experience would you recommend to do? I’ve heard of Maid of the Mist, Journey behind the Falls, White Water Walk or do smth else? Will 4 hrs be enough to fully grasp the spirit of Niagara Falls? Any other suggestions?

    • Hi Artur! Will this be your first visit to Niagara Falls? If so, July 4th will be very, very busy so expect it to be crowded. Since your time is limited, you have to decide on what you want to do and book stuff in advance if you haven’t already. With only 4 hours, you will want to spend your time around the Falls. I would recommend getting to the Falls early in the morning (between 8 and 9 am) before all the tourists get there. Have a look around and get some photos. If you can get there even earlier, that’s even better. I would spend the rest of your time doing Maid of the Mist or Journey Behind the Falls. That way, you will a view of the Falls from above early in the morning and then get up close on Maid of the Mist or behind the Falls and right there at the belly of it at the observation deck. It may be possible to due all three of these but you will need to plan your time. If not, pick Maid of the Mist or Journey Behind the Falls and use the rest of the time to walk around. Hope you have a great trip!

      If you had more time, there would be more stuff I would recommend in the area. Hopefully, this will whet your appetite and you’ll get a chance to come back again and see more.

  6. Erika says:

    I had a similar experience at Carlsbad Caverns. I fist visited at age 11 with my parents and it inspired a lifelong desire to cave. However I didn’t return to Carlsbad until my late 30s. Like a little kid, I still wanted to leave the paved trails and explore what I couldn’t see, the reason I cave today.

    • It’s funny how our visits to places a second time change what we see or experience. I think getting older gives us different perspectives that we didn’t have as kids. I think my love of getting off the beaten path made me see a different side of Niagara.

  7. awesome view of waterfall, very nice thanks for sharing.

  8. Wow, that photo of Niagara Falls is super stunning!

    • Thanks Matt! Are you talking about the up close one from the observation deck? I was lucky to get that one. I took a number of them but got soaked every time. Finally got a shot where the water wasn’t blowing right in my face like a hurricane :)

  9. I have seen the Falls from a Canadian side as well, impressive!

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