Even in harsh winter weather, people are still flocking to Niagara Falls to see one of America’s natural wonders. Before sub-zero temperatures set in, WBFO’s Avery Schneider stopped by the American side to find out who was looking at the not-quite-frozen falls.
An 18 degrees day in Niagara Falls was a relative heat-wave, and made for a good time to see who might be at Niagara Falls State Park.
After trekking from the parking lot with snow crunching under foot, I first found Melissa Hardesty and Joe Guinness taking in the sights at the edge of the falls. The two drove up for the day from Binghamton, New York.
“What brought you two out here today,” I asked.
“We heard it was pretty in the winter,” said Guiness. “We actually came to the falls for the first time this summer and, at the time, we saw some pictures of the frozen falls. And with this cold snap, we figured we’d come check it out.”
Everywhere you look is picturesque – from benches surrounded in snow, to trees, lamp posts, and just about everything else covered in ice. Also getting covered are the pathways throughout the park, but not if people like Aaron Green can help it. He’s a member of the maintenance crew that works round the clock to keep them clear. Dressed in a big blue parka, ski mask, and bright orange rubber gloves – that’s exactly what I found him doing at the entrance to the observation deck.
“It’s rough. It gets really cold during the day,” said Green. “The only thing we can do is keep shoveling, keep putting the calcium down. Make sure the ice is gone. That’s about it.”
Inside the warmth of the administration office, I found the staff all wearing thick winter sweaters. Director Mark Thomas is clearly proud of the park he runs – especially at this time of year when the weather and number of visitors can be unpredictable. A nice surprise for him has been a 30 percent increase in 2017’s end-of-year attendance, compared to the year before when high temperatures around the holidays reached into the 40s and 50s. Snow and ice was hard to come by.
“That tells you something right there,” said Thomas. “People are coming out because there’s something to see. It’s unique. It’s got that charm. When the sun shines on it, it sparkles, and it’s really beautiful.”
There’s plenty to see in the park, but Thomas recommends Goat Island as one of the special features. From there, you can get closer to the Canadian side, known as the Horseshoe Falls.
On the island, plenty of people wandered the paths along the edge of the water – but not too close. Areas like Terrapin Point – which brings you to the edge of the horseshoe – are closed off since maintenance can’t keep up with the ice and snow. But nearby, David Fertig and his son Benjamin stopped for a quick chat along the path.
“Is it worth it today,” I inquired.
“Yes, absolutely,” Fertig said with a sharp breath of cold air. “Absolutely. I think it’s just gorgeous.”
The two heard news reports of how beautiful Niagara Falls was looking and were hoping to enjoy a bit of natural wonder with other people. They certainly didn’t leave disappointed, but they did go away little enlightened.
I asked if they were amazed that the falls don’t fully freeze over.
“We were just talking about that,” said Fertig. “I had thought before we were here last time that it did completely freeze over, and my son was saying the same thing. This is the first time he’s seen it in winter like this.”
It’s a common misconception that the falls actually freeze in the winter.
“The falls is not going to freeze over, explained Thomas. “It would take a severe winter that would just be way beyond what people are really struggling with this year. There’s so much water flowing over the brink of those falls that it does not freeze.”
Upwards of 22 million gallons per minute is what’s flowing in the winter time. And believe it or not, that’s only about half the summer flow.
“From Canada, if you’re looking across, and after the ice mound builds up in front of it, it looks like the falls is frozen,” said Thomas. “It did a couple of years ago when we had a real severe winter. But if you look, there’s mist coming up off the top – that tells you there’s moving water.”
But just because the falls don’t freeze, doesn’t mean visitors can’t. With bitter temperatures and plenty of wind, the mist will freeze on contact.
“So when that hits your clothing, it freezes,” explained Thomas. “And on your face it can sting a little bit, it feels like. So cover up and wear the appropriate footwear that grips well, as well as wear jackets, and gloves, and hats, and scarves – whatever you need to stay warm.”
Bottom line: experiencing the very different reality of Niagara Falls in the winter is worth it.
Follow WBFO's Avery Schneider on Twitter at @SAvery131.