CRYSTAL BEACH, Ont. – They flock here, more than 100 people at a time, from Welland and Port Colborne, from Hamilton and St. Catharines, walking on the thick ice of Lake Erie, for a look at a freak of nature, a meteorological wonder that has become the buzz along the Canadian lakeshore.
It’s the Crystal Beach Ice Caves. Or ice castles. Or technically, “ice shoves.”
These are unusual ice formations, coming in all shapes and sizes, some as high as 12 feet tall, others just a few feet high, with openings big enough for several people to walk or crawl through at a time. There even are some narrow ice bridges forming more than 10 feet above the frozen Lake Erie.
It may not be the eighth wonder of the world – this stretch a few hundred yards long, just east of the former Crystal Beach amusement park – but it’s one bonus from this long cold winter.
“It’s incredible, like how it formed and stuff,” Nathan Pyatt marveled Saturday as the 11-year-old from Port Colborne explored one “cave” that had a foot-thick ice bridge rising about 10 feet above the ice. “It’s really neat.
“I could probably live in one of these caves,” Nathan added. “It would be cold and creepy, like living in an ice bowl.”
His grandfather, Jim Pyatt, had another description.
“Lots of ice and no Eskimos,” he quipped. “If it’s like this here, it’s hard to imagine what it would be like in Alaska.”
And his wife, Pat, added, “It reminds me of the ice fields out in Alberta.”
Hundreds of people, maybe a couple thousand, visited the site Saturday, taking advantage of sunny blue skies and temperatures in the 20s.
Standing in the parking lot, you could spot families spanning three generations, older people challenged by the icy spots, plenty of cameras with long lenses and lots of kids slipping, sliding and posing for the family photo album.
Almost everyone had a different explanation for these ice structures, and out of about a dozen people interviewed, nobody seemed to know the term “ice shove.”
It’s an uncommon, but not completely rare, phenomenon that occurs on large lakes and oceans, a product of a perfect storm of just the right wind, wave, energy and temperature conditions along the shoreline.
Basically, sustained high winds push free-floating pieces of ice onto the shore with great force. The front edge of that ice hits the shore, and the ice behind it, with nowhere else to go, piles on top, sometimes in unusual shapes and configurations.
That’s why some visitors Saturday got down on all fours to crawl through these caves. Others could stand tall and walk underneath the fairly thin ice bridges. Nobody seemed to worry about the thickness of the lake ice, estimated at 2 to 3 feet, on a huge lake that’s almost 100 percent frozen.
William Kennedy, 38, lives just a few hundred feet from the ice field.
“It’s just nature and winter,” he said. “This is winter at its finest on Lake Erie.”
Kennedy saw it all happen, back in January, though there wasn’t much visibility.
“Three days of wind,” he said. “That’s basically it. That’s what happened. We basically sat in our house for three days. Then we came out, and this was here.”
The most common reaction was “awesome” or “incredible” or “cool” or “really neat.” Others just shook their heads, marveling at the clever, creative hand of nature.
“It’s really cool,” said Robert Pasley, 46, of Welland. “Mother Nature, God, whatever formed it made a very intriguing life for us. Surprises every day.”
Several middle-aged people professed to never having seen anything like this in their years on Lake Erie’s shore.
But Ric Harry, a 48-year-old sales director from Welland, had a different experience.
“It’s like when we were kids,” he said. “I grew up on Lake Erie, and when we were kids, this was our playground ... Back in the ’60s and ’70s, this was pretty common.”
It was fun listening to the different explanations among the visitors Saturday. One blamed it all on the polar vortex. Another said it was proof that there’s no global warming. But most reveled in the sight, not caring exactly how it was formed.
The gawkers on Saturday also seemed to get a big kick out of all the fuss being made over Crystal Beach.
“I just love seeing our town be the center of attention,” said Ann McLaughlin, a Crystal Beach teacher, who dubbed the phenomenon an “awesome nature thing.”
Like others, student teacher Amanda Ammon said she never had seen anything like it.
“I’ve done a lot of traveling, and it’s nice to see a natural wonder in our own backyard.”