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Having no fear of Mighty Niagara Wallenda tradition of daredevilry aims to make history with wire-walk across falls

Nik Wallenda already is on a tightrope when it comes to convincing those who must grant permission for his high-wire walk above the falls.

The stuntman is here this week meeting with officials on both sides of the border to outline his plans, scope out the terrain and address their safety concerns.

He got a warm reception Wednesday on the U.S. side but may meet some resistance in Canada today when he meets with parks officials there.

If all goes well, Wallenda hopes to attempt his feat next spring or summer.

Wallenda isn't worried. He predicts not only that the feat will be accomplished, but that it could be the greatest stunt in his family's long and storied daredevil history.

"I am a high achiever," Wallenda said. "I always want to do it better. To me, walking over the falls that's where it's at."

If the stunt does occur, Wallenda would walk closer to the falls than any other wire-walker in history and would be the first person to wire-walk across the Niagara Gorge in 118 years. He plans to walk about 100 yards in front of the Horseshoe Falls, mist in his face, without a harness.

He says he isn't afraid.

"Not at all," Wallenda said in an interview with The Buffalo News. "It's very peaceful, actually, out on the wire, because it's just me and myself. All the troubles of the world go away, because it's just me and that wire."

Wallenda, 32, said he'll take wind into consideration, though he regularly trains in a facility that simulates a 90-mph gust.

He plans to walk 1,800 feet across the gorge on a 2-inch cable that would be held up by his own temporary, free-standing anchors.

He described to The News exactly where he would likely launch from -- a spot aligned with the north corner of the Top of the Falls restaurant on Goat Island. Wednesday, that path was shrouded in mist, something Wallenda said helps the grips on his wire-walking shoes.

"It's my dream just to disappear in the mist and come out the other end," he said.

But what happens if he does fall?

"We're trained our entire lives ever since I was little -- even at 2 years old, when I could barely talk -- that when I get off of a wire, I grab the wire. It's just second nature. I've always trained to grab the wire," he said at an afternoon news conference.

Wallenda said that if he fell and grabbed the wire, his private helicopter pilot would fly over to him in 30 seconds and lower him a harness. The pilot would then take him to safety.

"Falling is not an option," State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, joked at the news conference, which also was attended by fellow Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, R-Buffalo, and Assemblyman John D. Ceretto, R-Lewiston.

Maziarz, along with Assemblyman Dennis H. Gabryszak, D-Cheektowaga, sponsored a bill that passed overwhelmingly in June to allow Wallenda to perform the stunt. Stunting was banned in the late 1800s by Canadian authorities and later by American lawmakers.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo must sign the bill into law, and Maziarz said the governor would review Wallenda's plans in the next few weeks.

Support on the Canadian side hasn't come as easily.

Niagara Falls, Ont., Mayor James Diodati has endorsed the plan, but Canadian parks officials have been publicly skeptical of any stunting attempts. Niagara Parks Commission spokesman Tony Baldinelli previously said the commission had "a history of discouraging this type of activity."

"We never give up. That's the way we live life," Wallenda said of his family. "Everything I do, there's always an obstacle in the way. It's a process, and we will open the doors a little bit wider, and hopefully [move along] that process."

A local historian who penned a book about death-defying stunts above the falls offered insight into why skeptics might oppose the plan.

"Are the people coming to see a great artist, or are they anticipating his demise?" asked Paul Gromosiak. "I wonder."

Gromosiak, who lives on the American side of the falls, said that such stunts raise safety concerns for first responders and have created copycat attempts by children. He said he also believes that daredevils cheapen the natural value of the falls.

"Does he contribute to the natural wonder or does he take it away? I think he takes it away," Gromosiak said.

Maziarz and Ceretto said Wallenda addressed some of those concerns Wednesday at a meeting with New York State parks officials and local first responders.

"I think the police and fire departments that were here today left with a much more positive impression," Maziarz said. "The proposal he put together was extremely comprehensive. The fire department seemed to really understand what he was doing."

Wallenda would exclusively use his private security and support staff to maintain his safety. Parks officials might control crowds, Maziarz said. Wallenda will cover any event costs, and the wire-walk would air on his Discovery Channel show, "Life on a Wire."

What are the chances the stunt actually happens?

"We're further along [than we were]," Maziarz said. "We're better than 50-50 at this point."

If he walks across, Wallenda won't be the first.

According to Gromosiak's book, "Daring Niagara: 50 Death-Defying Stunts at the Falls," and the Niagara Falls Public Library's local history department, about seven others have walked across, though many were at a point farther downstream than Wallenda's proposed spot.

The first wire-walker was Jean Francois Gravelet, also known as the "Great Blondin," who first crossed the falls in 1859. To make the feat more difficult, he walked across with his manager, Harry Colcord, across his back.

A string of attempts followed before and after an 1887 Canadian stunting ban. The ban was enacted because of the death of Stephen Peere, who wire-walked successfully several times before he was found dead at the foot of the gorge. Some said he tried to walk the wire at night wearing the hard-soled street shoes that he had on when he was found dead; others said he was pushed off the edge by those who wagered against him.

Two men found a way around the Canadian ban. The last was 22-year-old Clifford Calverly, who crossed in 1892 and again in 1893, the latter time in a record 32.4 seconds. Accounts said he even stopped to read a newspaper on his way across.

Told of these stunts, and asked whether he has anything special planned, Wallenda said he might make a phone call when he got halfway across. He wouldn't say whom he would call, although Maziarz suggested that Cuomo might be a good candidate.

Wallenda said his reasons for attempting the feat would be simple.

"This is my passion," Wallenda said. "I do it for my great-grandfather [Karl], who's looking down on me right now. I do it for the audience. I do it for you guys. I do it for the public.

"This is about carrying on a legacy and doing something I love and have a passion for."

email: cspecht@buffnews.com