Nik Wallenda on being on a cable over the Falls: ’It takes your breath away’

After crossing Niagara Falls last evening, the world’s most famous wire-walker dug deep to describe what he’d experienced
Nik Wallenda walks a 550-metre-long tightrope over the brink of the Niagara Falls in Niagara Falls, Ont., on Friday, June 15, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

If you’ve been to Niagara Falls, chances are you’ve stood mesmerized by the drift of water over that ledge. You know the river’s wild history of barrel riders, inner-tubers and ill-fated tourists. I’ll bet you considered–if only half-consciously–that instant of suspension.

What is it to be at the brink?

This morning, Nik Wallenda has an answer. With a 10-step sprint and a flurry of fist-pumps, the world most famous wire-walker finished crossing the Falls last night where nobody has, and dug deep to describe what he’d experienced.

“Really, it takes your breath away. It’s just unreal,” he said. “It’s unique out there–big surprise. But, normally, I can focus on the cable underneath me. If it moves, my body follows it. But if I looked down at the cable, there was water moving everywhere. If I looked up, there was heavy mist blowing in my face. It was a weird sensation.”

Wallenda, 33, might not be everyone’s cup of tea. He’s driven, uncompromising, frenetic and impatient. Respect, however, is a virtue that runs deep in his family, and I was struck when he offered it up to the geographical wonder he’d just used as a stage. “I’m so honoured,” he said.

Click here to read Charlie’s live coverage of the wire walk.

To be out there last night was to see and feel and smell the open-mouthed lion that is the Falls. I watched from a VIP area at the Table Rock lookout, an improbable guest of the Niagara Parks Commission. With my cellophane slicker, and my ears ringing amid the thunder of the water, I might have been in the centre of a summer storm. The cataract creates its own weather micro-patterns–in this case a gusting, swirling breeze that pushed the spray into the sides of Wallenda’s face. Anyone near the Falls last night got soaked, and the temperature felt well below the 20 degree C beyond the mist.

“The wind was something you could not train for,” Wallenda later said. “It was coming from every which way. And the mist was powerful. It was in my eyes and there were a couple of times that I had to blink so that I could see.”

Indeed, Wallenda added, he couldn’t see any of the estimated 100,000 people arrayed on the Canadian side until he was past the half-way mark. From my position, he materialized through a red halo created by TV lights on the U.S. side. The spectacle was, frankly, dumbfounding. Who in his right mind would do this?

There were no glitches, though Wallenda telegraphed his displeasure at wearing a safety tether, whose clasp rolled along behind him like a pesky child. “Did it affect me? No. I made it across without using it,” he said, smiling. “But every time I crossed over a pendulum, it was something that was on my mind, and I would kind of pause for a minute.”

(In his excellent report, Peter Conradi of Bullet News Niagara, notes TV viewers were treated to Wallenda telling his dad, Terry Troffer: “I just feel like a jackass wearing it.”)

Wallenda says there are other big walks in his future: the Grand Canyon, Machu Picchu. But this was his white whale. Even the great Charles Blondin strung his ropes further down the gorge, due in part to the daunting challenge of stringing over the Horseshoe Falls basin. Blondin didn’t have helicopters or high-grade, stretched-steel cable.

But he didn’t face Wallenda’s administrative hurdles, either. First, the young American needed an exemption from the Niagara Parks Commission’s century-old ban on stunting. That took the better part of six months. Next came the financial hurdles, and you have to think if he had a mulligan, Wallanda might have held out for more from the U.S. TV network broadcasting the walk.

Reports have pegged his take at $500,000, nowhere near enough to cover his $1.3 million in costs. Then again: he was the one selling the TV guys on this idea, not vice versa. And ABC had to sink  $4 million into their coverage. Lights. Trucks. Sat time. Enough choppers to win the Vietnam War. It was zany down there.

He won’t have to again. While the national overnights aren’t out yet, we know 48.5 per cent of televisions in Western New York were tuned ABC’s Channel 7 affiliate in Buffalo at 10:30 p.m., when Wallenda was in the midst of his walk. That’s an area that had been saturated with pre-walk press coverage. Still, it’s a good start.

Janice Thomson, chair of the Niagara Parks Commission, whose legal mandate is to spare the river area just this sort of invasion, and who from the outset made opposition known, put a pleasing face on things. “It’s wonderful seeing so many people in the park,” she said, adding that the walk “captured the imagination of millions and allowed Niagara Parks to showcase its beauty and put our national treasure—the falls—on display for the entire world to see.”

The crowd, meanwhile, seemed to enjoy itself. In addition to the 100K on the Canadian side were about 6,500 on on Goat Island, in the U.S. When Wallenda started his walk, their camera flashes sparkled across the gulf, and that must have been nothing compared to the light show they witnessed when Canadians clapped eyes on Wallenda.

Before the walk, I spoke to one couple in their 70s that had flown up from El Salvador to witness the event, Juana and Rafael Castilla. Rafael is a bit of a daredevil in his own right–loves fast motorcycles and the like–and he had every confidence in Wallenda.

“I saw him on TV rehearsing with the firehoses and everything,” he shrugged. “The guy knows what he’s doing. I think it’s going to go just fine.”

Fine it was, and one for the books. The Wallendas, evidently, were put on this planet to tug us from delight to anguish, from fright to sheer awe.

With this grand feat, Nik Wallenda, the heir to the legacy has served notice they’re back on the job.