Next up? The Grand Canyon, daredevil Nik Wallenda tells Maclean’s

Charlie Gillis catches up with the tightrope walker on his way home

Photograph by Cole Garside

Nik Wallenda might be a lot closer to his next big feat on a high-wire than earlier thought.

The tightrope artist told Maclean’s today that he hopes to cross the Grand Canyon “within a year,” suggesting he’s keen to build on Friday’s historic crossing of Niagara Falls with more breathtaking spectacles.

“I’ve got all the permits in place and it looks like the time frame on that might be moving up,” the 33-year-old said shortly before boarding a flight in Buffalo for Branson, Mo., where he’s performing with his family troupe.

Wallenda has long mused about being the first to walk the desert chasm on a high wire, and began the process more than a year ago to obtain permission from the Navajo Nation to cross on reservation land in Arizona (access in Grand Canyon National Park would be much harder to obtain). Twelve months, though, is a much shorter time frame than the three or four years he’d suggested not long after stepping off the wire in Niagara Falls, Ont.

As daunting as the logistical challenges in Niagara were, those in canyon country will be much greater. The area where he hopes to cross has no electricity or paved roads, and is about 80 km from the nearest city, Flagstaff, Ariz. Exactly how wide the canyon will be at the spot he chooses isn’t yet known. But could be as much as double the 550 metres he walked over Niagara Falls.

And that was no calk walk–even before he stepped onto the cable.

Two weeks before the performance, reports surfaced in the U.S. suggesting the event might be cancelled due to non-payment for permits he needed from New York State Parks. Wallenda’s managers were furious, saying they’d lived up to an agreed-upon timetable of payments totalling $225,000 U.S. They said they showed documentation to the Parks department indicating money from ABC, holder of broadcast rights to the walk, had been wired and would be available within days.

Nevertheless, Maclean’s has learned, David Simone, one of Wallenda’s managers with DSW Entertainment, withdrew $75,000 from his personal account in order to pay the bill and squelch the negative publicity.

The challenges on the Canadian side were mild by comparison. After initially resisting Wallenda’s proposal, the Niagara Parks Commission appeared fully on board by the day of the walk, adroitly managing a crowd of about 100,000 arrayed along the Niagara Parkway.

Janice Thomson, the commission’s chair and public face of its early opposition, described the walk as a resounding success that served to showcase the river’s natural beauty with an international television audience. Wallenda met all of his financial deadlines on time, in full, she added.

“He told me at the beginning of the event, ‘I promise you at the end of this we’ll smile at each other, and we’ll be able to give each other a hug,'” Thomson recalled. “He was right. Actually, we hugged three times on Saturday.”

Wallenda, too, wound up with few regrets, citing the safety tether ABC required him to wear as the only fly in the ointment. While he hinted in pre-walk interviews that he might dump the line, Wallenda conceded today doing so could have led to contractual problems with the U.S. network, not to mention accusations that he’d broken his word.

“Of course I wish I didn’t have to wear it, and trust me, I struggled with it,” he said. “I did think about whether I should take it off. But I gave my word and I’m a man of my word. I think it was pretty obvious in the end that I didn’t need it.”

TV viewers were certainly willing to look past it. ABC telecast was America’s most-watched non-sports summertime broadcast in six years, drawing 13.1 million sets of eyes between 10:30 and 11 p.m. The penetration in Canada was even greater. CTV’s two-hour special averaged 3.9 million viewers, peaking at a whopping 6.8 million at 10:41 p.m. That’s a summertime record for non-sports specials.

So Wallenda flew out of Buffalo this afternoon with a smile on his face. While he doesn’t yet know whether he broke even in his $1.3 million Niagara adventure, it’s been an incomparable investment in his venerable—and nicely restored—family name.

“From here on,” he said, “Niagara Falls will be a huge part of who I am.”

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