Niagara Falls: A Recollection
By Lee Chang-kook
The tragic news February 12 of an airplane crash that killed all 49 people on board, mostly commuters, including five crew members near Clarence, New York, was a great sorrow and shock for many.
It was reported that the said airplane, Continental Air 3407, took off from Newark airport in New Jersey and was to arrive at Niagara airport. The moment I heard the news, to my shame and guilt, I spontaneously recollected my only sightseeing trip to Niagara Falls in July 1990.
I knew it was improper and even cruel of me to recall a happy moment of my life in the face of a tragedy, but I couldn't help it. Triggered by the mere word ``Niagara," the whole picture of Niagara Falls that had been completely out of my mind for the last 10 years or more revived instantly before my eyes.
My first encounter with Niagara Falls was too short and brief; less than two hours, perhaps. After I had heard about the falls and longed to see them from my childhood, at long last, I arrived where they were, saw them with my own eyes, took some pictures, and had a stroll around with so many other tourists from all the corners of the globe. Then I came home and forgot about them. Many years have passed since then. But now I realize that they'd remained with me ever since.
As I grew up with waterfalls deep in mountains that usually have long and narrow bodies of water falling fast and precipitately from rocky cliffs, Niagara Falls was not a waterfall at all in the usual and common sense of the word. It was a grand river ― the Niagara River ― flowing by and through great modern cities, from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario.
What amazed me was not the height of the falls, but the unbridled power of nature, with the huge amount of water, ever undiminished greenish-white pouring down over the wide; and high cliffs, ceaselessly and timelessly, making an awe-inspiring, fearsome din. And, more than anything else, they were beautiful.
I cannot fail to recall the spectacular view of the falls from the deck of ``Maid of the Mist." Wearing rain gear and wondering how this noisy boat had been given such a poetic name, I was one of the many adventure-loving tourists on the boat, which cruised past the base of the thundering American Falls and propels its way up the stream into the basin of the turbulent waters just below Horseshoe Falls, thrilled by the spray of the water soaking us.
As I presumed, the ``Maid of the Mist" was named for the heroine of a local Indian legend. Long ago, one of the Indian tribes living along the Niagara River began to die of a mysterious disease. As a remedy, it was decided that a maiden be sacrificed to the thunder god, who lived with his sons in the caves behind the falls. The chosen maid went over the roaring water to her death and, while falling, was caught in the arms of one of the thunder god's sons, who loved her. He told her that a giant water snake was poisoning the village water. Her spirit alerted her people. The snake, mortally wounded, fled back to the river, twisting itself into the semi-circular shape of the present Horseshoe Falls.
Such is the great wonder of Mother Nature, as Niagara Falls is a mysterious, great work of art. It's not easy to say or write anything about it. Before the sheer magnitude and sublime beauty of it, we lose or forget the appropriate words with which to express the powerful emotion it creates or evokes in us when we encounter them. We're awestruck and become suddenly dumb and silent at the grandeur of the scene, which is why I have not written about Niagara Falls until now.
I have tried many times before, but failed. I feel quite relieved now to have vented a strong emotion that was pent up in my heart for so long at last, although the result is definitely poor and I am not quite satisfied with it. Niagara Falls, along with The Grand Canyon, stand above and beyond my reach of expression.
Did you know the falls are disappearing? To our sadness, they are, slowly, gradually and invisibly. Nothing under the sun is permanent. Nothing remains the same as it is. Over the years, a talus has been forming at the base of the American Falls, reducing the water's fall, rising two-thirds of the way up the cliff in some places. At this rate, experts predict, the American Falls may become steep rapids in less than a hundred years.
Over the years, the river has eroded the escarpment of the riverbed, creating the falls, and this very force is now pushing them upstream. Horseshoe Falls has been receding toward Lake Erie, where it originated, at an average of 3 feet per year. To our temporary relief, thanks to remedial work and power projects ― less water flow and less cutting power ― the rate has dropped considerably to less than 1 foot per year, allegedly.
However, I am sad and worried. I'm afraid that one day I'll hear new news on TV, not of another tragic airplane crash, but of the crumble of the cliffs that form Niagara Falls, much as Great Stone Face crumbled. These legendary rocks, that resembled a human face at Franconia Notch State Park in New Hampshire, figured in Nathaniel Hawthorne's namesake short story, crumbled and disappeared on May 3, 2003, due to a heavy rainstorm.
Furthermore, the rich volume of water itself, that distinguishes Niagara Falls from so many other famous falls all over the world, might not be as abundant due to scanty rainfall the world over.
Nature is much more fragile and unpredictable than we think, yet we expect it to be otherwise. Long live Niagara Falls!