February 26, 2006
Last week Dick Christensen and I enjoyed a morning walk around Niagara Falls. We circled Goat Island, crossed the Rainbow Bridge, and made our way up to the Horseshoe Falls. It was brisk and sunny and I returned with red cheeks and nose. It was also the last — I hope — of those days with wind chill below zero.
Much of the walk around Goat Island was familiar to me from past visits. The crusted snow crunched underfoot. Fox squirrels and melanistic gray squirrels begged for food. Several goldeneyes and red-breasted mergansers and a single bufflehead dived in the rapids. A few mallards sat on the ice idly watching or dozing. Tree branches were whitened with hoarfrost.
It was when we reached Terrapin Point that the shock came. Below us the entire gorge was filled with ice. I had been to the Falls many times, but this was the first time I had ever seen the ice bridge. It is spectacular.
This is not the flat ice of local lakes and ponds or even the high mounds that often build up along the shores of Lakes Erie and Ontario. Instead this is Arctic Ice, the ice of Peary and Cook and Amundsen. Where deep cracks in the pressure ridges opened chasms, we could see that it was 10, 20, in places even 50 feet thick. I was reminded of Joseph-Rene Bellot, the French explorer seeking the Northwest Passage. As Pierre Berton tells it in The Arctic Grail, "Bellot left the hut to examine the state of the ice. Without warning, a great fissure 15 feet wide opened up under him. He was gone in an instant."
We found an even better view from the middle of the Rainbow Bridge. More ice choked the gorge downstream as far as the turn at the Whirlpool Rapids.
Standing there looking down over the rail from that dizzying height, I must have become light-headed for my mind suddenly clicked back to 1912 and the white ice below was covered with dozens of black spots: people walking about. There were even small huts where vendors sold refreshments. Tripods with big bellows cameras were set up to record the daredeviltry of the tourists against the stark scenery. The international walk across the ice bridge gave bragging rights.
But that February day 84 years ago was to be the last for such foolishness. Suddenly with a roar the ice began to slide downstream. People raced for the Maid of the Mist landing on the Canadian shore. All but four made it. Left on the accelerating ice floe were two teenagers and a young couple.
One of the youngsters jumped toward shore into the slush and was hauled out, alive but with his clothes frozen solid. The remaining three panicked and retreated from the edge of the floe. Lines were lowered from the bridge above the whirlpool rapids. The second boy climbed part way up one before he lost strength and fell to his death. The man seized another line and tied it around his wife. It broke.
Now it was too late. The swift current took them just out of reach of a third line. Embracing each other they were swept into the rapids and quickly disappeared, their bodies never to be found.
With an involuntary shudder I broke out of my reverie. The ice below was again solid and empty of people. Since that episode it has been against the law to venture out onto the ice bridge.
If you haven't seen this winter formation, visit Niagara Falls soon to witness this extraordinary aspect of our greatest local phenomenon of nature.