My family and I were among the last few people to board the Maid of the Mist IV, one of four tour boats that sail up the Niagara River, past the base of the American Falls and into the U-shaped basin that gave Canada's Horseshoe Falls their name.
We had begun our three-day visit to Niagara Falls on a Wednesday, hoping to avoid the weekend crowds, but July is prime viewing time, and the boat was already packed to the railings.
The thin, blue, plastic ponchos stuck to our bare limbs like Saran Wrap as we squeezed our way through 300 other passengers decked out in the same silly outfits and shouting in several different languages.
As the Maid began her half-mile journey, my husband and 14-year-old son went off in search of a good viewing spot. My eight-year-old son, having spent the 20-minute wait in line listening to his brother explain how the boat could easily be sucked into the falls forever, never left my side as I raced up and down between the decks looking for a spot from which I could see something, anything beyond the wave of blue plastic engulfing the boat.
The wind whipping through the ponchos drowned out even the loudspeakers. I would catch an occasional phrase -- "American Falls 180 feet high Canadian, 170" "Horseshoe brink, 2,500" -- but basically had no idea what exactly we were passing, until I heard the loud and clear announcement: "Ladies and gentlemen, this is Niagara Falls."
At that very moment, the boat began to vibrate from the bottom up, the mist suddenly roared, and my son and I dashed into an opening by the starboard railing and found Niagara Falls, literally, in our faces.
So thick was the spray blowing into the boat that we could barely see the falls. But we could feel their power, inflating our ponchos like balloons, uniting us in glee, like children running past an open fire hydrant, barely able to stand up to the blast.
Steady in the water
After holding steady in the swirling waters for a minute or so, the 72-foot Maid of the Mist, celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, emerged unscathed. And as I wiped the famous waters from my eyes, I wondered why I, a lifelong New Yorker, had waited so long to visit this thundering icon that has thrilled rogues and royalty alike for centuries.
It was probably those vague images of honeymooners and sleazy hideaways that had kept me away -- images rooted in Niagara's colorful history as the great American sideshow but having little to do with the family-oriented establishments and graceful gardens and parkland that surround the falls today.
Although Niagara Falls ranks only 51st among the world's waterfalls in height, its unbridled, voluminous beauty has been attracting travelers since the end of the War of 1812.
By the time the first Maid, a coal-fired ferry, sailed into the mist in May 1846, Niagara Falls was already in its adolescence as an international destination, dominated by showmen and charlatans offering cheap peeps at the falls through wooden fences and other unsightly structures lining the Niagara River. It took more than half a century of rampant commercialism to finally "Free Niagara" -- the rallying cry from which one of this country's first ecological movements took its name.
The first U.S. state park
A bill authorizing the creation of the Niagara Reservation State Park -- the first state park in the United States -- was passed in 1885, the same year that the Canadian Parks Commission was established.
The result, today, is an unbroken stretch of parkland along the BTC 35-mile-long western bank of the Niagara River in Ontario and on the eastern, New York side, the dramatic vistas of Prospect Point and of Goat Island, a quarter-mile-wide stretch of land that divides the Niagara River in two, creating the American Falls to the north and Horseshoe Falls to the southwest.
There are still, of course, hundreds of commercial establishments catering to the ever-increasing number of visitors -- last year 8.4 million on the American side and close to 14 million on the Canadian -- but the land immediately surrounding the falls has remained a publicly regulated and maintained domain, set off from the city in New York, artfully integrated in Ontario.
Rainbows arced over the river as we set out, on foot this time, for the Journey Behind the Falls at the Table Rock Complex, near the brink of Horseshoe Falls -- not garden-spray rainbows but huge semicircles that kept reappearing during our half-mile walk. We were following the broad promenade that borders the colorful gardens of Queen Victoria Park, the section of Ontario's Niagara Parks system closest to the falls and the endearing heart of the city -- where people from several continents spend the better part of their time staring up and across the river in quiet amazement.