NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. — Kaitlynn McHenry misses chatting with passengers, as she’s done on other tour boats.
Then again, maybe it’s good she isn’t distracted.
The Niagara River, beneath the misty waters of the mighty Niagara Falls, “is not a very easy body of water to be operating in,” she said.
“The task at hand needs complete focus a lot of times,” said McHenry. “At the same time, what I kind of miss, once in a while, is interacting with the passengers because we do feel sort of removed. But they’re not here to see us.”
McHenry is the first female captain for Maid of the Mist Corp., which is operating its Niagara Falls tours in its 135th season.
McHenry, who took on her role on June 26, began her career on the water as a teenager when she was invited by a family who owned a tour boat in Rochester to earn some extra money as a deckhand. She was planning at the time to head off to pharmacy college at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Her plans changed. “I dropped out of school and got my captain’s license, and my parents only cried for a little while,” she said.
McHenry said she was attracted to the Maid of the Mist for the challenge of maneuvering a boat through the international waters for the delight of thousands of tourists a day. The cruises give her an up-close view of both the American Falls and Canadian Horseshoe Falls.
“As far as just boat handling in general, it is challenging,” she said during a recent tour. “We’re running the boat into the Horseshoe, that’s the main attraction, that’s what we’re here to do.
“We take people right to the base of the falls,” she said. “It’s not always the easiest maneuvering, and it’s what keeps it interesting. It’s what keeps it fun.”
Some days water levels are high, causing intense currents. Other days, like on a recent Monday when she talked about her job, the water level can be down several feet, creating a completely different situation.
This shortened season has been an unusual one, with its social distancing and other steps implemented by Maid of the Mist to protect passengers from COVID-19.
The closure of the Canadian border to non-essential traffic has also affected the business, which McHenry said is operating with less than half its usual number of passengers. In a regular summer, she said, an “incredible volume of people” are drawn to the falls and the tours, even mid-week.
For now, McHenry said she’s glad to be here, serving as captain of a boat that’s one of the most iconic of its kind in all the world.
“Even at half-capacity, we’ll take it,” she said. “This is great.”