The Thing Is with Steve Canavan

editorial image
Have your say

I’ve never previously been impressed by waterfalls.

Sure some are bigger than others – and I guess vaguely interesting for a moment or two in a ‘isn’t nature glorious’ kind of way– but generally speaking, what’s the big deal? It’s just falling water, which is ten a penny to someone who grew up in Manchester.

However, after seeing Niagara Falls this week, I’ve changed my opinion.

It is one serious waterfall – well, two I suppose but the American one is boring; it’s all about the Canadian Horseshoe falls.

It is absolutely huge in width and height, and more than six million cubic feet of water goes over the crest every minute (that measurement means absolutely nothing to me either, but you can’t deny it sounds impressive).

It really is quite utterly mesmerising and beautiful to look at … until you turn around and see the mind-bogglingly tacky resort that has sprung up around it, built by those determined to milk this natural wonder for all it’s worth (just parking the car cost 10 dollars per half hour; it would have been cheaper to fly in on a private jet).

Mrs Canavan and I – currently on holiday in Canada - headed to Niagara last week, along with our baby Mary (we were going to leave her back at the motel but it seemed unfair as there was nothing on the box and the minibar in the fridge was empty).

The highlight was cramming on to a boat with – at a rough guess – around 31,750 other tourists, donning a very fetching red poncho, and sailing almost to the mouth of the Horseshoe Falls. The power of the waterfall creates an astonishing amount of spray and I would have got absolutely soaked had I not been quick-witted enough to use Mary as a shield.

One of the most spectacular if unnerving views is at the top of the Horseshoe Falls. Only a worryingly small, chest-height barrier separates you from a sheer drop to the water and, if you’ll allow me to be cheery for a moment, it’s little wonder it is a well-known suicide spot (40 people a year deliberately jump in and take their own lives – a pretty horrific thought).

As I was watching the water thunder down into the abyss, while attempting not to be shoulder-barged out of position by the three million Japanese tourists taking selfies, I couldn’t help but think about those who have attempted daredevil stunts at the spot.

For instance, did you know - and I was slightly astounded to discover this - the first person to attempt to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel was not some young muscular macho fella but a meek and mild retired schoolteacher by the name of Annie Taylor.

After living an unremarkable life, Mrs Taylor – presumably very bored and not a little insane - ordered a barrel constructed of oak and iron, stuck a mattress in it, then threw herself over the falls. The idea was to earn a few quid to see her through retirement, though personally I’d have stayed home and taken out a Post Office savings account.

She chose to throw herself off on October 24, 1901, on her 63rd birthday, which makes a change from eating cake and having the relatives round. No one thought she stood a chance of surviving, but remarkably, 17 minutes after plunging 167 feet, she was pulled from her barrel with nothing more than a bloodied forehead.

“I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces,” she later said in rather melodramatic fashion, “than make another trip over the falls.”

Mrs Taylor thought the stunt would earn her millions but as it turned out, her manager ran off with the barrel and she spent her personal savings hiring private detectives to find it. She spent her final years posing for photographs with tourists at a souvenir stand and died virtually penniless. A sad tale.

Remarkably, since then a further 14 people have intentionally gone over, the vast majority perishing in the process. The most gruesome attempt was in 1920 when Englishman Charles Stephens equipped his barrel with an anvil, which he tied to himself for security. That turned out to be an ill-advised plan as when the barrel was retrieved, only his right arm was in there, still tied to the anvil. Which I’m guessing is a story not often told by parents trying to get their children to sleep.

My personal favourite is Bobby Leach, who, in 1911, plunged over the falls in a barrel, broke both kneecaps but survived … then died slipping on an orange peel.

The biggest madman of the lot, though, is surely Kirk Jones, who in 2003 decided to try to become the first person to survive the drop wearing only the clothes on his back. He was so confident he even bought a camcorder for his friends to record the moment. Amazingly he not only survived but swam to the shore – even passing up the offer of a lift from a passing tour boat. The only downside was that his friends couldn’t work the camcorder and the whole thing went unrecorded. One can only imagine it was a very tense car journey home (‘For God’s sake Malcolm, you had one thing to do. How many times do I have to tell you, record is the big red button’).

You’ll be relieved to know that I resisted the urge to purchase a barrel and attempt to join the list of Niagara daredevils. Instead I went back to the motel and had a cocoa, which was less exciting but much drier.

* While strolling around the rather fetching town of Niagara-on-the-Lake (a 20-minute or so drive from the distinctly unfetching Niagara Falls resort) I came across this sign (pictured inset).

Despite some lengthy research on the internet (well, a couple of minutes in between Pointless and the start of the six o’clock news), I couldn’t find out too much about these newspapers.

But what struck me was what a splendid place it must have been to work. We at The Gazette are based on an industrial park off Squires Gate behind Morrisons. No offence to Morrisons - indeed it currently has some excellent offers on groceries and household cleaning products - but the view above is somewhat nicer.