Walking the Wire


I wrote what follows the morning after June 15, 2012 in Niagara Falls. It has nothing to do with Nunavut. Or does it? It is a story of inspiration, of having a dream…

This morning I am sitting looking at the power of Niagara Falls from the comfort of my hotel window. I can see the falls and the area where last night I could see the Wallenda tightrope, before I went down to the falls to see in real life and in real time the spectacle of Nik Wallenda walk across the Niagara gorge from the United States to Canada on the wire. This morning, the wire is gone.

The cranes that held it taught have disappeared. The greatest spectacle I have ever seen happened here 12 hours ago. This morning, the impressive array of infrastructure that allowed it to take place is gone. Niagara Falls is once again one of the world’s great natural wonders.

Last night it was a mere prop in a demonstration of something much less natural — man’s triumph over nature, certainly, and I don’t mean the falls itself, but rather the mist, the wind, the dark — but also man’s triumph over himself, over fear and the sheer limits of human endurance.

Nik Wallenda walked the wire, and I was there, part of a crowd estimated to be in excess of 100,000. I could have watched it from my hotel window and simultaneously on television, and I might have learned more facts, about the setup, the history, the training, the preparation.

But it wouldn’t have been the same. I wouldn’t have felt the mist. I wouldn’t have sensed the loneliness of that tiny red-shirted figure silhouetted against the night sky. I wouldn’t have sensed the smallness of mankind in the universe. I wouldn’t have heard the roar of the falls.

And I wouldn’t have heard the roar of the crowd. I had to be at the falls, one in an immense crowd, where I could feel insignificant and humble, and pay homage to Nik Wallenda and his unrelenting dream, his ambition.

In what was certainly a carefully staged act, a Canada Customs agent greeted Nik Wallenda as he stepped off the wire with the standard question asked of visitors who arrive in this country by more conventional means.

What is the purpose of your visit? Nik Wallenda’s answer – to inspire people around the world.

I saw that only later on television. But at the site, as Wallenda walked the wire, I thought back to the time when a young Ontario farm boy, William Hunt, watched the great Blondin walk a tightrope across the river well below the falls in 1859, and thought to himself – I can do that.

William Hunt did do that the following year, and transformed himself into Guillermo Antonio Farini, one of the greatest showmen of all time. (These early funambulists, it should be noted, walked a tightrope of 1,100 feet farther from the lip of the falls, where mist and wind posed far less a danger; Wallenda’s wire, close to the face of the falls, was 1,800 feet.)

And so I wondered — What young person, or how many young people, in tonight’s crowd will be inspired by Nik Wallenda to do something similar, or something very different but equally amazing — to dream the impossible, to imagine, to train, and to realize the ambition that Wallenda may have kindled that night?

Last night’s crowd was alternately strangely hushed and euphorically loud. The crowd roared each time Wallenda passed one of the stabilizers that hung so conspicuously under the wire itself. In between those cheers of appreciation, we were quiet, almost reverent.

Near the middle of the walk, he disappeared periodically into the mist, and the crowd cheered when he reappeared. This was entertainment, tinged with awe, a spiritual event. This was not man against man as in a boxing match; it wasn’t man against nature as in a climb up Everest; this was man against himself, above nature, connected to this earth by only a two-inch thread.

When it was over, the crowd walked away, quiet, thoughtful, still in awe. In a world accustomed to larger than life spectacles, this one was smaller than life, a tiny man on a wire over the roiling Niagara Gorge.

Nik Wallenda’s goal was to inspire people around the world, and in the process to realize his dream. It may be a generation before we know who, and how many, he inspired last night.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to kennharper@hotmail.com.

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