Living in Pittsburgh is not convenient to many places. One place we can get to without much trouble is Niagara Falls. (I can never say “Niagara Falls” without thinking of the Three Stooges.) “Slowly I turn….step by step….inch by inch”. Kinda showing my age. Anyway, it turns out that The Falls are a great place to go for a weekend, especially if you’re only about four hours away by car. I had an uncle who lived just south of the falls in Tonawanda, NY and we used to go up to visit him a lot (more about Uncle Pat later). We also used to go through on our way to Canada to play hockey when we were kids. The result is that I’ve been there about 100 times in all seasons. Things have changed since I was a kid, though. Remember when you go that you need to have your passport with you now.
The falls are there because of the last ice age. Glaciers covered North America from the pole to just north of Pittsburgh. When the ice retreated, it formed the Great Lakes. Superior is the highest elevation. Huron and Michigan connect together and are at the same elevation. From Lake Huron to Lake Erie, the St. Clair River, which passes through Detroit and Windsor, ON drops a few feet. However, from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, the Niagara River must fall 326 ft., much of which occurs at the falls which plunge 165 ft. Since all the water emptying into the four Great Lakes upstream passes through here, these falls have the highest flow over the highest drop of any in the world. The total mean flow rate is 630,000 gallons per second. To put this in useful terms, my swimming pool holds 22,000 gallons. So 30 of Rick’s pools are barreling down the Niagara River every SECOND. A fraction of this flow is diverted upstream of the falls to make enough hydroelectricity to power much of New York and Ontario.
Surrounding the falls is a jumble of hotels, cheesy attractions, casinos, and cheap buffets. The Canadian side is considerably more built up than the US side, but both tend to the tacky side. People flock here. Everyone who comes to the states or Canada has this on their to-do list. There are more Japanese here than there are in Bryce Canyon, and that’s saying something. The up-side is that there are good deals to be had on places to stay, it’s cheap to eat, and there is a ton of stuff to do. My wife, Denise (she of My Life Cookbook fame) and I made our first trip as a couple here back in 2001. Then, the Canadian dollar was worth about 50 cents US so it was a huge bargain. The pendulum swings back and forth, but it’s always a good deal. At the time, we stayed in a honeymoon hideaway. Fast forward about 12 years and we stay at a Holiday Inn Express on points.
The Canadian Side
We decided to put our bikes on the bike rack and cycle around town. There are wide walkways on both sides of the river which can be crowded, but it’s an easy ride. We started on the Canadian side, just above the Horseshoe Falls. This is probably the most impressive place to see the power of the falls. Just over the railing, you can watch as the water powers over the edge. Crazy people went over these falls in barrels on purpose. Others fell in and survived. Hard to believe when you see it. Out in the river is an old barge wedged against a rock a few hundred feet from the falls. The story goes that back in 1918, the barge broke lose upstream and careened down the river before coming to rest on the rock. Two river workers spent a harrowing night trapped just seconds from certain death before they could be rescued the next day. One of the guys, in his 20s, had his hair turn snow white overnight. The barge is still there.
The next stop is at the Maid of the Mist. Two boats are launched down river from the falls and make their way upstream with powerful engines. People with blue plastic rain gear line the deck and get soaked. The boat motors past the American Falls, but is defeated by the Horseshoe Falls. It is a really cool thing to do. Equally cool is a trip down into tunnels cut below the falls, and platforms right at the base of the falls. This time, you get yellow plastic rain gear, but get equally wet.
Leaving the Country
We next ride across the international border to the US side using the Rainbow Bridge. Remember to take along your passports. Max was a relatively new rider, so we took the pedestrian walkway. This proved to be quite difficult as the immigration stations on both sides are not equipped to pass bicycles. This was the only place that we found was not “bike friendly”. I guess we could’ve tried to brave the road traffic, but there were a lot of semis and I didn’t want to risk it with Max. It was cool to stop right in the middle of the span and be in both countries at once.
The US side of the falls is much less built up. As you exit the bridge (after getting yelled at for bringing bikes across by the border guards), you enter Niagara Falls State Park. It is full of bike-friendly paved trails. The first place you stop is the huge statue of Nikolai Tesla. Now you may know of Tesla as the name of the electric car company, but Nikolai Tesla was one of the pioneers of electricity. He worked for George Westinghouse (so do I!), and led the effort to build the first hydroelectric power plant at the falls. He was essentially the inventor of alternating current (AC), and magnetic field strength is measured in Teslas.
The next stop is Goat Island. There is a small off-shoot of the American Falls called Bridal Veil Falls, and the land separating the two apparently was once used to graze goats. This is an absolutely beautiful place to ride bikes.
The trail ends at Terrapin Point right directly across Horseshoe Falls from where we started. We biked back to Canada in time for a hearty supper. The bike trip was a short one, but an excellent way to see the falls.
Another cool thing is to take in the falls at night. Huge colored spotlights illuminate the American Falls. It is really magical.
Bonus – Niagara on the Lake
The road north from the falls on the Canadian side winds along the Niagara Gorge. It is also a great place to ride bikes. The next day, before we headed back to Pittsburgh, we drove up to the end of the gorge where the river empties into Lake Ontario. The quaint village of Niagara on the Lake, with Victorian houses, B&B’s and little shops is a great place to get away from the glitz of Niagara Falls. Winding south along the river is the Niagara River Bike Trail. It is a paved trail with beautiful vistas of the river. It extends about 25 miles back to the falls. We parked in town and took our bikes about 10 miles up the river.
The first place you pass is Fort George, an old stockade-fenced British fort from the War of 1812. After touring the fort, you start to see signs like this:
The Niagara Gorge is home to several wineries. All are easily accessible from the bike trail. We stopped at the Reif Winery and really enjoyed ourselves. Looks like a nice place to come either without Max, or when Max gets old enough (19 in Canada).
After a couple of stops, we headed back to town, loaded up the bikes and started back home several bottles heavier.
I hope you enjoyed our weekend trip to Niagara Falls. It’s a great place to go with or without kids, and a great place to bike. Now I’ve got to find that Three Stooges episode on Youtube…..
Epilogue – Uncle Pat
My dad had two brothers, both passed on now. The oldest was his hero, Uncle Pat. He lived in Tonawanda, NY which is about half-way between Buffalo and Niagara Falls. We went there all the time when I was a kid, hence my knowledge of the falls.
Uncle Pat was in the Navy during World War 2. He had the distinction of have two ships shot out from under him, one at Coral Sea, and one in the Solomon Islands. He married a girl before he left for war and came home to a ready-made family. Turns out he wasn’t too keen on family life because when the Korean War broke out, he re-enlisted pretty much without telling his soon to be his ex-wife. While he was in Korea, he realized that the war would end and he’d have to go back and face the music, so when they asked for volunteers for a suicide mission, he signed on.
They put him on a submarine that came into North Korea at night. They rowed in on rubber boats and marched inland to a prison camp where they were holding South Korean government officials. They successfully freed the prisoners, then spirited them out of North Korea. The mission was a success, the war ended, and Uncle Pat came home.
Two wars seemed to have settled him down, so he re-married, got a job in Buffalo and left the little southwestern PA coal town of Bobtown for the great white north. About 10 years later, a big, black limo came into Bobtown. Inside were several Korean officials in tuxedos. They were asking for Pat Wright and were told that he had moved to Buffalo, NY. Off they went to find him. Well it turned out that my uncle was awarded the Korean Medal of Honor for his service. I think my dad has it somewhere.
Ain’t that cool?