Wallenda will tightrope walk across Niagara Falls after all

'There’s no question the whole world will be watching'

Nik Wallenda, inheritor of the “Flying Wallendas” circus legacy, will get a chance after all to realize his life-long dream of walking a wire over Niagara Falls.

In an abrupt turnabout, the Niagara Parks Commission voted today to negotiate an agreement allowing Wallenda to perform the feat as early as this June. Three months ago, the provincially appointed panel had refused to even hear Wallenda’s proposal, citing a longstanding ban on stunting at the falls.

“I feel like I’m on top of the world,” Wallenda told reporters following the commission meeting at the Whirlpool Golf Course, which is part of the grounds overseen by the NPC. “I’ve done walks that are longer and higher. But this is Niagara Falls. There’s no question the whole world will be watching.”

The about-face appears to have resulted from quiet intervention on the part of Ontario’s tourism minister, Michael Chan, and his parliamentary assistant Kim Craitor, who is the provincial MPP for Niagara Falls.

It also came amid enormous media attention, as news outlets around the globe chronicled Wallenda’s efforts to persuade parks authorities on the Canadian side of the falls to let him cross from his native United States. Far from detracting from the landmark’s natural beauty, he told them, his feat would showcase it, generating as much as $125 million in long-term economic benefits for an area hit hard by the recession.

He quickly won consent from U.S authorities. But from the outset, NPC chair Janice Thomson claimed that such a spectacle would drag the falls back to the bad old days of the mid 19th century, when daredevils and hucksters attracted by the landmark made it an unpleasant place to visit.

The stuntmen of yore remain part of the region’s history, which is celebrated by the commission itself. But the panel has repeatedly rebuffed requests from tightrope artists over the past half century, including a Canadian named Jay Cochrane. Today, the Niagara River and falls are lined with scenic parks and public infrastructure overseen by the NPC.

Thomson acknowledged that the commission may have been hasty last November in brushing off Wallenda, who had was allowed to speak for only 10 minutes. At the urging of Chan and Craitor, she met the 33-year-old in person in January, and came away impressed by his professionalism and his desire to answer the commission’s concerns.

The result was a compromise: while the prohibition on stunting remains, the panel resolved today to consider applications for highwire walks once every 20 years, by way of honouring the exploits of famed tightrope artists like Charles Blondin. Wallenda’s will be the first.

“What we’re attempting to do is control it,” Thomson told reporters after the vote, “to hold this as a one-off event. We don’t want to be dealing with these applications on a monthly basis.” But even she professed excitement about the idea of the scenery around the falls being broadcast internationally as part of Wallenda’s walk: “We’re in business to share the beauty of Niagara Falls with the rest of the world.”

As for Wallenda, his eyes shone as he looked ahead to the challenge, noting that he’ll need clearance from Transport Canada and the Canada Border Services Agency to complete his preparations. He plans to run a two-inch thick cable from Goat Island on the U.S. side of the gorge, to the Table Rock outlook on the Canadian side. It will take about 40 minutes for him to make the 670-metre crossing over the Horseshoe Falls—the main cataract—and he’ll be about 60 metres above the rocks and white water below.

“There’ll be a 30-foot bow in the line at the middle,” he said, “So I’ll be rehearsing on the exact same sort of cable, only closer to the ground.”

Wallenda, who has been shooting a Discovery Channel reality show about his exploits, added that the spectacle will be free to anyone who wants to come to Niagara Falls to see it.

The bigger audience, however, will tune in on TV. “This will broadcast around the world,” he said. “And yes, it will be live.”