RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Generations of families, honeymooners, even daredevils, have visited Niagara Falls.
(SOUNDBITE OF WATERFALL)
MARTIN: People ooh-ing and ahh-ing there. By the millions, they go to see the spectacular view each year and to get up close on tours by boat. Those boats have been making the trip for generations, too. It is a safe thrill only because of the pilots on those boats. Dave Rosenthal of Great Lakes Today takes us into the wheelhouse.
DAVE ROSENTHAL, BYLINE: From a dock on the Niagara River, tourists in blue rain ponchos file onto the Maid of the Mist. It's built like a double-decker ferry and can carry more than 500 passengers.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT HORN BLOWING)
ROSENTHAL: Up in the wheelhouse, Captain Rod MacDonald steers his boat upriver for the 20-minute tour. The American Falls is a short distance away, and beyond that, the iconic Canadian Horseshoe Falls. The trip's a novelty for tourists, who come from all over the world, but it's familiar to MacDonald, who figures he's made the run about 70,000 times.
ROD MACDONALD: Well, I've been here for 29 seasons. My father was a captain on the Great Lakes so it's sort of in my blood.
ROSENTHAL: His passengers don't give much thought to the dangers of the swirling river. Everyone just wants to watch the falls drop nearly 200 feet. But not MacDonald.
MACDONALD: We don't really watch the falls. We're watching the current, the base. That's - we start watching the falls, we're in trouble. (Laughter).
ROSENTHAL: He slows near the base of Horseshoe Falls. On deck, passengers line the rail to get photos and cheer as they get soaked by the spray.
UNIDENTIFIED PASSENGERS: (Cheering).
ROSENTHAL: MacDonald has to pay attention to the churning water. He holds the boat steady for five minutes. It's like driving a car, but on a road that's moving in a dozen directions.
MACDONALD: You try to keep the - the vessel in the middle of the current. As you get towards the outside, the current wants to push you outside. And then you have all your back eddies, which can turn the vessel around or suck you sideways.
ROSENTHAL: The river's always changing. The amount of water coming over the falls fluctuates because it's controlled by hydro-electric companies. So even old hands like MacDonald's stay wary. He has a lot of good memories, like the marriage proposals and anniversaries and onboard. But off duty, he isn't likely to be on deck enjoying the view of the falls.
MACDONALD: A few times a year, I'll do it. Yeah. Not a lot. Mostly I'm in here. (Laughter). I don't want to get wet. (Laughter).
ROSENTHAL: So as he heads towards three decades on the river, he stays dry up in the wheelhouse. For NPR News, I'm Dave Rosenthal in Niagara Falls, N.Y.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAID OF THE MIST")
TIM EASTON: (Singing) I took a ride on the Maid of the Mist, and when I lay down... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.