Down to the wire with Nik Wallenda

Charlie Gillis makes way for the Falls where he’ll be live-blogging a Flying Wallenda’s walk from one side to the other

Photograph by Cole Garside

Chalk one up for the forces of fun.

As of this morning, a 550-metre steel cable runs the breadth of the Niagara Falls, and Nik Wallenda is limbering up for his long-anticipated walk. I’ll be there, filing updates through Friday, and live-blogging the event itself. Don’t leave this to ABC. Join us as you watch.

If Wallenda succeeds, it will go down as a bureaucratic, as well as physical, feat. He and his agent, Winston Simone, have persuaded—in rough order—the New York legislature; the City of Niagara Falls, Ont.; the City of Niagara Falls, N.Y.; the Niagara Falls Parks Commission; the New York State Parks Police; the Niagara Falls, Ont. police; the Niagara Parks police service; the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; the Canada Border Services Agency and Transport Canada to get access to the gorge and permission to cross from the United States to Canada.

That’s not an exhaustive list. You could throw on the Ontario Ministry of Tourism & Culture, because the parks commission needed a little prodding from Queen’s Park to waive its century-old prohibition on stunting at the Falls. And with four days to go before the big night, Wallenda’s team learned that the helicopter company they’d hired to fly a rope across the gorge lacked a necessary dispensation under NAFTA. They needed that rope to pull the cable across.

Yes, that’s NAFTA, as in the North American Free Trade Agreement.

You can see, then, why Wallenda, 33, was sounding a bit chippy by the time he started to rehearse. Indeed, he’d all but lost his patience when ABC, which begins its live special at 9 p.m. (he’ll hit the wire around 10:25 p.m.), demanded that he wear a tether that would keep him from plunging into the chasm should he slip off the wire. He’s been griping about it ever since, suggesting not-so-subtly during the past few days he’ll ditch the cord. Personally, I can’t see him flouting a network paying him a rumoured $500,000. But that’s the showman in Wallenda: he knows how to make you watch.

Back when he went public with this idea, Maclean’s paid Wallenda a visit in southern Missouri, where he and his family troupe were performing at a theme park, and watching them push home for me why this seemed like a great idea—or at least, an idea whose time had come. The act is truly an anachronism, a kind of live-action artifact that makes you long for the days before Bachelorette and Call of Duty. Back when real people risked their actual well-being so the rest of us could feel a bit more alive.

To me, that’s what the Falls’ history of dare-devilling means. Yes, the scene had grown lurid by the mid-19th century. But the river’s guardians did a good job fixing that and—not to go all Seabiscuit here—but things have gotten tough. Not just in Niagara, but right across the eastern industrial belt. Tourism’s down. Jobs are scarce. The economy sucks.

If there was ever a moment to resurrect the Falls lost grandeur, to unashamedly sell the spot with a brash act of showmanship, this is it. Slide to the edge of your seats, folks. A Flying Wallenda is about to step on the wire.

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