Sometimes you need a couple of daredevils to remind you to go home. Earlier this year, I interviewed Nik Wallenda, the stuntman who recently walked a tightrope across Niagara Falls and Jay Cochrane, a 68-year-old man who has been tightroping between skyscrapers in Niagara every night this summer, and hearing about their exploits inspired me to return home for a visit. I grew up about 20 minutes away from Niagara Falls, and my father and grandfather lived in the city for many years.
But despite the proximity, it’s easy to take a place in your own backyard for granted. In June, I had a chance to meet Paul Dyster, the mayor of Niagara Falls, New York, and he told me that surveys of foreign visitors to the U.S. consistently show Niagara Falls as the second or third most popular bucket-list destination, behind New York City and, sometimes, the Grand Canyon.
%Gallery-166223%The natural beauty and power of the place is undeniable but sometimes you need to hear that kind of outside validation to remind you of how special it is. I’ve been to the Falls more than 100 times over the last four decades but I’d always experienced them as a local, often bringing visitors from out of town to have a look. But over the Labor Day weekend, I traveled to Niagara Falls and stayed in a hotel there for the first time in my life.
We gathered in Niagara Falls to celebrate my dad’s 80th birthday, which seemed fitting as he worked at the Cave of the Winds behind Niagara Falls in his youth. My brother, Paul, booked us a room with an amazing view of the Falls, and before I’d even taken a walk down to see them, I felt like I’d already experienced them in a way I never had before just looking out the window of our room.
On my first night in the hotel, I walked down to the Falls, which were bathed in multicolored lights that changed hue every 15 minutes, around 11 p.m., and even though it was a Friday night on a holiday weekend, I felt like I had the place almost to myself. I’d never been to the Falls late at night before and I took the opportunity to sit and watch the Horseshoe Falls, where 6 million cubic feet of water drops every minute.
The smattering of tourists who were still left at the site were speaking a variety of languages and a young man from India approached me for advice on how to use his new camera.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“Here, more or less,” I said. “I grew up right on the other side of the border.”
He asked me if I still liked the Falls and I told him that I never got tired of seeing them. The Falls are among the most spectacular natural wonders of the world and the area is brimming with things to do: bike and hiking trails, world-class wineries and theater, and plenty of history to uncover, particularly from the War or 1812.
But somehow the area doesn’t get much respect. The most common complaints are that the Canadian side is filled with tacky tourist traps and the U.S. side has a down-at-the-heels vibe with pockets of squalor dotted all over the city.
Those are valid critiques but the Falls are still a magical place to visit. Wake up early and take a ride on the Maid of the Midst on one of the first boats early in the morning before the crowds arrive. Take a walk or a bike ride on the Niagara River Recreation Trail, where you can enjoy views of the rapids and the midst from the Falls in total serenity just around the corner from the hordes of tourists. In fact, if you follow the trail just a half-mile south of the Horseshoe Falls, you’ll find plentiful free parking (see photo).
Take a hike down to the bottom of the gorge and, by all means, visit the Falls late in the evening after almost everyone else has gone home. But before you go, make sure you check out footage of daredevils Nik Wallenda and Jay Cochrane at the Falls. Their stunts will make you feel great about the fact that all you have to do it just look at the Falls, rather than tightrope across them.
We all know about the Tyrannosaurus Rex and Triceratops, but what about the Gigantosaurus, pictured above, or the Amargasaurus? These are just a couple of the little-known dinosaurs highlighted at a new exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada.
“Ultimate Dinosaurs: Giants from Gondwana” looks at recently discovered dinosaur species from South America, Africa and Madagascar, some of which have never before been displayed in Canada. Not content with simply assembling the skeletons and putting them on a pedestal, the curators have painted the walls with richly detailed murals and have also created Augmented Reality experiences where visitors can interact with the displays to learn more. You can even flesh out a dinosaur skeleton to see how paleontologists recreate these fearsome beasts from the bones they find.
The exhibit looks at how continental drift affected the dinosaur evolution during the Mesozoic Era 250–65 million years ago. At the start of this period there was one giant land mass called Pangaea. This later divided into Laurasia in the north and Gondwana in the south, which in turn separated into the continents we’re familiar with. This increasing isolation led to dinosaur species evolving separately.
Some of these unusual dinosaurs will surprise you. The long-necked Futalognkosaurus was one of the biggest animals to have ever walked the earth, measuring 110 feet long and weighing as much as 10 elephants. Suchomimus had a face like a crocodile and the Majungasaurus appears to have been a cannibal. Majungasaurus bite marks have been found on the bones of other Majungasaurs.
I like this image of a cabin in the woods, despite its slight seasonal dissonance, because it resembles a scrapbook image. “This is Terry in front of that awesome cabin right before she spied a moose and freaked out,” it could be annotated.
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.
I love my family and visit them often, but after a few days at my parents’ house, I’m usually in need of a drink. For many years, my refuge has been the Niagara Wine region, centered around Niagara-on-the-Lake, a well-preserved, picturesque town on Lake Ontario, just minutes away from Buffalo and Niagara Falls.
Over the last decade, the area has exploded from obscurity to a serious wine producing region with nearly seventy wineries, ranging from small, family run estates to major corporate players. The area is best known for its ice wine, in fact, it produces some 80% of the world’s supply of this sweet liquid gold.
A host of regional wineries will take part in the Niagara Ice Wine Festival from January 13-29, so if you don’t mind braving the cold, this would be a great time to visit. If you’re not familiar with ice wine, it’s a syrupy sweet desert wine produced from grapes that are frozen on the vine and harvested when the temperature is about 17 degrees Fahrenheit. There are a lot of different varieties but the taste tends to be intense and even a small sip is a serious treat which doesn’t come cheap. A ton of grapes yields just one-sixth the amount of ice wine as table wine, so prices typically start at about $45 for half bottles, but tastes range from free to about $5.
Two of the most celebrated Niagara wineries, Inniskillin and Jackson Triggs, are owned by Vincor International, a major multinational corporation, but all of my favorites are family owned and operated places that produce superb, affordable wines. Pillitteri Estates- Founded by an Italian immigrant, Gary Pillitteri, in the early 90′s, Pillitteri is the largest estate producer of ice wines in the world. On a recent visit, I was able to taste a half dozen varieties, one more delicious than the next. The Reisling and Shiraz ice wines were particular favorites.
Reif Estate Winery- The Reif family has been making wines in Germany since the 1600′s; Klaus Reiff opened his winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake in 1982, making this winery one of the veterans on the local scene. Reif produces a wide variety of whites, reds and ice wines, but I was most taken with their Kerner- a rare white varietal that is grown in just a handful of vineyards in Ontario.
Marynissen Estates- If you prefer reds, definitely check out Marynissen, which was founded by Dutch immigrant John Marynissen in the early 50′s. The cabernet franc is terrific, as is the solstice, which is a merlot, syrah, cabernet sauvignon blend.
Konzelmann- This family run winery, established in 1988, is a bit off the beaten track but is my favorite in the region. I’m particularly fond of their gewürztraminer and pinot blanc, but their ice wines are to die for. A mouthful of their vidal ice wine feels so good on the palate you almost don’t want to swallow it, and when your glass is empty, you immediately crave more. The bartenders here are generous and knowledgeable.
There are numerous companies that offer tours of the wineries, and in the summer, there are also bike tours, which use the Niagara River Recreation Trail, a 35-mile bike path that runs along the Niagara River connecting Niagara-on-the-Lake with Niagara Falls and points beyond. Niagara Falls is a leisurely thirty minute drive on the scenic Niagara Parkway and Toronto is less than two hours to the north east.
Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL) is also the home of the Shaw Festival, which presents plays in four beautiful theaters around town from April-October. Architecture buffs will love NOTL’s quiet side streets, which are filled with tidy 19th Century Victorian homes and bed and breakfasts. Many of the shops and restaurants in town are pretty touristy, so on a nice day; I’d take a picnic and eat lakeside at the Queen’s Royal Park. Otherwise, venture a couple miles outside town to the Pie Plate, an outstanding bakery and restaurant which serves fantastic pies, baked goods, soups, sandwiches, salads and pizzas at reasonable prices.
I’ve been to NOTL dozens of times but every time I return there are new discoveries and more wineries to try. George Bernard Shaw once said that alcohol is the “anesthesia by which we endure the operation of life,” and by that token, NOTL is a terrific place to numb the senses.