Niagara Falls

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The route continues west, out of the Adirondacks, down the long slope of the Tug Hill cuesta toward Lake Ontario. The names of towns have unusual pronunciations: Pulaski is Pulask‑eye, Oswego is Os‑wee‑go. Each town is lower in elevation and closer to the lake than the last; each town receives less of a dumping of snow in the winter than the last. Redfield, high up from the lake, has an average annual snowfall of 174 inches, about four times as much as Boston. Orwell has 155. Pulaski 133. Oswego, near the lake, receives 92 inches. Moisture picks up from the water and blows east in the winter; as it moves higher with the land it increasingly turns to snow.

The Erie-Ontario lowlands of New York are fertile. There are huge apple orchards all along my route here. I stay for a night with a couple who own sixty acres. We walk through crops of Idareds and Romes. Jim, the owner of this land, tells me New York is only behind Washington in apple production within the U.S. He used to grow cherries but found their market too fickle; at times the price is so low it becomes more costly to get the fruit to buyers than it can be sold for. To claim a crop as a business loss, however, farmers must still harvest it, and so many tons of cherries will be picked and simply thrown away.

Old farm in Oswego County

In the early 19th century, the state of New York built a 363-mile ditch from Lake Erie to Albany. It allowed cheap shipment to the Midwest, and was as quickly a success as it was made obsolete by railroads. Today the Erie Canal is a curious entity, marketed as a “scenic and recreational waterway,” but it is essentially a muddy ditch of uniform appearance with a slightly unpleasant smell. It is talked about in a historical sense, yet commercial shipping still uses the canal and, in fact, operations have dramatically increased recently due to rising fuel costs.

The canalway trail takes me West. I see three Great Blue Herons in a day, evidence the brown, unmoving water supports some kind of life. They perch on the rocky embankment and swoop low down the water. I watch for a while as one is harassed by an angry Baltimore Oriole. Orioles burst out of the trees as I ride past, bright flashes of orange. The dirt path, tracing the banks of the canal, is absolutely level. At times it is elevated, along with the entire canal, to the level of surrounding trees. I can look out over the canopy.

The Erie Canal
George Eastman house
George Eastman

Before the Erie Canal, the most valuable land in the world may have been a small gully, running into the Niagara River a few miles upstream from the falls. Today it’s hardly noticeable, an overgrown area in the shadow of a large concert venue in Lewiston’s ArtPark. Canada lies across the river. Downstream, the river is flanked by high banks on either side, all the way to the lake, some seven miles. Upstream is the escarpment, limestone cliffs, the old shore of the post-Pleistocene lake, much higher than Lake Ontario is today. This gully is the only reasonable place of portage along the lower Niagara, to move shipments over the falls.

The fur trade was then a billion-dollar industry. Whoever controlled the gully controlled the trade. Ships from Europe that had sailed up the St. Lawrence and over Lake Ontario would dock here. This is where Europe would come to get further West. They needed to get around the falls.

I stand looking over the gully with Dave Kimball. I had just met Dave. Earlier he had waved me over on the road, seeing my loaded touring bike, inviting me to tent out at his home here in Lewiston. He is driving me around town on a little historical tour. As it turns out, Dave meets a lot of cyclists coming through here. He always offers them a place to stay. He likes to support and encourage young travelers. Dave is something of a traveler himself. Back in the 60s he biked alone from Anchorage to the border of Guatemala and Mexico. “Every night, fifteen minutes before dark, I’d head into the trees, away from the road. Five minutes before dark I’d collect together all the dead wood I could find. By the light of the fire I’d set up my hammock and read. Sometimes I’d hole up for a few days and just read, read, read. When I grew tired of a book I’d trade it in at the next homestead I’d come across.”

He has spent nights in a sailboat off the coast of Australia. “I felt like Br’er Rabbit in the briar patch — in this context, a 12ft pram bowed, flat bottomed wooden skiff with a tent on it, floating in a mini lagoon barely big enough to contain it inside a tiny mangrove cay, and scant yards to the lee of the Barrier Reef, on the front of which ocean rollers boomed and crashed like an echo of creation. Inside the cluster of mangroves to which I’d tied off there wasn’t a cat’s paw of breeze or a ripple of water or an insect or any life to disturb the thrilling solitude which I could depend on through the night.” His parents, originally from New England, encouraged travel. When Dave was in high school, they opened up their house as a free youth hostel. Hundreds of travelers from all over the world signed the guest book over the years.

Dave Kimball, adventurer, generous host
Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls

Dave interrupts himself as we drive along the Niagara river, pointing into the woods. “In 1759, a major battle was fought right here, the result of which is that we speak English in North America.”

Niagara Falls today is a highly controlled demonstration of a natural process which has, in the past, eroded away the escarpment, moving the falls south at a rate of 1 meter per year. It is now much slower than that. In 1969 the American Falls were “shut off” — the river being completely diverted — for engineers to “strengthen” the rock. More than half of the river’s flow is diverted to hydroelectric plants. A treaty signed between the U.S. and Canada prevents the Falls from completely drying up for power during the summer daytime, for the tourists.

I have never visited this area of America before. It is not Vermont. The crops, power plants, industry, and water supply are enormous, at a scale difficult to comprehend. In the past the lake was so polluted it was not recommended to swim in, much less eat fish out of. Algae blooms spread miles from the shore. This is a lake with 480 cubic kilometers of water, a hundred trillion gallons. Donald Braider wrote in 1972, in a history of the Niagara,

A study of Lake Erie’s bottom in this same season of 1970 disclosed that there is a layer of industrial sludge approximately eighteen inches in average thickness coating the lake’s floor, from one end to the other. The lake is believed to have aged fifteen thousand years in the past two decades—in terms of the decrease, to the point of virtual elimination, of its supplies of oxygen. As we observed at the beginning of this volume, Lake Erie is America’s Dead Sea. This means, among other things, that all the waters of the Upper Lakes are killed by the time they reached Niagara. It is extremely unlikely that Lake Erie can be resuscitated during the lifetime of anyone born in this century. What is only a little less unlikely is that a conscientious effort will be made to revive it at all.

The next morning I wake to the sound of Liszt’s La Campanella. It is a YouTube performance; Dave makes coffee and watches. He marvels over the generosity of spirit that has created YouTube and its selection of videos. We eat fresh melon and discuss New England. Dave misses the hills and the culture. “There is an indelible perception I have of New England: knowing, just over the next mountain, there will be a music festival.” He tells me of sulphide waste in rivers that formed a kind of yellow soapsud, not so long ago. “Antediluvian rattraps,” he called the mills. “If you ever get a chance to visit one, don’t miss it. The machines in them are monstrous.”

Dave says, “Some days I wake up and have a terrific urge to take my cats in the van and drive out there — somewhere.” Dave is that kind of person for whom wonder and curiosity assume a religious significance. He fondly quotes Whitman, “A mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.” He shows me photos of a van he has converted into a kind of home in Arizona — a wooden A-frame roof, windows, a kind of lookout in which he sleeps. It is compact and elegant, a beautiful composite of differing form and function which seems to characterize something of Dave’s spirit.

He sits back and sighs. “Someone once said, Security is an illusion. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all. That’s even more powerful when you learn who said it. Helen Keller.”