Is there anyone in the world – who hasn’t heard of Niagara Falls?
Well – I’m sure there is, in the deepest jungles of Africa and Brazil, and on the remote steppes of Mongolia and the grassy plains of the Yellow River – and on various desert islands across the oceans – there can be found lonely people wandering about who have never heard of Niagara Falls.
But, everyone else walking on the face of the planet, has heard that somewhere, within North America, there exists a magnificent waterfall, called Niagara. In fact, millions upon millions have seen it, standing in awe at its immense power and majesty.
No – they’re not the tallest or even the most beautiful waterfalls in the world, (actually, there are about 500 waterfalls in the world that are taller than Niagara (Angel Falls in Venezuela is the tallest, at 3,212 feet), but most have little water flowing over them)…
…but they are the most known and visited. The combination of height and volume separates Niagara from all the others and makes them the spectacular wonder that they are.
Over 28 million people visit Niagara’s waterfalls each year. Since 1825, the world’s leading statesmen, monarchs, authors, painters, scientists, politicians, celebrities, business leaders and people from all walks, colors and languages have journeyed to stand in awe of the majestic falls and hear them roar their song of glory.
The Niagara River and Niagara Falls have been known outside of North America since the late 17th century, when Father Louis Hennepin, a French priest, at the request of King Louis XIV, accompanied the explorer La Salle, and first witnessed them in 1679. He wrote about his travels in ‘A New Discovery’ of a Vast Country in America (1688). While his painting of the Falls contained some exaggerations and distortions, it was widely circulated in Europe and became the icon of the “new world”.
But, what are the Falls and from where do they draw their strength?
Let’s take a journey down the Niagara River.
Our journey begins hundreds of miles away, in the northern midsection of the country, to where the five Great Lakes of North America are found. The three western Great Lakes (Superior, Michigan and Huron), fed by numerous rivers, streams, underground glacial runoff and rainfall, feed billions of gallons of water a day into Lake Erie.
Lake Erie drains all of this into Lake Ontario. The spigot feeding Lake Ontario from Lake Erie is the Niagara River and the valve is Niagara Falls.
So, all the water (and everything in it) from all five Great Lakes – eventually flows over the brink of Niagara Falls.
On the satellite photo below, Lake Erie is on the bottom with Lake Ontario at the top. Connecting them is the Niagara River. The water flows south to north. The large body of land in the middle of the river is Grand Island, which the river splits around, forming what’s known as the East and West Upper Niagara Rivers. They reform at the head of the island to plummet over the precipice of Niagara Falls where it continues its journey to Lake Ontario as the Lower Niagara River. The land to the left of the river is Canada and to the right is the USA.
The Niagara River…
…forms the international border between the United States and Canada slicing through the Providence of Ontario in Canada and Western New York State in the USA, respectively. (A unique observation is when we think of Canada, we think of it as being North of the United States and it is—except at Niagara—it’s actually west, (and at Michigan – its east!)). All of Grand Island is American.
By definition, the Niagara River isn’t a river at all, but is a ‘strait’ connecting Lake Erie with Lake Ontario. Being the ‘river rat’ that I am, to me – it’s a river – and not only ‘a’ river – but ‘the river’.
Niagara is a teenager in the family of world geology. It’s the legacy left over from the last Ice Age. 18,000 years ago (a flickering moment in geological time). The upper midwest was covered with sheets of ice, 2-3 miles thick (yes, you heard right—miles). The ice advanced southward, gouging out the gigantic basins that would become the Great Lakes. The Niagara Peninsula became free of the ice only a mere 12,500 years ago.
The climate changed, and the ice began to melt. As the glaciers retreated northward, and the woolly mammoths ran for cover, they released vast quantities of meltwater filling those humongous basins previously craved out of the earth. They overfilled and forming the Detroit River, emptied into the basin that would come to be called Lake Erie. In turn, overflow from Lake Erie formed the ‘Straits of Niagara’ as the water journeyed across the 325 foot drop to fill the basin of Lake Ontario. Lake Ontario drains into the St. Lawrence Seaway, completing the journey to the Atlantic Ocean.
Initially, there were many spillways (falls) along the journey from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. Eventually, they all reduced to one – Niagara Falls. Once established as the dominant path, the Falls located not far from Lake Ontario on the Niagara Escarpment, began its journey south.
One can only imagine what a massive waterfall that was with an over 300 foot drop!
It began its steady erosion across the Niagara Escarpment, cutting through the bedrock, eating its way to its present site. And, it’s still moving today.
Take note! At its current rate, in 2000 years there will be no American Falls, so if you haven’t seen them yet, you’d better make your travel plans.
Where did Niagara get its name?
While it’s unquestionably of Indian origin, there are differing theories as to which tribe of Indians. Iroquoian scholar Bruce Trigger claims the name is derived from the native Neutral Confederacy, who were described as being called the “Niagagarega” people on several late 17th century French maps. Then, according to George R. Stewart, it comes from the name of an Iroquois town called “Ongniaahra”, meaning “point of land cut in two“. Another theory combines parts of the claims above, saying it’s a Neutral Indian Confederacy name meaning ‘Thunder of Waters’.
But, wherever it came from, everyone hears the ‘roar’ and feels the ‘thunder’ – when the name “NIAGARA” is spoken.
Just how long is the Niagara River?
… 26 miles as the crow flies from Lake to Lake, but then who flies like a crow? The river travels a course 35 miles long, going around Grand Island. The thundering falls divides it into two separate and characteristically different rivers—the Upper Niagara and the Lower Niagara. The Upper Niagara slowly chews its way south towards Lake Erie. The Falls have moved approximately 8 miles across the Niagara Escarpment, leaving a deep gorge in its wake for the Lower Niagara to funnel the water to Lake Ontario. The image below shows how the Falls has moved since first seen by the European explorers. (Just think of how much greater the Falls were in 1678 when the span was shorter and the flow wasn’t diverted by the power companies!)
The Upper Niagara River…
…in addition to Grand Island and Goat Island, features many smaller islands such as Navy Island, Strawberry Island, Squaw Island and many others to include the tiny Luna Island which splits the American Falls into two sections—the Bridal Veil Falls, and the American Falls.
Upon leaving Lake Erie, the Upper Niagara widens out, and the drop is only about nine feet from Lake Erie all the way (15 miles) to the beginning of the Upper Niagara Rapids and so, the rivers rapid surge from Lake Erie is reduced to only about 3 – 4 feet per second entering the rapids.
But that changes quickly, as approaching the brink, they pick up frantic speed and turbulence. While they don’t compare to the terrifying rapids of the Lower Niagara, it’s knowing that, watching them roar past Goat Island at 25 mph, in only a few feet they will hurl themselves into the forbidden abyss. That makes them terrifying beyond imagination. As high as 68 mph has been recorded shooting over at the brink.
After reforming above Grand Island, the Niagara River rushes to the precipice ahead, where it, once again, splits around an island that is actually part of the face of the canyon. This island is called Goat Island and causes the river to create two separate falls—the American Falls and the Horseshoe Falls. Each is distinctively different.
…name is derived from its curving, horseshoe-shaped crest. It’s a long 2,201 foot span and the water passes over the crest at a speed of about 20 mph into a 177 foot drop. The depth of the river at the base of the falls is estimated at 184 feet (due to the violent turbulence, it can’t be accurately measured), and as such is higher than the falls itself. The Horseshoe Falls are spectacular and beautiful to behold. The plummeting water produces a large amount of mist, which occasionally renders viewing difficult, although the amount of mist has been reduced since the early 20th century by the diversion of water from the Niagara River for power generation.
The American Falls…
…is essenally a jagged, straight line 1060 feet in length. The height is 176 feet, but due to the rocks at the base, the actual water fall is less than 100 feet. The Falls are further divided by a smaller stream called The Bridal Veil Falls (named for its appearance).
Visiting Niagara, one must take in both Falls, as each offers its own attractions, beauty and mystery. The Horseshoe Falls offer a spectacular visual spectacle, massive, sweeping and inspiring. The American Falls allow you to get close and to feel them, embrace the power, the roar, the rapids and shattering splendor as it crashes onto the massive rocks below.
The Lower Niagara River
While the drop, at the falls itself, is 177 feet, the total drop in elevation from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario is 325 feet. So with a combined drop of around 190 feet from Lake Erie to the Brink of the Falls, the Lower Niagara River has a drop of 135 feet racing through the walls of the gorge. 37,000,000 gallons of water flow over the Falls per minute during the day. That’s over 53 BILLION gallons of water falling 135 feet each day, surging their way to Lake Ontario.
Think you’ve seen rapids? Think again – You haven’t—until you’ve seen Niagara’s.
The Lower River changes its width and depth along the journey to Lake Ontario. At places, it rolls and undulates like a giant serpent, looking calm and serene. But, don’t be deceived, along the way there are savage rapids like not know to man anywhere else. The Niagara Gorge is beautiful – charming and appears as it was thousands of years ago. The walls are covered with trees and lush growth, climbing upwards of 200 feet. In general, the American side of the gorge is higher and steeper than the Canadian side.
Why is the water green?
The Lower Niagara gets its translucent coloring as a direct effect of its erosion power. The emerald color comes from the dissolved salts and ‘rock flour’ from the limestone and shale beds. The Upper Niagara is distinctly different in color than the Lower Niagara. Over 60 tons of dissolved minerals and limestone are swept over the brink every minute.
What is the ‘Whirlpool’?
About 5,500 years ago the waterfalls reached an area intersecting an old riverbed, buried and sealed during the last Ice Age. It must have been a violent encounter where the water changed directions and turned into this buried gorge, tearing and cleaning out the glacial remains inside of it, creating a hard bowl basin before turning back into its original course, carving its way to its present location. In its wake, it left a 90-degree turn in the river forming a basin 1700 feet long and 125 feet deep where the water swirls counterclockwise. When the water cuts across its own inlet, going under the flow, it creates a massive vortex.
Welcome to the ‘Niagara Whirlpool’.
The sheer volume and speed of water cruising through the Niagara Gorge, when the riverbed changes in both width and depth, creates one of the most stunning transformation in nature, changing the previously ‘serene’ river into some of the most frightening rapids on earth.
“The river, that only a few yards back had given us comfort and assurance, had turned into a raging lunatic. Roiling green waves threw themselves high into the air, in foaming rebellion against the gorge. They were so close we could touch them—if we had the nerve to. They roared with vehemence, smashing and crashing in angry conflict…” Journeys Across Niagara
“Here, the roiling river turned into a white, foaming monster spewing its vengeance into the air with fury and abandonment, crashing down on the boulders and icebergs. The sight stopped us dead. It was exciting and beautiful to see—from a distance or maybe on TV. But now, up close, it was the most frightening thing I’d ever seen in my life.” Journeys Across Niagara
“We stared at the rock, encased in a thick layer of hard ice; the river a wall of monstrous water – hammering, slamming on the outside, sending sheets of freezing, stinging water over the top with the wall of the gorge towering overhead on the opposite side…….” Journeys Across Niagara
“…when you climb down, you’ll be on that rock I was standing on…from there, it’s just a five-foot jump to the bottom…can’t jump to the right…it’s an ice slide into the river…there’s one flat rock we can jump to…it’s in the river.” Journeys Across Niagara
How about it? Would you jump?
The Niagara Rapids are the largest series of standing waves in North America. Traveling at rates upwards of 35 miles per hour, portions are ‘Class 6+’ rapids – impossible to traverse – deadly.
Two sets of rapids are encountered – the Whirlpool and the Devil’s Hole rapids. Once past them, the river widens and deepens, becoming serene as it steadily flows into Lake Ontario.
Today, the diversion of water for electrical generation has significantly reduced the rate of erosion slowing down the march of the Falls to Lake Erie, but on the other side of that coin…
…no one alive today has seen the true wonder and beauty of the Falls…
50% of the Niagara River is diverted away from the Falls during the daylight hours to feed the voracious appetite of the power generation stations lined up along the river. During the evening hours, this diversion is increased to 75% of the River’s volume leaving only 25% of the water to flow over the brink.
We can only imagine what the mighty Niagara looked and sounded like before!
Many industries took up residence in the Niagara Regions on both sides of the borders for the low-cost electricity. Prominent among these, was the chemical industry whose legacy would have a long reaching impact upon the area and would erupt into national infamy called the ‘Love Canal’.
If you haven’t seen the Falls yet – you’d better hurry – in 50,000 years they’ll be gone.
“The river continued its eternal course, as if we had never been there. It was the single constant in the gorge, dominating and controlling its ancient kingdom, as it had done for thousands of years. Despite my pain and bruises, I felt a warmth spread across me that wasn’t generated from the last rays of the sun, which were disappearing over the horizon, or from the efforts of our travels. Niagara wasn’t just a river to me anymore, a name on a map, or even an address where I lived. It was something special, something living, and I was now a part of it—and would be for the rest of my life.” Journeys Across Niagara
Until Next Time:
Embrace Life’s Bridges – For they Define Who You Are