Ever been on a subway train so slow you thought you could walk there faster? A man in Paris decided to see if he could run from one metro station to the next, catching the same train he just got off. With a camera strapped to his head and friends documenting his race from the street and the train, the anonymous Frenchman tries to run between the Cluny-La Sorbonne and Odéon stations. The stations are close together, but he has to navigate a busy street crossing, stairs, and the turnstile when he re-enters the metro, plus, you know, outrun a train. Watch the split-screen video to see if he catches the next train.
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.
Instead of pretending to have all the answers, my belief system ranks things in order of likelihood, and ghosts are pretty far down the list. Not as low as Santa Claus or the “we never landed on the Moon” conspiracy theory, but a poor ranking nonetheless. So when I heard that my hotel room in England was supposedly haunted, my only thought was that I’d bagged a good story for Gadling.
Unlike a lot of supposed hauntings, this one’s actually based on a true story, related to me by local historian and folklorist Steven Wood.
Back in 1906, Haworth, Yorkshire, was holding its annual gala. Like in other years, brass bands played, entertainers wowed the crowd, and food stands sold all sorts of delicacies. This year, however, the people of Yorkshire had been promised something special. Lily Cove, a famed “aeronaut”, was going to do a death-defying parachute jump from a balloon. This was only three years after Kitty Hawk, so nobody in the area had ever seen an airplane, and balloons were a rarity too. Seeing a lovely lady jump from one and land safely was something of a miracle.
Lily Cove stayed at The Old White Lion Hotel in Room 7, the very same room I had. While waiting for a day with good weather the glamorous aeronaut made many acquaintances in town and became very popular.
On June 11 the weather was fair and thousands gathered to see her performance. After she and her manager Captain Frederick Bidmead checked the balloon, she secured herself to a trapeze hanging from the bottom. The balloon soared into the air with Lily waving to the crowd with a handkerchief. The idea was that once she got to a good altitude, Lily would leap from the trapeze and a ripcord would open up her parachute. She’d then float gracefully to earth.
The balloon floated over the fields. After it got up to about 700 feet Lily jumped. The parachute opened as planned, but one witness saw Lily shrugging her shoulders and a moment later she detached from her parachute and plummeted to the ground. Farmers rushed to the spot, but she was dead. Her broken body was carried back to her room, my room, and laid out until a coffin could be made for her.
The whole town went into mourning. Captain Bidmead, a veteran of 83 parachute descents, said he might never fly again. At the inquiry he gave the opinion that she’d deliberately separated herself from the parachute. He suggested that because she was drifting towards a reservoir and didn’t know how to swim, she decided to get to the ground early. She must have thought she was much lower than she was and could land without injury. Others said she committed suicide, but there seemed no reason for this. The court ruled that Lily Cove died of “misadventure.” Parliament soon banned parachute performances so such a tragedy would never happen again.
According to local ghost story collector and guide Philip Lister, it wasn’t long before guests began reporting strange happenings in Room 7. Some woke up with a start, thinking they were falling through the air. Others saw an attractive young woman standing at the foot of their bed. The sightings have continued to the present day, and everyone in Haworth knows of Room 7’s reputation.
I didn’t hear any of this until I had spent my first night in the room. Tired from a day’s travel from Madrid, I slept fine, although I woke up once, glanced at the clock, saw it was 4:10, and went back to sleep.
The next day one of my travel companions told me my room was haunted. She started telling me the story but I stopped her. I didn’t want to be subject to suggestion. I wanted to test Room 7, and not have my own mind play tricks on me. The conversation turned to ghosts stories in general, and over the course of the day four of my nine travel companions told me they’d seen ghosts at least once in their lives. I was amazed. These educated, quite sane travel writers were telling me in all seriousness that they’d seen spirits. Nearly half of our group had a story to tell, and I didn’t even get around to asking all of them! Apparitions from the beyond are more common than I supposed.
The second night I slept fine again, although I briefly woke up again shortly after 4am. I think it was 4:08, but I was too sleepy to be sure.
By my third night I’d heard the whole story. I even went on a ghost tour, which I’ll describe in my next post in this series. So when I tucked myself in I knew just what had occurred to that poor woman who had stayed in my room. Once again I saw nothing, except I briefly woke up and looked at the clock.
It was 4:11 in the morning.
Waking in the middle of the night isn’t unusual for me, but I never wake up at the exact same time three nights in a row. Is this significant? Well, by the third night I was wondering if I would again awake shortly after four, so that might have been autosuggestion. The time seems to have nothing to do with the haunting, since Lily did her ascent at seven o’clock in the evening.
So was Lily Cove waking me up? Probably not. The tricky thing about ghosts is they’re unprovable. Even if I’d awoken to see a spectral woman at the foot of my bed, that wouldn’t prove anything except I had a weird experience that could have been a hallucination. Yet ghost stories are found throughout history and in most if not all cultures. We seem to need ghost stories. That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s life beyond death or that dead people occasionally come back to scare the crap out of the living, but it does show ghosts are a part of the human experience. What they signify is something we’ll probably never know, and not knowing is far more interesting than pretending you have all the answers.
Don’t miss the rest of my series Exploring Yorkshire: ghosts, castles, and literature in England’s north.
Coming up next: The good old days were horrible!
A crowd pissed all over Wizz Air’s attempt to release 1,000 balloons into the sky. The low-cost airline had hoped to celebrate its fifth anniversary, but the Hungarian crowd was drawn to the event by the rumor of freebies hooked to the balloons – coupons worth $49.95 – ultimately ruining it for everybody.
The balloons were held in a net in Budapest. Attendees started to pop balloons so they could cash in on the discounts, prompting a burst of bursting. After the first popper struck, the crowd “attacked the net,” according to Wizz Air communications director Natasa Kazmer.
One young woman fished for coupons through a grill in the gutter, hopefully because she planned to take many Wizzes later this year.
The publicity stunt was too successful: most of the vouchers were gone before the press even arrived.
easyJet was ready to help passengers walk down the aisle while walking down the aisle. The airlines plans to conduct mile-high marriage ceremonies, however, were stymied by local British bureaucrats who said they couldn’t give the airline permission. Under this unusual program, pilots – like captains at sea – would have facilitated the swapping of vows.
The relevant officials in Luton, which is north of London, has refused to extend these powers to the airline, claiming that it’s not permitted under the law. The airline, of course, is “very disappointed,” as are the imaginary masses ready to run the security gauntlet to seal the deal.