Monday, November 4, 2013

The Niagara Frontier

Birds, brews and blither. That was the name of my blog when I started it in July of 2008. The idea was to have some fun with the letter "B" and have all the posts related via the alphabet's second letter. Battlefields, birds, books, get the point.

October 26th and 27th, Natalie and I had a chance for a getaway. Basically, it was that weekend or not.  While the future is hard to tell, if we didn't sneak out, there was no telling when we could make it happen.

So, with many people always itching to head North, we opted east.  The Niagara Frontier (as it was called in the early 19th century) was the destination.  As fate would have it, the "B" theme still worked, but so did the letter "F" - Falls, Forts, Fowl, Foul, Fermentation, the Fallen, and most importantly, Fun.

Believe it or not, Niagara Falls is really only about four hours away.  Knowing that, we opted to head out early on Saturday morning.  On the road by 5:45am, we were in the Falls region by 10ish (or so). Mid-way through the trip, we realized that the winds were blowing at hurricane speeds. Okay, not that much, but they were whippin'.  (It is worth noting that we did NOT check the all...prior to leaving.)

By the time we arrived at the Falls, it was basically raining sideways. Not a heavy rain, but certainly sideways.  In fact, it wasn't even a steady rain, but it was enough for us to adopt a new plan.  We opted to stay in the car and press on. A short drive up-river (south, by the way) took us to Fort Erie.  

Unfinished at the time the War of 1812 commenced, Fort Erie started off as a British fort.  Throughout the war, which lasted until 1814, the fort changed hands multiple times.  Just months before the war's end, the Americans, who held the fort at time, functionally destroyed it and left for Buffalo, New York (you can see the downtown from across the lake; its not far).  By the time the war ended, hundreds were killed (along with thousands of captured and wounded) making this region one of the deadliest of the entire war.

After a half-hearted attempt at re-establishing the fort in the Post-1812 era, things floundered. During the American Civil War, this region was a strategic stop during for the Underground Railroad. In the early 20th Century, families would picnic on the grounds. By the 1930, folks rooted in historic preservation opted to rebuild the fort as it was.  

Today, you can enter Old Fort Erie as a  Garrison used by British, Canadian and Iroquois forces as they prepared to defend Upper Canada during the War of 1812.  Whether it is the Officers Quarters (black and white photo below) or the Quartermaster's Department (the following photo), one can really get a feel for life in the fort.  Given the craptacular weather outside, we could really get a feel for crappy weather in a frontier fort. 

One of the most amazing chapters in the history of Fort Erie unfolded in 1987. A local teacher was breaking ground on his lakefront property so he could build his dream house. Construction workers caught a glimpse of white in the otherwise dark soils.  Before long, 28 bodies, all American soldiers, had been uncovered.  

The above photo is a nightmare.  It is a human humerous.  The knobbed end is functionally the elbow.  As you can clearly see, the cut end (where the bicep/tricep combo would be) was exactly that - cut.  With a hacksaw.  That obnoxious little tab on the bottom is where the doctor finally just snapped the bone.  If you have ever cut a dowel rod, you know what I'm talking about. 

Knowing the state of medicine during the early 19th Century (or more realistically, the lack thereof...), it is easy to see what happened here. The soldier suffered a huge injury to his arm.  A lead bullet smashing bone or perhaps a cannonball doing the same. The nature of the injury must have been huge. Doctors (we can use the word loosely), immediately recognized the situation and noted two choices - the soldier dies from his injury or amputation of the limb (knowing he might die anyway because they didn't understand infection or what caused it). That's it.  Die for sure or maybe die later.

With tourniquets in place and muscles cut and retracted, the bone is sawed in half. Blood vessels were tied off, and a wet plaster cast is put on the stump. The whole process is done in a less than 10 minutes.  No anesthesia.  A shot of whiskey would be the best one could hope for. Think about that the next time you stub your toe and it hurts...

The Snake Hill Cemetery, as it became known, was a mix of soldiers who died from wounds and the discard pit where severed limbs were unceremoniously tossed.  The indignity from the War of 1812 was corrected during burial in New York with full military honors.   

Before lunch, we found ourselves basically at the Peace Bridge (it connects Fort Erie with Buffalo).  The winds, still howling, had the gulls and ducks in a frenzy. Conviently parking right next to the "No Parking" sign (unless your birding - it says so in the fine print of your driver's training manual on page 18), we were just feet from the water.  

From the the safety of the car, the birding was dynamite.  We were hoping to see the Brown Booby, a hopelessly lost bird from the tropics who had been in the area for weeks. While we struck out with that bird, all three scoters (Black, Surf, and White-winged) were zipping in all directions. Long-tailed Ducks by the dozens were doing the same.   Bufflehead, Redheads and other seasonal ducks were plentiful. I can say with certainty it was some of the most fun birding we have had in a while.

It became especially fun when Natalie noted a funny Bonaparte's Gull.  "Paul, are Bonaparte's Gulls supposed to be all black under their wings?"  Ummmm, no. Little Gull. Point-blank range.  

It needs to be noted that this was Natalie's life bird Little Gull.  She found it.  No one showed it to her. For some birders (those of us that don't lie), that is especially important and notably fun. When you go to stakeouts and one shows you a new bird, it can be fun, but it just doesn't have the same degree of excitement.  Finding your own birds is just about the coolest it can get.  (For the record, there were at least two other Little Gulls in the area mixed in with the hundreds of Bonaparte's.)

After a quick but late lunch at The Barrel (where the food was hot and the service was cold), we simply doodled our way down the river (heading north).  Past the falls, we checked into to our hotel and then continued.  By Queenstown Heights, the sporadic rain became steady; we did touristy stuff.  

Dinner had us in places all people should go - the local brewery.  Taps on Queen?  It might sound familiar to those of you who read this blog (all nine of you).  I was there a few years back.  Knowing it was certainly worth the stop the first time, it made sense to head back for another round. 

The Niagara's Best Blonde Ale (#1503) wasn't that at all.  Charleston Lager, Sinister Sam's Insane IPA, English IPA, and Pumpkin 3.14 ("pie"get it? Pumpkin Pie...?) (#1,504 - 1,507) were all average to outstanding. 

The best of the bunch was the English IPA.  The left-most beer in the above photo, the head was crazy and long-lived while the body was thick and creamy.  Earthy and hoppy, this is a total keeper.  It is important to note that it is an English IPA - they tend to be less hopped than American IPAs.  The balance of this beer was near perfect. Hands down, this was one of the best beers I have had in a long long time. A "5" for sure.

It is also worth noting that darts are weapons.  As I mentioned during our trip report to the Brickside Brewery in June, drunken darts can be dangerous.   It is worth noting that 10-year olds slinging metal-tipped darts like a baseball pitcher on the mound is a bad idea.  While we were near the dartboards, we were directly opposite the presumed line of fire.  So, when the dart from the kid came crashing towards me and hit me in the leg, I was not happy.  No, it was not the sharp end, but that is not the point (no pun intended).  If he can't even control the direction he is throwing the damn thing, a head-shot is just as plausible.  Needless to say, I was not happy (nor were the folks one table over). Fortunately, the kid did not have to wear the dart home as a genital piercing.  A stern warning seemed to be enough.....

After returning to the hotel, as fate would have it, the rain stopped. No rain meant a short trip to the Falls.

Only 167 feet tall, the Niagara Falls certainly aren't the largest falls in the world in terms of height. However, with three total falls straddling the border, the six million cubic feet of water that flows over the edge every minute have been a source of amazement for centuries.  

Yes, I said "three falls". While most people are familiar with Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side of the border, the American Falls are actually two separate cascades- the American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls.  Separated by Luna Island, Bridal Field Falls can be seen in the above photo on the far right.  Its the purple one.

By the way, please don't correct me on the Bridal Veil Falls thing. I know what some of you are thinking.  "Oh, you dope, that's in Yosemite....". Yes, it is.  And Washington.  And Colorado. And Utah.  And South Dakota. And South Carolina. No, wait. They have TWO Bridal Veil Falls.  There are at least EIGHT Bridal Veil Falls in the United States.  

Sunrise was nothing more than a nice sit-down breakfast at the hotel.  A quick stop in town for some hot drinks gave us a chance to see the crazyiness that is Niagara Falls (the town) during the daylight hours as opposed to the crazyiness that is Niagara Falls (the town) during the night. Like a mini-Las Vegas, the lights, shops, bars, casinos and the such are just insane.  They even have a wax museum there, too. Oh joy. Wax dummies. Just what we needed to see.  After all, we have plenty here in the good ole U. S. of A.   

Note the use of the word "sunrise". Finally. The had winds more or less died off. The blue sky was trying to break out. What a stellar morning. With the opportunity to try and photograph the falls with some real light, I gave HDR imaging a go.

After noodling around a bit, Natalie and I opted to head north.  Given our travels the previous day, in the rain, we went back to places we certainly wanted to see again....

October 13, 1812 was a turning point in the often overlooked War of 1812.  A few miles south of Niagara on the Lake, a large bluff called Queenstown Heights overlooks the little hamlet of Queenstown.  On that chilly October day, American forces secretly crossed the river and captured the prominent feature from the British.  (Remember, in the days before airplanes and other advanced weapons, the high was of huge strategic importance.)

Knowing that the re-catpure of the Heights was paramount, Major-General Isaac Brock led British forces in an assault....from the front.

To put that in perspective, imagine General Dwight D. Eisenhower charging the beaches during the D-Day invasion. Or perhaps General Norman Schwarzkopf driving the first tank during the first invasion of Iraq in Operation Desert Storm. Needless to say, by today's standards, Brock's decision was quite stupid. But today is not yesterday.

History and physiology don't agree. The bullet that crashed into his chest pierced his heart.  Both written accounts of the assault and the jacket he was wearing (on display in Ottawa) testify to this. The suggestion that he stated "Push on, brave York Volunteers" as he lay gasping is more or less just silliness than anything else. He was likely dead before he hit the ground.

Popular leader that he was, he was eventually buried under a 185-foot monument that sits atop Queenstown Heights. While the fit is apparently very tight, during the tourist season, one can ascend the tower via the winding internal staircase to enjoy a commanding view of the Niagara River.

As if to still guard Brock, four stone soldiers are positioned at each corner.

Brock, interestingly enough, has been voted one of the greatest Canadians in the country's history. A university, various roads and monuments across the country testify to Canada's love for this man.  That is all pretty impressive considering he was British and his personal accounts show clearly that he did not like Canada.  He thought of it as a hole and he wished to be back in Europe fighting Napolean. He also mistrusted the citizens of the country as he thought that they were basically American sympathizers.  Go figure.

So, while I was taking photos, Natalie wandered the grounds.  Seasonal migrants were everywhere, leaves were in full color,  and the lack of tourists by the busload make for an awesome time.

A quick lunch in Niagara-on-the-Lake brought us to Fort George. The "other fort" on the Canada side of the river also played a key role during the War of 1812 as it was literally a cannon shot away from Fort Niagara on the New York side.  

Sadly, like Fort Erie, Fort George is a reconstruction (on the original footprint) from the 1930's.  But, don't let that stop you from a visit if you are in the area. Time travel.  It's all about time travel. 


A quick drive back to Niagara-on-the-Lake allowed us to scrape up another locally made ceramic mug.  I started this collection - "mugs from vacations" -  years ago. Knowing they are now "our mugs", the collection includes pieces from Michigan, Montana, Arizona, Washington, Alaska, Colorado, Virginia, Massachusetts, Florida, Ohio, Texas, Nebraska, and West Virginia. I suspect I missed one or two, but you get the point.
With sunlight slipping away, we gave the Falls another go. The pretty sunset colors never really materialized.  Gray set in.....

So with that, we set a course for home. 

I started this post with a reference to "Fs" and not "Bs".  Niagara Falls, Forts George and Erie, fowl (as in ducks), foul (as in Saturday's weather), fermentation (at the brewery), the Fallen (Isaac Brock) and, of course, fun.  Fortunately, a pierced fibula at the brewery did not occur.  Had it happened, another F-word might have come to mind......


david boon said...

Sounds like you had a great time! Got to love the colours of those Beers! Makes me thirsty just looking at that pic.And,pretty soon I am going to be the last person in Michigan to see a Little Gull.Can I hear Nemesis?

Paul said...

Little Gulls can be tricky - that is for sure. That said, they can't evade you for ever. The next few weeks are prime time.

Or you could just lie about it. Seems to be alot of that going on nowadays.

Oh wait - you have integrity. Nevermind. Disregard the suggestion.

david boon said...

Parked my Fat rump at Port Huron today and looked at every Gull going by.Nope,no Little Gulls,and was disappointed only to see 3 types of Scoter,a female King Eider and a Brant........

Paul said...

Dont be too disappointed! The Brant and eider (any species!) are super birds for the state!

Also consider this: *when* you see your first Little Gull, there will be many more for you to enjoy after that. As you likely well know, once a bird is out of the way, you'll see plenty as you bird along in life. Its just getting that first one that is a bitch...

david boon said...

Wise words Mate!