Behind the Scenes at Niagara Falls

Horseshoe Falls at sunset, July 2021

THERE WAS A LOT OF TIME TO THINK ABOUT SHOOTING NIAGARA FALLS. At least a year, probably, since I began planning a trip to the Falls during the brief opening up between lockdowns last summer. When it finally looked like there’d be places to go and things to see the planning started again; I knew I wanted to try and shoot the Falls from every angle possible, in every kind of light, which meant an overnight stay.

Which meant a hotel room. It’s been almost two years now since I stayed in a hotel, and just the thought of it was exciting, never mind actually showing up, getting my keys and experiencing that perpetual thrill – it never goes away, i don’t know why – of seeing your room for the first time. I made sure I booked into the hotel closest to the Falls, on the highest floor possible. I ended up in the Marriott Fallsview, on the 22nd floor, just below the penthouse suites, with a view that I paid dearly for.

I did as much research as possible beforehand; the late Pierre Berton’s Niagara: A History of the Falls is still the best book about the Falls after nearly three decades. I also began collecting a folder of images and created six whole pages of reference sketches and notes in my notebook. Train departures and arrivals, contacts, bookings, weather, sunset and sunrise times – it all went into my notes. I don’t know how I worked for so many years without doing this much pre-visualization, but maybe it’s just that every shoot and opportunity has become more precious now.

It’s becoming useful to set myself at least one goal when appropriate to the trip – an iconic image to try and duplicate to the extent that it’s possible. For this trip it wasn’t a photo but a painting that I wanted to copy – Frederic Unwin Church’s The Great Fall, Niagara, an 1857 panoramic canvas that contributed greatly to Church’s (now vanished) fame back when it was exhibited and reproduced all over the world.

The Great Fall, Niagara, 1857 by Frederic Unwin Church

Erosion has moved the Horseshoe Falls back many feet since Church painted his canvas, and in any case the finished work was a composite, meant to convey the power of the Falls more than precise appearance. I ended up shooting from a spot just near the Table Rock Visitors Centre – a view that took in more of the river behind the Falls than Church did, using my 7.5mm fisheye lens. Copying a painting is, of course, an even more quixotic task than doing the same thing with a photo, so I knew that whatever I did in the end would be more a matter of interpretation than mimicry.

White Water Walk, Niagara Falls, ON, July 2021

I began my shooting at the Whirlpool Aero Car and then walked upriver along Niagara Parkway to the White Water Walk – both attractions owned and managed by Niagara Parks, with admission arranged by the nice people at Niagara Falls Tourism Canada. Liaising with the tourism people was part of my preparation for the trip – I didn’t want to worry about access and lineups, especially when capacity numbers were being limited due to COVID. In any case my decision to make my trip early in the week meant crowds were much thinner than on the weekends, a choice that I’d made not because of crowds but because the week only promised a brief window of good weather.

Patting myself on my back, I planned my schedule well for the day, allotting more than enough time at each spot to shoot at my leisure. I’d made the schedule so loose, in fact, that I had plenty of time after finishing shooting the Whirlpool Rapids to walk all the way down to the Falls – a hike that takes you past the old downtown of Niagara Falls, ON, much of which has been abandoned, though there’s an ongoing effort to revive Queen Street as an arts, shopping and dining destination for locals.
Niagara Falls, ON, July 2021

It was definitely a walk mostly off the beaten tourist track, taking in the Ten Thousand Buddhas Sarira Stupa, two closed tourist information booths (one a lovely Art Deco building across from the American Falls), and the view down the railway crossing at Bridge Street to the US side. (Stupidly, I’d let my passport lapse during lockdown, otherwise I’d have found time to cross over the river and get some shots from the American side.)

My next destination was Journey Behind The Falls – an attraction nearly as old as tourism to the Falls, though it’s much safer and well-managed than it was in the 19th century, when visitors would walk along a narrow ledge behind the roaring curtain of water at the Horseshoe Falls, fearing for their lives. It was a vantage point I knew I needed to get – my only chance to shoot up at the Falls instead of across or down.

Journey Behind the Falls

Anticipating the shooting conditions at the bottom of the Falls, I invested in a bit of kit ahead of time – a waterproof cover for my mirrorless Fuji. It was worth the money – the spray from the Falls will soak you out on the viewing platform, and with the camera cover the only thing I had to worry about was wiping water off the front of my lens. There was even time to get a shot of me at work, looking less than dignified.

Besides the candid shots above, the trip was also an opportunity to shoot some pinhole work, and try out a couple of new pinhole “lenses” I’d acquired since last summer. I was worried that last year’s pinhole shooting was an anomaly – novelty being as much of the thrill as any creative breakthroughs. Happily, though, it was just as exciting and rewarding as last year, perhaps even more so with familiarity with the very specific limitations of pinhole, and the resulting creative challenges, and a conscious move to try and make the images even more abstract.

Whirlpool Rapids, Niagara River, July 2021
Horseshoe Falls, Niagara Falls, ON, July 2021

As much as I managed to accomplish at the Falls, I was still missing some pieces when I came home from this trip. A major new attraction – the restored 1905 Power Plant – wouldn’t be open for another week, and I didn’t have time to take a stroll around Clifton Hill and its exuberantly garish, reliably fun tourist attractions – our Atlantic City, the closest thing Canada has to a year-round carnival midway. Luckily we’d planned a family day trip a couple of weeks later, which gave me a chance to fill in these blanks.

Niagara Falls, ON, August 2021

It was fantastic being on the road again, if only for a night, and the trips to the Falls only underlined how much I miss travel work. I hope I’ll be able to get back to it as soon as possible, despite warnings of tightening travel restrictions and potential returns to lockdown. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling like I’ve lost a lot of time and opportunity in the last year and a half; fully vaccinated and with a renewed passport, I’m desperate to make up for it all.

View from Room 2222, Marriott Fallsview, July 2021

Georgian Bay

On Georgian Bay, 2019

THE GREAT THING ABOUT MY WORK is that I occasionally get paid to do something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve had my eye on the Chi-Cheemaun ferry for years now, but I was recently hired by the Alternator Group on behalf of Owen Sound Transportation Company to spend a weekend on the boat between Tobermory and Manitoulin Island, take some photos and write a few stories.

My motel, Tobermory, ON, 2019

Cottage country is a big deal up here – not just in Canada, generally, but in Ontario particularly. My family never owned a cottage – we rented one for a week, once, when I was a boy – so I’ve spent my meagre time there as a guest. I’m not a driver, so I had to hire a car to get me up to where Ontario Highway 6 turns a corner by the Bruce Anchor Motel and pauses at the ferry docks in Tobermory.

Tobermory, Ontario, 2019

The ferry takes up where the road leaves off, moving cars across the mouth of Georgian Bay on Lake Huron to South Baymouth on Manitoulin Island, where the highway continues across the island, over the North Channel via a swing bridge before ending in McKerrow. I was only concerned with the highway’s path over the water on the Chi-Cheemaun, however.

MS Chi-Cheemaun arrives at Tobermory, 2019

I arrived in Tobermory with just enough time to check in to the Bruce Anchor before wandering down to the dock to watch the Chi-Cheemaun arrive from its morning voyage across the bay. Since I wasn’t booked on to the boat until the evening sunset dinner cruise, I had an afternoon to kill in Tobermory, which I did with my camera – a warm-up before I had to get on the boat and get to work.

On deck, Georgian Bay, 2019
Manitoulin Island, 2019

I like boats. I like anything that takes me anywhere, but boats have a clear lead over planes and a narrow one over trains. Going somewhere on a boat feels like a voyage, and thanks to ever-changing conditions on the water, each trip feels different than the last. The Chi-Cheemaun has been making itself a destination on its own for many years, but its branding got a boost when the bow and funnel were decorated with murals inspired by local woodland aboriginal artwork.

On Georgian Bay at sunset, 2019

I used my main camera, a Fuji X-T2, to take the portraits and reportage I needed for the commissioned stories, but as usual I took my much-loved X30 with me to capture the sorts of shots I’m always collecting when I travel. The return journey from Manitoulin was dominated by a long sunset that seemed to change every time I thought I’d shot enough and went inside again. A glimpse out the window would reveal another different combination of sky, water and colour, so out I’d go again.

Ferry terminal, Tobermory, ON, 2019

The last embers of the sunset were still burning away when we docked at Tobermory for the night, lining the horizon out towards the mouth of the bay. The sun disappeared and brought a night of rain, which carried in a day’s worth of fog that covered the lake from the moment we left the next morning, hiding the islands on the way out of Tobermory in wisps of steaming mist.

I actually enjoyed my two trips on the Chi-Cheemaun through the fog more than the spectacular sunset cruise the night before. The lake was definitely choppier and visibility was down to a few dozen metres for most of the trip, which meant that the ship’s horn would sound regularly, its muffled echo rolling back through the fog. But the views from the deck were more primal and mysterious, land glimpsed only occasionally through cool fog, the water raked with waves.

Leaving Tobermory, 2019
Manitoulin Island, 2019
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Elora again

Elora Mill Inn, Grand River and the “Tooth of Time”

I FINALLY GOT TO STAY AT THIS PLACE. Elora is probably my favorite small town in Ontario, and I’ve been there a few times now, the last two on business. The Elora Mill Inn & Spa was still being renovated when I visited last year, but I’ve been angling to get a night there since they gave me a tour. A couple of months ago I got my chance.

The mill is as old as the town, and it’s been the star of its scenic views for as long as Elora has been hosting visitors, for more than a century. It’s amazing to think that the “Tooth of Time” – a little flowerpot island that sits in the middle of the steepest part of the rapids by the mill – is still standing. The spring melt had swelled the Grand River when I visited, so the water was raging through Fergus and Elora the whole time I was there.

Time was tight while I was in town so I had to do some planning. I already had the postcards, but I needed to nail down sunset and sunrise while I was in town and figure out where the light would be. I knew I wanted to get a long exposure of the water flowing past the mill, and thankfully this time I had all the gear I need to pull it off – a lightweight travel tripod, a cable release and a set of neutral density filters.

Taking the shot with all the gear

The sunset was a bit muted when I set up on the patio outside the spa – as close as I could get to the spot where some anonymous postcard photographer set up for their shot over a century ago. I’m still not sure about shooting long exposures, but it’s a look I’ve never seriously tried before with landscapes and this seemed like a good place to give it a shot.

Room with a view, Elora Mill Inn & Spa

My room was visible from the patio – on the left side of the new glass addition, just above the restaurant and below the balconies of the deluxe suites. The hotel was nice enough to give me a suite with a fireplace, which I enjoyed the hell out of. I was in town to write a couple of travel features about Elora, but I knew that I’d try to get a post for my own travel blog about the hotel while I was lucky enough to enjoy their hospitality – and the spectacular view:

I did a bunch of interviews for the travel features, which gave me an opportunity for some portraits. Elora’s been a hub for artists since at least the ’70s, and they’ve formed a community whose work has become a key part of the town’s business and identity. I handed in colour shots for the stories, but I took some versions of my own, pretty sure they’d end up being processed in black and white.

David Cross, blacksmith and sculptor, Elora, Ontario
Neil Hanscomb and Gisela Ruehe, glass artists, Elora, Ontario

The whole Elora/Fergus area is ridiculously photogenic, so I ended up with a lot of “end cuts” even after handing in my two features and posting to my travel blog. My visits to the area, while enjoyable, are always too brief. One day I’d like to spend a few days exploring with my camera, though I doubt if my lodgings will be as luxurious.

Ruin, Elora, Ontario
Templin Gardens, Fergus, Ontario
Grand River in the spring, Fergus, Ontario
Grand River at Wilson Flats Access Point
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