Totes amaze falls
Digital travel editor Craig Platt gets up close to Niagara Falls and even goes underneath and behind it.
It's only when you get up close to Niagara Falls that you realise the fearsomeness. The Journey Behind The Falls heads into narrow tunnels where you can see nothing but water rushing past, tipping over the edge at the equivalent rate of a million bathtubs a minute, at speeds of 109km/h. It sounds like the roaring fires of hell; an unmatchable fury as the water pounds into the Niagara River at the bottom.
It's at this point that any concept of going over Niagara Falls in a barrel switches from "ooh, a bit risky" to "almost certain death". The idea of it being a romantic, quirky stunt disappears pretty darned quickly.
Nevertheless, Niagara Falls has a long history of "stunting", which has become an integral part of its mythology. It all started in 1901, when Annie Edson Taylor went over the Horseshoe Falls in a specially-designed barrel lined with cushions and a small pillow. The 63-year-old teacher from Bay City, Michigan, thought the publicity from the stunt would set her up financially for the rest of her life.
Astonishingly, she survived the plunge with only a small gash to the head, and a new industry was born. Tightrope walkers, kayakers taking on the rapids and fall-riders in increasingly bizarre home-made contraptions were attracted to Niagara. And not all were as lucky as Annie Edson Taylor.
The Niagara Daredevil Exhibit inside the IMAX cinema in the Canadian town of Niagara Falls has collected several of the vehicles used to run the rapids and take on the falls. It also tells the stories of those who have attempted it.
The third attempt to go over the falls was the bloodiest. In July 1920, Charles A Stephens tied a 100lb anvil to his feet as ballast for his barrel. He was torn apart as a result, with only a tattooed right arm remaining.
On display in the exhibition is the huge wooden barrel belonging to George Stathakis, who decided in 1930 he wanted to write book series about the mystical history and future of humanity. He thought going stunting would be a good way to fund it. So he kitted out his barrel with a mattress and three hours of oxygen supply, then took a pencil, notebook and pet turtle "Sonny Boy" with him.
He survived the plunge, but it turns out that the plunge isn't the worst part. It's being trapped behind a wall of water and continually buffeted where no rescue parties can get near. The barrel was discovered 18 hours later. Stathakis had suffocated, but the turtle survived.
The parade of stunters was stopped in 1951 when William 'Red' Hill Jr, a souvenir shop owner from Niagara Falls, became the latest to die. He was trying to continue the legacy of his father, who had run the Niagara rapids in a red barrel three times and operated rescue boats. Red Jr put together a vessel of canvas, webbing and inner tubes. The remnants of the woefully-inadequate contraption are on display, and it only takes one look at them to realise what happened to Red Jr was pretty darned grisly.
From that point on, stunting at Niagara Falls, and it now attracts heavy fines ($C10,000 in Canada and $US25,000 in the US). But that still hasn't stopped people trying. And the success rate is surprisingly high. In total, 16 people made attempts to go over the Falls (two of them twice), and only five have died doing so.
The general rule of thumb seems to be that veering away from the barrel method is doomed to failure. The brave/ extremely foolhardy souls who opted for a kayak or a jetski had no chance.
But the two most surprising survivors are those who didn't have a vehicle at all. The last person to go over Niagara Falls was a man attempting to commit suicide, jumping from the edge, in 2003. He somehow came out alive as, in 1960, did Roger Woodward – perhaps the most remarkable survivor of all.
Woodward was just seven years old, and out on a boat upstream with his father and sister. The boat capsized and all three were swept towards the Falls. Roger's dad was killed after going over the edge, and his sister was rescued just before she plunged. But Roger was swept over, survived the drop and was rescued by the skipper of the tourist cruise boat, who saw the seven-year-old's lifejacket bobbing in the water.
A few hours later, sailing up close to the tumult on said boat, it becomes very clear that trying to replicate Roger's accidental feat would be extremely inadvisable.
Cathay Pacific offers flights to Toronto, via Hong Kong, from Sydney and Melbourne. Niagara Falls is just over an hour's drive away from Toronto Airport. See www.cathaypacific.com
The Old Stone Inn is a rare exception in Niagara Falls – low rise, non-chain and packing in plenty of somewhat theatrical personality. Doubles cost from $116. See www.oldstoneinnhotel.com
SEE + DO
Niagara Daredevil Exhibit: See www.imaxniagara.com/daredevil-exhibit
Journey Behind The Falls. See www.niagaraparks.com
Hornblower Cruises. See www.niagaracruises.com
David Whitley was a guest of Niagara Parks.
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