On most summer days, you’ll find Capt. Rod MacDonald in the Maid of the Mist wheelhouse. It’s a few steps up from the top deck and the hundreds of tourists in blue rain slickers.
The room’s loaded with all sorts of equipment: a depth finder, rudder indicator and compass.
And on the counter, MacDonald keeps a candy jar.
“I have chocolates for the little kids who are crying and scared,” he says.
That’s just one of the tips you learn working the Niagara River for 29 years.
Two tour boat companies take turns ferrying tourists to the American Falls and Horseshoe Falls. The Maid of the Mist is based on the U.S. side of the river, and Hornblower leaves from the Canadian side.
Together, they carried more than four million passengers last year.
MacDonald grew up in Canada near the Great Lakes, and got his start working on fuel barges. But he wanted a more stable life than his father – a captain on lake freighters. So when the Maid of the Mist had an opening, he applied.
He was only in his mid-twenties, but got the job.
It’s been a nice change, he says. ”The difference here is that the cargo talks to you.”
Now MacDonald’s a trim 55 year old with wavy gray hair. And he figures he’s made the short run to the falls about 70,000 times.
He’s seen a lot over the years. Like the man who went over Horseshoe Falls on a jet ski.
“With the jet ski, he come right out in front of us,” he recalls. “And then right beside us. We threw a life ring and all but still by the time we got to him, it was too late. It’s not like a bus or truck where you can pull over and park, right?”
That’s a tragic reminder about the power of the falls.
MacDonald isn’t one to get complacent -- especially when his boat’s at the base of Horseshoe Falls. On each trip, he holds it there for five minutes so the tourists can get a good look – and feel the spray.
On deck, passengers pose for photos and cheer, even as they get drenched.
Above the crowd, MacDonald keeps his hands on the upright wooden wheel – the kind common to pirate movies. And he keeps his eyes on the current.
“With this wheel I can feel the current, which way I’m gonna go,” he says. “So what I’m doing, I’m trying to anticipate before the current makes my boat go one way or the other. I try to read it before it happens.”
Even though the current’s running at about 10 knots -- and shifting -- he barely moves the wheel.
“We call it if you’re a lazy wheelman, you’re doing a good job,” he says. “When you do a lot of wheeling you’re not reading the current well.”
It takes most pilots about five years to get comfortable on the river, he says. Even then, it pays to be careful.
“We treat every trip like our first trip,” he says. “We have a lot of respect for this river. When you don’t respect it, that’s when you get yourself in trouble.”
MacDonald wants to make a good impression on the tourists – and there are lots of them. Last year, the Maid of the Mist carried some 1.6 million passengers.
“I enjoy hearing everybody on the front end and back of the boat smiling, laughing, having a great time,” he says. “And when we get back to the dock I can see the smiles on their face. That’s what makes my day. And that’s why we come to work.”
With a new load of passengers, he points his boat upriver again. He’ll give them an up-close look at the falls, and another smooth, safe ride.