Niagara Falls reminded me startlingly of Las Vegas, for all that it’s several thousand miles and a number of ecosystem types away; in both places, someone looked at a breathtaking natural wonder and decided what would really enhance it was a bunch of architecturally dubious casinos. (I remain convinced that the view of the mountains was, hands-down, the best thing about Vegas.)
Our visit wasn’t just to Niagara Falls, of course, it was to Niagara Falls, Canada, as was helpfully printed on just about every sign and piece of paper that mentioned the place’s name – although the Canadians themselves, and the road signs, just called it “The Falls”, as if there could be no other. Mind you, it’s not a thing likely to cause confusion in that part of the world. They’re pretty noticeable. And audible.
We had intended to stay at the Falls for a couple of hours – maybe for lunch – and the price of parking definitely made that seem like a good idea, but it was so damn cold standing out there that we chickened out and decided to brave US border control instead, contenting ourselves with some decent photos. The town itself is a bit of a warren, road-wise, but we figured we couldn’t be the only confused tourists trying to get back to America and there were plenty of signs directing us there, even if they did appear to lead us in circles a couple of times.
The really strange moment was when we got to the border and were asked what the purpose of our trip was. I couldn’t work out why they cared about our reasons for going to Canada, given that the odds we were going to answer “drug smuggling” were low.
And then we remembered; the border officer meant our “trip” into the USA. We were thinking, lulled by the still unfamiliar land-border thing, of it as driving home; back to our house and our cat and our jobs. But we weren’t, or at least, there was no guarantee we could. We were strangers coming into a strange land, and they wanted to know why we were going to America. “Going home” wasn’t going to cut it.
But before that, when we were still in Canada, looking at the Falls, they made me think not about borders and crossings and belonging, but the slow inexorable power of water, usually hidden in streams and rain and patient wearing-away, not very often let slip in volume like this. And Niagara – impressive as it is – is a poor remnant of the mighty flows that shaped the North American continent. At the end of the last ice age, a glacial lake in what is now Washington State periodically flooded to the sea, discharging water at five thousand times the rate of the Niagara Falls today. Some of the debris swept away by those floods – rock and plant and animal – went all the way out to the Juan de Fuca ridge, where the hydrothermal vent systems I study are, and is still slowly being metamorphosed from organic to inorganic carbon, deep under sediment and lava flows, producing methane that shows up when we sample hydrothermal fluid.
Which proves, I suppose, that I like my work enough that I can mentally relate anything to it.