GOING OVER THE TOP, NIAGARA STYLE

With up to 24 million gallons of water surging over their rocky sides every minute, the Niagara Falls are awesomely powerful, writes Sasha Abramsky. But Niagara Falls town could pass for a turn-of-the-century British resort

The Slab of steak was bad: fatty, frozen for too long, and tasteless. The open turkey sandwich wasn't that much better. If I were a betting man, I'd bet that this was a bird that had died a natural death. Then again, what could have been expected of a generic plastic-tabled eatery grandly titled "Restaurant", and - like all the other establishments in town - desperately trying to woo the too- few tourists with prominent signs declaring "steak: $9.95"?

November in North America is either a month of Indian summer or a time when winter sets in early and reminds the population that spring is a long, long time away. It can be very cold in November, and in Niagara this November, it was. In fact, it was already snowing. And, most tourists choosing to see this natural wonder in slightly balmier climes, my friend Jason and I were in the somewhat unusual situation of roaming a tourist resort, population 76,000, that boasted more restaurants than tourists to fill them.

Jason lives in Toronto, and we decided that when I came to visit, we would drive west and south just over 100km along the Queen Elizabeth Highway to the point on Niagara Falls. At this point, the United States and Canada face each other, the "small" falls on the US side, the Canadian ones larger, and more spectacular, slightly further west. The green water flows towards the edge, seems to hover slightly, as if toying with the idea of defying gravity, and then plunges downwards in a great roar of power. Depending on the weather and the amount of ice further upstream, between 19 and 24 million gallons of water cascade onto the rocks below every minute.

The Falls are awesomely powerful; from the top, they look invincible, crashing, rushing in a total fury downwards, a mist of water particles bouncing back into the sky out of the whirlpools at the bottom. Gulls fly into the mist, disappear like planes in a cloud bank, and re-emerge on the other side. Rainbows seem to float in the gorge, disconnected aside the falls. Water blows in a fine spray onto the bushes and trees on the banks above, and when it is cold, the spray immediately freezes, coating the vegetation with fine layers of glass-like ice. In the hours following the dusk, coloured lasers light up the water in pinks, greens and blues, the pastelled water highlighted in stark relief against the dark silhouette of landscape behind.

Take an elevator ride into the tunnels that come out behind the Falls ($5.50 in the summer, $4.05 out of season) and look at them from below, and they seem to be a sheer wall of water, a roaring screen of every possible shade of white and grey, falling so fast and constantly that it appears stationary and the viewer feels as if it is he who is shooting upward towards destruction. It is a dizzying experience. In the summer, tourists clad in disposable yellow anoraks can take a boat trip on the Maid of the Mist, riding behind the falls, watching the machine gun-like barrage of water hit the river in front of them.

Not surprisingly, there is a hydroelectric power plant at Niagara, which, it so happens, the province of Ontario's neo-conservative government recently attempted to privatise. Trade unions, angered by large cuts in Ontario's social programmes already, launched a campaign to counter this, and the government was forced to postpone its sale. For now, Niagara's power remains in state hands.

But in many ways, Niagara Falls was sold off and conquered long ago. In addition to the bad restaurants, the town boasts several wax museums, a Guinness Book of World Records museum, a House of Frankenstein and a Castle of Dracula, a haunted house, several arcades and miniature golf courses, a "JFK Assassination Exhibit", and a gaggle of fudge factories. The least tacky thing in town is a pool bar which serves excellent onion rings and chicken wings and advertises itself by calling on customers to "Put something exciting between your legs. Pull up a stool at..." The restaurants have names such as Ali Baba's, Crocodile Sam's, Arby's and then Burger King, McDonald's. The motels are cheap and comfortable, and almost entirely lacking in anything resembling atmosphere.

It is as if the town of Niagara Falls is attempting to usurp the attention lavished on the spectacular act of nature around which it is built, by demanding attention for an equally marvellous act of human crassness. But unlike the US kitsch-temples such as Las Vegas and Disneyland, which are obsessively, compulsively, and radiantly obscene, glorying in their own outrageousness, indulging in orgies of glittering self-promotion and consciously subverting ideals of high-culture, Niagara is somehow too small, too Canadian, too old-worldy to get away with this trick.

If a town is going to be crazy kitsch, it has to be crazy kitsch. It has to have neon signs and monuments that can be seen for miles, billboards along the highway advertising its imminent charms, vice in abundance and a seedy undertone of risks taken and dice rolled. It has to be truly improbable. The town of Niagara Falls has none of that. Perhaps this is because, unlike Las Vegas, it has had a chance to grow old. It feels like a photo of a turn-of-the-century English sea resort come to life, a Butlin's-on-the- Falls waiting for the burst of electricity that will thrust it into the age of super-kitsch. Instead, it is burdened with roots that go back into the early 19th century. As far back as 1827 a museum was opened overlooking the falls - it now claims to be the oldest museum in North America; like Oxford's Pitt Rivers Museum, it is a miscellany of anthropological titbits, historical curiosities and fossils, most of its exhibits completely unrelated to the Falls that drew the tourists in the first place. As if the Falls weren't enough, in true 19th-century voyeuristic style, the fourth floor hosts a glass case devoted to freaks of nature: a two-headed calf, an eight-legged piglet, a two-legged colt.

Perhaps related, on the first floor of the museum is a "Daredevil Hall of Fame", complete with original posters from Hardy's tightrope venture, articles on Sam Patch's 1829 leap over the falls, descriptions of the series of barrel-daredevils who packed themselves into barrels, got boatmen to tow them out into the current, and flowed right over the edge. Bucking stereotypes, the first to survive such a venture was not a muscled young man, but a 43-year-old woman, a local schoolteacher called Anna Edson Taylor, who hoped to make her fortune by plunging over Niagara on 4 October 1901. She did plunge. She didn't make her fortune. And then there was Bobby Leach, an adventurer whose elongated metal and wooden tube was exhibited along with the following description: "Bobby Leach used this barrel on July 25, 1911 in going over the Horseshoe Falls [the Canadian falls at Niagara]. He broke his jaw and both knee caps and was so battered he spent 23 weeks in hospital. While on a world tour in 1926, he slipped on an orange peel, broke his leg, and gangrene set in to bring his death!" What more is there to say?

We spent a day and a night in Niagara and then, after an all-you-can- eat fried breakfast that just about finished the two of us off, we spent the next day, over-caffeinated and bloated, driving around the peninsula that juts out into Lake Ontario.

Away from the town of Niagara Falls, the landscape is beautiful. The skies, seemingly supported by regimented lines of dark pylons, are endless, sweeping promises of expanse. The curved tufts of cloud and the ripples on the lake are somehow redolent of Scandinavia in winter; there is the same crisp cold air and the same illusory feeling that if one were to just float up into the sky, the whole world would be there below, trickling down in all directions from an extended polar cap beneath.

Geese sit by the water, and in the distance, along the curving shores of the lake, the enormous steel factories of Hamilton can be seen, in November their smoking chimneys looking like classic industrial paintings against the late-autumn soft blue sky. The landscape is dotted with modest, warm-looking villages and towns. In Niagara-on-the-Lake, at the northern tip of the peninsula, a statue of George Bernard Shaw, a Shaw cafe and numerous other memorabilia, serves as a reminder that summers here are host to an annual Shavian festival.

It is a flat landscape, overlooked by a long escarpment. And on the slopes of this long escarpment, where the sheltered land is a couple of degrees warmer than the rest of the region, another natural improbability: grapes are cultivated and wine-tasting tours provided. Ontario, it seems, produces its own local delicacy, known as ice wine.

We continued driving, west now, along the northern rim of the peninsula, through a series of American-styled suburban strip malls, into Hamilton, through the steel zone in which congregated tens of thousands of protesters earlier in the year to launch the series of local shut-downs - Days of Action - that have rocked Ontario's cities in recent months as protests against the Conservative government have escalated, and back into Toronto.

That Saturday, we went to a pot-luck party. We drank red wine and ate lasagne and listened to Jelly Roll Morton's jazz piano on the stereo. We talked politics and watched film footage of the protests until two in the morning. I went to sleep. I woke up. Jason drove me to the airport. I got on my flight to New York. And I flew back over the Lake. !

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