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Jetboat operators do 'the impossible' in lower Niagara Gorge

by jmaloni
Tue, Apr 30th 2013 03:05 pm
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Jetboats travel upriver from Youngstown to base of Horseshoe Falls

by Terry Duffy

Nothing like trying out some boats in the river on a sunny Saturday morning.

That's exactly what a Youngstown marina owner and jetboat operators from Idaho did Saturday in the Niagara River gorge. In the process, they made a bit of local history - and also drew the attention of the U.S. Border Patrol, Department of Homeland Security and the Niagara Parks Police Service in Ontario, Canada.

Chris Bohnenkamp, owner of Bohnenkamp's Whitewater Customs of Meridian, Idaho, outside of Boise, and driver Beau Value, also from the Meridian area, were in town performing jetboat tests in the Niagara River with Mike Fox of Fox BoyZ Marine in Youngstown, who announced plans for a new jetboat tour operation, Niagara Jet Adventures, which will start in the lower Niagara later this summer. Bohnenkamp is co-owner on this new venture with Fox and, at Fox's request, transported two of his 26-foot BWC Gatling series jetboats from Idaho to Youngstown for the tests.

"We wanted to partner with Mike on Niagara Jet Adventures and be able to bring the most epic, but safe jetboat experience in the Niagara Gorge," said Bohnenkamp. "This ride will be like no other ever."

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Niagara Jet Adventures reports that, on April 25, Bohnenkamp along with Value and an entire crew from BWC, traveled 2,200 miles from Boise. They brought the two jetboats to test the waters.

"The partners in the business are getting things set up to run tours up the river," said Value. He said Fox, responding to questions on why he opted to go with BWC rather than the Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours manufacturer that operates upriver, had wanted to see how the Gatling's boats handle the Niagara.

"He wanted proof that these boats can come out here and perform," Value said.

So Value, an Idaho construction company owner who said he does whitewater boating "for recreational purposes," joined Fox, Bohnenkamp and the BWC crew for the test. "I've done a lot of whitewater in Idaho, uncharted water, that's how I got hooked up with Chris. He asked me to come out and do this," Value said.

The BWC crew scoped out the gorge areas, from the whirlpool up to the falls, as they planned the venture. Value said they also chatted with plenty of locals they met on the river's edge in Lewiston and upriver who told them that it couldn't be done.

"One of the biggest things for me was, you know, 'The Factor,' " said Value, referring to the TV show "The Fear Factor." "We come out here and we're talking to people as we we're deciding what to do. We walked ... talking to people, and they told us, 'There's no way. Nobody's ever done this; nobody can do (it); any (one) who ever attempted it ... died.'

"It puts a whole another thing on it."

"I mean, I look at the water and I see it and I know that I can run it," he continued. "I believe in my mind that I can run that water. (But) then you add in, you know, 'The Fear Factor.' Cause everyone around you is saying, 'No, you can't do it; anyone who has ever attempted has died, and there's no way you can run that water - it's impossible; it's un-navigable.' And that puts more in your head, like, 'Is this for me?' And then you start questioning yourself."

With that in mind, Value, Bohnenkamp, Fox and the BWC crew nonetheless proceeded to launch the Gatlings from Youngstown and started their trip up river. Things went routinely until the boats began to enter the heavy rapids area beyond the Niagara Power Authority hydropower plant and Whirlpool State Park. There, into the unknown (and what they found out later was to be "the prohibited areas"), things began to get interesting.

Value said he never experienced anything like it before. "The water flows faster here; the energy, the force - it is a whole another level. I've never driven in it before, with the power of this river."

"(You see) our rivers; it's whitewater. Here it's sheer power. We waited for high flow," he said, adding the crew hiked upriver earlier to scout things out.

Bohnenkamp said the Gatling's Cadillac engines were putting out the equivalent of doing 38 mph, but the boats were only going 15 to 20 mph due to the force they encountered.

"I could look at my GPS, see we were going up river, but not that fast. There was so much force," he said. "When you're pushing 38 mph, you're not (actually) going that fast, you're pushing quarter- to half-throttle all the time, easing your way through."

Value said the operators maneuvered their way up river through the uncharted Niagara gorge rapids by "reading the rocks."

"Our rivers are way rockier," he said. "We've run stuff that's never been navigated before with rocks. But we read it, determine where it is (the rocks), and how the water flows."

Bohnenkamp and Value said the Gatlings made it upriver from the start of the whirlpool to the base of the Horseshoe Falls in "about 5 to 7 minutes."

There they encountered a "very surprised" Maid of the Mist tour boat operator, crew and riders.

"There were these hand gestures," when they saw us, Value said, laughing. "Like (they were saying) 'What in the world are you doing here?' "

Throughout this adventure, the BWC jetboats, understandably, also caught the attention of law enforcement from both sides of the border. Value, Bohnenkamp and Fox all admitted later that police agencies soon became very much aware of the goings on and had not been not apprised of this attempt. And almost as soon they were, three helicopters from the U.S. and Canada joined the BWC boats as they trekked up river. Once the jetboats were seen in the Maid of the Mist boat launch area beneath the falls, police on the Niagara Falls, Ontario, side attempted to get the boats to dock, but to no avail.

"Homeland Security did respond," said Bohnenkamp. "But he (Fox) was able to settle them down."

When asked of the incident, Matthew A. Bitterman, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, Department of Homeland Security, said, "On Saturday, April 27, at approximately 9 a.m., the Niagara Parks Police Service in Ontario, Canada, requested the assistance of the U.S. Border Patrol regarding two vessels near the Maid of the Mist boat launch in Canada. The Border Patrol utilized cameras to locate the vessels and dispatch agents to the area. The U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Air and Marine were also advised of the situation.

"While responding to the area of the vessels, agents made contact with two individuals in the Whirlpool State Park that were part of the crew for the two vessels. The individuals and vessels met with Border Patrol and Coast Guard at the Youngstown boat launch.

"Crew members of the vessels informed the Border Patrol that they were conducting tests for a new tour company that plans to operate through the Whirlpool Rapids in the lower Niagara River. Agents determined that the vessels were not involved in any cross-border activity, but advised the company on vessel reporting requirements."

"All operators of vessels that return from a foreign dock or port, make contact with a foreign vessel, or receive merchandise outside U.S. territorial waters must report their entry," Bitterman said. "Vessels may report their entry in Niagara Falls, N.Y., at the Youngstown boat launch using the Customs and Border Protection video phone. Failing to report an entry is a violation of 19 USC 1436 and can result in a $5,000 fine for the first violation, with the vessel also subject to seizure. Intentionally failing to report an entry is a violation of 8 USC 1325, entering the United States without inspection, and can result in a fine up to $2,000 and/or imprisonment for one year."

Bohnenkamp and Fox said the boats were removed from the river when they returned to Youngstown, and the matter was clarified there with Border Patrol and U.S. Coast Guard officials.

Jean D'Amelio Sawyer, assistant director, regional communications of the Canada Border Services Agency in Niagara Falls, Ontario, responding to any ramifications Fox and the BWC jetboat operators may be facing from across the border, offered the following: 

"In recognition of the importance of travel and leisure to Canadian communities, the CBSA takes a practical approach to the application of the law. Commercial passenger vessels, such as ferries and tour boats, have clear itineraries and scheduled routes. Provided their movement is continuous, uninterrupted and without delays or stopovers, the CBSA does not require commercial passenger vessels, such as ferries and tour boats to report. 

"For information about reporting requirements for private boaters, please visit the CBSA website."

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