…continued from Toronto Food Markets
My new found love for whitewater brought me to one of our country’s most famous natural wonders – Niagara – where water is immense, powerful, and immeasurably dangerous. It is a vista on a grand scale, with water pouring over its falls at 750,000 gallons each second. Millions people visit the falls each year to witness its sheer magnitude and immensity, as I ended up doing at the end of last summer. And though the falls are certainly magnificent in their own right, I had a bigger reason to come out there. I wanted to see the rapids downstream.
Just over two miles down the river, the current narrows into Niagara Gorge, creating a colossal Class VI rapid, whose waves are known as the Himalayas. It rages through the canyon for a mile before pouring into the Niagara Whirlpool, a large circular formation in the canyon. From there, the river elbows to the northeast, flowing through a big Class V stretch before finally leveling out into flatwater in its course towards Lake Ontario. All of it is just as awesome to see as the falls, especially if like me, you enjoy watching a huge, wild river.
Paddling the gorge, though, is out of the question. Due to numerous accidents over the years, the city has declared the river as virtually unrunnable. They regard any paddling or barreling attempts as akin to dumbassery, and not without their share of penalties. If you do try to run it, and you’re lucky enough to get through with your life and your paddle, you will be rewarded with a $10,000 fine and a free ride to jail.
They made one exception in 1982. Four world-class kayakers were cleared to do a controlled run on the Himalayas, marking the first legal descent of the gorge. Though they got through it without any injuries, even they took a beating in that water.
Simply put, that river doesn’t fuck around.
The good news is that you can still get down there in a way that is perfectly legal and safe. You may never be able to paddle it (probably for the best), but you can still access the whirlpool and the rapids downstream by jetboat. I came out to the city after making a reservation with Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours, spent the morning checking out the falls, and left on a shuttle early afternoon for their jetboat departure 12 miles down the river.
The tour company got us situated with life jackets and a short orientation before boarding us into two jetboats on the dock. Before long, we were skirting the flatwater back upstream towards the canyon. The announcer, a funny Korean dude, gave a short history and description of the river and its key landmarks on the shorelines.
Up ahead, small, choppy rapids were in sight. But not small enough not to spray everybody in the boat as it raced over the breaks. The canyon walls closed in and we reached the bottom of Devil’s Hole, a beautiful Class V just downstream from the whirlpool.
The announcer cheered us on as the jetboat tore through the river left side, not stopping until it reached the pool above. It turned back around and went right for the middle of the hole. I was on the far right side of the boat, giving me a great view of the coming waves. The boat went over a huge swell, and then crashed into an even bigger breaking wave, sending a rush of water onto the deck. It slammed me in the face. Then it pounded into another wave, hitting us with even more water. The Korean family next to me was cheering. Water was in my eyes, my nose, my head, my blood. The current leveled out and we waited for the other boat to get down before turning back upstream to hit the rapid a second time.
Afterwards, we went upstream to the whirlpool and stopped in a large eddy just outside of Whirlpool Rapids, a treacherous Class VI that pours into the pool, creating its huge, circular current. The announcer told us that the eddy line along that rapid was powerful enough to pull just about anything underwater, where it recirculates all kinds of debris for days, weeks, even months, before spitting it out. Out of all of the shitty ways there are that a person could die, I thought, that’s pretty high up there. We turned downstream for one last big hit through Devil’s Hole and the boat skirted its way out of the canyon.
The jetboats aren’t built to handle any of the Class VI upstream from Whirlpool, which was what I really wanted to see. The shuttle dropped me off just down the road from the Whitewater Walk, where I took an elevator down to the bottom of the canyon to a riverside boardwalk. It goes right along side of the Himalayas, the biggest rapids in the entire river.
Aptly named for their immensity, the Himalayas are the highest standing waves in the northern hemisphere, raging and exploding out of the water at a height of approximately 20 feet. And they aren’t caused by ledges or boulders, as standing waves typically are; the powerful current has eroded the riverbed into too flat of a surface for that. No, those waves are the effect of a huge, turbulent flow of water narrowing into a canyon at an insanely high gradient.
It was awesome, but I could only stand it for about 20 minutes. That river was making me seasick. I knew it was time to get back up to the hostel, clean up, and get something to eat.
I hope the city considers another sanctioned run of that river, especially now that action camera technology has come as far as it has. Imagine how sick it would be to film some expert kayakers on those big waves with cameras on their boats, helmets, and drone helicopters. I’m sure companies like GoPro and Redbull have already tried to talk the city into it.
Either way, you can still see the tamer section by jetboat, and it’s certainly worth checking out. The best place to see that canyon, or any canyon, is always from the middle of the river.