ADVENTURING BEYOND THE HEIGHTS
For whatever reason, growing up beneath the Heights, I was ever on a quest to find new places to discover. Whether on foot or on bicycle, the lure of the surrounding open countryside exerted a strong pull on my young impressionable soul.
Queenston was surrounded by wonderful places for a boy to hike. My first ventures were merely into our gully below the house. The older my brothers and I got, the further we would venture from the safe confines of the yard. First it was to campsites we made within sight of the house. Then it was further back up the ravine, far from prying eyes from family or neighbours. Almost always it involved a cook out on a neatly made campfire. Hot dogs and marshmallows were easiest, but they soon became too simple a fare. I graduated to hamburgers and even tried pancakes in a pan over an open fire. Half the treat was finding a new secluded spot to set up camp, even if it were just for a day.
Our next destination was beyond the gully to the park on the Heights above us. Our parents first took us there to swim or picnic. During Laura Second school days, our unimaginative teachers took us to the Park for our annual spring outing. Other schools came all the way to Queenston on the steamer Cayuga from Toronto, or were bused in from Buffalo or St. Catharines. Our only release from the tedium of the spring classroom was a half-day hike, earned only after helping to clean the entire schoolyard. Yet somehow we were still grateful and excited at this change in our routines as we were marched two abreast up from the school grounds, through the village, and along a well-worn footpath to the playgrounds just beyond Brock’s Monument.
My friends or brothers and I would repeat the hikes on our own many times, but often taking more exciting paths up the escarpment. Sometimes we would follow the old abandoned trolley line that once climbed up the hill from the docks on route to the Falls along the edge of the river. Other times we would climb through the undergrowth, looking for untried paths, further west, then scale the steep face of the cliffs through brambles and over steep rock ledges.
One summer exploring beyond the Heights, we discovered a different trail along the brow of the Heights, a path we had never seen before. Far beyond the tennis courts and well-kept lawns, this hidden path began in deep and lovely woods of maples, oaks, trilliums and trysts. Here were more than wild flowers to look for along this new adventure trail. We sometimes discovered discarded condoms and Kleenexes lurking beneath the bushes. We had already found the same strange evidence of unknown rites washed up on the river’s edge, presumably flushed down the johns of Buffalo and Niagara Falls. Yet such mysterious things seemed remote from our child’s world of play. Even when we saw some wandering fellow in these remote woods, we assumed he was just a tramp and gave him wide berth.
Going on beyond the woods on our newly discovered trail, we found a neglected meadow and old fields of fruit trees, long deserted. But something was gnawing at the western edge of these lonely fields. Suddenly the ground gave way to a deep crater with solid rock terraces. We found there strange lost valleys carved into the hillside, an uninhabited and alien landscape. At the face of the escarpment, two tall stone cones stood forlorn against the cliffs like some kind of early ritual furnace.
We were certain we had happened upon an early and secret civilization. Were we the first to discover this lost land? Trees and grass had grown up around these mysterious caves and mounds, hiding much from view. We scouted out our find, locating traces of old mechanical equipment, rails, carts and tools. We were on to something. But as our silent explorations took us back further from the mountain brow, we began to hear the whirr and pounding of heavy and powerful engines.
As we climbed up out of the pit, we came face to face with another even larger excavation. But this one was by no means deserted. Huge power shovels were digging deep into the bowels of the earth. And there were men drilling and blasting large square chunks of limestone from the walls around the pit they had created. At the edge of their crater sat a large gray corrugated steel shed bearing a sign that ended all our hopes of discovery of lost tribes. We had discovered in our climb the famous “Queenston Quarries.” We had been exploring an earlier limestone pit with kilns for burning stone to create powered lime. This first quarry had been abandoned for new rock riches under old orchards further back from the brow of the escarpment.
While our dream of lost history was quickly shattered, the old quarry site was still full of adventures for us. We found new ways to scale the steep walls, hidden caves and crannies to search, strategic sites for games of tag or war and quiet spots for our increasingly elaborate cookouts. Alone in our world, at noon we would stop to cook hamburgers, bacon and eggs or even pancakes on open fires high on the rocky ledges.
Other adventures away from the village took us along the edge of the swift and dangerous Niagara. During the spring the river would rise obliterating the narrow strip of land below the cliffs and prevent our exploring beyond the little cove we called The Hollow. Directly in front of our house, the gully emptied its two muddy creeks into the deep green abyss of the Niagara. But as the summer heat gradually dried up the creeks that fed the river, the water level fell slightly and left a few inches of narrow beach below the steep riverbanks.
Pollution was a fact of life, especially in the fifties, in the days before environmental efforts began to restore the Great Lakes and the River. Thus, we often found the water foul and unfit for swimming. But sometimes when the water was calm and cleaner, we were able to paddle along the tiny beach or even swim a little at The Hollow, careful not to be swept away by the swift current swirling back up river just a few feet from shore. But more than often the dead fish, scummy residues and those strange white balloon-like objects would float in and scare us out of the water. This also was the time of the great polio scare and we took few chances. We reserved our swimming to safer patrolled pools. Hiking truly seemed the safer adventure.
The riverbank was always somewhat of a mystery and a challenge. The rushing current deposited all sorts of debris along its edge. On our hikes down river we would have to climb over fallen trees or old rotting wooden pilings and rusty metal pipes, evidence of earlier moorings along the shore. Here too, we discovered lost possessions that long ago had been tossed, or had fallen from hidden yards along the river’s edge about a hundred feet above us. One time a car had come hurtling over that fearful riverbank where the Parkway came too close. For many months it perched there in the undergrowth far above the water, until it was finally winched back up to safety or the scrap yard.
As we pushed further north along the shore, we would discover deserted staircases leading up to the unseen homes of the rich who lived along the lower Niagara. People who had once built a stairway down to their own private boat and dock. But there were few boats moored along the shore in those days. We would climb part way up those useless ladders of those old riverbank estates, keeping well out of sight of any resentful owners. These were marvelous perches for young wanderers. We could eat our picnic lunches here above the river, pretending to live the lives of the wealthy owners somewhere above us.
I loved to sit there and watch the water swirl by out in the center of the river. The current was ever powerful and relentless, and it rarely changed. The rushing Niagara’s deep green icy current scorns those puny rivers that lumber placidly to some sea, broad and shallow and the colour of mud. Yet as much as I loved the river, it was treacherous and a force to be feared. Along the American shore, the river rushed headlong northwards, suddenly released from the steep narrow gorge that brought the water down from the Falls seven miles upstream. The water raced and swirled in eddies for about three miles down river to a sudden bend to the west where it crashed against the shore. Here a portion of the current reversed itself and swept back up our side of the river, in a long slow whirlpool motion. The currents and undertows off the Queenston docks were certain killers. Almost every summer someone, usually a stranger to our village and the river, was drowned, swimming unwittingly out into its dangerous dark waters.
I never learned to swim myself. And certainly would never try in these dangerous waters. What’s more, I cowered in fear of being given the ultimate “Queenston swimming lesson.” The big boys would always taunt us younger ones that they would teach us how to swim the way they were taught when a father or older brother threw them into the swirling current off the boat docks. These rowdies were never going to have that chance with me. I did all I could to avoid being caught too close to the edge of the fearful water.
My sense of adventure did not include the boisterous gang of boys who played ball in the schoolyard or swam together at the docks. I preferred organizing my own small group of friends for hikes, or sometimes just sitting alone by this great river to think or plan or write my poetry. When I could sit above it, I was calmed by that deep green water rushing silently by me, moving on to greater things without me. I could silently watch that sly strong current that curiously swept back south back up river along the Canadian shore until it joined its rowdy American brother once again beneath the Heights and rushed north once more toward Lake Ontario and the Atlantic.
Across the Niagara lay the lush leafy green shore of New York State. All seemed so peaceful and unknown there. From our veranda and our shore I had come to know every house and curve along the American riverbank, just a half mile away. Yet from the Canadian side I seldom could see the people I knew must live there. It was all a distant untouched dreamlike landscape in which I had no part to play.
As I grew older, our hikes took us a little further each time. As soon as our parents allowed, we ventured on our bicycles across the old 1898 Lewiston-Queenston suspension bridge that hung just beneath the Heights at the mouth of the gorge. The old deck was made of thick wooden planks. The deck was just wide enough for two cars to pass in opposite directions with little room for a person to walk or ride a bicycle. Yet we wanted so desperately to explore that other shore. Eventually, we braved the fearful crossing, peering down through the wide cracks between the uneven planks to the rushing torrent fifty feet below. Once on the other side, we found a brand new unexplored world.
Lewiston New York was full of foreign adventures for us. Even after I crossed to that other side, the mystery never seemed to be resolved. Here was a much larger town, very different from our small rural village. Over a dozen stores and restaurants lined its wide busy Main Street. I loved to peddle along the tree-shaded streets to peer at the old clapboard homes, with broad verandas, large green lawns and bright full gardens. They reminded me of pictures I had seen of far off New England, a most exotic place of pilgrims and sailors and primly kept towns.
Each time I crossed the bridge to Lewiston, I tried to find those houses that I had so often studied from my own front veranda in Queenston. Where was that large brown-shingled house with the great cream coloured verandas so much like our own? Where was the little green cottage perched among the trees? And where was that wonderful white-shingled house with three dormers and the bright red roof? I had seen it from the other side, built atop a stonewall hanging above the river. Where were those sunny decks and a steep stairway that led down to a dock at the river’s edge? That house reminded me of the fake ivory bas- relief of Shakespeare's cottage that hung in our own front hall. But when I journeyed over the narrow bridge into Lewiston, I could never find that ideal home no matter how hard I searched in that mysterious town just across the river.
Every time I returned to Queenston, I was disappointed. Disappointed that I could never find a single of those ghost houses etched so clearly in my view from home. Disappointed that I could not stay in that world just a little longer. Disappointed that I knew no person there. To me it was a town that I could not claim or fathom. A mysterious town of people I could not know, yet a town that seemed somehow more beautiful and peaceful than my own. While I usually felt relieved to come home back across the river, somehow I yearned to belong there in that other world apart.
Our bicycles eventually took us on even greater adventures even further beyond the Heights. One summer I decided it was time to try overnight trips. My best friend Ernest and I made elaborate plans to peddle all the way past the Falls to Lake Erie and back. One morning we set out, me on my trusty maroon CCM bike, Ernest on his three speed orange Raleigh racing bike. We climbed up over the Heights, headed south around the west end of Niagara Falls by way of the old Portage Road, the early route of traders and pioneers as they too made their way to Lake Erie so many years ago. That portage brought us out at Chippewa, just above the Falls. On we peddled through strangely barren countryside along rural and lonely Sodom Road. Finally, we approached the Lake after a full day of heavy pumping. Crystal Beach Amusement Park was on ahead just a few more miles, but we were too weary to be amused that day. We turned west on a busy highway and headed to the safe evening haven we had picked for ourselves, my Uncle Murray’s home at Port Colborne.
Uncle Murray and Aunt Elsie lived then in a beautiful old Tudor style house in this old town at the mouth of the Welland Canal. It was another old town full of lake history, and close to the city of Welland and the Atlas Steel Company. Uncle Murray was an important executive in Purchasing at Atlas. Their home was much more luxurious than either Ernest or I was accustomed to. We were left to ourselves during that afternoon, so we used it to explore the house and its many treasures. We were most intrigued by the pair of bronze nude Greek gods (or were they warriors?) crouched at either side of the fireplace. Giggling, we reached beneath each to check the correctness of the anatomical proportions.
The next day, it was back north towards home on a road that took us along the edge of the Welland Canal to Allentown and Lundy's Lane. Back in the War of 1812, the Battle along this Lane was to Canada not unlike Gettysburg was to the Union. Thousands of Americans and Canadians died at this site not far from the Falls. Each side tried to hold on to take the battlefield and control Upper Canada. When it was over, no new ground was gained or lost. But the invasion of Canada was over.
Dad was forever telling us of our fifth great-grandfather, Titus Geer Simons, who was shot in the arm here defending Canada. And sure enough, a few years later we found his old red soldier's tunic displayed in Dundurn Park Museum. Those famous bullet holes, however, were gone. Had they been mended, or perhaps miraculously had they healed themselves? For many years we proudly displayed his portrait in that same red British uniform in our home.
History aside, as far back as I can recall, Lundy's Lane was no more than a five-mile stretch of cheap motels that ran from the Falls out into the farmlands. Ernest's parents had just built the Peter Pan Motel almost at the end of this then infamous strip. This was a new venture for them as profits began to fail on their meager chicken farm just outside Queenston. Life at the Peter Pan Motel was always exciting. We loved the crazy tourists, Ernest’s pretty and bright older sisters and the many guest rooms where we could play or hide ourselves away.
Then, after we spent yet another day in motel adventures, we were back in Queenston after this our longest bicycle adventure. Back to the quiet of the sleepy village beneath the Heights. This was the last adventure with my young friend. He was soon shipped off to a summer camp where he met many other Ukrainian young people like himself. After his first trip he took back his original name, Orest, and between their expanding motel business and his new friends, he had less time to adventure together.
My thirst for the road and adventures unknown continued and sometimes I chose to travel alone. I yearned to go further and further from my beloved village where, despite its history and charm, life remained, for me, slow and boring and predictable. The next summer I decided to break my sixty-mile record. I took my bike on the train with me nearly one hundred miles away to Princeton in the Ontario farm belt to visit our cousins, Jeannette and Sheila. I was proud of this new adventure and planned every detail. After two weeks at Uncle Harry and Aunt Evelyn’s home in Princeton, I set out for home by myself on my bicycle. I had planned a two-day trip with a stopover planned mid point in the City of Hamilton. After a hard day on back roads through the small towns of Paris and Ancaster, for the first time I had to maneuver my bike through city traffic. I arrived exhausted at another relative’s house in the East End.
The summer night was hot and sticky as I slept beside another cousin. Later that night, when we could not sleep, we stripped off our shorts and indulged ourselves in boyish games, the last such adventure for me for many years. Early the next morning, I set off again to cover yet another forty-five miles home through the busy farm villages and lush fields of vegetables and fruit along the Niagara peninsula. My cousin and I never again discussed or repeated our adventures. Yet the shame of this innocent enjoyment kept me “pure” for almost another ten years.
The following summer I took the first of many jobs necessary to pay my way through high school and university. Nine years later, after graduating from McMaster, I was facing my first fulltime job teaching high school English classes. I had somehow unwittingly proposed to Ann my longtime friend and schoolmate at McMaster. That last free summer of ’64 before Teacher's College began and plans for a fall marriage, I longed for escape and adventure once again. I found it in delivering a brand new school bus all the way to Edmonton Alberta, my longest journey away from familiar territory.
My dreams were waking even then, and I began to sense I wanted to attempt more adventures than the open roads alone. Driving the bus through Northern Ontario, I picked up a couple of hitchhikers. The young brothers were good company across the Canadian plains, but somehow I sensed I wanted more. We parted after I delivered the bus safely in Edmonton. I struck out alone, huge suitcase in tow, to hitchhike alone all the way to Vancouver on Canada's western coast. At Banff in the Rockies, three college guys in a sharp Chevy convertible picked me up. Somewhere in the depths of the British Columbia interior, we stopped at a cheap motel and I took a single room. The others slipped inside once I had my key. I slept little wondering what these three handsome boys sleeping next to me were dreaming about. But despite by barely conscious longings, nothing happened that night and on we drove to Vancouver. My three would-be adventurers left me at the bus station.
I took the ferry to Victoria. At last, my adventures had taken me as far from home as I could get while still in Canada. I checked into the YMCA, the cheapest bed in town. After touring the aggressively British capital city, I decided to see a film. During the serious picture, The Cardinal, I began to be intrigued by the young man sitting alone ahead of me. I gently nudged the back of the seat to see if he’d notice, but he got up and left. I was too embarrassed. Had I upset him? Was I was to follow him into the washroom? I was unfamiliar with the rituals and signals of cruising and I was not to adventure to that other side of the river just yet.
Later that same summer during eight weeks of Ontario Teacher’s College in Toronto, I quickly learned those stealthy techniques, appropriately enough in Queen's Park. Once I learned, I swam immediately and desperately to that other shore, frightened and full of guilt, but much too intrigued ever to return. Family and old friends and Ann were left behind as I found new roads to travel.
Wherever I have traveled over the many years since, whether in Canada, the United States, Europe, Japan or Mexico, I have always found new towns to explore, open fields to roam, soothing rivers and oceans to walk beside and real friends with whom to share it all. I have always found new adventures to share with others, adventures I had never even dreamed about when I lived so many years ago beneath the Heights.
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