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Action, adventure, history splash together on a Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours ride

by jmaloni
Sat, Jul 5th 2014 10:00 am
Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours President John Kinney stands next to one of his vessels. WJBT is located next to Water Street Landing at 115 S. Water St., Lewiston.
Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours President John Kinney stands next to one of his vessels. WJBT is located next to Water Street Landing at 115 S. Water St., Lewiston.
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Locals can ride jet boat for discounted price

Article and photos by Joshua Maloni, Kelsey Grady and Leanne Stuck

For centuries, Niagara Falls has attracted visitors from around the world. In the past two decades, however, it's had genuine competition from the Niagara River.

Since 1992, globetrotters have traveled to Lewiston to ride a Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours vessel into the Devil's Hole rapids.

"First and foremost, what we are is an amazing, fun experience," WJBT President John Kinney said. His tour is, at its core, an hour-long whitewater adventure. "But what I really think is cool about our trip and what we do, is we take 6-year-old kids on our trip, and we take seniors into their 70s and 80s, and people that otherwise would've never been able to go to that special part of that world that we call the Niagara Gorge."

"It's not just the whitewater; it's the history, it's the scenery, it's the whole geological story of how Niagara was formed - (it) all happened up there in that whitewater gorge."

In truth, a WJBT ride is as much a cerebral experience as it is a visceral one. Passengers on each of the company's eight boats "hear the 12,000-year story of Niagara in one hour - from how the falls once stood where the Queenston-Lewiston Bridge is now built; how the falls eroded back to where they stand at their present-day, carving the rapids that we encounter during the course of the trip; they get to see the historical sites of the river - from Fort Niagara on the American side to Fort George on the Canadian side; Brock's Monument; the Battle of Queenston Heights; the whole historic story of Niagara here," Kinney said. "And then they get to see the man-made marvels of Niagara - the power plants and how Tesla invented alternating current, and the whole electrification of North America all happened because of the power plants here in Niagara."

Of course, this classroom, if you will, is a bit different than what you'll find in any schoolhouse.

"They get to experience some of, truly, the most spectacular whitewater in the world," Kinney said.

"The jet boats are what enable us to negotiate the Class 5 whitewater that we encounter here," he explained. "What makes this trip different than just going out on any conventional boat tour is where we go. We're going into the narrowest part of the Niagara Gorge where the biggest rapids form. We go from having 35-mile-wide Great Lake - Lake Erie - to the mouth of the river at Buffalo; down to a half-mile wide. Then the river comes around Grand Island, gets to the brink of the falls - now we're down to a quarter-mile wide. And then, after the water goes over the falls and into the gorge, it narrows down to only a 125 yards.

"So, we're talking about a river that started off (as a) 35-mile-wide Great Lake and narrows down into a very, very tight stonewalled gorge that we have up there. That's what creates the unique setting that we have for the rapids and the whole experience that we offer here."

John Percy, president and CEO of the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp., said Niagara USA seeks distinctive attractions to entice tourists.

"We have to set ourselves apart with our uniqueness," he said. As that pertains to WJBT, "They've been one of our most unique products in the marketplace."

Laura Savage, a second-year WJBT tour guide, said, "People are pretty pumped up," to ride a vessel.

"Some people are scared - especially sitting in the first three rows. I think people kind of underestimate how bumpy it is, as well, and how much water they do get. You see it in the videos prior to going on the trip, but you don't actually experience it.

"This is a pretty unique trip compared to anything else, really, out there. People are just pretty excited."

Part of the fun, Kinney, said, is that guests "don't know what to expect.

"They see the brochure; they see the videos playing. But they really need to know what they're going to encounter once they get up into the rapids," he said.

"I don't think people realize how wet they really are going to get," Savage said. "They kind of underestimate."

Once on board, she encounters "just excitement and a lot of energy" from the passengers. "People are really pumped up. It helps with the trip leaders, as well, kind of feeding it to them.

"Yeah, a lot of energy; a lot of enthusiasm."

"I think they're more curious about the water, and more curious about the boat," Savage said.

"People from France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Korea, India - there's nothing like that in their countries," Kinney said. "They can't believe ... that there's a geological feature like that.

"And then, when they come down here - now, we think that the Niagara River is not so great. But it's actually pristine compared to waterways around the world that are so industrialized and so polluted and whatnot. And so, when they get to see this beautiful, emerald green color coming through the gorge and the waves, again, it's just very unique and you can't replicate this anywhere else in the world."

"A lot of people come back when they have their families," Savage said. "They bring their relatives. Definitely a lot of people come twice around."

Kinney said the Niagara River flows at 100,000 cubic feet per second, or "more than 100 times the size of most conventional rivers." Navigating such a waterway takes a special kind of ship.

"A jet boat is completely different," Kinney said. "There is no propeller. There is no rudder. All that moves the boat and steers the boat is a very powerful stream of water. The boat sucks water up into the boat. The engines pressurize it and shoot it out the back, and that's what enables us to push 25,000 pounds of boat, 8,000 pounds of passengers, up 12- to 14-feet waves like we have at the Devil's Hole rapids."

Naturally, safety is priority No. 1.

"We have to prepare (passengers) for that," Kinney said. "First and foremost is their safety. That's why we, of course, every person that goes on our boat has a properly fitted life jacket and all the splash gear (to offset wind chill) that we provide, as well."

"Safety is clearly the whole premise of what it is and what we do here," he added. "Without safety, we would not have a business; we would not have the experience that we offer here."

This summer, WJBT is encouraging locals to take a ride through the Niagara Gorge. Niagara County residents can ride anytime for $50 (tax included). That's an $11 discount off the regular ticket price.

For more information, including how to make a reservation, or to look for other deals, visit WJBT's website at http://www.whirlpooljet.com.

WJBT is located next to Water Street Landing at 115 S. Water St., Lewiston.

•Watch our Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours video on our NFP TV page.

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