NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. - The Wallenda family likes challenges.
Nik Wallenda will have plenty of them Friday night when he attempts what nobody has done before: A high wire walk directly over the precipice at Niagara Falls and 190 feet above the churning torrent below. Though tethered to the wire to prevent falling to nearly certain death, the seventh-generation funambulist will still have to contend with wind, water and an unfamiliar wire when he tries to walk from the U.S. to Canada.
A festive crowd started to gather at the famed falls Friday afternoon as the daredevil prepared for his walk. Conditions were good leading up to the nationally televised stunt scheduled for Friday night. When he leaves terra firma about 10:15 p.m., the temperature should be in the low 60s with winds under 10 mph from the east, roughly at his back.
Wallenda will make the walk with one safeguard: A tether is designed to keep him out of the water if he fell, but not on the wire. A C-shaped clamp will trail behind him on the walk, designed to allow free passage over the pendulum anchors. If he slips, he'll dangle by his waist about 8 feet below the wire to wait for rescue.
ABC, which will televise the walk, insisted on it. Wallenda said he only agreed because he was not willing to lose the chance and needed ABC's sponsorship to help offset some of the $1.3 million cost of the spectacle.
Cars lined the road into Goat Island as people jockeyed for good spots to watch Wallenda's 1,800-foot walk on a 2-inch wire through the mist rising from the falls.
The seventh-generation member of the famed Flying Wallendas has long dreamed of pulling off the feat that had never been attempted. An estimated 125,000 people were expected on the Canadian side and 4,000 on the American side.
For the 33-year-old father of three, the Niagara Falls walk is unlike anything he's ever done. Because it's over water, the 2-inch wire doesn't have the usual stabilizer cables to keep it from swinging. Pendulum anchors are designed to keep it from twisting under the elkskin-soled shoes designed by his mother.
The Wallendas trace their roots to 1780 Austria-Hungary, when ancestors traveled as a band of acrobats, aerialists, jugglers, animal trainers and trapeze artists. In 1928, the family gave its inaugural performance at Madison Square Garden and earned a 15-minute standing ovation from an astounded audience, who marveled at them performing without a safety net.
And the clan has been touched by tragedy, notably in 1978 when patriarch Karl Wallenda, Nik's great-grandfather, fell to his death during a stunt in Puerto Rico.
About a dozen other tightrope artists have crossed the Niagara Gorge downstream, dating to Jean Francois Gravelet, aka The Great Blondin, in 1859. But no one has walked directly over the falls and authorities haven't allowed any tightrope acts in the area since 1896. It took Wallenda two years to persuade U.S. and Canadian authorities to allow it and many civic leaders hoped to use the publicity to jumpstart the region's struggling economy, particularly on the U.S. side of the falls.