What I am about to share with you are true stories I have experienced in Niagara’s woods, and which probably didn’t need to happen.
These are stories of individuals who found themselves in stressful or even dangerous predicaments while exploring our forests and creeks. I have felt the power of timing many times, where I just happened to be in the area when I discover someone in distress.
What does this distress look like, and how does it come to be?
For starters, there are hikers who wear absolutely the wrong footwear. The Niagara Gorge doesn’t sound like a place for high heels and kiddy flip-flops, but sometimes it is, apparently. I’ve seen some damaged feet in pretty shoes down there — people moving slowly because of swollen ankles or blisters, not to mention the hugely increased risk of an ankle roll on that rocky terrain.
And then there are folks who get caught in this mysterious pull, a curiosity that ropes them deeper into a place that they have no idea about. I’ve seen people at DeCew Falls or in the gorge who are lost and in a panicked state. They feel trapped by the roughness of the environment, and are not even sure if they are on a marked trail.
Sometimes, when I go off trail intentionally, I find people who really don’t want to be there. Our eyes meet, and I can see primal confusion and uneasiness in their faces. And then relief. They don’t know how they got there, but they want to get out and back to their car in the parking lot.
One time at DeCew Falls, I was hiking along the bottom of the canyon section when some fist-sized rocks came tumbling down the cliffs and rolled by my feet. I looked up, and saw a lady on her hands and knees, shaking, halfway up the wall of rock. She was grabbing onto two tiny trees which could have snapped at any moment.
I scrambled up to help calm her down and support her way out of that spot. She was covered with lacerations and mud all over her legs and back. Clearly she had been wiping out over and over again in an attempt to find her way out. I felt terrible for her. She was frustrated and unfocused, and when that’s your state of mind, your sense of reason and hiking skills diminish. She was a mere 20 metres from an actual trail.
Once I got her down to safety and gave her the quickest and easiest way out, she said she had no idea DeCew Falls was so rugged, and that she didn’t see any maps at the trailhead. Yet, she advanced deeper into the canyon and got herself into a bit of trouble.
In a separate incident during a tour at DeCew Falls, I helped my hikers up a steep rock ledge with a rope. Behind them was a family of four, that included a full-figured lady with flip-flops, a teenaged boy, a mum, and an older man who may have been 70. How they all got down there is a wonder (and accomplishment!) but now they were faced with DeCew’s notorious “come back up” moment — the rope and the rock.
The larger lady went first, and my heart started pounding through my chest. I was obliged to wait and help these strangers through the rough patch while my hikers looked on.
“Use your arm strength and focus on just that. Only use your foot on that spot of the ledge.”
She pulled, and she slipped. I had the end of the rope in one hand, and now her arm in my other. I didn’t have the strength to pull her up, but it must have helped because she rolled up and over the ledge onto her back, onto a thin ledge. She was terrified and thankful. Scary stuff. Grandpa actually did it effortlessly, but still had me sweating bullets.
What did they all tell me when they were up? They had no clue that DeCew had such big cliffs, and that the ways back up are unmarked and dangerous. I think one of them owes me a cold drink for the heart attack I nearly had watching that.
I was down in the gorge one night doing typical nature geek things, like looking for salamanders and emerging insects in late spring.
I use a headlamp down there, but could confidently do the gorge trails at night without one. However, I wasn’t the only one in the gorge that night, to my surprise.
I heard a man and woman in the darkness ahead, talking to each other, sobbing, and getting closer. I shone my light on the faces of a young couple who clearly missed their dinner date plans. She was hanging onto him and crying, he was limping a bit, and they had no water whatsoever. And strangely, in today’s day and age, no charged cell phone. They wanted to get back out of the gorge ASAP, and as I walked them back to the top, I was so relieved I had picked that night to go and “geek out” because they barely had the strength to get back up those stairs.
What do the Niagara Gorge and DeCew Falls have in common? They both have rugged terrain and demand preparedness. But so does any hike, short or long, easy or challenging.
These stories highlight the importance of research, maps, packing basics properly, and adapting to the environment you’re about to enter. Such situations are usually avoidable, and being prepared can keep the outdoors an attractive and safe hobby for all.