In March I saw an announcement that Niagara Falls would be illuminated burgundy and white/ivory, on Tuesday, April 3 for 15 minutes, to honor head/neck cancer (HNC) awareness. Most nights the Falls are illuminated from 10:00 pm – 10:15 pm to honor a cause. I knew immediately I needed to be there to photograph the honor, and put a post on Facebook inviting friends and family to join me.
I drove from Nashville, Tennessee to Niagara Falls, Ontario the day before, not trusting there would be no delays along the way, or that I’d be too tired after the drive to get out to shoot the Falls at the appointed time. Although Google Maps said it would be an 11.5 hour drive I knew from experience there could be unavoidable delays along the route, and one never knows how long the process to clear customs and immigration at the Canadian border can be. Monday night I arrived about 9:00 pm, and after checking into my hotel room, I took a walk along the Niagara River, camera in hand.
Autism Awareness was being honored by displaying blue and white from 10:00 – 10:15 pm. A beautiful way to end a long day of driving and an exciting way to begin the Niagara Falls adventure.
Tuesday began as a cold, drizzly day.
As the day progressed it became more cold, and the drizzle turned to heavy rainfall. Keeping the rain and the mist from the Falls off the camera lens and body became impossible.
It was time to head for cover.
Falls illumination begins at 8:00 pm each evening. and at that time I took a walk, wearing a rain poncho, to the Falls to see what I could see. There were a few intrepid people out on the viewing deck as I set up my tripod and camera, all protected by my rain poncho.
The wind had picked up and the conditions were cold and raw. My camera is not water proof and I was concerned about water damage. I decided it was the better part of valor to take a break indoors until 10:00 pm and venture out again later, specifically to photograph the HNC color honor. On my way up Clifton Hill the lights in the rain caught my eye and I stopped to capture the scene. My reconstructed airway has an annoying tendency to collapse under conditions that require me to breath a little more than shallowly, and so the rest was also necessary, to allow my airway to open and allow me to breath a little easier.
At 5 minutes to 10:00 I braved the elements, with an umbrella this time, as the rain poncho wasn’t really a great solution. The wind had died down a bit, the rain had increased and fog had settled in. When I arrived at the viewing deck I could not see the American Falls at all. I looked up the river and I could see the illumination lights were on, they just could not penetrate the density of the rain and fog. I set up my tripod and camera, shielded by the umbrella tucked into the back of my shirt under my parka. Mentally, I had my fingers crossed I’d be able to capture something of an image my photo processing software could work with. Through the view finder I could see nothing and the electronic auto focus could find nothing to focus on. I turned the camera to an illuminated building, focused, and set the focus switch on the lens to manual, and dialed in camera settings for exposure. I would have to make the best of the situation.
I moved along the viewing deck, always with an eye on where I knew the American Falls to be and the camera/tripod aimed in their direction. It was eerily quiet. I could hear the rain, and realized I could barely hear the Falls, which usually are roaring. There was no one around. No cars driving by, no tourists out walking or trying to view the obscured Falls. It was just me, my camera and tripod, the wind, rain and fog, and my desire to see the Falls illuminated to honor HNC. I was trying not to be disappointed, or cynical. I was arguing with myself about staying out any longer and risking camera damage, or Debra damage, when suddenly the fog lifted. I had guessed at camera settings and position and so just hit the exposure button. No sooner had I captured the image when the fog descended again and the rainfall increased intensity. I told myself I had done as good a job as I could, given the conditions, and headed back to my hotel room.
The next day the rain had eased off, the temperatures had plummeted and the wind had picked up with a vengeance. It was a perfect day to walk about with the infrared camera. After the disappointment, but sort of representative of HNC, of the night before I thought it was the perfect time to walk around with a permanently altered camera that sees light completely differently, sort of representative of life after HNC treatment. I have a camera that was permanently modified for infrared photography. It captures images like, and completely unlike, a standard camera. Black and white photography with an infrared camera is stunning and color photography is otherworldly
As the day progressed the wind increased, the rain turned to snow and hail, and it was time once again to seek shelter. I chose the Skylon Tower as my next stop.
I had heard on the radio there was a wind storm coming, and it hit as I was at observation deck of the Skylon Tower. I attempted to take photos from the outside deck, but the wind literally blew me over. From the shelter of the inside portion of the observation deck I watched a man and his teenage son come running in from the outside track. I approached the man and with my robo electro voice asked him if he’d help me. It took him a moment but he gathered his wits, looked me straight in the eye and said “Yes. How can I help you? I told him I wanted to go outside on the deck to take some photos but the wind was too strong for me and would he go out there with me and help me withstand the wind. He said “Yes. Now?” I grinned and nodded. He opened the door for us, wrapped his arms around my waist and together we stepped out on the deck. The wind immediately knocked us off balance. We made our way to the edge of the deck and I leaned against the railing. The wind was buffeting us both so much I couldn’t get my camera to stay in place. His son came over and braced me from the side. Between the three of us I was able to get these images.
The wind was wicked, and I was hungry, so I decided to wait out some of the wind storm at the revolving restaurant, a couple floors down from the observation deck. The restaurant completes one revolution per hour. I was fortunate enough to get a table right by the window and so was able to capture images while I enjoyed an amazing lupper (lunch/supper) washed down with my favorite, and most effective for clearing my reconstructed esophagus, beverage – Heineken. 😉 Side note: if you have the opportunity to visit Niagara Falls I highly recommend lunch or dinner at the revolving restaurant at Skylon Tower. It’s an experience greater than you can imagine.
Did you notice what I noticed? Ice was building up in the river, above and below the Falls.
After dinner I went back to the observation deck to check out conditions. The wind had died down sufficiently to allow me to get to the rail under my own steam and capture a new set of images.
When I reviewed the captured images on my computer I saw the incoming ice was visible even before it could be seen in the river near the Falls!
At illumination time, 8:00 pm, the river below the Falls was full of ice. The weather was bitter, cold and blustery. The good part of the strong wind is the mist was blown out of the way and so observers stayed dry and more of the Horseshoe Falls were visible. There was a young family out on the deck with me, and they were wondering aloud when the illumination would start. The first image in this series was one I had just taken. I pointed to the Falls and said “They are illuminated right now. Please stay and watch colors play on the Falls. And, with the ice in the river, you don’t want to have traveled so far and miss it.” I don’t think they understood a word I say because they left.
Recognizing opportunity when it presents itself, and choosing to accept it, has been a habit of my life. Thursday it was time to drive home to Tennessee. But, the river was full of ice, in a way I hadn’t seen since I was a child. I had never, in all the visits over the decades to Niagara Falls, spent any time on the New York side. I knew I’d regret always if I did not take the time to visit, experience for myself, and capture some images. I met a friend for breakfast in Buffalo and we took the 30 mile drive to Niagara Falls, NY.
My few days at Niagara Falls reminded me of life. There were times of harsh, hard to deal with conditions. There were times I was walking my path alone, and there were times when I felt part of a collection of people from all over the world, and with a friend, watching in awe one of the great natural wonders of the world. I found people were willing to help, and willing to pretend I didn’t exist. I know perspective is everything and I know not everything is as it seems. Just like the infrared images, being transformed due to HNC treatment effects is just different. Transformed is not wrong, good or bad, just different. Just like the infrared images, at first the transformation can be unnerving, unsettling, to the person and to others. Over time the transformation shows its unique beauty to those who are willing and able to see it. I reaffirmed I can be determined to achieve a goal, despite the odds, and can shift gears and direction as opportunity presents itself, bringing along with it experiences greater than what I could have conceived of. And, to me, most important of all, I reaffirmed that opportunity doesn’t stop knocking if one continues to invite it into your life.
HNC is one of those cancers that is gaining social awareness along with the rapidly rising number of new diagnoses each year, in younger and younger men and women, due to human papilloma virus infection (HPV+). HNC tends to be a socially awkward cancer to be diagnosed with. “You smoked” “You drank” “You had oral sex” (therefore you did something to deserve what you got) are common assumptions. I tell people I’m a walking set of assumptions, none of which are applicable to me. HNC is an equal opportunity cancer. It doesn’t care about your age, gender, education level, social or financial status, life style choices. Too often HNC is diagnosed late stage. Like any type of cancer, diagnosis at late stage means treatment is rigorous, harsh, and treatment effects linger, often for the duration of the survivor’s life. Unfortunately, resources and support for HNC treatment survivors are not as readily available as those available for other types of cancer. This month of Head/Neck Cancer Awareness I ask people to acknowledge that cancer is cancer. There are no good cancers. Those who have had the three dreadful words directed to them “You have cancer” know the onslaught of emotions, thoughts, feelings that can be overwhelming, frightening, sometimes paralyzing. In this regard we are just like other cancer treatment survivors, and so would appreciate support being extended to HNC treatment survivors to the same degree as other types of cancers that are more well known and supported. Because HNC treatment impacts our human aspect, our appearance, sound of our voice, our ability to talk, to eat/drink, to breathe, the social awkwardness of the diagnosis and treatment is difficult to hide. It becomes challenging, sometimes wearisome, to have your cancer experience be the first thing, and sometimes the only thing, people notice about you. HNC attacks more than a body part or two. It attacks that which makes us continue to be considered human in society. All humans want to be considered as viable and valuable as we were before our cancer diagnosis and treatment.
This month of HNC Awareness, be aware of the ease with which you talk. Savor taste and the satisfaction in being able to swallow your food and drink successfully. Take a deep breath, let it out, and give thanks you can do so without conscious effort or obstruction. Life is a gift that becomes more precious the more it is threatened. Please don’t wait for your life to be threatened in any way to begin to live life on your terms.