Niagara at night

In June 2012, Robert Haverly and I drove from Vermont to Fort Collins, Colorado in two days. We cut west across New York and then south through Ohio, passing through each of its major cities: Cleveland to Columbus to Cincinnati. We made a brief detour into Kentucky, stopping in Slade with aspirations of bouldering at Red River Gorge and therein discovering that energy levels are prohibitively depleted by driving 15 hours unbroken through the night. After that came 1200 miles of baking asphalt, ripping down I-70, chasing the sun across Kansas and into Colorado, stopping only once to sleep for four hours at a campground in Indiana, an excursion which won us the company of an upsetting number of ticks which we found on our clothes and gear.

Before setting out we had noted our anticipated proximity to Niagara Falls on the first night of driving. Neither Rob nor I had seen the iconic landmark. By all accounts, though, Niagara Falls State Park, the most common place to see the falls on the U.S. side, effectively closed at 11pm. We would not be nearby until after midnight. It seemed our acquaintance with the falls was not to be.

As we neared Buffalo, the point at which I-90 definitively turns south to skirt Lake Erie, we eyed the length of the detour over to Niagara Falls. It was short. If the park was closed, we figured, at least we would have attempted a peek. The exit onto the connecting Interstate 290, the Youngmann Expressway, approached, and when the time came to make a decision, we bear right and carried on northward.

As we crossed the Niagara River into the town named after the falls, we could see in the distance a brilliant white light radiating out from the earth, illuminating swirls of fog overhead. Surely this must be the falls? And yet our suspicions remained, unwilling to believe that a regimented national park would mysteriously remain open on this night in particular. We followed the road signs, numerous, leading us off the highway and through a series of turns until we arrived at the entrance to Niagara Falls State Park.

And lo! The gate was open.

We drove straight to the parking area, each moment ready for a ranger to approach and kindly ask us to leave. Perhaps the gate had unintentionally been left open. But the lot was quiet and dark, nearly deserted. I recall there being several other cars, no more. As we got out and stretched our legs, we could see the bloom of light, closer now, and it was undeniably the vista we’d come to see. A soft roar like a hiss of white noise came to us through the distant trees, which were backlit by the alien-like aura beyond.

We walked toward the light, uncertain of what we would find. Once through a copse of trees, we came to a paved walkway and could then see that the light emanated from several large floodlights, hoisted several stories into the air on sturdy cranes. A handful of people were moving about, tearing down equipment and loading trucks. Cue puzzle piece sliding into place; it was a film shoot! The crew members wore lanyards and some carried radios. A thick, taut cable ran from above our heads out into the ethereal fog of the falls. I was certain; a film crew shooting a night scene, a majestic flyover of the enigmatic depths.

While several crew members gave us second looks (Rob’s young son was with us for the journey; two men and a child walking through the remnants of a film set was surely unexpected) nobody stopped us and we proceeded down the hill toward the edge of the park and the waterfall itself. The noise increased dramatically as we advanced, and a fine mist, blowing upward on the breeze from below, gently wet our faces. We reached the guardrail and looked out into the abyss. The harsh beams of the spotlights combined with the relative darkness of the night made for an altogether soupy atmosphere. It was difficult to see further than perhaps a hundred feet into the chasm.

As we stood, arms laid across the railing in front of us, a crew member lazily patrolled the perimeter of the park. He held a radio and occasionally brought it to his mouth in reply. If he was even slightly concerned with our presence there that night he gave no indication of it. Turning to him as he passed by, I called out.

“What was going on here tonight? Looks like a film shoot.”

He stopped his stride and gazed obliquely toward the sky, nodding toward the two cables I’d seen earlier.

“Nah. Guy walked across the falls. You just missed it.”

Our disbelief may have held weight, so substantial it was. The man walked off, as casually as if he’d simply relayed the weather forecast.

Earlier that night, on June 15th, Nik “The King of the Wire” Wallenda, became the first person to walk a tightrope across Niagara Falls. 36,000 people gathered in the park where we were currently standing to watch him complete the crossing, which took him only 25 minutes. The scene now, hours later, was somber and reverent, as if the falls were bowing in respect of a daring human feat.

We stayed a while longer, slowly meandering around the south side of the park, peering out into the haze toward Goat Island, a small piece of land surrounded by the Niagara River, one which is slowly eroding and will one day disappear entirely, reclaimed by the torrents. Our return to the car was without incident, many of the crew gone now, and several of the floodlights starting to power down.

We left the park and found our way back to the highway. I couldn’t shake the sense of being in the right place at the right time. Years later I smile in appreciation of the opportunity, the sheer luck, to see a setting few will ever see: a deserted Niagara Falls, lit eerily in the night. Remember: it’s the detours that make memories.

Photo by Dave Pape