Tourism officials expect more than 125,000 people to show up on the Canadian side of the Niagara Falls on June 15 to watch wirewalker Nik Wallenda fulfil his life-long dream, with thousands more cheering him on from the U.S. side. Wallenda, whose persistence led Canadian officials to reconsider his request and reverse a 128-year-old ban on stunting for a one-time walk this year, says the crossing will be 'the greatest work of art' in his career.

'I get chills thinking about it'
Wirewalker Nik Wallenda set to make history in Niagara Falls

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With the date set for June 15, wirewalker Nik Wallenda is busy preparing for his most daring feat yet: a 1,800-foot walk across the mighty Niagara Falls on a wire rope just two inches in diameter. The 32-year-old, a seventh-generation daredevil and scion of the world-famous Flying Wallenda family of high-wire walkers, is firming up details of the once-in-a-generation event, a spectacle the likes of which has not been seen since the days of The Great Blondin.  

"Not only is it a dream, but we had to change two laws in two countries that were over 100 years old," Wallenda told reporters gathered in Niagara Falls, N.Y., on Wednesday for the walk date announcement. "Nothing like this has ever been done before anywhere in the world. This is clearly a once-in-a-lifetime thing."

Tourism officials expect more than 125,000 people to show up on the Canadian side of the falls to watch Wallenda fulfil his life-long dream, with thousands more cheering him on from the U.S. side. Wallenda, whose persistence led Canadian officials to reconsider his request and reverse a 128-year-old ban on stunting for a one-time walk this summer, says the crossing will be “the greatest work of art” in his career.

The father of three, whose home base is in Sarasota, Florida, considers the walk into the mist of the Horseshoe Falls — the largest of the falls’ three cataracts — to be history in the making, because The Great Blondin, and those who followed, all crossed the Niagara River gorge “some distance downstream from the falls.”  

The largest audience will be watching the 40-minute death-defying walk 220 feet above the Niagara gorge live on television, with images of the falls beamed around the world to more than 500 million viewers.  

“This is a dream of mine that I’ve always wanted to do,” Wallenda told Niagara Falls Tourism recently while sitting on the pool deck of a hotel and surveying the falls in the distance. “I get chills thinking about it.”  

Adding to the excitement is the fact that Wallenda’s wirewalk will be the only event of its kind to be considered for approval by the Niagara Parks Commission for another 20 years, a condition the agency of the Ontario Ministry of Tourism made as part of its grudging nod in favour of the walk. In fact, the commission’s approval — a reversal of its earlier position — came only after Tourism Minister Michael Chan publicly came out in favour of the walk after a personal meeting with Wallenda, who commissioned a study showing the event would bring $120 million to the region over the next five years through the “legacy effect.”  

“This decision was approved in part in recognition of the role that stunting has played in the history and promotion of Niagara Falls,” Janice Thomson, chairwoman of the Niagara Parks Commission, said after Wallenda’s request was approved in mid-February. “We have made it clear that this is a very unique one-time situation. It’s not an everyday activity and will not be allowed to become an everyday activity.” 

Roll out the barrels ...

That hasn’t stopped amateurs with plans to go over the falls in a barrel to contact the commission for its blessing. This is the kind of “stunting” the 20-year rule aims to discourage, in order to keep the carnival atmosphere and sensationalism of the past from spoiling one of the world’s most beautiful natural wonders.  

While the parks commission denies it was pressured to give in, the decision, along with the 20-year rule, means Canadian-born wirewalker Jay Cochrane will likely not get his chance to cross the falls. Cochrane, now in his 60s, was among the handful of professional wirewalkers who asked, and was refused, permission to cross the falls over the years.  

“Nik Wallenda was fortunate enough to ask at the right time,” Wayne Thomson, a city councillor and chairman of Niagara Falls Tourism, told “It provides a great opportunity to market the falls and the region to a world audience.”  

It’s not all in the shadows for Cochrane, however. You can watch him in Niagara Falls this summer, when the “Prince in the Air” will walk on a high wire strung between the new Hilton Hotel and the top of the Skylon Tower. Proceeds from the daily walks, which will be held from June to September, will go to charity. Cochrane, who once lived on a wire for 21 days in Puerto Rico, has walked 1,800 feet across a highwire on the Canadian side hundreds of times, but his name has never held the cachet that Wallenda’s does.  

The Wallenda family has thrilled audiences around the world for seven generations, and the name represents the pinnacle of achievement on the high wire. They consider themselves artists, not stunt performers. Inspired by the innovation of his great-grandfather Karl Wallenda, who brought his family trapeze act from Germany to the United States in the 1920s, Nik Wallenda has been walking the wire since he was four years old. He entertains through shows featuring his mother, Delilah, and his wife, Erendira, whom he proposed to in Montreal 12 years ago on bended knee on a high wire. Erendira comes from the Flying Vasquez family of trapeze artists and their children — Yanni, Amadaos, and Evita — carry 25 generations of circus performers in their blood. 

Best seat in the house will be on your sofa

If you want to see Nik Wallenda in person, you'll be in a record-breaking crowd that has emergency and police officials working on a plan to keep everyone safe. The walk will be held in the evening — with the gorge all lit up — the perfect setting for a live prime-time TV extravaganza.

While the Canadian side of the falls are lined with hotel towers behind a ribbon of green parkway, rooms are being snapped up fast — speculators were already booking even before the walk date was announced. There is little room for spectators at Goat Island on the U.S. side, where downtown Niagara Falls is still suffering economic woes, with many houses and businesses boarded up and abandoned. In order to get as many people as possible watching at Goat Island, officials were considering charging admission, something that won't happen on the Canadian side.

Before the historic high-wire crossing, Wallenda and his crew will be attaching a rope to a 100-ton clump anchor located near the visitor centre/restaurant building on Goat Island in Niagara Falls, N.Y., while at Table Rock, on the Canadian side in front of the Horseshoe Falls, the rope will be connected to tensioning machinery located on the north side of the visitor centre. The tensioning machinery will pull until the rope has 65,000 pounds of tension. Equipment and rigging preparations will occur in the days leading up to the event, with the passing of the rope over the falls itself to take place the day before the walk.  

The first funabulist to walk across the Niagara gorge was Jean-François Gravelot, known as The Great Blondin, in 1859. He lived to repeat the feat in 1860, the same year The Great Farini (William Leonard Hunt), made his tightrope crossing. Others following in their footsteps did not live to tell the tale.  

There has been tragedy in the Wallenda family, too, with several deaths in front of horrified live audiences, including two in Michigan. Wallenda patriarch Karl plunged to his death in 1978 in Puerto Rico after the wire he was walking on became unstable due to improper rigging. He was 73.  

Practice makes perfect

Nik Wallenda, who places a high priority on safety and fitness, plans to walk into the mist of the Horseshoe Falls and walk out again triumphantly. He will practise in the parking lot beside the Seneca casino complex in New York state on a wire about one foot off the ground, with simulated wind and rain to match the changing weather around the Horseshoe Falls. He is leaving nothing to chance.

Nik’s mother, Delilah, will be among those holding their breath as they watch the historic crossing. “My stomach will be queasy,” she told Macleans magazine recently. But, like her son Nik, she is confident of success. “I know when he’s OK and I know when there’s a little problem. But I also know his ability,” she continued. “He can do it.” — Updated May 2012