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Skywalker petitions to cross Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls Canadian Side 2010.

Ronda Williams

Nik Wallenda walked his first tightrope when he was 2.

He's bicycled 45 metres across a wire suspended 20 storeys high.

He even proposed to his wife on a high wire.

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But the famed funambulist's most hair-raising feat yet may be a political one: persuading g the embattled government agency overseeing Canada's top tourist attraction to relax a century-old ban on stunts and green-light his life-long dream of walking across Niagara Falls.

"I've trained my entire life to do this," he said by phone following a tightrope performance in Branson, Mo. "I've always known we would have to knock on a lot of political doors to push it through. Now it's just a matter of selecting the right doors."

On the U.S. side, those doors have been opening for the seventh-generation descendant of the famed Flying Wallendas circus act. Last month, the New York state legislature approved Mr. Wallenda's plan to walk 670 metres over Niagara Falls in 2011 or 2012, and lawmakers at several other levels have backed the spectacle.

On the Canadian side, it's a different story. While the mayor of Niagara Falls, Ont., came out in favour of Mr. Wallenda's skywalk last week, final assent rests with the Niagara Parks Commission, the government agency formed in 1885 to weed out the swashbuckling barrel jumpers and haywire high-wire acts for which the falls had become known.

Just 16 daredevils have tightroped across the Niagara River Gorge since 1859, but none have tried since 1911, when authorities on both sides of the Falls sought to ban spine-tingling exploits outright.

Since then, the commission has remained as consistent as the Niagara mist. Most recently, in 2007, it thwarted a proposal from Jay Cochrane, a Canadian-born funambulist, who was masterminding his own walk across Niagara Falls. Mr. Cochrane had wrangled approvals from six levels of government on either side of the border only to be turned down by the commission.

"We have the vision of preserving and conserving and celebrating the natural wonder that is Niagara Falls," said Janice Thomson, interim chair of the commission. "Doing something [a tightrope walk]for one day doesn't seem like to us sustainable tourism. It's not a good direction to be going in. It harkens back to those early days when Niagara Falls was a carnival-like atmosphere. We have come so far away from that."

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Now that he's overcome a series of bureaucratic hurdles on the New York side, Mr. Wallenda and his management team are busy preparing a submission to the commission outlining their plans to string a steel wire the circumference of a nickel over Horseshoe Falls.

Ms. Thomson says she's willing to give Mr. Wallenda a fair hearing, but her support is unlikely.

"Personally, it's not something that I favour," she said, while cautioning that she is just one voice among 12 commissioners.

But if ever the agency is to change its stand, now may be the time. It has weathered a barrage of scandals in recent years, culminating in the resignation of its general manager and removal of several provincially appointed commissioners.

The commission now sits at a crossroads, with Queen's Park bureaucrats holding several seats and the entire agency in need of a image change.

"The NPC has always been the stumbling block with these things," said Niagara Falls councillor and former mayor Wayne Thomson. "What's wrong with carnivals? People go to carnivals for enjoyment, for entertainment, for fun – exactly what's missing at the NPC."

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The New York state legislature endorsed Mr. Wallenda's plan with the hope it would spur economic activity on the stagnant U.S. side of the tourist attraction. Mr. Thomson said the Canadian side could use the same boost.

"To miss out on an opportunity to bring hundreds of thousands of people to both sides of the border and stimulate the economy is extremely short-sighted."

Ever the tightrope walker, Mr. Wallenda is using far more diplomatic language. "It's a process," he said of the bureaucratic holdup on the northern side. "We hit up both sides at the same time. It went a little quicker than we expected on the American side. We're now working respectfully on the Canadian side."

Part of his pitch is presenting what he does as a scientifically controlled art form rather than a carnival act, a label he considers "a slap in the face."

His family is best known for the Flying Wallendas show, in which they would form seven-member pyramids on tightropes. They performed during much of the 20th century until three fell to their deaths in 1962.

Mr. Wallenda and his engineers have already visited the site twice to draft a thorough plan for stringing a wire from two cranes situated at the visitor's centre on either side of the border. He expects 50-kilometre-an-hour winds (even though he's trained for gusts 100 kilometres swifter) and a very damp line. He will provide his own helicopter rescue unit, dive team and security to ensure his safety.

"This is not a stunt," he said. "Stunting to me is someone who jumps in a barrel, hops over the Falls and hopes they make it.

"We're different. I've been training for this since I was 2."

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About the Author
National reporter

Patrick previously worked in the Globe's Winnipeg bureau, covering the Prairies and Nunavut, and at Toronto City Hall. He is a National Magazine Award recipient and author of the book Mountie In Mukluks. More

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