Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Long Night

[First, a quick update on our last entry. The man who was swept over Niagara, yet lived to be rescued, is said to be continuing his recovery. His identity, at the request of family members, has been kept out of all reports. No one has actually said so, but it's believed that he was a person drawn to the mighty River to end his life. Such stories are not the focus of these pages, and so, unless some unusual circumstances come to light concerning his situation, we will write no more of him.]

Our last few posts have looked at adventurers who challenged Niagara and won. But the panorama that is the River's history has many more points of interest than the stunters. This entry looks at a man of the 19th-Century, and the night he spent in the churning waters, inches from death.

Anyone who lives near water, especially fast-moving water, knows that the flow carries many things. Gravel and soil are pulled up from the bottom, and carried along the water's course. Such build-ups are periodically dredged by special barges, called scows [one such of the 19th-Century is pictured above]. The gravel is frequently salvaged, and used in construction. Dredging is thus a profitable, if dangerous, activity, and continues to this day.

But let us turn to a July day in 1853. Three men are working in a dredging scow, anchored east of Goat Island, in the channel directly above the American Falls. About midday, the three decided to break for lunch, or perhaps a scupper of cold beer [after all, these were hard-working men]. The only way for the men to return to shore was by a small rowboat. As their journey began, the three soon realized that the River's current was much stronger than they had expected. One of their oars snapped like a twig. The small boat was out of control, heading for the American Channel, and certain death awaited at the Falls! Suddenly the small rowboat capsized, sending two of the men [whose names are lost to us] to their deaths. Somehow the third, Samuel Avery, saw some tree roots a few yards from the brink. More amazingly, he was able to struggle against the current, and pull himself to a secure grasp. The waters of Niagara continued to pound him as he held on desperately. Avery began to scream for help. But the water was so loud that no one on shore could hear him, and his position in the water made him invisible to the tourists on shore. He secured himself as best he could, and waited.

A question for you, the reader; how long have you waited for something before despair began to set in? How long have circumstances kept you adrift on the edge of certain destruction, before help came to you? Avery knew his doom was imminent; he had just watched his fellow workers plummet over the brink to death. His only hope was to cling desperately to the roots, and hope that somehow, some way, help would arrive.

Samuel Avery's ordeal lasted the rest of that July afternoon. It continued as the skies grew dark with evening. The last of the tourists disappeared into the darkness. Avery was alone, gripping a root, holding on in a desperate attempt to survive. How his arms must have ached! His body was pounded by the force of Niagara. But still Avery held on. He may have prayed [which of us wouldn't have?]. He may have cursed his God for setting him in that place, that time, that seemingly endless peril [which of us wouldn't have?]. Still Avery held on. The skies grew dark, then lightened a bit as the Moon and stars appeared. Still Avery held on, clinging to the only thing that could keep him alive. The roar of Niagara must have deafened him. Its pummeling must have made him numb. But still he hung on to the roots.

Samuel Avery held onto the roots all through that night. Half-submerged, he watched the sky get slowly bright at dawn. He probably knew not what would happen next; all he knew was to hold on, and hope for aid.

Amazingly, that aid came. Some early-morning tourists spotted Avery, desperately clinging to life, signalled to him that they'd seen him, then went for help. The 19th- Century-equivalent of "first responders" came out, and examined Avery's plight. There was no way to reach him from where he was. After some rapid thinking, a boat tethered to the nearby Bath Island Bridge was lowered into the water. It was hoped that Avery could clammer into it, then be pulled to safety. Avery stretched out as far as he could, only to watch the boat sweep past his grasp. Another boat was lowered, then another. Finally, one of the vessels came within Avery's grasp. With the last of his strength, he pulled himself inside. But Niagara was not ready to surrender her prize! A sudden push in the current knocked the boat over like a toy. Avery was again in the water. But now he couldn't reach the roots. The boat was moving wildly in the water, and was impossible to grasp. In that moment, Samuel Avery realized that the long night, the struggle, the fear, had all been in vain. Raising his arms in submission, he screamed wildly as he was carried over the edge, into oblivion.
What does a man think, on the edge of death, as he fights with his entire strength to live? Truthfully, I cannot answer. But, should you encounter him in some lonely corner of the Afterlife, Samuel Avery would be a good person to ask.
Another story of Niagara comes soon. Until then, be well and happy.
-Mike Riley

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

"The Impossible" - Again

When I set up this web site, I really never thought that I'd be covering news in it. But "the impossible" has happened - again! Wednesday afternoon [March 11, 2009], a man went over the Canadian, or Horseshoe, Falls - without protective equipment of any kind - and survived! Here's a report on the incident [with in-page video]from Buffalo, NY TV station WIVB:

As this is being written [pre-dawn, March 12], the man's name and current condition are unknown. If he survives, he would become only the second person in recorded history to survive a Falls plunge without protective equipment. The first was Kirk Jones, featured in the next story [also with in-page video] , again from WIVB-TV:

[Jones' story will be the subject of a future post on this site. Watch for it]
As anyone who watches those "Magic Revealed" shows on TV would expect, there is much puzzlement about how Jones, and the unidentified jumper Wednesday, survived their plunges. Yesterday's incident is difficult to explain on a few levels:

-how could anyone survive the pummeling waters during the descent? - the waters of Niagara have carved the River's path through miles of solid rock over the centuries. One telling fact; there is a pool of water directly below the Horseshoe Falls. Despite the fact it is in water tranquil enough to operate tour boats [The Maid Of The Mist boats have used this route for over a century], no one knows how deep the pool is!

-what about the rocks behind and beneath the Falls? - here both Jones and the unknown jumper had a little luck [or, in the case of Jones, possibly planning. We'll touch more on that in his story]. Both men went over the Horseshoe Falls. Had either one had the misfortune to enter the water at the American Falls, it's likely they would have perished on the massive pile of rocks at its base.

-could the weather have played a part? - perhaps. I don't remember the weather conditions when Jones leaped in 2003 but, in recent days, there has been a good deal of rain in this area [in fact a flood watch was in effect for much of Wednesday]. Temperatures have been above freezing, melting much of the snow and ice around here, pushing more water into the River. This comes into play when you become aware that, during Winter months, the water flow over the Falls is reduced, allowing more electricity to be generated by power plants in the US and Canada. Jones speculated that a rush of water may have pushed him out past the rocks, allowing him to land in the pool at the base of the Horseshoe Falls. Could the increased flow of water from the rain and snow run-off have aided our unknown jumper?
All questions that may, or may never, be answered.

There is something magnetic about Niagara. Even in the coldest days of Winter, tourists arrive from around the world to view, to contemplate, to ponder. And sometimes they arrive for other reasons, as someone did one day in the 1980's:

A good question, Fred. It's believed on the order of 2,000 people have killed themselves by plunging into the roiling waters of Niagara in the last 40 years. And suicides at the Falls are not a new phenomenon; reports exist of suicides there as far back as records have been kept. Is Niagara cursed? A question to ponder...

I'll update this story as more information becomes available. Till then, be well and happy.

-Mike Riley