Kaitlynn McHenry likes the idea of not having, as she puts it, a "9-to-5 office gig."
In fact, in her current line of work, McHenry considers herself lucky to work in an "office" that doesn't stay in the same place everyday.
As the first female to serve as captain of a tour boat for the Maid of the Mist Corp. which is sailing its 135th season, McHenry is responsible for guiding passengers in her vessel along the lower Niagara River, beneath the misty waters of mighty Niagara Falls.
“A boat does move, your office probably doesn’t move – if it does, then it shouldn’t,” said McHenry, who started working as a captain on June 26. ”You got to be ready for things to change a lot and roll with the punches.”
McHenry began her life on the water as a teenager in Rochester when she was invited by a family who owned a tour boat to earn some extra money as a deckhand. At that point, she had no intention of becoming a boat captain and was, instead, planning to head off to college.
She enrolled in the pharmacy program at the State University of New York at Buffalo before deciding that she preferred a life that involved working on boats.
"I dropped out of school and got my captain’s license and my parents only cried for a little while," she said.
The Maid of the Mist job attracted McHenry for the sheer challenge of the maneuvering of each ship through the international waters for the delight of thousands of tourists from home and abroad each and every day. Her trips give her an up-close view of both the American Falls and Canadian Horseshoe Falls.
“As far as just boat handling in general, it is challenging," she said during a recent tour. "We’re running the boat into the Horseshoe, that’s the main attraction, that’s what we’re here to do. We take people right to the base of the falls. It’s not always the easiest maneuvering and it’s what keeps it interesting. It’s what keeps it fun."
Operating a boat on the Niagara River offers something different each day. Some days, she said, water levels are high, causing extremely intense currents. Other days, like this past Monday, the water level can drop several feet, creating a completely different situation.
One difference between serving as captain on the Maid of the Mist versus other boats she's piloted involves not being able to talk with the passengers. She said she missed the interaction.
“We don’t actually do much talking at all on our end, unless we need to,” McHenry said. “It’s so we can focus solely on our task of driving the boat. That’s different from any place that I’ve ever worked before. A lot of tour boat captains, you’re talking and driving. It’s good in this aspect, because it’s not a very easy body of water to be operating in. The task of hand needs complete focus a lot of times. At the same times, what I kind of miss, once in awhile, is interacting with the passengers, because we do feel sort of removed. But they’re not here to see us.”
McHenry said 2020 has been a unique year, given the shortened season and the need to practice social distancing and other recommended public health steps on tours. She noted that the continued closure of the U.S.-Canada border to "non-essential" traffic has impacted the tour business as well this year.
“Between this year and last, as far as the changes due to COVID, clearly our number of tourists is immensely different, the amount of passengers we’re carrying now, we’re carrying less than half capacity. It’s going to be a little bit sad not to see the volume of tourists that we’re used to,” she said. “First year on the job was shocking to me. The incredible volume of people we see here all day long. Even on a Monday or Tuesday in the peak of summer, there were just hoards of people everywhere.”
She said she's pleased by passengers willingness to practice social-distancing and adhere to all the safety requirements Maid of the Mist instituted as part of its reopening plan.
“I think people are doing are really good job of policing that on their own," she said. "You see household groups, families, sticking together, and everyone’s giving each other plenty of space. People get that you got to follow the rules and if we want to be able to open and do this stuff, you got to play the game."
For now, she's just glad to be back where she has wanted to be for many years - serving as captain aboard a boat that just happens to be one of the most iconic of its type in all the world.
"We’re happy to be out here doing this," she said. "Even at half capacity, we’ll take it. This is great.”