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Maid of the Mist sail again

Capt. Gary English powered the Maid of the Mist away from its dock and headed toward Niagara Falls and its walls of rushing whitewater looming more than 17 stories high.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Capt. Gary English powered the Maid of the Mist away from its dock and headed toward Niagara Falls and its walls of rushing whitewater looming more than 17 stories high.

He had 300 people aboard the boat for its first run of the year on April 21. By the season's close in October, more than 2 million tourists will have been showered by mist from the famous waterfall aboard one of the double-decker boats in the Maid of the Mist fleet. Boats called Maid of the Mist have been bringing people here for more than 150 years.

"The water temperature is 36 degrees. They're going to be cold out there today," English said as the steel boat churned through the lower Niagara River and into the basin that catches the water after its drop over the falls.

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Passengers standing outside on the decks pulled the hoods of blue disposable raincoats tight against the spray but made no moves to avoid it, not wanting to miss the spectacular view of Niagara Falls from below.

"It's brilliant," said Ailsa Clark, visiting from Australia with her sister, Wendy.

English seldom fails to please as he ferries passengers for this close-up view. Adults pay $11.50; and children $6.75 for the 20-minute ride.

"You don't often see anyone who's not happy at the end," he said.

"They're cold and wet, but they're happy," added mate Laurie Acker, who works alongside English in the small cabin.

Niagara Falls is located on the international border between the U.S. and Canada, with cascades on both sides. The American Falls are 184 feet (55 meters) high and 1,060 feet (318 meters) wide, and the Canadian Falls - also called Horseshoe Falls - are 176 feet (53 meters) high and 2,200 feet (660 meters) wide. The falls are not the world's widest or tallest, but the sight of their powerful flow - 748,000 gallons per second, much of which is harnessed today for hydroelectric power - has been drawing tourists since the early 1800s.

Niagara Falls State Park was created in 1885, and visitors have been riding boats here called the Maid of the Mist since 1846. The early models were wooden sidewheel steamboats. They've evolved into steel, 74-ton vessels powered by two powerful diesel engines.

The larger three boats, which launch from the Canadian shore, hold nearly 600 passengers. Two smaller boats leave from the American side with room for about 300.

The Maid of the Mist captains see their share of the darker side of the Falls, sometimes coming across the suicide victims who leap from above. Even before this season's opening day, a body was discovered at the base.

"That's the earliest one yet," Acker said.

English recalled seeing the upended kayak of ill-fated stunter Jessie Sharp bob by. Sharp rode his kayak over the brink of the Falls in 1990 as friends videotaped him. The 28-year-old Tennessee man was so confident he'd survive he had dinner reservations for later in the day. His body was never recovered.

Looking up at the brink from the Maid of the Mist, the danger seems obvious.

"That's the problem," said English, who grew up near the Falls and got his first job on the tour boats at 16. "People who are going to do these things don't take a look."

The Maid of the Mist has attracted its share of celebrity tourists over the years, including Marilyn Monroe when she was shooting "Niagara" in the 1950s. Princess Diana, Sylvester Stallone, Mother Theresa and Joan Rivers have also been on board.

If You Go:

MAID OF THE MIST: or (716) 284-8897 (U.S.) or (905) 358-5781 (Canada). Boat tours of Niagara River and waterfall basin run every 30 minutes daily through Oct. 24; check opening and closing times, which vary slightly as the season progresses. Adults, $11.50; children 6 to 12, $6.75.