Before the Peace Corps, I grew up in the city of Niagara Falls, New York, a small industrial town on the Canadian border. The city sits along the Niagara River where early use of hydroelectric power fueled a chemical industry that sustained the city’s economy through the mid-twentieth century. Today the city’s economy is in a steep decline, a fate shared by many smaller cities in the Rust Belt.
Less a river in the traditional sense than a strait connecting Lake Erie with Lake Ontario, the Niagara receives almost all its water from Lake Erie.
The Great Lakes of the U.S. and Canada contain twenty percent of the world’s fresh water. Only Lake Baikal in Russia has about the same amount.
That’s where similarities end. Lake Baikal is over thirty million years old, far older than virtually any other lake in the world. In geological terms, lakes are here today and then gone in a flash. Baikal is exceptional because it sits in a continental rift zone. The lake is over 5,000 feet deep, and getting deeper. Its age accounts for all the endemic species found in it, including the only freshwater seal in the world. Its remoteness protected its natural setting until Soviet times, and because Baikal is in the middle of Siberia, the lake freezes over completely in the winter.
The Great Lakes are much younger, the result of recent glaciation during the last ice ages, a few tens of thousands of years ago. None are nearly as deep as Lake Baikal, but four of the five are relatively deep, so deep that they do not freeze over during the winter.
Only Lake Erie is so shallow that it exhibits a typical dimictic limnological cycle, where the lake water turns over en masse in the autumn and spring. Erie’s surface freezes solid during cold winters, too.
Yes, if you are intrepid, you can walk from the city of Erie, Pennsylvania, across the lake to the northern Ontario shore, though no one would recommend it. Winds cause the ice to heave and form pressure ridges that obstruct movement. And it would be a long, cold, and dangerous walk, and one strongly discouraged by law enforcement agencies.
Every winter the New York Power Authority, which manages a large hydroelectric plant in Lewiston, New York, just north of Niagara Falls, installs an ice boom across the source of the Niagara River at Lake Erie. Made of massive timbers chained together, the ice boom floats on the lake surface and keeps lake ice from floating into the river where it might clog the intakes to the American and Canadian hydro plants.
Keeping ice from entering the river also helps to prevent ice jams, which sometimes cause serious flooding. In the mid-nineteenth century, an ice jam formed such a solid barrier that Niagara Falls actually went dry for a short time.
Since the boom floats, strong winds can force ice over it, which is part of the design. A few days ago continuous winds from the west blew so much lake ice over the boom and into the river that the ice continued downstream over the falls, through the gorge below the falls, and into Lake Ontario where it collected along the shoreline, which happens to include a part of my backyard. Hence the initial picture. Because of its depth, Lake Ontario never freezes over, but ice does form along the shore during the winter months.
By the end of March this year, the shore ice had disappeared, but a few days ago it suddenly reappeared. It was Lake Erie ice that had made its way downriver into Lake Ontario.
This isn’t rare, and usually happens when the Power Authority removes the ice boom. In this case, it happened with the boom in place. The Power Authority just began yesterday to remove the boom, but the ice remaining on the eastern end of Lake Erie is now minimal. Today most of the shore ice is already gone. Diving ducks, geese, and an occasional loon are stopping for a feed on their journey north.
My younger daughter, Kate, has been visiting, and Kate, my wife, and myself, wanting to get some fresh air, went into the city and walked down some newly created stairs near the Whirlpool Rapids bridge, part of a larger trail-building project in the Niagara Gorge.
The stairs led to a section of the Old Gorge Railway roadbed.
Early spring and winter are the least scenic times to visit the gorge. Fall is my favorite, though I spent many summer days fishing there.
Until the mid-nineteen thirties, a trolley ran from Niagara Falls, through the gorge, to the village of Lewiston. In the railroad’s early days, a similar trolley ran along the Canadian side. The route was scenic, and many tourists included it in their visits to the area. In 1901, President McKinley rode it the day before he was assassinated in Buffalo, New York.
Frequent rock falls and changing transportation technology forced abandonment of the trolley, but the roadbed remains in place for much of the former American route, and today it offers a convenient way to descend to the area below the international bridges where the Whirlpool rapids begin, or even farther, though shale slides make certain passages difficult. The Whirlpool rapids are Class VI, and seldom attempted by kayakers.
Having a unique microclimate, the gorge provides a home to many plants, including very old cedars (Thuya occidentalis), but due to the railroad and urban development, the natural flora has been severely degraded. The Nature Conservancy is in the midst of an ambitious project to restore native vegetation. After mapping invasive species, the Conservancy’s first step is to remove them, primarily Norway maple and Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima). Girdling will kill the trees, removing competitors, and letting light reach through the canopy to the forest floor, where native species can regenerate and compete.
The Niagara Gorge is a small, but unique place, and totally overlooked by most tourists. Let’s hope a new trail system and an emphasis on restoration of the native vegetation will make it even more interesting.
Following the railroad trail out of the gorge rewards the hiker with views of Niagara Falls. Indeed, the former village of Bellevue took its name from the view.