Is a waterfall still a waterfall if the water is frozen in place?
About an hour away from where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean, dozens of waterfalls plunge down the walls of the gorge, adding even more water to the river, which at that point is more than a half-mile wide.
The waterfalls, some of which are several hundred feet tall, are spectacular year round. When spring weather melts the mountain snow, the waterfalls can swell well beyond their normal size. At the peak, you can look across the river from Oregon into Washington and easily spot dozens more waterfalls that aren’t normally there. The flow may decline during the summer, but the lush greenery can make up for it. While evergreen trees dominate the forests here, maples grow next to a few of the falls, creating a strikingly colorful scene in autumn.
Winter, however, may be my favorite time to visit. Perhaps once or twice a winter a deep freeze hits the gorge. After about a week of subfreezing temperatures even the most powerful waterfalls can be glazed with ice. Waterfalls typically have minimal flows in the winter, so falls that were barely more than a trickle can freeze entirely. More powerful falls may have a small ribbon of water sandwiched by thick ice.
I’m not alone in my appreciation for frozen waterfalls. On a morning when the temperature is in the mid-teens, Fahrenheit not Celsius, the waterfalls can draw crowds that rival those that you would see on a busy summer weekend.
While I have taken my share of pictures of frozen falls, over the years I’ve grown to be much more enamored with the patterns of the ice. Mist from a waterfall often freezes to mist that froze before, creating unusual ice sculptures that resemble jellyfish.
Near some of the taller waterfalls, the spray can travel a greater distance before it freezes. Near Elowah Falls, for example, I found fascinating ice sculptures that looked just like the ferns that provided their initial base. Some of the creeks flowed underneath a layer of ice. In other creeks, splashes from small cascades completely encased some plants along the banks in ice.
In my experience, the waterfalls are best when the lowest temperatures of the day are in the mid-teens or below and the high never reaches the 30s. At least in the Columbia River Gorge, if that temperature pattern holds for at least three or four days, the waterfalls should be quite spectacular. And it’s better if the temperatures are even colder.
If you go, plan to go as early in the day as you possibly can. There’s often at least a trickle of water running under the ice, which can break its grasp on the steep rock wall. Seeing mammoth chunks of ice break off and crash to the base of the falls is always quite impressive, but if you want to maximize the ice you see, there is almost always more first thing in the morning than late in the day.
And if you get a chance to go, go! One of the things I have experienced through photography is that the same scene can look dramatically different day-to-day, season-to-season, year-to-year. Seeing a waterfall when the water isn’t falling is an amazing experience.