By Jill Keppeler
The Tonawanda News
NIAGARA FALLS — I have lived my entire life in Western New York. I probably saw Niagara Falls for the first time as an infant. (Can’t say I recall.) It was the site of family day trips, class field trips (who remembers The Turtle?) and extended-family weekends around Christmastime. (I miss the Festival of Lights.)
But until I was 27, and a reporter working for the Niagara Gazette, I never went on the Maid of the Mist.
I’m not entirely sure why. A combination of familiarity breeding apathy, I suppose, and a half-subconscious thought that it was something only tourists did. By the time I finally donned one of the familiar ponchos and stepped on board, I was working, following Travel Channel (I think) personnel around for the day, and not really paying attention to the trip as something that was really very remarkable.
We do that here. (Actually, I’m sure people do it everywhere, but I can only refer to Western New York.) We have a wonder of the world in our veritable backyard, and we think, “Eh. It’s a tourist thing.”
We forget, so often, that being a tourist can be fun — even, or especially, when it’s in your own backyard.
I was reminded of that this July when my family visited Old Falls Street for a Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra concert. Jim was dancing away; Sam became antsy, so I told him I had to show him something and we set off on a walk ... one that ended with his very first sight of the falls.
His eyes were the size of silver dollars. He pressed his forehead against the railing and stared at this “really big waterfall!” he hadn’t really expected steps away from a familiar city ... then his eyes, if possible, got even larger.
”Mommy ... there’s a BOAT down there.”
It was the Maid of the Mist, of course. He watched in awe as it nearly vanished within the spray of the falls, and I watched him.
”Do you want to go on that sometime?”
For all his adventurous spirit, I can see the trepidation. That boat was going under a waterfall. But the sense of adventure won.
That’s how we found ourselves, several weeks later, strolling through Niagara Falls State Park hand-in-hand, purchasing a ticket (for me; children 5 and younger are free) and heading up the stop to the observation area.
That would come later. We loaded onto the elevator with other passengers (Sam was thrilled when the operator let him “drive” it) and emerged many feet below. He stopped dead in his tracks, head tilted to see the American Falls, the deck high above, then the boat just casting off ahead of us. (I had to reassure him there would be another.)
”This is an adventure,” he said, as if to remind himself. I acknowledged that it was.
We stood in line for our blue ponchos, donning them when the line settled for the next boat. Very soon, it was our turn.
While Sam would have liked to head immediately to the top deck, maternal caution dictated we stay below, just in case Mr. Adventure wasn’t as enthralled as I hoped he would be. We took a place near the front side; he held my hand as the boat cast off.
It didn’t take long for the spray from the American Falls to douse us. Sam chattered away as we passed the base, pulling on the hood of his poncho and wanting to peer over the railing at the gulls and assorted fowl in the river while I kept a grip on him. Then we headed for the basin of the Horseshoe Falls.
Eventually he realized that we were going to get closer — much closer — to this waterfall. The chatter stopped.
I stood with my back against the wall near the front of our Maid of the Mist, Sam standing with his back against my legs, and kept a hand on his shoulder and his other hand in mine. As we approached the falls and I started to lose the ability to see clearly (dratted glasses), I leaned over and, above the roar of the water, whispered, “Are you OK?”
A tiny whisper responded, “Yes, Mommy.”
And we stood in silence, moving through the wind and water and the thunder of the elements.
I could see him shake off the spell as we moved back out, as the spray and the noise subsided, turning to flash me that devil-may-care grin with a request to get closer to the railing again. The rest of our little mom-son date passed with a ramble around the state park, capped off by a stop for ice cream.
My request for what he thought of the experience resulted in the typical 5-year-old responses of “Awesome!” and “It was cool” and “I like the ice cream.” He tells me periodically that he wants to go back. I tell him we will, one of these days.
And I remember that for a few minutes, lost in the spell of the Falls, I’d seen even my adventurous, unflappable child speechless before the force of nature.
It was a lesson worth learning, for both of us.
Jill Keppeler is a writer for the Tonawanda News. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @JillKeppeler.
IF YOU GO • WHAT: Maid of the Mist • WHEN: 9:45 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. weekdays and 9:45 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. weekends through Oct. 3; 9:45 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. daily Oct. 4 to 24. • WHERE: Niagara Reservation State Park at Prospect Point, Niagara Falls • COST: $15.50 for adults, $9 for children ages 6 to 12; free for children 5 and younger. • FOR MORE INFORMATION: Visit maidofthemist.com.