Nik Wallenda: the daredevil who will tightrope across Niagara Falls

Nik Wallenda practicing on the Ferris wheel in Santa Cruz Beach

Nik Wallenda
is a 32-year-old Florida native who plans to walk on a tightrope across Niagara Falls this summer. He’s a seventh generation daredevil who performs with his wife, and a dozen other Wallenda family relatives at venues around the world. We caught up with Nik to ask him about his plans, the potential tourism impact on the Niagara region, and his sanity.

Do people think you’re crazy for wanting to walk across the Falls on a tightrope?

They do, until they get to know me. People expect me to be crazy, but I’m a normal person who has an education but who just happens to do something else that’s run in my family for seven generations.

As I understand it, you’ve received permission to tightrope across the Falls on the U.S. side, but the Niagara Parks Commission on the Canadian side recently turned down your proposal?

That’s correct. But I’ve been invited by the Minister of Tourism for Ontario to meet with him, and Ontario’s Premier (Dalton McGuinty) said it was an extremely interesting proposal that deserved further review. So those are encouraging signs to me.

And if you don’t receive permission from Canadian officials, what’s your plan B?

I’ll walk across the American falls, starting at Goat Island. But I still hope we can walk across the international boundary, because it’s the 200 year anniversary of the war of 1812, and this is the longest peaceful border between two countries and I’ve always wanted to walk from one country to the other.

So one way or another you’re going to tightrope across the Falls this summer?

Definitely. It’ll happen in June or July of this year. (Press reports now indicate that the tentative date is June 15-17)

If you get permission from both countries where would your walk start and end?

I would start on the U.S. side on Goat Island, at the visitor’s center and I’d end on the Canadian side, right next to their gift shop, so I’d be walking directly over the Horseshoe Falls, which in the history of tightrope walking in the Falls, hasn’t been done in over 125 years. Actually no one has ever walked directly over the Falls.

So The Great Blondin and other famous 19th century daredevils didn’t actually tightrope over the Falls?

They did it over the Niagara Gorge, about a mile downstream from the Falls. There are a lot of myths about what those guys did. One of them is that the Great Blondin did a back flip halfway across. I’ve done this my entire life and its been in our family for 200 years and I can tell you that it is not possible to do a back flip on a walk like that.And there’s also a legend that the Great Blondin tightroped across with a stove, cooked omelets for people halfway across and then lowered himself down to the Maid of the Mist boat, where he served them to passengers.

Right, there are photos of him cooking eggs on the wire, but the stove came up on a tower that was lifted up to him. And his walks were about 60 feet above the water, whereas mine will be 160 feet above the water. But he did carry his manager across the wire on his back, so he did some amazing things and was a real marketing genius for drawing people to the Falls.

So you won’t be cooking omelets on your way across?

Probably not. But I’d like to do this several times, so I might build up to things like that.

The golden age of daredevils at the Falls ended around 1897 when a law banning “stunting” came into effect, is that right?

That’s my impression, but those early pioneers helped spark a tourism boom for the Falls. We’ve done an economic impact study for my event, and it showed that my walk would bring in about $120 million dollars worth of tourism over the next five years, with the day of the event itself bringing in about $20 million, just on the Canadian side. So it would be a huge impact. It’ll be carried live in primetime on the Discovery Channel and will be seen by about 600 million people worldwide.

And how many people do you estimate would actually turn up at the Falls to watch this live?

I did a walk in Pittsburgh where I walked across the Alleghany River, (see photo below) a few years ago where about 120,000 people showed up, so I’d say a very conservative estimate would be about 125,000 people on each side of the Falls.

If you’re able to walk across to the Canadian side, how long a walk is that?

It’s about 1,800 feet across and 160 feet high. My wire is about two inches thick in diameter, and it’ll be anchored to two construction cranes. I expect it’ll take 30-40 minutes.

You’re providing your own rescue team, so there is no fiscal burden on taxpayers in case you fall, right?

We have everything from rescue divers to our own rescue pilot that I’ve worked with before. There will be no environmental impact on the Falls whatsoever, and there’s no liability or risk for either side. I just broke a world record with my rescue team in which I hung by my jaw underneath a helicopter 260 feet above the ground. Realistically, the worst case is I grab down and hold onto the wire, and within forty-five seconds, they’ll pluck me off that wire. I train to hold my wire for up to 2 hours, and I train in high winds and rain, so I’m ready.

Why do you think “stunting” is banned at Niagara Falls?

Well, the Governor of N.Y. signed into law a one-time exemption to the stunting law for me and it passed 65-0 in New York’s senate- when else do you see Republicans and Democrats agreeing on something? The U.S. saw the value in it; they knew it would boost tourism in the area. On the Canadian side, the Parks Department told me they didn’t want a ‘carnival’ atmosphere and everyone laughs at that. Uhhhh, look around; there’s a huge Ferris wheel, and everything else a carnival would have. What I do is an art, it’s not even carnival or circus-like, so it’s kind of a joke.

Do you have insurance for this?

I do have liability insurance and life insurance. You can get anything for the right price.

What other records do you hold?

I hung by my jaw with nothing but my teeth- I bite down on something and hang. I also have the record for the highest bicycle ride on a wire, which is about 278 feet; the longest distance on a bicycle, which was about 260 feet across; my mom and I also have the record for the highest duel walk; I have the world record with my family for the 8 person pyramid on a high wire, and there are others as well.




Have you had nightmares about falling off the wire over the Falls?

I’ve never had a nightmare about performing. But I do dream about these things and that’s where I get some ideas from. For example, I have a permit to tightrope across the Grand Canyon and plan to do that in the next few years as well.

Will your family worry about you up on that wire?

I’m married and I have three children. My kids are 8, 10 and 13. They all walk the wire already; we’ve been doing this for eight generations, so it’s in their blood. I don’t think they’ll be too nervous. They’ve seen me doing this stuff their whole lives. If you’re dad’s a roofer, you’re not going to stop and watch in awe when he’s putting a roof on someone’s house. That’s what he does.

Will you do any of the normal touristy activities when you’re at the Falls this summer?

I haven’t been on the Maid of the Mist, so that’s something I’d like to do. I love the Falls. It’s one of the great wonders of the world. Niagara Falls is going to be like a second home to me in the future. I don’t plan for this to be a one-time event; I’d like to set up a summertime show there, so we can keep this going.

When you step onto that wire and look out at the Falls, will you be even a tiny bit scared?

No. I started walking on wires when I was two. I respect it and realize there is danger, but I train and I over-train for this, so once I get there it makes it that much easier.

You won’t even have a few butterflies?

I’m sure I will, but it’s hard to tell. The hardest part will be waiting for the camera crew to tell me it’s O.K. to go, because with all the pent up excitement, you just want to get out there and go. So there’s some anxiety and anticipation, but excitement as well. This is a dream and I’m living it.

But will you look down at all, or is that taboo?

Absolutely, I look down all the time. I plan to admire the Falls while I’m up there. It’s actually relaxing to walk a wire, believe it or not. My great-grandfather, Karl Wallenda, said ‘life is on the wire, and everything else is just waiting,’ and that is so true to us. It’s peaceful and relaxing to be on that wire alone, just me and the maker.