Gairdner at Niagara

Temple Gairdner was a prolific writer, an erudite scholar, and a committed missionary to the people of Egypt. The following is Temple Gairdner’s thoughtful account of visiting The Cave of the Winds at Niagara Falls. He reflects on climbing into a dangerous cave, where winds can reach up to 68 mph. According to Wikipedia, guided tours were conducted there from 1841, but the cave was closed permanently in 1954 after a massive rockfall, making Gairdner’s description all the more precious.

I feel the same reluctance to begin writing about Niagara as I felt to approaching it. I hung about and finally approached the river above the Falls themselves—as bashfully as one approaches a mistress. And how shall I begin to write of it?

It is a roaring sea tilted up, seething down in great billows, gigantic waves leaping madly, not because they strike a rock but simply because they are burst upwards by the intolerable pressure of the furious waters beneath, all tearing pell-mell down, shoving each other down, up, aside, in the rush for annihilation over the fatal brink. And weirder and more terrific than the noise and the commotion of the rapid, is the silence, the helplessness with which they finally disappear over that edge. It is in the curve of that Horse-Shoe Fall that the waters really heap up, and that you realise the quantities that are going over. It is there that the water, as it seems to pause for an infinitesimal moment, shows the clear, deep body that reminded me again and again of that astounding description in Exodus “as it were the body of heaven in his clearness.”

When the audacious mortal tries to force an entrance into the very arcanum of Niagara, and dares the passage behind the Fall! That is the most thrilling—and the most baffled moment—of all.

This is the entrance into what is called the Cave of the Winds. Why it is so called will be clear in a moment. It is situated behind a small section of the American Fall, about fifty feet broad, isolated from the remainder by the occurrence of a very small islet above. One goes over to Goat Island, enters a changing-room, takes off every stitch of one’s clothing and dons a suit of flannels with a complete oilskin which is drawn over the head, and weird canvas shoes which make one’s two feet look like the tail of a seal. Then comes the descent by a spiral staircase enclosed in a chimney of wood, down the face of the cliff of Goat Island, till the screes at the bottom are reached.

We turn to the right and make towards the corner of the American Fall. Where it hits the screes, it divides into two or three cascades which come foaming down the rocks in two or three channels. These are spanned by small wooden bridges. Then, as we set foot on the first of them we are immediately enveloped in fine spray-mist. . . . We penetrate into the middle of the cloud. . . .

And then—oh wonder! Marvel of beauteous marvels! What sight is this? A rainbow. But what a rainbow! The like was never seen, save by S. John, around the Throne. A brilliant sun is shining overhead. Its rays of intense light fall on and suffuse this saturation of fine spray in the midst of which we stand, and the result is a rainbow of unimaginable intensity and brilliance—a double Rainbow. But—how shall I put the rapturous sight into words—it is not an arch! It is a circle! It bends about me on this side and on that side, yea, seems almost to meet behind me at my very feet! And oh ye gods, what is this? It moves, it moves as I move!!! It surrounds me and moves with me!! When I go forward my rainbow goeth forward!! It is my rainbow! I go back, it goeth back, for it will by no means leave its lord. Ha! What is this? Am I a god? By Jupiter—I am Jupiter! What ho, Ganymede! Bring me my golden flagon of nectar! My eagle, perch on my right hand! Hither to me, Lady Juno, and hear the behest of the rainbow-encircled one . . . Heavens! It was a godlike moment. The oil-skinned one with fishlike tail of canvas yelled with exultation against the bellow of the cataract, and cavorted, encaged in his rainbow, upon that slippery bridge.

Oh godlike moment, must thou pass? Yes, for I came to discover not a divinity for myself, but to track down the divinity of Niagara within her own temple. The Valhalla of this goddess is not the Rainbow-bridge on which I stand, but the deep mysterious recess to which this Rainbow is but the bridge. On, then, again.

I crossed the bridge and began to go up the path by the cascade direct towards the Fall. Already on the bridge one had been drenched from head to foot, in spite of the oilskins: a torrent of water had at once found its way down by the neck over one’s whole body. But torrential though the rain of spray on the footbridge was, it was child’s play to what followed. As I approached the foot of the cataract I was assailed by a perfect blizzard of wind and water, hurricaned across the path by the impact of the falling water on the rocks. One must half shut one’s eyelids and sidle along by the hand-rail peering and blinking. And yet that again was child’s play—only the vestibule to this tempest-goddess’s shrine. We now prepared to pass right behind the Fall, or rather, you understand, that small band of it which is isolated by the two islands above. The passage into this Cave of the Winds is made possible by the occurrence of a hollow, which the cataract clears in its leap from the ledge above. Into this veritable Hall of Aeolus, we now struggle.

A fight it is indeed. We have only some fifty feet to go, but they must be struggled through. The Cave of the Winds! Justly named! A perfect hurricane is blowing; this is no metaphor; the speed of the wind is that of a violent gale: it is the air that has been violently driven down by the falling water, packed and compressed, and now has been turned inwards and, being liberated, smashes obliquely, up and across, towards the opposite cliff-wall, bouncing off from that again, meeting the opposing current, fighting it, and with it producing a wind-inferno. With this alone one would have had almost to close one’s eyes and grope along by the hand-rail; but that is not all; these winds carry along with them flying gallons of thick drenching spray. It dashes itself against one’s face; it assails and assaults the eyes till they smart: mouth and nostrils are smitten till breathing labours; while the ears are deafened and the brain cleaved by the shrieking of the blast and the pelting-sound of the driven water striking the cliff, far more (apparently) than the noise of the Fall itself. The very senses with which one must look upon the goddess are giving out, used up and paralysed by the goddess’s mere attendant slaves. Nevertheless I made one last, and supreme, effort to behold her. Standing fairly in the centre of the footway, where the fury and the din were at their height, I faced—not so much the Fall, as the direction where I knew the Fall was. Disregarding the shrieking and the buffeting, I slowly pulled my eyelids apart and forced the smarting eyes to look straight ahead. . . . In vain! Utterly and entirely in vain! Niagara I saw not: only a vague dimness and obscurity, flying scud, and infernal, elemental din: that was no more Niagara than to stand on a dark night in a gale on a spray-swept deck. No! Divinity Veils itself by excess of light, and blinds the powers of perception that would scan it, not by taking them away but by the intolerable over-supply of the percept. Niagara I found not—saw not (unlike Gerontius) even “for one moment.” I only saw her terrible attendants. Lo, these were but the outskirts of her ways; but the thunder of her mighty power who can comprehend?

Source: William Henry Temple Gairdner. W. H. T. G. To His Friends: Some Letters & Informal Writings of Canon W. H. Temple Gairdner of Cairo, 1873-1928. Ed. Constance E. Padwick. London: SPCK, 1930.


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