Winter: Niagara's Crystal Wonderland
© By Hans Tammemagi
Of the four enchanting seasons in Niagara, my favourite is winter. I love to bundle up and stroll beside the mighty Niagara Falls, marveling at the sheer awesome power of the cascades. There is a feeling of peace for only a few others are about, cloaked in the anonymity of scarves and hats. Far below, the sturdy Maid of the Mist boats have been pulled up on shore and under a mantle of snow, look forlorn and tiny.
The constant mist rising from the roaring cascades has covered every tree twig, lamp post and railing in a thick coating of ice; I am surrounded by a sparkling surreal wonderland where everything is made of crystal. The sunlight dances, shimmers, and bends in wonderful prismatic effects from the ice coatings. With every puff of breeze, I hear the musical tinkling of ice crackling and breaking from branches.
Niagara Falls is also a delight during the long winter nights, thanks to the Festival of Lights, which runs from late November to mid January and features colourful lighting displays as well as entertainment at an outdoor stage. But the Falls themselves are the star of the show, for enormous spotlights glisten off the cascading water and its icy cloak, illuminating them in a breathtaking palette of pastels.
Some winters, there is a remarkable sight to which I am always drawn. When conditions are just right-a warm spell accompanied by strong westerly winds-huge chunks of ice from Lake Erie rumble down the Niagara River, tumble over the Falls and jam against the river banks. The mass grows like a giant log jam and takes on the crevassed, gnarly appearance of a glacier. Once the winds subside, the water level drops leaving a solid tangle of ice suspended like a bridge.
In the late 1800s, huge crowds were drawn like lemmings onto the ice bridges to gawk close-up at the bizarre artistry of nature. Huts sprang up on the ice and sold everything from souvenirs to hard liquor. Part of the thrill was the ever-present danger and, indeed, going on the ice bridge was prohibited in 1912 after three people were swept to their deaths. I wonder what spell Niagara Falls casts that lures people to balance on slender tight-ropes, plunge in frail barrels, and caper on unstable ice bridges.
When we want to seek peace and solitude, my wife and I head for the ribbon of nature that follows the spine of the Niagara Escarpment. We usually choose a spot within easy hiking of a waterfall-there are many along the Escarpment. The Bruce Trail leads us into the forest where the slim silhouettes of trees cast stark shadows that criss-cross the white forest floor like a checkerboard. Occasionally, a trail of soft paw-prints meanders across the snow, which has drifted into beautiful soft shapes, puffed up like large pillows that curve and beckon. There is time aplenty to contemplate the mysterious ups and downs of life as we walk quietly along the cliff's edge. Far below, barren frozen vineyards are lined up like Napoleon's soldiers marching on Moscow.
Long before it is visible, we hear the muffled roar of water tumbling over limestone crags. Seductively, the sound beckons us forward between gorge walls adorned with giant gleaming icicles, until through the branches, we see the falls encrusted with a thick icy beard. Water cascades over the rocks and then bubbles around ice-coated rocks, here and there disappearing under black ice laced with whorls of white. We stand in silence gazing at the waterfall, enchanted. Walks like this are gentle reminders that we are not just creatures of concrete canyons but also belong to the larger cycle of nature.
At other times, a group of friends gathers at one of the many frozen creeks and ponds that have been transformed into giant skating rinks and platforms for ice-fishing huts. With boots lined up as goal posts, we flail and yell and slither through a game of shinny hockey. Or, when there is not much snow-cover on the ice, we skate for miles up one of the creeks exploring the rolling landscape where orchards that were laden with fruit in summer now throw long skeletal shadows across the white snow.
In mid-March, the maples trees, through some ancient skill, recognize that Old Man Winter is loosening his grip, and a sugary sap begins to course in their veins. This is the time I head to the Sugar Bush where I lick the sweet syrup and watch as the secrets are explained of how maple syrup was extracted and made by the native people and early pioneers.
When the days activities are over, I seek the warmth of a nearby winery and savour some ice wine, for nowhere in the world is the Rolls Royce of wine made better than here in Niagara. The grapes are left on the vine into early winter and are hand picked, usually at night with the temperatures at -8 C-an experience in itself! Because the water in the grape freezes but not the inner nectar, only a little fluid emerges when the grapes are pressed, but it is oh so rich and sweet!
As the honeyed nectar swirls around my glass refracting the flames of a roaring fire, I offer a toast to winter, my favourite season.
Hans Tammemagi is the author of Exploring Niagara: The complete guide to Niagara Falls and vicinity
Niagara Festival of Lights