An awesome piece of engineering

Eén van de meest vreselijke feitjes in het boek is wel dat de watervallen volledig gecontroleerd kunnen worden. Elders schreven we al dat het meeste water tergenwoordig wordt afgevoer richting hydro electriciteitcentrales, erger, als stuntmannen iets willen uitvoeren zijn Hydro Ontario of New York Power in staat de watertoevoer volledig te stoppen. Zoiets wil je eigenlijk niet weten, het geeft de watervallen nog meer een Disney-glans.

Interview met de auteur in de Globe and Mail:

‘It’s an awesome piece of engineering’

JULIE TRAVES, May 3, 2008

You open your book with the comment: “I went to Niagara because I wanted to laugh at it.” What transformed you into a Niagaraphile?

I grew up not far from Niagara and we would often drive through Canada. But I never really paid attention to the falls or thought about them. Then I went on a trip with a college boyfriend. Once I learned about all the hydro diversion and the infrastructure, I became really interested. I thought of Niagara as this great, untouched natural wonder that was bigger than us. It is a great natural wonder, and it is bigger than us in some ways, but it’s more complicated than that.

You write that early visitors to Niagara were less enthralled than horrified by the waterfall. How did they see it?

It’s interesting because the word hideous comes up a lot. You can understand it if you stand by the falls: There’s this odd feeling, it’s almost tempting you to jump in – it feels like something that could kill you and almost seems to want to. It killed birds, it killed waterfowl, it was difficult to get around.

And people sometimes forget that early developers didn’t really preserve it in a state of nature. They actually made it user-friendly by putting in pathways, and viewing platforms and snack stands – the kind of thing that’s there today, just slightly more scenic 19th-century versions.

The other thing that happened was the rage for the sublime. People were travelling to the Alps in Europe to see huge mountains and glaciers and snowy peaks. In the United States and Canada, Niagara was the most sublime sight – something that’s so much bigger than us that it’s immeasurable.

So there’s this interesting contradiction because, on the one hand, it became popular because it was wild and huge and untamed. And on the other hand, it became popular because it was starting to be tamed and made a little less wild.

In fact, if Niagara is one of North America’s natural wonders it’s thanks to human manipulation. The falls are even turned up for tourist season. What else have we done to “make” the falls?

What became most interesting to me was less that the falls are turned up and down. What fascinated me was the incredible amount of work that the two nations did together to disguise the fact that we divert water. You go to Niagara and it looks fantastic. It doesn’t look like they’re taking water away.

What they did to make that possible is they excavated a good deal of the riverbed, they filled in the flanks where the waterfall was turning into a trickle. They eliminated 400 feet of the horseshoe on the American side. They have blasted away overhangs so it’s less dangerous.

Then, of course, there’s the great international control structure upstream, which I always thought had to do with power, but in fact is just about directing water flow correctly to make the waterfall look good. So today it’s looking a little thin on the American side, so we’ll send some water that way. Oh, the Canadians are getting too much spray, so we can reduce the flow over there so that the tourists don’t get too wet. They seriously can do that.

You have to be impressed by that on the one hand. It’s an awesome piece of engineering. And on the other hand, the thing that I question is: Does this make us less aware of the fact that using natural resources to generate power has a price?

There’s another less savoury side to Niagara. You write that for at least the last 150 years it’s been a “tacky tourist carnival.” But why all the kitsch? Isn’t the beauty, the sublime, enough of a draw?

You would think so. But you know, how long can you gaze at the waterfall? It seems that there’s always been this urge for other kinds of entertainment at the falls. But maybe that’s related to the falls: The falls are sort of a freak themselves, this stupendous thing that jolts you out of your normal life and makes you go “Whoa” – and a lot of the attractions at the falls have played on that feeling, the same feeling of “Wow, the world is full of marvels.” And I think the Ripley’s and the wax museums at the falls are continuing that tradition. They’re still sort of inducing a sense of wonder and amazement. It just gets harder and harder in our jaded era to find that.

Then of course there are those barrels, what you call zooicides – animals going over the edge – and tightrope walkers. What’s the appeal of all the stunts?

I notice that the daredevil stunts tend to cluster around times when the waterfall comes a little bit more under human control. So it’s as if the stunters are kind of copying what’s being done on a larger scale – which is proving that we are bigger than a waterfall, that we can master the waterfall. So Annie Taylor, who was the first person to survive the trip over the horseshoe in a barrel – a 63-year-old dancing teacher from Michigan – does that in 1906, six years after the falls were harnessed for electricity.

Are there stunts going on now?

It’s been 86’d by the law. Stunting is illegal now. And when people do try to do it, Ontario Hydro and New York Power Authority can dial down the river so they can stop them. And at that point stunting almost becomes no longer fun. Because why prove that you can master a waterfall when it’s already so completely mastered? I did try to talk my boyfriend Bob into going over the falls as a publicity stunt, but he was oddly unwilling.

You write a lot about the difference between the U.S. and Canadian approach to Niagara. How would you characterize the two sides?

Americans are always surprised when they get to Niagara Falls because it seems like the Canadians have out-Americaned the Americans. Tourists feel very well taken care of on the Ontario side. Everything is very well organized. The tourist machinery is in place.

On the New York side, if you go looking for it, you can find a little bit more of the truly wild environment at Niagara. You can hike down into the gorge and walk along the river. And even parts of Goat Island still feel a little bit like they probably felt in the very early days of tourism.

What’s the most underrated thing about Niagara?

In a way, I think a lot of it is underrated. Certainly when I went for the first time, I expected it to be kitschy. I didn’t expect to be impressed and wowed by the natural splendour. And yet there it is – for all the kitsch, for all the control, it’s still a stupendous natural spectacle. That in itself might be the most underrated thing.

Ginger Strand lives in New York. Her book Inventing Niagara will be in stores this Tuesday.