NIAGARA FALLS – The brink of Niagara Falls is a majestic spectacle in the summer.
But the right winter conditions, like the recent spell of Arctic wind and frigid temperatures, wrap the raging falls and their immediate surroundings in a picturesque blanket of ice and snow.
Sections of the world-famous falls, typically pouring over with tens of thousands of gallons of water every second, have frozen solid.
Look down below the falls and you’ll see the ice bridge, connecting the United States and Canada.
The bright white sheet at Prospect Point, a popular viewing area near the brink, extends from the trees to the lampposts to benches to the ground beneath your feet.
You can drag your fingers over the icy stubble caked on the railings, with the Niagara River’s roaring rapids as a backdrop.
As if the ice-covered falls weren’t jaw-dropping enough, at about 11 a.m. Thursday, a full rainbow extended from beneath the falls toward the Whirlpool Bridge.
It’s Niagara Falls, frozen in time.
“It’s stunning,” said Virginia Kuebler, of East Aurora, who squeezed in a visit in her busy day Thursday to catch the falls in their winter splendor.
Images of the falls’ frozen features are gaining a lot of attention globally in the wake of this week’s “Polar Vortex,” though assertions that the falls are completely frozen are incorrect.
The Horseshoe Falls, where most of the water goes over the brink, still flows unimpeded, though a portion of the rocky face of the American Falls, closer to Goat Island, is frozen solid.
Normally, about 76,000 gallons of water flow over the American and Bridal Veil falls every second, according to the state Parks Office.
That figure drops in winter when more water is diverted for hydroelectric power production at the Niagara Power Project.
Yet the rapids closest to Prospect Point still roared Thursday, framed by ice and snow. The white, icy landscape on the waterfalls is weather-dependent and hasn’t formed for the last few winters, which have been on the milder side.
There needs to be a deep freeze first, and that hasn’t occurred in the last several years, said Barry Virgilio, an environmental educator for 34 years with the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which manages Niagara Falls State Park.
Ice bridges across the river used to form every year, Virgilio said, and despite the danger, people in the 1800s used to set up shanties and sell food and liquor on the ice. That became illegal after three people died in 1912 while trying to float on ice in the Whirlpool Rapids, he said.
Even in recent years, some individuals have tried to use the Niagara Gorge ice bridge to cross between the United States and Canada.
Most of the millions who visit the Falls – 8.76 million visited the park last year – take their trips during the summer. Of the 36,000 visitors to the Tourist Information Center on Rainbow Boulevard last year, about 82 percent came between May and September, according to the agency.
Still, Prospect Point had its share of picture-taking visitors Thursday.
There, trees and branches appear to have been spray-painted white, glistening with ice and snow.
The big boulders below the American Falls are round mounds capped in white.
The surface of the lower Niagara River is covered with thick snow and ice, with a few open pools amid a jagged landscape.
While you walk, pieces of ice strewn over the ground crunch under your steps.
Looking toward the waterfall, the smooth snowy surface beyond the railing is occasionally interrupted by the fingerlike protrusions of the branches of small bushes, patches of which look like tangled piles of white spaghetti.
The serene scene also includes wildlife – a few dozen fowl were getting comfortable on snow and ice banks in the river between Prospect Point and Goat Island, about 30 yards from the brink.
Area tourism officials, looking to bring in more visitors’ dollars, see great potential for winter in the Falls.
The Niagara Tourism & Convention Corp. offers a “Niagara Falls Winter Wonderland” package to visitors that includes stops at the Aquarium of Niagara, the Niagara Adventure Theater in the state park, Old Fort Niagara in Youngstown, the New York Power Authority’s Power Vista in Lewiston and the chance to add on restaurant visits.
The agency also promotes a “Winter Wine Trail” package for those who would follow the Niagara Wine Trail.
With today’s technology, word about how the falls look is getting around, said Michelle A. Blackley, the agency’s communications manager.
The biggest obstacle the region faces is the negative perception that winters here consist of a lot of snow and cold weather, she said.
Blackley, an area native who said she doesn’t remember a time when the falls looked as they do now, said despite the recent frigid temperatures, a newlywed couple were taking pictures near the falls last week.
“They wanted to brave the cold temperatures and be in the Falls and take those photos,” she said.
The agency’s office was bombarded with calls via social media on Thursday from people who live within driving distance about whether the falls are actually frozen, Blackley said.
Brothers Bob and Gary Muth, of Niagara Falls, came to take in the view of the falls Thursday morning.
Cameras in tow, they visit the falls several times a month. Visitors who only see the falls in the summer, without Mother Nature’s thin icy coating, are missing out, Bob Muth said.
“After a freshly fallen snow, it’s more picturesque than it is in the summertime,” he said.