When I met Wes Hill, he was standing in the small garage behind his house in Chippawa, a once-distinct village along the upper Niagara River long since swallowed up by Niagara Falls, Ont., in much the same way as Niagara Falls, N.Y., annexed LaSalle.
On a bright, warm Sunday morning in November 2003, he gestured to the hundreds of wooden ducks lining the garage walls.
"Do you hunt?" the last of the region's most famous family of rivermen, who died Monday, June 12, at the age of 76, asked me, a note of interrogation in his voice.
"No, I never have," I admitted, a little concerned that I might have earned his scorn before our interview even started.
Instead of issuing a cutting remark, though, he smiled. Well, as much as the eternally gruff ever do.
"If you ever decide to start, I've got plenty of decoys," he said.
He'd pulled them out of the rocks lining the Niagara during the thousands of trips he'd made on the river, upper and lower, during 70 years of hunting and fishing, as well as what he, his father and brothers were best known for -- rescuing and, more often, retrieving.
William "Red" Hill became famous in the first half of the 20th century, pulling 28 people from the upper rapids, where they'd been seconds away from plunging over the falls to certain death. His most famous rescue came in August 1918, when he twice pulled himself through the rushing water, hand-over-hand on a cable, to untangle a breeches-buoy line so that two stranded crew members could be rescued from a scow. The powerless vessel had broken loose near Buffalo and grounded less than half a mile from the brink of the falls, where it still sits today.
Authorities from both sides of the river often called on him to pull out those who weren't so fortunate, and Red Hill was credited with pulling 177 corpses from the lower Niagara.
He also pulled out the various barrels, balls and other contraptions daredevils used in usually futile attempts to conquer the Horseshoe Falls (the rocks at the bottom of the American version limiting plunges there to the wholly suicidal). Though he never made the plunge himself, he used them to successfully navigate the lower rapids, which were then 10 feet deeper and much more turbulent, including a 1930 journey that drew 25,000 spectators.
Following Red Hill's death in 1942, Red Hill Jr. and another son, Major, also ran the rapids. Needing money, Red Jr. tried to go his father one better on Aug. 5, 1951, and go over the falls in what he called "The Thing" -- inner tubes lashed together with canvas webbing and fishing nets.
Just 21 at the time, Wes Hill already knew better. He figured his brother would be ejected by the force of the water at the brink of the falls and refused his request to help him put "The Thing" in the water.
"I told him, 'I'm not going to help you. You're going to die,'" Hill told me, still sounding more angry than mournful when talking about his brother more than 42 years later.
Red Hill Jr.'s body was found in the lower river the next day. His death, and the public outcry that followed, led Ontario to finally pass a law against "stunting" at the falls.
Red Jr. wasn't the only Hill brother who seemed to have a problem living in their father's sizable shadow. Major died in a Niagara Falls jail in 1974, killed in a fight with another inmate after being arrested for trying to steal a knife from a wax-museum statue on Clifton Hill. Another brother, Norman, who also was known for stunts such as swimming in the lower gorge, drowned in a tunnel connected to the Sir Adam Beck Power Plant on the Canadian side of the river.
Wes, though, was the white sheep of the family. He made his living as a machinist and worked as a special constable for the Ontario Parks Police, pulling bodies out of the river on a piecework basis -- at least 350 of them, he estimated. He was as stoic when talking about those deaths, almost all suicides, as when remembering his brothers.
"They wanted to die and they got their wish," he said.
He also served as a consultant to film crews working at the falls on both documentaries and feature films like "Superman II" and "Canadian Bacon," for which he was credited as "Boat Wrangler."
I met him shortly after Kirk Jones somehow survived a semi-suicidal plunge in October 2003, becoming the first person to go over without any kind of protective device and live, and I was assigned to write a story about the senior living member of the Hill family for an out-of-town paper.
He guessed that he'd made at least two trips to the river each week of his life and seemed to know everything about it and everyone who came near it. By then, he'd turned over his body-fetching duties to OPP officers he'd trained. But when we were looking for a location to shoot his portrait, Wes used his connections to get us down into the gorge, to a site forbidden to the public, where we could photograph him with the Horseshoe Falls in the background.
Wes Hill was probably the last to carry the title "riverman." And he was part of a Niagara Falls that's also little more than history, part of a time when people associated the area with daredevils, adventure and the awesome force of nature, instead of corporations, casinos and the power of the almighty dollar.
Speaking of the Horseshoe Falls, the Canadian cataracts are featured prominently in Eliot Spitzer's latest campaign commercial.
In the spot, entitled "Tribute," an aerial view of those falls opens a montage of iconic Empire State images, accompanied by a narrator saying, "Remember New York?"
Jennifer Medina of The New York Times first noted the misguided geography in an item on the newspaper's new political blog, Empire Zone, on Thursday, and again in a story in the paper itself on Saturday.
Predictably, Spitzer's opponents in the governor's race quickly pounced.
Tom Suozzi, the longer-than-longshot challenger for the Democratic nomination, released a lyrical retort, set to the tune of "O Canada," which begins "O candidate, you should know your native land."
In keeping with the humor-free approach that's serving him so well in the polls, a spokeswoman for Republican sacrificial candidate John Faso called the glitch "a sad commentary."
The locals who had their say on the matter were more circumspect.
"One side of the falls is rich -- that's the Ontario side. The other side is dead broke," Frank Parlato, whose One Niagara welcome center (and parking lot) at the foot of the Rainbow Bridge is already causing agita among state park officials, told the Times. "Perhaps it's a symbol -- trying to portend that someday we'll look as good as Canada."
George Lodick, former Niagara Falls City Council candidate and political adviser to Wheatfield Town Supervisor Tim Demler, who unsuccessfully sought the Republican nod for lieutenant governor, weighed in on the blog.
"When the geographic center of the Democratic gubernatorial ticket is somewhere near 35th Street in Manhattan, what can you expect?" Lodick wrote. "It might be nitpicking, but with the dire economic conditions in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and the rest of upstate, you'd think that they'd pay just a little more attention."
Lodick was responding to feedback critical of the Times for even mentioning the issue. Other responses were from a variety of know-it-alls who argued over whether any of the Horseshoe Falls is actually within the U.S. border.
To his credit, Lodick was one of only two of 17 respondents as of Saturday afternoon who actually used his own name. Which points up my chief problem with this burgeoning media genre -- who really cares what someone identifying him or herself as "JDawg" or "G. Cleveland" has to say, anyway?
In the end, whether Spitzer -- or his ad agency -- knows the precise location of the international boundary or can tell the Horseshoe Falls from the American Falls matters far less than if he knows the difference between revitalizing the local economy and just talking about it.
George Pataki had so many press conferences with the falls -- the Horseshoe Falls, that is -- as a backdrop, they may as well have built a permanent podium at Prospect Point.
A fat lot of good that did.
David Staba is the sports editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter. He welcomes e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.