December, 2013: It was another hare-brained plan of mine, I realised, looking at the cold sheen of silent suburban houses rush by outside. Booking a plane ticket before realising my airport was over a day’s worth of travel from the destination I needed to be. In the UK, that’s the equivalent of booking a plane to fly into the tip of the country at Land’s End, only to realise you were meant to be the other end of the country, at John O’Groats. In other words, not a mistake the English make often.
In this case, it was flying into Toronto, when I should have ideally been in New York. My geographical understanding of the world, or at least the parts I had flown over so far, had failed to distinguish ‘Buffalo’, on the border of the United States and Canada, as being any different from the New York of Friends coffee shop scenes, towering sky scrapers and blaring yellow cabs. Unfortunately, Buffalo was a good 6 hours from these Hollywood scenes; 12 hours on a slow Greyhound with no WiFi.
Fortunately, I was crossing over one of the world’s greatest natural sights, so I was hardly disappointed at the news. A coach ticket was booked, one that stopped here overnight, and a night’s stay in a hostel was organised. At least this time, unlike my last mad idea of going camping in the depths of Norwegian winter, I had accommodation to stay, even if I was planning to observe North America’s most powerful waterfall in the depths of the night.
Niagara Falls. The very sound of the city-cum-watercourse’s name was full of mystery and intrigue. Despite this, all I knew about it was that it was a waterfall half way around the world. I didn’t know much about waterfalls. I didn’t even look up pictures of it before flying to Toronto. All I knew was that it was close to my hostel on that first night, and that it was besides the apt ‘River Road’. I printed a map.
The first leg of my coach drew up to the station, the bitterly cold night awaiting me. My phone registered -10 Celsius, or 14 Fahrenheit. I had packed minimally – a couple of jumpers and trousers, my laptop for university work, a handful of dollars – to compensate for my fat winter coat. I was the only person who disembarked at the silent station. The houses breathed. My watch read 22:32. It was 4 kilometres to the waterfall.
I walked along the bank of the river, the only natural border between me and the United States. I had felt -10 before in Europe and even in Vladivostok, eastern Russia, but this felt like a cold beyond even that. The ‘RealFeel’, or the excuse I made for complaining about weather that seemed more intense than it actually was, reported -25. Under my multiple layers, I shivered compulsively. My legs were numb. I found later that the one piece of chocolate I had brought with myself from England had frozen in my coat pocket. I began to question my sanity, and looked around hopefully only for a taxi. I didn’t see a single car, a single person, for what felt like eternity. And all I could hear, step after step, meter after meter, was the sound of a roaring highway in the distance.
It took me a good 15 minutes of walking through grey snow to realise that it wasn’t the sound of cars; it was the sound of water, traveling far through the night. I picked up my step, realising I may end up being the only one there.
In the depth of winter, I found the waterfall. In reality, it was only the American Falls and the Bridal Veil Falls, two of the smaller waterfalls that made up the entire Niagara Falls. Behind me blared the muffled supernatural noises of an almost empty casino and theme park, neon lights and robotic noises flashing into the evening. My legs ached. Much further down the road, I could see a wooing couple move along the same path.
I was the fortunate, and completely unknowing, visitor to the Illumination of the Falls, guiding the water through soft coloured pinks and purples. I watched, entranced, and the air roared. White mist obscured the black river. The lights seemed not particularly unnatural, in a city where it was difficult to find the natural.
I tried to take a photo of a particularly vivid moment of red and yellow. My phone warned me: ‘Unable to use flash because of cold weather’. That was a first.
After stumbling into a log-fire warmed hostel room an hour later, surrounded by warm woolen blankets, I managed to find the awestriking Horseshoe Falls the following day. It was an experience not unlike eating a bag of truffles and finding an overlooked chocolate cake the next morning. It was beautiful, and breathless, and somehow it was even colder than the night before.
But much of the magic of Niagara Falls was still finding it that starless night before, cold and roaring and alone, and twinkling with unexpected lights.