To stand at the brink of Niagara Falls—sun shining through the transparent water, the mist rising, the roar underneath, a rainbow overhead—is to experience a beauty so humbling that philosophers and painters describe this dizzying, unsettling moment as “the sublime.” While viewing the Falls, not many can suppress the overpowering thought of how the rushing current would easily sweep them away. Over the years not a few have tested this notion, but only a few have survived. Some have plunged in for fame and fortune, and for play, too. Drawing daredevils and spectators, the spectacle at Niagara has long invited the spectacular stunt and risky play.
Those who voluntarily took the plunge in barrels and other contraptions and lived to tell the tale gained wide acclaim for their stunts. Alas, many others who armored themselves only with unchecked confidence, and who buoyed themselves only with hope for fame and fortune, perished as they tried to swim, paddle, and sail over the mighty Niagara.
But it’s not the hapless victims who intrigue me most, it’s the expert tightrope walkers who triangulate risk, skill, and showmanship at Niagara Falls. Nik Wallenda, the most recent high-wire artist to “conquer” Niagara this June 15, descended from a long line of daredevils who performed for many decades as The Flying Wallendas. His excruciatingly slow and careful heel to toe progress across 1500 ft of steel cable suspended above the Niagara Gorge riveted hundreds of thousands standing on the Canadian and American sides of the river and attracted many millions in the global television audience.
Naturally so—many of the klutzy rest of us would have trouble walking a painted line on a flat surface. The very idea of inching more than a quarter mile over a roiling chasm while also contending with strong shifting winds, disorienting mist, and a wet, flexible, oscillating, round cable flirts with the sublime. Yet Wallenda, with his superhuman sense of balance, made the trip look easy. He even ran for the final ten steps in his slipper/gripper moccasins.
For its part the television network sponsor eroded suspense, too, by insisting that prudence dictated that the daredevil wear a harness and safety tether. Prudence? Safety? How do these cautionary instincts fit with death defying stunts? Network executives surely had on their minds the example of Wallenda’s grandfather, Karl Wallenda. In 1978, Karl Wallenda attempted to cross a tightrope between hotel towers in Puerto Rico during a gale. Wallenda’s grandfather first sat to brace himself against the wind, then fell and died. Would we really want the responsible parties to be less vigilant today? Do we want the death-defying feat to really carry the risk of death? Do we really want the horror with the delight?
Contrasting current feeling and sensibilities with those of the past reveals an interesting relation of play, to risk, to showmanship at Niagara Falls. In less civilized and less litigious days—1876 to be precise—the Italian tightrope walker, Maria Spelterini, crossed the Gorge with clunky peach baskets strapped to her feet. Then, to dial up the risk, she made the trip blindfolded. And she finished by crossing again, astonishingly, with her wrists and ankles chained. Whimsy and bravado like this would never survive modern risk management protocols. Nor would another series of events staged 17 years earlier and pitched even more playfully.
A skilled acrobat, The Great Blondin, crossed a tightrope on stilts. He topped this by crossing Niagara while pushing a wheelbarrow before him. And soon bested himself by traversing the Gorge while carrying his fretful manager on his back. The Great Blondin, part athlete and part clown, entertained and stunned the throng by comically manipulating the sublime, balancing risk and comedy, the ordinary and extremity. On one of these trips, for instance, he paused outrageously and with great ceremony, prepared and cooked an omelet, and ate it in style before proceeding on to Canada. A century and a half later, for this bit of outrageous wit, we should still wish him bon apetit!