NEW YORK -UNS: When even the heartiest souls in Western New York hear a weather forecast for unseasonably cold, arctic air, they head straight indoors and sit by a fire. When I see the near-record low temperatures on New Year’s Day hovering around -13°C, however, I stir my parents from the couch and suggest a road trip 50 miles west to Niagara Falls. I want to see what thousands on social media are calling an ethereal winter wonderland.
Growing up in Rochester in New York State, a visit to the famous waterfall in July or August was a reprieve from the hot, humid weather that felt so oppressive after months of rain and snow. My voyages on the Maid of the Mist boat, sailing around the lower basin below the falls, were a touristy but awe-inspiring favourite. Draped in a thin blue poncho and soaked in coconut-scent sunscreen and waterfall spray, the thundering rush of cooling water and endless rainbows never failed to impress.
This week is nothing like that. With temperatures dipping well below freezing and forecast to remain frigid for at least another week, the area is an icy spectacle packed with locals, tourists and those seeking the perfect Instagram shot. It’s so cold that snow crunches under our feet as we take a brisk walk on the promenade along Horseshoe Falls: one of the three enormous waterfalls that make up Niagara Falls.
While 3,160 tonnes of water typically rush over Niagara Falls every second, the slushy current is braking to a lumbering flow today as it struggles to push through partially frozen passages. It even sounds duller and less thunderous than in summer months. The surrounding earth is completely ice-encrusted, shining like jewels when the occasional ray of light peeks through heavy clouds.
The Maid of the Mist shuts down for winter, but it’s still possible to get close to the extravagant winter display. The Cave of the Winds Pavilion at Bridal Veil Falls offers an abbreviated tour in winter months taking you to a sheltered viewing platform (though if you want to hike the famous wooden walkway around the cave, you need to wait until it reopens in April).
Across the river on the Canadian side of the border, I descend 125 feet through carved tunnels as part of the Journey Behind the Falls attraction for a behind-the-scenes perspective. Typically visitors see the backside of the wall of water; today’s view is a glimpse of a giant ice sheet, with only the sound of the falls to signal my location. In fact, only two of the tree tunnels are open due to inclement conditions.