On Sunday afternoon I drove to Niagara Falls. I had heard reports that the winter is a splendid time to view the ice formations caused by the cascading water and freezing mist rising from the turbulence. I wanted to see a phenomenon called the Ice Bridge, created by ice and slush flowing over the American Falls and jamming against the Canadian side, sometimes reaching 50 feet thick and spanning the entire Niagara gorge. The famous Ice Bridge, hanging ice formations, rising crystal formations, and throw in some history of the place… I needed no more motivation to go.
Even though it had warmed to above freezing and there was a forecast of rain, I rationalized that the warm weather hadn’t affected the ice yet. I prepared myself with a warm parka, an umbrella, and drove north on I190. I always get mixed up a little on the roads near the Falls but I only had to circle around once before I found a parking spot only one block from the American Falls. The nice thing about this time of year is that most of the things you do at the Falls are free. The only drawback is that most things are closed. It started to rain as I walked to the visitor’s center.
Inside the visitor’s center I studied the map of the trails down to the Falls and along the upper riverbank. It seemed like a good idea to hike from the Falls up the river across a pedestrian bridge and around Goat Island to the edge of the Canadian Falls. I would be able to visit both Falls and get in a good exercise hike to boot. Outside, the rain now fell harder making the ice packed walkways treacherous.
There were a few tourists about. Mostly, they were from other countries, speaking a language I sometimes recognized, and sometimes didn’t. I guess that if you are on a vacation or are visiting Niagara Falls for the weekend, you have to use the time to see what you can no matter what the weather. I noticed that most of them walked down to the Falls, snapped numerous pictures of themselves with the Falls in the background, and then hurried back to their cars.
A metal-pipe railing dotted with big silver binoculars lined the walkway at the edge of the Falls. Below, I could see the Ice Bridge craggy and thick stretching across the gorge. There were formations of ice like you would see in a cave full of stalactites and stalagmites. Some icicles hung from the Falls and others grew out of the wall where water trickled from holes. It was quite impressive and I would imagine a lot more colorful if the sun was shining. The sun casts rainbows of color through the mist, but I was not to see that today.
Early history of the area tells of several times when the Falls completely froze over, and one time in 1848 when an ice jam above the American Falls stopped the flow for over a day. One explorer investigated the cave behind the Falls and exclaimed the sight more than arctic but lunar. Up until 1911 tourists and spectators were allowed to cross the Ice Bridge, even play upon the mounds of ice, but when the ice suddenly gave way and took three people downstream to their deaths, the authorities stopped the practice.
I’m drawn to the plaques beside paths. I figure if someone goes to the trouble to make them and erect them, I should be courteous enough to read them. And I have to admit that I find most of them interesting. I could see a sign down the path a way, under the superstructure of the Rainbow Bridge, begging me to walk down and read it. It’s not my attempt to bore you with history of the area, but it was amazing to me that this bridge has been rebuilt four times! Once, when it was a suspension bridge in the early 1800, a strong storm from the southwest tore it down, then, the next one was torn off of its foundation by an ice jam, and a couple of times it was rebuilt just to make it bigger.
AS I walked to Goat Island I was thinking about how this place must have looked to the Native Americans – I usually call them Indians, but for some reason I felt like being more politically correct. Bridges, towers, factories, roads and buildings of ever kind spoil so much of the beauty of this place. You can’t look anywhere without seeing something manmade. Before the Niagara Parks Department – the first State Park in the country – took over the Falls and surrounding area it was even worse. Buildings and factories lined every inch of the gorge and riverbank. Now the Parks Department has turned a lot of it back to nature.
The rest of my walk was mostly uneventful. I had the island almost to myself. By the time I reached the Horseshoe Falls it was raining harder, and even with an umbrella my pants were getting wet. The Horseshoe Falls, or Canadian Falls, is more impressive than the American Falls with 90% of the water going over them. We used to go to Canada for the best view, but the border is too much of a hassle to go across now. I continued on around Goat Island, passed Three Sister Islands, and followed the path to a viewpoint of Grand Island and the portage point where oxcarts carried goods overland around the Falls to Lake Ontario in the 1700’s.
It seems I learn a little more history every time I visit someplace. I guess you could read all this and see pictures on the Internet, but there is nothing like looking down over the edge of the American Falls and imagining people crossing on the ice. Aren’t you glad you came for a walk in the rain with me?