Ready to go Tripping again?
All of us who have been in lockdown through this year-plus pandemic would love to get out and visit and explore. The warm days of early spring are adding to the cabin fever.
Last April, viewers got to live the travel dream vicariously thanks to Tripping the Rideau, a serene and immersive motorboat ride along the Rideau Canal that was nothing less than a welcome blast of fresh air, natural spelendor and sunshine.
This Friday, TVO presents a second exploration of an even more famous corner of Ontario with Tripping the Niagara. The soaring, narration-free three-hour journey premieres without interruption Friday April 2 from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET and will stream anytime after that on tvo.org and on the TVO YouTube channel.
Hot Doc award winner Mitch Azaria of Good Earth Productions, who also executive produced the Rideau Tripp, says TVO wanted to dock the boat and go exploring in a different way. A birds eye view over Niagara was pitched and quickly approved.
The star of the documentary is “Stickers,” a magestic, red-winged raptor common to the Niagara region and other part of the province.
“Trying to decide on a bird that we would have some control of was really challenging,” says Azaria. “Most of the wranglers didn’t have their birds in flight because there was no work for them [in COVID times]. Any of these raptors, if you want them to work, they’re like athletes — they have to go into training.”
Not that Stickers was actually flying along with a camera strapped to its back. The entire documentary was shot using a drone. It helped that Azaria’s director of photography, cinematographer Peter Warren, is a seasoned drone pilot and operator.
The effect, therefore, is that you are gliding high overhead of this 24 kilometer-long region, rich in history and vinyards and famous for its waterfalls. To complete that illusion, Warren and crew had to get up close and personal with Stickers. The hawk, who is rewarded with food by his handler, turned out to be an eagle scout.
It helped perhaps that Stickers felt at home on the project. The Niagara region is home to more birds than any other river in Canada.
That’s just one of many pop-up “factoids” projected (as they were in the first “Tripping”) on the surface of the river or against the blue skies.
The trip begins at the mouth of the Niagara River at Lake Ontario and extends over pictuesque Niagara-On-The-Lake — Upper Canada’s first capital and a National Historic Site.
Azaria and director John Morrison met with the folks from Parks Canada, who, well, watched over the project like hawks. Much of the region is parkland.
The drone dove down to street level for the fly past of Niagara-On-The Lake, a tourist town with more surviving structures dating back to the 1820s through 1860s than anywhere else in Canada.
This is where Tripping the Niagara truly takes it up a notch: suddenly and seamlessly, the street scene sweeps into black-and-white and back a century or two. Stickers is drifting along with a horse-drawn wagon and past a two-storey farmhouse — which just as suddenly transfers back to modern times in full colour.
“None of these buildings have really been changed in many ways,” says Azaria. “It’s a history you can touch.”
The producer credits 3D motion graphic artist Mat Knegt with the animated wizardry. “I’m not sure there’s another guy in Canada that can do what he did.”
These precisely-animated history lessons occur as well in visits to Fort George, a War of 1812 site which suddenly appears to be under attack from Yankee ships at the mouth of the Niagara River. Another sequence closer to the falls flies viewers back in time to the canyon-like cliffs where the mighty Sir Adam Beck generating station hums.
Azaria says the animation starts before you realize it with Knegt rendering blades of grass, leaves on trees and waves of water to seemlessly work the illusion of going back in time.
Another wonder is the lofty fly past of Brock’s Monument. There’s a detailed statue of Sir Isaac Brock at the top of this 56-meter column in Queenston Heights. Tripping the Niagara brings you right up to Brock’s eye level and you’re left wondering just how the hell did they get that statue up there in the 1850s without a Sikorsky helicopter.
Other history lessons touched on along the way include references to the First peoples 13,000 years ago, to the border-crossing heroics of the Underground Railway and the skull-duggery days of Prohibition.
Part of the tour, or course, swoops down into wine country. As viewers learn, the region has over 100 wineries and grows 80 per cent of Canada’s grapes. It is also the tender fruit capital of Ontario, providing 90 per cent of all of Ontario’s peaches and other tender fruit.
Stickers eventually reaches the Falls, starting with the midway antics of the Clifton Hill tourist region. While there are people in the streets, shooting through COVID turned out to be a blessing for Azaria and company. Normally there would be far more tourists pointing and gawking up at the drone. It also makes you really want to visit Niagara now under the illusion that it really isn’t so choked with people and traffic as on your last seven visits.
Shooting right at the falls themselves was rewarding but tricky, says Azaria. The heavy mists, which come and go, hamper flying efforts. The birds-eye-view must be kept at a lower level to keep clear of the sight-seeing helicopter rides. The drone also had to fly attached to a cumbersome parachute, a safety condition imposed by local authorities.
And wait until you hear how far the falls have migrated along the river. They are, to this day, eroding and in retreat at a pace of about one foot a year — despite the fact that much of the water has been diverted into power-generating corridors.
Tripping the Niagara is not quite as tranquil as Tripping the Rideau. There is just way more to see and do on this trip, and the hawk-eye view adds a thrilling jolt.
The only time I missed the boat from Tripping the Rideau, however, was at the end of this documentary. The producers missed a glorious opportunity to send one right over the falls. Otherwise, stick with Stickers Friday on TVO and enjoy the best view of the Niagara region ever shot by a drone, bird or human. It’s the most amazing three-hour tour you can take from your couch.