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NIAGARA. - Harriet Martineau, Retrospect of Western Travel, vol. 1 
Retrospect of Western Travel in Three Vols (London: Saunders and Otley, 1838). Vol. 1.
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It is not my intention to describe what we saw at Niagara, so much as to relate what we did. To offer an idea of Niagara by writing of hues and dimensions is much like representing the kingdom of Heaven by images of jasper and topazes.
I visited the Falls twice: first in October, 1834. in company with the party with whom we traversed the State of New York, when we stayed nearly a week; and again, with Dr. and Mrs. F. find other friends, in June, 1836, when we remained between two and three days. The first time, we approached the Falls from Buffalo; the next, from Lewiston and Queenston.
I expected to be disappointed in the first sight of the Falls, and did not relish the idea of being questioned, on the first day, as to my “impressions” I therefore made a law, with the hearty agreement of the rest of the party, that no one should ask an opinion of the spectacle for twenty-four hours. We stepped into the stage at Buffalo at half-past eight in the morning on the 14th of October. At Black Rock we got out to cross the ferry. We looked at the green rushing waters we were crossing, and wondered whether they or we should be at the Falls first. We had to wait some minutes for the stage, on the Canada side, and a comely English woman invited us into her kitchen to warm ourselves. She was washing, as well as cooking; and such a log was blazing under her boilers as no fire-place in England would hold. It looked like the entire trunk of a pine, somewhat shortened. I could not help often wishing that some of the shivering poor of London could have supplies of the fuel which lies rotting in the American woods.
The road is extremely bad, all the way from the ferry to the Falls, and the bridges the rudest of the rude. The few farms looked decaying, and ill-clad children offered us autumn fruit for sale. We saw nothing to flatter our national complacency; for truly the contrast with the other side of the river was mournful enough.—It was not till we had passed the inn with the sign of the “Chippewa Battle Ground” that we saw the spray from the Falls, I believe we might have seen it sooner if we had known where to look. “Is that it?” we all exclaimed. It appeared on the left hand side, whereas we had been looking to the right; and instead of its being suspended in the air, like a white cloud, as we had imagined, it curled vigorously up, like smoke from a cannon, or from a replenished fire, The winding of the road presently brought this round to our right hand, It seemed very near : the river too was smooth as oil. The beginning of the Welland canal was next pointed out to me; but it was not a moment to care for canals. then the little Round Island, covered with wood, and surrounded by rapids, lay close at hand, in a recess of the Canada shore. Some of the rapids, of eight or ten feet descent, would be called falls elsewhere. They were glittering and foamy, with spaces of green water between. I caught a glimpse of a section of the cataract, but not any adequate view, before we were driven briskly up to the door of the hotel. We ran quickly from piazza to piazza, till we reached the crown of the roof, where there is a space railed in for the advantage of the gazer who desires to reach the highest point. I think the emotion of this moment was never renewed or equalled. The morning had been cloudy, with a very few wandering gleams. It was now a little after noon; the sky was clearing, and at this moment the sun lit up the Horseshoe Fall.—I am not going to describe it.—The most striking appearance was the slowness with which the shaded green waters rolled over the brink. This majestic oozing gives a true idea of the volume of the floods; but they no longer look like water.
We wandered through the wood, along Table Rock, and to the ferry. We sat down opposite to the American falls, finding them, the first dav or two, more level to our comprehension than the Great Horseshoe Cataract: yet throughout, the beauty was far more impressive to me than the grandeur. One's imagination may heap up almost any degree of grandeur: but the subtle colouring of this scene, varying with every breath of wind, refining upon the softness of driven snow, and dimming all the gems of the mine, is wholly inconceivable. The woods on Goat Island were in their gaudiest autumn dress; yet, on looking up to them from the fall, they seemed one dust colour, This will not be believed; but it is true.
The little detached fall on the American side piqued my interest at once. It looks solitary in the midst of the crowd of waters, coming out of its privacy in the wood, to take its leap by itself.—In the afternoon, as I was standing on Table Rock, a rainbow started out from the precipice, a hundred feet below me, and curved upwards as if about to alight on my head. Other such apparitions seemed to have a similar understanding with the sun. They went and came, blushed and faded, the floods rolling on, on, till the human heart, overcharged with beauty, could bear no more.
We crossed the ferry in the afternoon. Our boat was tossed like a cork in the writhing waves. We soon found that, though driven hither and thither by the currents, the ferryman always conquers at last, and shoots his boat into, the desired creek: but the tossing and whirling amidst the driving spray, seems a rather dubious a affair at first To be carried down would be no better than to be sucked up the river, as there is a fatal whirlpool below, which forbids all navigation as peremptorily as the Falls.
I still think the finest single impression of all is half-way up the American Fall, seen, not from the staircase, but from the bank, on the very verge of the sheet. Here we stood, this first evening, and amidst the rapids above. In returning, we saw from the river the singular effect of the clouds of spray being in shadow, and the descending floods in light; while the evening star hung over one extremity of the Falls, and the moon over the other, and the little perpetual cloud, amber in the last rays from the west, spread its fine drizzle, like a silver veil, over the scene.
There is nothing like patient waiting in a place like this. The gazer, who sits for hours watching what sun and wind may be pleased to reveal, is sure to be rewarded, somewhat as Newton described himself as being, when he set a thought before him, and sat still to see what would come out of it. It is surprising what secrets of the thunder cavern were disclosed to me during a few days of still watching,—disclosed by a puff of wind clearing the spray for an instant, or by the lightest touch of a sunbeam. The sound of the waters is lulling, even on the very brink; but if one wishes for stillness. there is the forest all around, where the eyes may become accustomed to common objects again. It is pleasant, after the high excitement, to stroll in the wild woods, and wonder what this new tree is and what that: and to gossip with the pigs, slim and spruce while fed on forest nuts and roots; and to watch the progress of a loghouse, sitting the while on a stump, or leaning over a snake-fence; and then to return, with new wonder, to the ethereal vision.
The first evening, the gentlemen were all restless under the prohibition to ask about impressions: every one of them was eager to tell, but too proud to pour out till others did the same. What an out-pouring it was when it did happen!
One morning, we found an old man, between seventy and eighty years old, gazing from Table Rock. He was an American. Being on a journey. he had walked from Queenston to see the Falls. He quietly observed that he was ashamed to think there bad been wars near such a place, and that he hoped the English and Americans were grown wiser now. and would not think of fighting any more. This came in echo of my thought. I had been secretly wishing that all the enemies in the world could be brought toirether on this rock: they could not but love as brethren.
An English family at the hotel seemed marvellously skilled in putting away all the good influences of the place. The gentleman was so anxious about where he should settle, so incessantly pettish, so resolutely miserable, as to bespeak the compassion of all the guests for the ladies of his family, one of whom told me that she had forgotten all about the Falls in her domestic anxieties. As this gentleman found fault with every body and every thing, and ostentatiously proved that nothing could give him any pleasure, it was not surprising that the cataract itself failed to meet his approbation: yet I was not prepared for the question he put to me across the table, in the presence of both Canadians and Americans, whether I did not think the natives made a very silly fuss about the Falls, and whether the Falls of the Clyde were not much finer. Such are the persons by whom foreigners suppose themselves made acquainted with the English character. Such is the way in which not a few English study to mortify the inhabitants, and then come home and complain of American conceit, I told this gentleman that I perceived he was speaking of the rapids, and had not seen the Falls.
We wished, while we were in the neighbourhood, to obtain a glimpse of Lake Ontario, as we were not sure of being able to visit Canada at a future time. We took the opportunity of two of our party going northwards, to accompany them as far as Queenston.—seven miles off,—where we intended to see Brock's monument, satisfy ourselves with the view from the top of it, and walk home through the woods in the afternoon. In the stage were an Irish gentleman and his wife. The lady amused me by the zeal with which she knitted all the way, just as if she were in a dark parlour in the Old Jewry; and the gentleman with some sentiments which were wholly new to me; for instance, he feared that the independence of the Americans made them feel themselves independent of God. This consequence of democratic government had not struck me before, and I never perceived any traces of its existence; but it it should occur, there will probably soon be an epidemic or a bad season to bring them to their senses again.
Before the door of the wretched, foul inn at Queenston, we sorrowfully shook hands with our Prussian and Dutch companions, hoping to meet them again in the course of our travels; which indeed happened more than once,—We provided ourselves here with cider, cakes, and sandwiches; i. e. beef-steak laid between thick dry broad, With this provision, we ascended the hill to the foot of Brock's monument, and found the portress, an active little Irishwoman, waiting to let us in. She was delighted to meet ladies from the old country, and heartily invited us to spread our dinner in her cottage below. She told us all her affairs, and seemed unwilling to leave us when we told her we meant to stay a long while on the top of the monument, and would not detain her from her wash-tub, but would conic down to her by-and-bye. She and her husband have, for showing the monument, sixty dollars a season, (that is, while the boats run.) and all that they happen to take in the winter. They were soon to have a cottage built for them nearer the monument.—When we went down to her cottage. she had spread plates, knives, and pickles, and had her head full of questions and communications. She was grateful for a small payment for her trouble, and gave us the impression of her being a very amiable, contented person, whom we should like to see again.
Sir Isaac Brock fell at the battle of Queenston, in October, 1812, near the base of this monument. It is 145 feet high, and being built on a pretty steep hill, commands a fine view. To the left a prodigious sweep of forest terminates in blue Canadian hills. On the right is the American shore, at this time gandy with autumn woods. There stands the village of Lewiston. with its winding descent to the ferry. At our feet lay Queenston, its sordidness being lost in distance, and its long street presenting the appearance of an English village. The green river rushes between its lofty wooded banks, which snddenly widen at Queenston, causing the waters to spread and relax their speed, while making their way, with three or four bends, to the lake. We saw the white church of Niagara, rising above the woods, some miles off, where the the junction takes place : and beyond, the vast lake spreads its waters, grey on the horizon. There was life in this magnificent scene. The ferry boat was buffeted by the waves; groups were in waiting on either side the ferry; and teams were in the fields. The Irishwoman was grieved that she had no telescope wherewith to enable us to see what was doing on the lake. She and her husband had provided one for the accommodation of visitors. Some travellers (English) had thrown it down from the top of the monument, and when she asked for payment, only bullied her; and her husband had not been able to afford to get another.
After dinner we sat on the top of the precipitous wooded bank of the river, looking down into its green eddies, and watching the family of white birds which hovered far beneath us, bat yet high over the stream. Meditating as we were, that we were now sitting on the spot where the Falls were pouring down their Hoods ages before Babylon was founded, or the Greek Mythology had arisen out of the elements of universal conviction, it was not surprising that we had no thoughts to spare for the weather* . We did not observe how the sky had been darkening. Two wagons driven by lads stopped in passing, and their drivers offered us seals to Niagara. We at first declined, being bent upon walking.; but feeling heavy drops of rain at the moment, we retracted our refusal, and jumped into one of the vehicles. It was a mere box upon wheels—a barbarous machine, but of great service to us in the ensuing storm. Before we reached our hotel we were thoroughly wet, but had obtained a good deal of information from our driver about the condition of the Canadian settlers in the neighbourhood. He was the son of a Canadian father and Sooten mother, who were doing well in the world: as he sait the English settlers do who set the right way to work. The land is not the best near the road; so that what is soon there is no fair specimen of the state of the settlers. The farms hereabout consist of about 100 acres generally, and are all the properly of the residents. Labourers live with the farmers, and receive, besides their board and lodging, about 120 dollars a-year. A gentleman, a farmer and physician, from some distance called on me one day when I was out, and left messages for me with one of our party. He said he wished me to see and do justice to Canada People go, he believes, with wrong expectations, and so are disappointed. He, his wife and daughters, went, expecting ease and comfort, and they have found it; but they have not wealth and luxury. He declared that civilitv and cheerfulness would always command good manners and service. As I had no opportunity of “seeing and doing justice to Canada.” I give this gentleman's testimony. It is very agreeable, and I do not doubt its justness.
Another visitor, of a very different kind, came to our parlour as I was preparing for our departure. I looked up from my packing, and saw an extraordinary apparition in the doorway;—a lady bridling, winking, and attitudinizing in a wonderful manner. On my asking ber to come in and sit down, she said she was deputed by a gentleman to ask my address, in order to his communicating with me before I should publish my account of the Falls. She seemed deeply grieved at finding that I did not contemplate any such publication, saying that it would be a serious disappointment to the gentleman, who hoped I wight have been of essential service to him—by recommending his hotel! It appeared that a sharp competition was going on about the letting of this hotel, and the gentleman in question was in hopes of getting it, He seemed to have one great qualification—the determination to leave no stone unturned.
The second time I visited Nagara, I accomplished the feat of going behind the Fall. In October it was too cold: on, a sunny 8th of June there was no imprudence in it. When I descended the staircase with Dr. and Mrs, F., after breakfast, we had no such intention; but we were all tempted farther and farther over the rocks, nearer and nearer to the sheet, till the puffing away of the spray gave us glimpses of what was behind, and made us feel that this was the right dav and hour. Mrs. F's chest was not very strong, and this was no enterprise for a child; so Dr. F, and I were to be the favoured ones. We ascended to the guide's house, and sairveyed the extraordinary costume in which we were to make the expedition. Stout socks and shoes (but I would recommend ladies to go shod as usual), thick cotton garments reaching to the feet; green oilskin jackets and hats;—in this mountaineer sort of costume is the adventure to be gone through. As the guide's wife was assisting me, she hoped I had enjoyed myself since I was last at the Falls.
“Were you aware that I had been here before?”
“Yes, madam, I remember you well.”
“Why, how is it possible that you should remember me among the thousands of people who have been here in two seasons? We were not acquainted, were we?”
“No, madam; but one evening you stopped and admired my cow.”
“Did not this trumpet help you to remember me?”
“No, madam; I never saw it before.”
How many ways there are to people's hearts ! I now remembered having remarked to a companion on the beauty and docility of a cow which a woman was milking. The good wife had treasured up my observation as a personal compliment.
Mrs. F. and Charley accompanied us to the edge of the spray, when we sent them hack, charging them not to expect us too soon as we meant to look about us awhile.
We had a stout negro for a guide. He took me by the hand, and led me through the spray. I presently found the method of keeping myself at my case. It was to hold down the brim of my hat, so as to protect my eyes from the dashing water, and to keep my mouth shut. With these precautions, I could breathe and see freely in the midst of a tumult which would otherwise be enough to extinguish one's being. A hurricane blows up from the cauldron; a deluge drives at you from all parts; and the noise of both wind and waters, reverberated from the cavern, is inconceivable. Our path was sometimes a wet ledge of rock, just broad enough to allow one person at a time to creep along: in other places we walked over hcaps of fragments, both slippery and unstable.* If all had been dry and quiet, I might probably have thought this path above the boiling basin dangerous, and have trembled to pass it; but amidst the hubbub of gusts and floods, it appeared so firm a footing, that I had no fear of slipping into the cauldron. From the moment that I perceived that we were actually behind the cataract, and not in a mere cloud of spray, the enjoyment was intense. I not only saw the watery curtain before me like tempest-driven snow, but by momentary glances could see the crystal roof of this most wonderful of Nature's palaces. The precise point where the flood quitted the rock was marked by a gush of silvery light, which of course was brighter where the waters were shooting forward than below, where they fell perpendicularly. There was light enough to see one another's features by, and even to give a shadow to the side of the projecting rock which barred our farther progress. When we came within a few paces of this projection, our guide, by a motion of his hand (for speaking was out of the question), forbade my advancing further. But it was no time and place to be stopped by anything but impossibilities. I saw that though there was no regular path on the other side of the guide, there were two pieces of rock, wide enough for my feet, by standing on which I might touch the wall which limited our walk. I made the guide press himself back against the rock, and crossed between him and the cauldron, and easily gained my object—laying my hand on Termination Rock. When I returned to my place. Dr. F. passed both the guide and myself for the same purpose. In returning, my hat blew off, in spite of all my efforts to hold it on. The guide put his upon my head, and that was carried away in like manner. I ought to have been instructed to tie it well on, for mere holding will not do in a hurricane. It is a proof that we were well lighted in our cavern, that we all saw the outline of a hat which was jammed between two stones some way beneath us. The guide made for this, looking just as if he were coolly walking down into destruction; for the volumes of spray curled, thickly up, as if eager to swallow him. He grasped the hat, but found it too much beaten to pieces to be of any use.
Mrs. F. says we looked like three gliding ghosts when her anxious eye first caught our forms moving behind the cloud. She was glad enough to see us; for some one passing by had made her expect us at least two minutes before we appeared. Dripping at all points as we were, we scudded under the rocks, and up the staircase to our dressing-rooms, after which we wrote our names among those of the adventurers who have performed the same exploit, and received a certificate of our having visited Termination Rock. I was told that a fee and a wetting in the spray may secure such a certificate at anytime. Be this as it may, ours were honest.
When we came down in our own likeness, Mrs. F. had found a glorious seat for us on a rock which jutted outwards and upwards, commanding the entire range of the Falls, with every advantage of light, and also of solitude;—no inconsiderable gain in a place where tourists may be heard discussing on Table Rock the probability of there being chickens for dinner. I felt some pain in my chest for a few hours, but was not otherwise injured by the expedition. When the other members of our party joined us, they were somewhat surprised to hear what we had done; and one of them followed our example another day.
I look back upon this morning as the very best of the many I spent at the Falls. We found several new points of view, and the weather was divine. We clambered down to the water's edge, where men were gathering spars and other “curiosities.” We sat long amusing ourselves with watching the vain attempts of the tree-trunks, which had been carried over from above, to get any farther down the river. They were whisked about like twigs in the boiling waters, and sometimes made a vigorous shoot, as if to get free of the eddies; but as often as they reached a particular spot, they were sure to be turned back, and sucked up the stream, to try again. I think they must be doing penance there still, unless, enormous logs as they are, they have been dashed to pieces. When the sun became too hot to be borne below, we came up to the foot of the staircase, and sat in the shade, drinking from the drip,—the soft shower which could not make itself heard amidst the solemn roar of the floods. Here Charley stood, placing spouts of reed which might convey water from the drip, wherewith to wash his spars. Not a word of wonder had we from him. He gloried in the scene, and feared nothing, climbing, with the help of his father's strong hand, wherever it was practicable to set his little foot: but there was no wonder. The age of wonder has not arrived to children, savages, and other ignorant persons. They know too little of purposes, means, and obstructions to be aware of what either divine or human achievement is. A child believes you if you promise to take him into the moon; and a savage supposes that you eclipse the sun by firing a musket. An ignorant person annoys Mr. Babbage, after much praise of his machine, by asking to know one thing more,—“If you put a question in wrong, will the answer come out right?” Charley would hardly have asked this question, child as he was; but he did not share our wonder at the cataract. He enjoyed the climbing, and the rainbows, and the emerald pillars based on clouds, which was the form the floods bore, this sultry noon; but he went on washing his spars as tranquilly as if he had been beside our favourite brook in the wood at Stockbridge. His pity was stirred up this morning, however, with a story of a bird which I saw perish. It had got Lewildered in the circuit of the Horse Shoe Fall. I saw it driving and fluttering about for a minute or two in the spray, when it flew directly into the sheet, and was swallowed up.
The next day was devoted to Goat Island. Dr. F., who learned English to the last degree of perfection in little more than two years, happened to say, one day, that there was one English word whose exact meaning he did not understand,—-dawdle: We promised to afford him an exemplification of it this day. There was also a joke against me. I was now a practised traveller; and having found how the pleasures of travelling are economized by business-like habits of arrangement. I was the prompter of our somewhat inexperienced party about ordering dinner, packing at convenient times, and so contriving as to have our thoughts at perfect liberty for pleasure while we were out-of-doors, instead of having to run or send to our lodgings about business which might as well have been settled while we were there. They asked me whether I could spend a whole day without thinking of time, meals, or the fitness of things in any way. No one was better pleased with such liberty than I; so we left behind us even our watches. It appears, however, that somebody must have carried money, for food was brought to us, and doubtless honestly paid for.
At some unknown hour of a bright morning, therefore, we set forth from our hotel, and in due time reached the ferry. The entire party paid sufficient attention to business to sit properly in the boat, which is no place for freak and frolic, while bobbing about among the eddies. We dawdled long about the American Fall. I had never before been fully aware of its power over the senses. Today, I saw a lady who was sitting on the bank,—as safe a seat as an arm-chair by the fireside,—convulsively turn away from the scene, and clasp the ground. Yet the water falls so tranquilly that I should not be afraid to stand in the flood, near the bank where it takes the leap. I tried the force of the water there, and found it very moderate. After completing the ascent, Mrs. F. and I were standing looking at the rapids, when a letter was handed to me. Somebody had actually been mundane enough to remember the post-office, and to go to it! I was glad it was not I. Further sins against the spirit of the day were presently committed. Of course, I cannot say what time it was, but, by the heat, probably about the middle of the day, when the ladies were sitting on the stem of a tree, in a tiny island, amidst the roaring rapids,—an interesting love-story being their topic,—and the gentlemen were seen approaching with bread, biscuits, cheese, ale, and lemonade. They had not even forgotten glasses. We ate our dinner on a bench under the trees,—all except Charley, who niched himself in an ash, which parted from the root into many stems. The boy looked like a beautiful fairy, and for his own part declared that this was far better than dining in any house.
We dawdled hours away in Goat Island; now lying on the grassy bank with our feet almost into the rapids; now fanning ourselves in the translucent green shades of the wood, among rabbits and goats, and then gathering new wild flowers from the multitude which blossomed under our feet; the roar of the Falls solemnizing all. The timid ones sat in the alcove erected above the Horse Shoe Fall, while the rest went down to the Terrapin Bridge and Tower. The tower, forty feet high, is built on rocks in the midst of the rapids, and its summit affords an absolutely complete view of the scene. The bridge is built on logs which extend from rock to rock in the rapids, to the edge of the precipice, the flood gushing beneath in a dizzying whirl. At my first visit, this bridge had been complete, and to all appearance secure. I had stood on its extreme point, which projected over the precipice. There I hung suspended above the fall,— standing in the air on the extremity of a beam, and without any suspicion that I was not perfectly safe. It was there that I learned some of the secrets of the cataract. I saw there what can be seen nowhere else, —the emerald columns broken and forced up, and falling again in gushes of diamonds, which again were melted into wreaths of dazzling snow. It was now too late to see this any more. The bridge had broken down, some way from the end; the handrail was gone, and the brink of the precipice was no longer accessible. We got to the tower, however, and further; and Charley and his father stepped down from the bridge among the rocks, and stood amidst the water, very near the brink of the great Fall! Their position was shown to be perfectly safe by the verdure of these rocks. Slight shrubs, rooted in their crevices, were full of leaf. Their smallest twin's were tossed in the never-dying breeze, without being snapped, Yet we were glad when our friends were safe on the bridge again.
We descended the Biddle staircase,—the spiral staircase fixed against the perpendicular rock in Goat Island,—and pursued a narrow path from its foot back to the Fall, where we found a glacier! An enormous pile of snow and ice lay against the rock, so solid, under this intense June sun, that Charley climbed to the top of it. Here every successive pulse of the cataract was like a cannon shot a few yards off; so that there was no standing it long; there was much yet to do; and the party probably observed, though no one chose to mention it, that the sun was going down. We crossed the detached American Fall, by its rustic bridge, and hunted it back to its retreat in the wood. Our faces were now turned homewards; but we lingered long in the shades, and afterwards at Bath Island, where some one observed that it would be dusk before we could reach the ferry, and that the walk home on the Canada side was not of a kind to be prosecuted in the dark. The sun disappeared before we reached the ferry-house, and the panorama from the river was seen in the magnitude and majesty of twilight. In the dark woods on the Canada side, we made ourselves visible to each other by catching fire-flies and sticking them in our bonnets. They sat very still among our bows of ribbon, and really served our purpose very well.
Bad news awaited us at home,—news of Mr. Van Buren's casting vote in favour of the third reading of the Gag Bill; and of a fresh breaking out of the dreadful Creek war in Georgia: but now that that atrocious bill has long been thrown out, and the Greek war ended, (though with gricuous suffering and humiliation to the poor Greeks.) this day of delicious dawdling (a word which Dr. F. by this time completely understood,) stands out bright enough to be worthy of the scene and of our human life.
It is familiar to all that the cataract of Niagara is supposed to have worn its way back from the point of the narrowing of its channel (the spot where we now sat), and that there is an anticipation of its continuing to retire the remaining twelve miles to Lake Erie. Unless counteracting agencies should meantime have been at work, the inundation of the level country which must then take place will be almost boundless. The period is, however, too remote for calculation. An American told me, smiling, that the apprehension has not yet affected the title to land. And no one knows what secret barriers may be building up, or drains opening.
A rope, has since been stretehed along the rock to serve for a hand rail. This must render the expedition far less formidable than before.