A trip to Niagara Falls provokes contemplation of the force of nature and the fragility of life. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.
Life and death at Niagara Falls
Not far from us is one of the natural wonders of the world. The Horseshoe Falls, the most famous segment of Niagara Falls, cascades thunderously from the semi-circular lip of the gorge. An eddy is perpetually maintained 50 metres below, and from this basin rises a huge and permanent cloud of mist.
People take photos with their smartphones and high-powered cameras. Not of the falls but of the shirtless man on the wrong side of the metal railing. Beneath him is a fatal drop. Yellow police tape cordons off a small section of the footpath that runs along the Canadian side of the gorge. It is a brief perimeter. Small enough that tourists crowd 15 metres from the man and the police officer negotiating his survival.
It is hot and humid. The man takes a silver flask from the ledge and empties its contents on his back. He is careful to splash water over both his shoulders. I wonder if he brought the flask, or if it was a rapport-building gesture from the policeman. Then I think: what man cools himself like this if he is about to die? It’s an optimistic thought and I dismiss it immediately. It is a product of hope, not insight.
A woman walks past and says to someone: “He’s having a meltdown.” She seems disgusted. A paramedic waits beside an ambulance. People keep taking photos, lifting their phones for a better frame. There are two spectacles today.
The police officer seems tolerant of the audience, or perhaps simply resigned to it. Police negotiators speak of “containing” a situation – sterilising it of as many disruptive influences as possible – but we are at one of the world’s most famous tourism spots. Ten million visitors a year, the guidebook says. “The World Capital of Honeymoons,” the posters say. Negotiation is made more delicate by the crowd, so far assembled in near-speechless voyeurism but potentially containing one cruel or witless provocateur.
I linger. Become a voyeur. There are mixed feelings: dark magnetism; a vague, feckless and quickly aborted urge to do something; a desire to witness a happy resolution. It seems faintly perverse to leave, to turn my back and continue to the boat. It runs counter to my professional instincts, but this, I know, is a convenient gloss. More perverse is staying, joining those taking photos, remaining part of this spontaneous and effortless insensitivity. Plus, there is a very simple fact: I do not want to watch this man die. After two or three minutes, I leave.
Approaching the Canadian town of Niagara Falls from the highway, one sees an unusually large skyline for a place of 90,000. Arriving, one realises it is not built for locals but for the millions of visitors – it is a skyline comprising casinos and hotels. Jammed between them and declaring themselves with neon signs are novelty cafes, souvenir shops, a wax museum and a house of horrors. Assembled before one of the world’s great natural wonders is an orgy of schlock.
It has long been such. The hucksterism may have found its nadir in the 1980s when rival tourist operators began violently sabotaging each other. At first, billboards were defaced. Soon, information kiosks were firebombed, hoteliers were receiving death threats, and the home of the largest tour operator was shot up. Much had changed since 1679, when First Nations people led the Franciscan missionary Reverend Louis Hennepin to the falls. Once arrived, he reportedly fell to his knees and crossed himself. “ ’Tis true, Italy and [Sweden] boast of some such Things; but we may well say they are but sorry Patterns, when compar’d to this,” he later wrote. “Betwixt the Lake Ontario and Erié is a vast and prodigious Cadence of Water which falls down after a surprising and astonishing manner, insomuch that the Universe does not afford its Parallel.”
Having left the man on the ledge, I walked away from the Horseshoe Falls towards the catamaran that would take me back to them via the river. I bought my ticket and took the combination of elevator and zig-zagging ramps to the bottom of the gorge and the boat’s ramp. Before reaching the bottom, I entered a tent with confusingly numbered lanes taped to the floor. It appeared to be a system for corralling different ticketholders. But it was a scam, my friend explained, a private company permitted to impose what seems to be a processing point, but is in fact a green-screen photo booth. The confusion is deliberate, designed to ensnare distracted tourists and, once the shot is taken, to oblige their purchase of it. There is a dreadful cynicism to this subterfuge, but also a strange redundancy – there is ample opportunity for tourists to have their photos taken with the actual falls behind them, rather than a digital counterfeit.
It was a bad scene. Trivial, I suppose, but which in my depressed mood somehow complemented the previous one. At the top of the gorge, tourists were taking photos of a man inches from death – at the bottom, they were tricked into buying fake ones. The visitors’ guidebook boasted of this being “North America’s most Instagrammed destination”, and I wondered how many images of the man were now being shared online.
The boat chugged towards the basin, towards the thick white mist that, from this vantage, mostly obscured the falls. The spray cooled us. The roar was impressive. We moved through a rainbow. But I was thinking about the man on the ledge. To my right, I could see police lights near the river’s edge.
Two months before, the body of Kirk Jones was found 20 kilometres from the falls at the mouth of Lake Ontario. Two months before that, friends had helped him – and his pet snake, Misty – inside a large inflatable ball, before rolling it into the Niagara River rapids. On April 19, tourists were surprised to see what they assumed to be an unoccupied plastic globe tumble over the edge of the American Falls.
Jones had gone over before. In 2003, on the Canadian side, he fell unprotected – no cage, barrel or ball – and survived. He broke ribs, found infamy and was barred for life from Canada. Jones said he was chastened. “I’m feeling very happy to be alive,” Jones said. “I ask that no one ever try such a terrible stunt again. I understand what I did was wrong. You’ll never see an action in Niagara waters with my name written on it again.”
Most deaths here aren’t reported. But Jones’s demise was sufficiently strange, and his motivation sufficiently ambiguous, that publications across the world ran short, isn’t-this-wacky pieces. Mostly omitted from these stories were friends wondering if Jones hadn’t, after all, sought death. After visiting the falls in 1834, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, said: “I felt as if I could have gone over with the waters; it would have been so beautiful a death; there would have been no fear in it.”
This is quoted uncomfortably, given modern injunctions against glamorising suicide. Stowe’s wistfulness jars against the reality of the man on the ledge – a man about whom I won’t speculate, but who was obviously suffering some bleak agitation. It’s unlikely Stowe was glamorising suicide, she was simply speaking honestly: when standing beside the Horseshoe’s emerald lip – or a skyscraper’s edge – our minds often drift involuntarily to unfulfilled imaginings of falling. This fantasising is one silent part of Niagara Falls.
After the 20-minute cruise, I disembarked, threw my poncho into a recycling bin, and made my way through the marquees selling Niagara Falls lager. I passed Elvis crooning from a small stage. I walked back up the ramps, back to the top of the gorge and the footpath. The crowd had dispersed. There were more police cars. Detectives and uniformed officers were conferring. The police tape had been extended. Over the ledge, at the bottom of the cliff, I saw the yellow body bag.
Nature is infinitely superior to my ability to describe it. While beholding a glacial fjord in New Zealand I was stunned silent, but that evening I vainly attempted to write about it. It was part giddy disgorgement, part professional challenge. I sought to be both precise and evocative – “gun-metal mountains dusted with snow” – but it was hopeless. I was outmatched. This was the sublime, as I dimly understood it, and while I thought there was immeasurable value in this state of enchantment, there seemed to be precious little in describing its origin.
But humanity has so obviously impressed itself upon Niagara Falls that I feel qualified to write about it. There is, first, the hypnotically implacable force of the water. Psychically lashed to this are suicides, reveries of oblivion and ostentatious attempts to defy death. Then there are the Elvis impersonators, slot machines, price gouging and con jobs. Starbucks and Hard Rock Cafes. Revolving restaurants, Ferris wheels and golf courses. The commercial instinct is so shamelessly exercised, and so appallingly contrasted with the natural fixture that sustains it, that it exists as a rival spectacle. This second spectacle cannot destroy contemplation, but it is noisily arrayed against it.
I do not know the name of the man on the ledge. I found no reporting of his death. I don’t know about his life, his health, of those stunned and sickened by his death – or if there were, in fact, those left to be stunned and sickened. What I do know is that here, on the edge of the Horseshoe Falls, it was strangers who took the last photos of him.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 28, 2017 as "Niagara reflections".
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