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As part of his training for his historic tightrope walk over Niagara Falls this Friday, which will be the first in more than 100 years, Nik Wallenda takes a practice trip across a high wire in the rain. (DAVID DUPREY/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
As part of his training for his historic tightrope walk over Niagara Falls this Friday, which will be the first in more than 100 years, Nik Wallenda takes a practice trip across a high wire in the rain. (DAVID DUPREY/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Nik Wallenda: The age of derring-do is far from over Add to ...

His rival, Signor (The Great) Farini (alias Willie Hunt), did everything Blondin did at Niagara and then some, including carrying an Empire hand-cranked wringer-washing machine on his back to the middle of the tightrope, where he then balanced it and rinsed some smalls, to the swooning delight of his many female fans.

But public adoration is quixotic, and Farini’s fame never caught up to Blondin’s.

In fact, until Mr. Wallenda turned up, Blondin’s only rival as an outdoor tightrope showman in the ensuing century-plus has been Philippe Petit, the funambulist who trapped the world’s imagination by illegally but ever so joyfully walking a tightrope between the twin towers of the World Trade Center one Tuesday morning in August, 1974, an exploit immortalized in the thrilling 2008 documentary Man on Wire.

(Mr. Petit also repeated Blondin’s feat across the Niagara, but the towers were his lifelong dream.)

The last person allowed across the Niagara on a tightrope (and also, at 21, the youngest) was James Hardy in 1896. By then, the commercial action around Niagara Falls was getting out of hand, and the Niagara Parks Commission was formed to protect the parkland on the Canadian side.

The Commission put an end to “stunting” specifically in order “to preserve the Falls as a place of respite for hard-working people through the week, at no charge,” as Janice Thomson, the commission’s current chair, puts it. The entire impulse was anti-commercial, she says, “part of a back-to-the land movement.”

So when Mr. Wallenda waltzed up with his proposal last fall, the commission turned him down, just as it turned down everyone else for 100 years.

“We didn’t even take into account his – if you want to call it that – circus pedigree,” Ms. Thomson admits.

Mr. Wallenda then bounced over to Michael Chan, Ontario’s Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport, this time armed with a study predicting that his waltz over the falls would produce immediate economic benefits of $20-million, as well as $122-million over five years, 243 new jobs, 125,000 visitors and half a billion TV viewers.

There’s no hard evidence in the report: As a piece of promotional hoo-ha, it ranks with the finest Niagara Falls snow globes.

Still, Ms. Thomson admits, “That’s a lot of exposure for the area and the natural beauty of the park.”

The result was a compromise: Once a generation (every 20 years), the commission will now allow a professional stunter (“so it will be professionally done, and not a game of chance”) to take on Niagara Falls – as a way of “paying homage to the origins of the Parks Commission” with its roots in stunting.

In the months since Mr. Wallenda got the nod in February, the commission has received at least three new applications to go over the Falls – two from people who want to go over in barrels and one from a guy who wants to span them on a rocket-propelled bike.

People are idiots. The Falls, on the other hand, as Ms. Thomson likes to point out, are sublime and unchanging.

Is it as hard as it looks to walk on a wire? Yes. Your correspondent tried it twice, once on a slackline – a two-inch band of nylon webbing that bends and sways under the weight of the walker – and once on a much less mobile half-inch metal “tightwire.”

The slackwire – all the rage these days, especially with rock climbers – was set up in a climbing gym. Real circus artists such as Molly Saudek, an American who trained at Montreal’s National Circus School and is now a renowned tightwire acrobat in France (see her do her stuff at youtu.be/FU5r2cn8n2I) don’t even think of slacklines as a circus discipline: “It’s a sport.”

Watching someone like climber Dean Potter wobble untethered across a slackline off the cliffs of El Capitan is massively impressive (youtu.be/IsagruTOXA8) – but all he has to do is get across.

A tightwire, on the other hand, stands still, and thus demands grace and art and tricks, which is where the hard part comes in.

I tried the slackwire for half an hour and, sweating like two pigs, was finally able to take three steps before falling off, almost spraining my ankle in the process. The wire was a foot off the ground. It was not a manly display.

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