Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Falling Back Through Time

Land Rover Expedition Time: 18th May 1998

Our departure date to leave North America was looming fast. We had to get back on the road and, as always, that uncomfortable, familiar feeling was back – apprehension battled with anticipation; the fear of the unknown wrestled with the lure of the adventure ahead.

I wasn’t looking forward to navigating to JKF International airport via New York City. But, we would have a treat on the way - the majestic Niagara Falls. I had already been awed by these on a previous trip to Canada and they were definitely a "must see" for a second look. TH had never seen them and had endured my constant raving when I returned home from that earlier trip.

Niagara Falls are actually three falls – The American, the Bridal Veil and the magnificent Horseshoe Falls where the rumbling, great, green waters constantly roar over the edge. The Horseshoe Falls are best viewed from the Canadian side. Standing there, I could feel the raw power of them and their thunder pounded my ears.

My brain flashed irrational messages to stand back, as if I might suddenly get sucked into the water and flung over the edge. Maybe the compelling beauty of Niagara Falls kept me standing there, or maybe it was the power of Roger.

Roger was my date with the past. Up until 1998, only two living things had been seen to go over the Falls (without special protection) and survive - a dog in the 1800's and Roger Woodward on 9th of July in 1960.

Some call it the "Miracle at Niagara", when 7-year-old Roger and his older sister, 17-year-old Deanne, survived certain death. The siblings and an older family friend had been enjoying an outing in a small boat several kilometres up river. The motor failed and the little rowboat was swept along in the swift current. They were all thrown out in the turbulence before the falls.

Chance swept Deanne towards the observation platform on the American side, which jutted over the edge of the Falls. Her cries for help alerted the tourists. There was just enough time for them to lean over the railings and to snatch her out in the few seconds she was nearest to them. Her brother, the family-friend and the boat hurtled over the falls. The man was killed, the boat smashed to pieces, but Roger somehow survived with only a few scratches. He was plucked from the roiling waters beneath the Horseshoe Falls, after grabbing a life ring thrown by the crew of one of the "Maid of the Mist" boats that scud about near the base of the falls. His survival made news throughout the world.

Back in 1960, I couldn’t read as I wasn’t yet at school, and New Zealand didn’t have television then. I remained ignorant of Roger’s amazing story until I was aged ten. I can still recall that rainy lunch hour, sitting in my classroom in Standard Four, with an old magazine spread out on my desk. For once, my sandwiches were forgotten. I read, and re-read the story, staring at the images of Niagara Falls. Even in black & white I could see the mighty power of the water.

Enthralled and excited by this tale, I thumbed through an atlas to discover where the Falls were. Canada, painted Empire red on the map, was separated from USA by a straight borderline, before the border wiggled around the Great Lakes area. My finger briefly rested at the oddly named town of Buffalo, and then moved up to where the magic words "Niagara Falls" were written. I made it my goal right then to go there. It took me nearly thirty years and, here I was back again a few years later. I stood near the edge of the falls and thought about the boy who drew me there. Just wondering how he survived that punishing torrent gives me goose bumps.

Google was not available in 1998, but now writing this in 2008, google has been a useful tool in finding out "whatever happened to Roger". Despite the media glare at the time, it’s wonderful to know that Roger has gone on to have a normal life with his own family, although he has cheated death twice since 1960:

In October 2003, Kirk Jones intentionally went over the Falls without a protective device of any kind and survived. He was immediately taken into custody by the Niagara Parks Police and charged with stunting. Jones had to pay a large fine upon being found guilty in court of criminal mischief and for violating the Niagara Parks Act.

I had no intention of falling or diving into Niagara Falls. Although I love surfing, the thought of being in this roaring water terrified me. However, when I wasn’t directly next to the edge of the falls I was quite fearless. From my previous visit, I had tried out nearly every daredevil ride possible, except for rocketing over the falls in a barrel, of course.

TH and I took a trip on my No.1 favourite – the Maid of the Mist boat. Standing on the deck, very close to the base of the falls, the drenching spray and water’s rush seems too much for the boat to keep afloat. The lightweight little blue plastic "raincoats" that everyone is given to wear are almost useless.

But, the best bit is when the captain slows the boat to announce: "This is the exact spot we picked up young Roger". There is hush from the squealing excited patrons and they stare at the broiling water and shiver at the odds he had to overcome to survive. Thank you, Roger, for helping to give me a love of life. Every day above ground is good, no matter how silly I look in a wet plastic-bag of a raincoat.

The next thrill of our visit was at the Imax theatre. To give the idea of what it is like to go over the falls in a barrel, they somehow managed to get a camera to survive a real fall in a barrel. When they show this part of the film on the giant Imax screen, your eyes tell you that you are actually going over the falls. It was fabulous and real "shriek territory". Imax also ran a dramatisation of the "boy over the falls" story and I was back to being an awed 10-year-old again. I realised then that, apart from the usual child's dream of going to Disneyland, Niagara Falls had been my first ever conscious travel goal to a far-off destination.

© Eventful Woman, 2008
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