NIAGARA FALLS, Ont. – Diane Zhao has made the journey from China to Niagara Falls three times before, but she has never seen it like this – a veritable ice palace, straight out of a fairy tale.
“I just wanted to see the ice and the frozen falls,” Zhao said of her fourth trip to the falls. “It’s so huge and beautiful.”
About 14 million people visit the Niagara Region in southern Ontario each year, most of them in the summer months, according to local authorities.
The Canadian side of Niagara Falls, the region’s star attraction, has seen more visitors than usual this winter, the Niagara Parks Commission says, as record cold temperatures in recent weeks have turned the surging waters and their surroundings into an icy winter wonderland.
“This has been wonderful,” parks commission chair Janice Thomson said. “Just in the past week we’ve seen (such a) flow of people.”
Word of the wintry spectacle has spread across the globe in recent days as stories about the icy falls have been published by the likes of CNN, the Washington Post, BBC and news outlets in continental Europe.
Many visitors hear the falls have frozen and want to see the mighty flow of water brought to a standstill, Thomson said.
“Of course we know the falls aren’t frozen over,” Thomson noted.
Rather, spray and mist freeze into a crust over top of the water, creating the illusion that the falls have stopped falling, she explained.
Niagara Falls has only truly stopped once, the Niagara Parks Commission says – for 30 hours in March 1848, when millions of tons of ice temporarily clogged the source of the Niagara River.
While the falls aren’t truly frozen today, the effect is still stunning, and the same mist that freezes over the falls has formed an icy casing over every tree branch, railing and lamppost in the surrounding area.
Huge blocks of ice are pushed over the falls and into the frigid waters below, where they swirl in whirlpools or freeze into a glacier-like “ice bridge” that sometimes reaches 10 storeys high.
“It’s amazing,” said Australian Maya Oxley, who is in Canada visiting relatives and made a trip to the falls this week.
Oxley said she saw the falls in winter 14 years ago and had to come back.
“It’s beautiful in winter, and not many crowds,” she said.
For Ariana Durgadeen, who was visiting from Trinidad with her mother, the ice was an introduction both to Niagara Falls and to a real Canadian winter.
“I’m really enjoying it so far, except the wind,” Durgadeen said. “It’s a bit cold but really nice and beautiful.”
About eight million people stop by the Niagara Parks Commission’s paid attractions around the falls every year. Less than a million of them come in the winter time, Thomson said.
While the cold weather means visitors can’t ride a boat on the Niagara River to get close to the falls, tourists in the winter can still take the Journey Behind the Falls, a tunnel with two portals behind the falls.
Winter visitors can also take advantage of indoor attractions like the Niagara Butterfly Conservatory, or Niagara’s Fury, a 360-degree “multi-sensory” theatre where visitors learn about the ancient origins of the falls.
“(Niagara Falls) is a different, unique experience in winter,” Thomson said.