The lure of frozen waterfalls

Clipped onto a nylon line that prevented me from plunging 100 feet onto snow-covered rocks, I clutched an ice screw with one hand, jabbed an axe with the other, and then kicked the steel points of a crampon into a near-vertical wall.

“Don’t pull with your arms — push with your legs,” the instructor called down from a cornice a few yards above me. We were inching our way spider-like up a frozen waterfall in New Hampshire’s White Mountains as part of a course in ice climbing I enrolled in several years ago.

I recall the exultation of reaching the top of the ice-covered cliff, followed by a flood of relief after rappelling to the base and standing on solid ground.

Waterfalls are enchanting in all seasons — they explode with rain-fueled, snow-melt fury in spring, provide a refreshing spray in summer, and shimmer against a dazzling backdrop of fall colors — but few sights are more breathtakingly dramatic than a glistening, frozen cascade in winter.

You can find plenty of iced-over waterfalls in northern New England for climbing or simply viewing, but here in southeastern Connecticut, they are ephemeral, typically materializing only when the temperature dips after a stretch of wet weather.

Those were the exact conditions earlier this week that led my son Tom and me to a favorite, small cataract that spills into Bush Pond near the North Stonington/Ledyard border. We’ve often kayaked there in late spring — no ice then, just a satisfying torrent that tumbles merrily into a shallow pool. In summer and fall, the stream that feeds this waterfall dries up to a trickle, but during wet winters such as this one, a natural spigot reopens and water once again crashes over jagged rocks.

Tom and I had never been to the waterfall in cold weather because it’s difficult to reach except by kayak or canoe, and even then you have to muck through lily pads and mud.

But earlier this week, as you doubtlessly recall, the temperature plummeted to single digits, forming several inches of ice on Bush Pond and turning the muddy banks into tundra.

Snow had coated the pond before fresh ice reformed, followed by drenching rain, so the surface, though swirled with a mosaic of frosty patterns, was too bumpy for skating.

Tom donned a waterproof drysuit under his parka, along with a life jacket and neoprene mitts. He also carried an ice ax, a coil of rope and a boogie board just in case the ice gave way. I followed a few yards behind, garbed in spiked boots and expedition-weight winter gear to ward off a wind chill of about 20 below zero.

We could see the pond ice in most places measured three or four inches thick — triple what it would take to safely support our weight. After we shuffled around a bend into a secluded cove, the falls appeared, a magnificent haystack of frozen water.

“Wow!” we both exclaimed.

As we approached the cascade, the ice on the pond thinned. Land retains more heat than water, so it’s common to find open water along the banks of frozen ponds.

“Wait here while I check it out,” Tom said.

He then flopped down on the boogie board and used the ice axe to propel his way forward.

Moments later, only a few feet from land: Craaack!

The ice broke apart, and Tom slid off the boggie board into knee-deep water.

“Good thing I have the drysuit on,” he said, pulling himself upright.

“No leaks?” I called from my safe position on solid ice 10 yards away.

“Nope. You mind waiting?”

“Go ahead. I’ll hang out here on the ice,” I replied. Not wearing a drysuit, I didn’t relish the prospect of breaking through the ice.

While watching Tom scramble to land, I paced back and forth on the slippery surface, swinging my arms like a windmill to stay warm. Frigid gusts topped 30 mph. It felt like a scene from “Dr. Zhivago.”

Tom trudged about 50 yards to the base of the falls, struggled briefly to extract his phone camera from a waterproof case, took a few pictures and hustled back — taking care to avoid the open patch where the ice broke moments earlier.

We didn’t dawdle. The last time I’d been outside in such brutally boreal conditions was several years ago atop Mount Washington in February.

On that occasion, I faced a long, frigid, slippery descent through the ice-coated Alpine Garden and down the Lion Head Trail before holing up in an unheated, open-faced lean-to at Hermit Lake. This week, not long after Tom and I scurried back across Bush Pond from our waterfall adventure, we were back inside, hunkered down next to the wood stove.

I have to admit that, given the choice between several more hours of shivering and instant warmth, the stove felt pretty good.



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