In August 2013, local media reported that two kayaks tumbled over the Horseshoe Falls near Table Rock, on the Canadian side. Niagara Parks Police could find no trace of any bodies associated with the incident.
Turns out the weighted kayaks were part of an elaborate, three-year plan by a team of the world’s top extreme kayakers to help Mexico City native Rafa Ortiz decide whether it was possible to achieve his dream of becoming the first kayaker to survive a ride over the mighty cataracts.
“Water is life. It shapes its own path,” Ortiz says in the documentary film “Chasing Niagara,” recently released on iTunes and On Demand.
The film, produced by Red Bull Media House, follows Ortiz and his band of kayaker brothers – including director and extreme kayaking legend Rush Sturges – as they tackle some of North America’s most pristine and demanding waterfalls in the run-up to Niagara.
There’s no way to spoil the ending. If Ortiz had been successful – or died trying – most everyone would know by now. Let’s just say here that it underlines all the factors that those most familiar with Niagara Falls would find unsurprising.
Still, there is marvel in the pursuit of a goal so Icarus-like in proportion – even one that backs off at the brink. “Chasing Niagara” is a spellbinding look at humans tackling Class 5 rapids and successfully plunging down incredible waterfalls. They include those on the Alseseca and Santo Domingo rivers in Mexico, as well as the Sahalie and Palouse falls in the Pacific Northwest.
Ortiz became only the second kayaker to handle Palouse Falls, a 189-foot drop roughly 20 feet higher than the Horseshoe Falls. Tyler Bradt, the first, is among those along on much of Ortiz’s journey toward Niagara.
You can’t help but think of the 2013 documentary “McConkey” as you watch “Chasing Niagara.” That film, also from Red Bull, tracks ski-BASE jumper Shane McConkey and his cohorts through dozens of perilous bungee-cord plunges and spectacular downhill, parachute-aided ski drops, including what, by the end, seems a routine attempt on the Dolomite Mountains in northern Italy. McConkey’s left ski failed to release during the March 2009 drop, giving him too little time to right himself and release his chute, leading to his death, and a mourning wife and young daughter back home in Squaw Valley, Calif.
Sturges and the “Chasing Niagara” film crew station cameras on helicopters and atop helmets worn by each of the kayakers. Extreme kayakers Evan Garcia and Gerd and Aniol Serrasolses also accompany Ortiz on many of his Niagara prep plunges.
All but Ortiz have no interest in risking a ride over the Horseshoe Falls, though Garcia says at one point that Ortiz has learned from everyone else “and become insanely good.”
The 73-minute film, narrated by Ortiz, starts with a close call on the water, followed by old footage of some of the falls daredevils. Ortiz praises Annie Edson Taylor, the first to go over the falls in a barrel, in 1901. Nine others tried successful feats since, while five others plunged to their deaths. The survivors, however, all had shrouded themselves in something protective.
The lone kayaker, Jessie Sharp, perished in 1990 in his attempt to master the falls.
Ortiz seems undaunted.
“My parents thought I was crazy,” he says, “a man with a death wish. It was more than that. ... Something in Niagara called to me.”
Kayak design and manufacturing has advanced since Sharp’s fateful attempt, Ortiz explains in the film, and the plastics used in top-end models now prove much more durable than fiberglass. As he begins to share his dream of chasing Niagara, he says: “Most people just thought I was crazy, a man with a death wish. For me, it’s so much more than that. It’s the realization of a dream and the logical progression of our sport.”
The film builds steam as Ortiz and his crew tackle the Alseseca in Veracruz, near where the young kayaker’s family owns a small coffee bean ranch. The waters twist, turn and curl as they push Ortiz and the others through small crevices and down a 65-foot drop. The ride leaves little room for error.
“The river has shaped who I am,” Ortiz says of this place. Kayaking is an individual sport, he adds, “but you’re only as good as the friends you paddle with.”
The guys in this film? They’re scary good.
As the cataracts get higher, the danger intensifies. In one tantalizing scene, the kayakers take turns going one-by-one over a 60-foot drop in the translucent Aqua Azul River in southern Mexico until Gerd Serrasolses doesn’t resurface at the base. A camera propped to his helmet captures the scene as the terrified crew plucks him from the water, beats his chest and performs CPR. The blades of the chopper filming the scene can be seen above the chaos.
Serrasolses would survive, but the harrowing experience, as well as problems Ortiz has in the pool below Sahalie Falls, on the Columbia River in Washington, propel the narrative of what is to come at Niagara.
By the end of “Chasing Niagara,” you sense that Ortiz has become the leader of this kayaking pack. That he is willing to take risks even his extreme freestyle kayak companions find too extreme. That if anyone can tackle Niagara Falls, he would be the one.
Viewers will watch as Ortiz spends a sleepless night before the scheduled attempt wandering the streets of Niagara Falls, Ont. He says he is worried that he may get charged with a crime and fined up to $10,000 if he succeeds, and that his friends could face charges of criminally negligent homicide or manslaughter if he fails.
He ends up in the darkness, above Table Rock, and takes the most daunting look yet at the base of the Horseshoe Falls. Roughly half of the daytime flow has been drawn off this time of day to fuel the nearby hydroelectric power stations.
“All I could feel in my heart was fear,” he said.
In the end, his fellow extreme kayakers understood. None of them dared even reach this point.
Which makes you wonder at this point of “Chasing Niagara” when the decision to pull the plug on this attempt really took place. Was it the night before or did the cast and crew just go through the motions on that last visit? After all, they were working with a movie budget, and it does make for a more dramatic conclusion.
In the end, no matter. Niagara Falls won.
But “Chasing Niagara” still succeeds in sharing the immense abilities of the extreme athletes among us and the awesome allure, and power, of the natural wonder in our own backyard.
It is not to be toiled with lightly.