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River runs wild


Chris Bohnenkamp and Jon Fregulia jet boat through the Whirlpool Rapids on the Niagara River recently. They  became the first people to successfully make it to the base of the Niagara Falls. (Courtesy photo)
Chris Bohnenkamp and Jon Fregulia jet boat through the Whirlpool Rapids on the Niagara River recently. They became the first people to successfully make it to the base of the Niagara Falls. (Courtesy photo)

Local jet boaters take on Niagara River Gorge

Class 6 rapids, border patrol agents and an all-time first for jet boaters was how Chris Bohnenkamp and Jon Fregulia were introduced to Niagara Falls.

And they lived to tell about it.

Bohnenkamp and Fregulia, along with Beau Value and Rob Kirsch, became the first people to successfully jet boat the Class 6 Whirlpool Rapids that run through the Niagara River Gorge to the base of Niagara Falls in New York in late April.

“It was off the hook,” said Bohnenkamp, who grew up in La Grande but now resides in Boise, Idaho. “No one has ever jet boated Class 6 rapids without going down.”

Fregulia, of La Grande, was Bohnenkamp’s co-pilot for the two-mile ride, while Value and Kirsch, both of McCall, Idaho, piloted a second boat.

Both boats were 26-foot Gatling Series, 1,150-horsepower, twin-engine boats that  were built by Bohnenkamp’s Whitewater Customs out of Boise.

The stretch of water the four men overcame has claimed plenty of lives and boats over the years. The water runs at 38 miles per hour and has 25-foot rolling rapids, according to Fregulia.

“It was a challenge from the get-go,” Fregulia said. “I mean, you could die.”

Fregulia said he was worried that the boats might not have enough power to make it through the rapids, but he said that didn’t become an issue during the run.

“It didn’t take as much power as we thought,” he said. “There was never a time when we stopped going forward.”

The rapids weren’t the only challenge the group had to overcome. 

When they finally arrived at the base of the falls, helicopters circled overhead and border patrol agents from both Canada and the United States were waiting there waving for them to come ashore.

Had the boats landed on the Canadian side of the river, the guys could have been arrested for an illegal border crossing.

But Bohnenkamp said he did his research beforehand and knew there was nothing illegal about going up the river. Bohnenkamp said he ignored the requests of the border patrol agents and started back down the river, where he eventually squared things away with law enforcement officials.

And when the trip was over, there was jubilation all around.

“It felt like winning the Super Bowl,” Fregulia said. 

“I don’t know what that feels like, but we conquered something no one else has ever done. We were the first ones.”

“It was awesome,” Bohnenkamp added. “It was really rewarding.”

Bohnenkamp is starting a company in the Niagara Falls area to run jet boat tours in the gorge. He is building three, 33-foot, triple-engine boats to run from Youngstown, N.Y., to just below the Whirlpool.

“We won’t run the Class 6 rapids with passengers,” Bohnenkamp said. 

“We’ll do Class 4 or 5
rapids. These boats are built to take the forces of the Niagara River.”

Fregulia said he wouldn’t have trusted anyone other than Bohnenkamp to jet boat up the Niagara.

“Chris is a helluva captain,” he said. “As long as the boats could do it, I was fine.”

Bohnenkamp lived in
La Grande until 2007, when he moved away to chase his dream of building boats. 

Now that dream has become a reality and he and his business are garnering attention across the nation.

“Chris has taken river boats and fine-tuned them,” Fregulia said.

Fine-tuned might be an understatement, as not even the wild rapids of the Niagara River could slow them down.


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