My wife and I left the Downtown Toronto hustle for a few days between Christmas and New Year’s, for two nights in a lovely bed and breakfast in Niagara Falls. The intent of our mini-vacation was to spend some quiet time indoors, reading books, perhaps writing (in my case, I thought more about relaunching Atoms and Numbers!), and just relaxing after a busy few months.
Unbeknown to us when we booked this trip in early December was that the weather would be frigid. In fact, the dominant topic of conversation in most of North America over the Christmas season, and into the first week of 2018, were the record low temperatures that engulf most of the continent – while most of the planet endured warmer-than-normal temperatures.
Our first night in Niagara Falls was lovely, and our eight-minute walk to a nice Italian restaurant and our eight-minute walk back to our room left us with cold faces and reinforced our plan for the next day: hot coffee, newspapers and e-books, and general quietude.
One cannot spend a period of time in Niagara Falls without seeing the cascading water and hearing the hypnotic roar of the majestic waterfalls along the Canada-U.S. border. We made an evening reservation for the dinner in a renowned restaurant 33 stories above the Falls, and planned to walk along the waterfront afterwards to take in the sights and sounds. That afternoon, we noted stunning pictures on Twitter of Niagara Falls as a “Winter Wonderland”. Some media outlets ran headlines that the Falls were frozen. And I suppose that “Niagara Falls is frozen” is a popular shorthand for it is really really freaking cold out there.
But does Niagara Falls actually freeze over in frigid temperatures? Certainly pictures like the one above show an ethereal scene, covered in ice, with what seems like water suspended in the air. The mist landing on very cold surfaces coats the nearby surfaces with ever-thickening ice that shimmer beautifully in the light. But the suspended water would be a photographic illusion. The flowing water moves with too much energy to get frozen as it falls over the Falls.
While Niagara Falls has never frozen over completely, cold weather did bring it to a near-complete standstill on one occasion. On March 30, 1848, the locals awoke to a deafening silence – they realized that the water flow had stopped at their beloved falls. Barely any water went over the Falls during that day. As explained in Wired Magazine:
Strong southwest gale winds had pushed huge chunks of lake ice to the extreme northeastern tip of Lake Erie, blocking the lake’s outlet into the head of the Niagara River. The ice jam had become an ice dam.
Niagara Falls was already a well-known tourist attraction in the mid 19th-century, and crowds gathered from around the area to see the peculiar sight of Niagara Falls without water. The situation continued onto the next day, until the second night when the ice jam cleared, and water roared back down the Niagara River and over the falls. While the rumble of the water would have surprised the locals as much as the quietness of the previous morning, there is no word of any people hurt by the revival of the falls.
While the Falls themselves do not freeze over, ice accumulates in the gorge below the Falls, creating an “ice bridge” that once connected the Canadian and American sides. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the ice bridge became its own tourist destination, as people enjoyed the novelty of crossing the international border on thick ice. People would meet on the ice, and vendors would been step up shop. Unfortunately, tragedy struck on February 4, 1912 as the ice bridge broke with people standing on it, causing three people to ride ice floes down the Niagara River and to their deaths in the nearby Whirlpool Rapids. This article in the Niagara Falls Review, published on the 100th anniversary of the tragedy in 2012, gives a detailed and gripping account of that horrible day, including a chilling wide-angle picture of a stranded victim on a piece of ice.
People were immediately banned from standing on the ice bridge after the 1912 tragedy. An ice boom is installed annually near the outlet of Lake Erie, causing ice to accumulate further up the Niagara River so that smaller chunks of ice flow along the Niagara River and over the Falls. This maintains a degree of water flow through the Niagara River every year – important for feeding nearby hydroelectric power-plants – and ensures that Niagara Falls will never “freeze over”.
My wife and I ate our delicious dinner while enjoying the panoramic views of Niagara Falls. The Canadian (Horseshoe) Falls showed a fair bit of mist, and I was able to capture a nice picture from the restaurant.
I anticipated our walk along the waterfront to see, hear, and feel the Falls, even in -10°C weather. The Falls are lit during the evenings, with colour changes throughout the night, and the light effects on the flowing water can be spectacular. I was able to capture the two pictures below, just a few minutes apart, that I named “Fire and Ice”. (These pictures were taken on my smartphone – turn off the flash, find the professional settings to lengthen the exposure time and adjust the ISO setting, and stand still while taking the shot to let all of the colour in!)
Nature did not disappoint. I’m glad Niagara Falls wasn’t completely frozen on that night – the pictures would have been unique, but not as beautiful and inspiring.