Along the Banks of America's Oldest State Park

They come in bermuda shorts, bearing video cameras, knapsacks, and even large, fluorescent orange doughnuts - a letter from Niagara Falls

THERE'S never a dry moment in Niagara Falls. Even when the region is experiencing an economic slowdown, the mighty waterfalls of the Niagara River draw millions every year. Most visitors are tourists; others are shoppers. And a few just have a zest for waterfall riding.

Earlier this season, motel and restaurant owners were concerned about low visitor turnout because of an overall sluggish tourist industry, says Ray Wigle, director of communication for the Niagara Falls Convention and Visitor's Bureau.

``Things were a little softer than usual'' around the July 4th, Mr. Wigle says. But now ``most people are saying they are having a banner summer.''

During this tourist season, which runs from May to September, the falls will attract about 10 million to 12 million visitors - a ``conservative guesstimate,'' predicts Wigle. Many visitors are Canadian shoppers, who are drawn like bees to honey to the lower US prices.

The newly renovated Niagara Reservation park, where the American falls are located, is the oldest state park in the United States. Landscape artist Frederick Law Olmsted, envisioning a pristine park that was free of development, designed Niagara in the late 1880s.

Olmsted believed ``nature should provide a natural setting,'' Wigle says. ``Anything man-made or intrusive should be kept out of the way.''

Niagara Reservation remained relatively untouched until a highway sliced through the park in the 1960s. Then, about six years ago, the highway was dismantled, buildings were removed, and trees and flowers were planted. The new park has become a major boon to the tourist industry, Wigle says.

``They sort of renaturized the park and that has made a great deal of difference for a number of people who go down to the falls,'' Wigle explains.

Indeed, on a recent Friday afternoon, the tourist season seemed in full swing. Bermuda-shorted tourists - toting video cameras, knapsacks, and young children - are everywhere.

At the observation platform on the American side of the falls, young families gather around look-out binoculars. The platform nests 200 feet above the Niagara gorge, providing a panoramic view of the American and Canadian sides.

Children, however, don't always share their parents intrigue in the thundering sights. ``I wanna do something fun,'' one young boy tells his parents.

``Hey, Dad, I saw a sign that says rest rooms two floors up,'' shouts another freckle-faced youngster from across the platform.

If the kids get tired of watching the falls, they might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of some daring and dangerous waterfall stunts.

Last week, a Canadian was arrested for attempting to ride down the American falls in a large fluffy, fluorescent yellow-orange ball. His flatbed truck was stopped by a wary policeman before he was able to test the 10-foot diameter doughnut-shaped device.

New York state-park police officials were surprised at the attempt.

``I have been here 42 years and have never seen anyone go over the American falls,'' says Capt. Joseph DeMarco of the New York State Park Police. ``That [fluorescent ball] was a joke....''

The last attempt on the American falls was about four years ago by two Niagara University students.

``They had themselves a contraption made out of a sewer pipe,'' Captain DeMarco says. ``They didn't travel too far until they were hung up and were rescued.''

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