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This past Friday, June 15th,  the great Wallenda walked across Niagara Falls.

He is the first person to ever walk across Niagara Falls, but there is an exciting and sometimes tainted history of men and women who have challenged Niagara over the years.

In tribute to Wallenda’s feat, I’ m posting a short history of them that I had written a year ago.

Sit back and Enjoy the trip! 

   Ahhh –  Niagara, nature’s majestic triumph,

                                                             God’s glorious gift to humanity,                                                                                                              

Home of those….

CRAZY MEN AND WOMEN IN TIGHTS!

For strange – unknown reasonsNIAGARA has been (and remains) a mystic magnet, pulling in people who have thoughts of fame and fortune or just plain weird and crazy thoughts about becoming a part of the drama of the mighty cataracts – and some fulfill their dream and remain forever in Niagara’s lore (and depths).

“The pictures we liked the best (meaning those we argued the most about) were of those daredevils who’d done those bad-ass tricks and stunts over the Falls. While those pictures were exciting, they made us feel cheated as well, because the cops didn’t let anyone do cool things like that anymore.” Kevin; ‘Journeys Across Niagara

Beginning in 1827 (see the ‘Pirate’ ship, the buffalo and the loss of innocence”) and right up to the present, people have challenged Niagara.  Whether it’s the surging brink itself, the powerful whirlpool, the steep walls of the gorge above or the raging rapids below – there’s been a steady stream of human fodder offering themselves to the water god in exchange for a moment of glory. Cowabunga!! 

The age of the Niagara stuntmen had begun!

And Niagara would never be the same again as men attempted to shrink Niagara to mere background to their feats of daring and danger. But did they? Since 1827 there are at least 81 documented ‘Niagara Daredevils’ with hundreds of individual feats of bravery – valor or sheer stupidityy, since that time. Have they demeaned and shrunk Niagara?

Let’s take a look at a few of them:

The Jumper

When the mighty ‘pirate’ ship “Michigan” was sent to its destruction over the Horseshoe Falls in 1827, standing in the crowds was a diminutive, young man of 20, named Sam Patch.  Sam was intrigued by the thousands of people come out to witness the massacre of the ‘animal‘ crew and he shaped his destiny to become Niagara’s first stuntman.

On the 17th of October, two years following the ‘Michigan’s‘ destruction, the 22 year old jumped off a platform, 130 feet high, set up below Goat Island, into the base of the Horseshoe Falls.

He survived. (Too bad, if he would have failed perhaps it all would have stopped there and then – not!)

Having to make the same decision all men face (to work for a living or not) Ol’ Sam chose the ‘not‘ and toured the country with his hand out. The cyber-age having not arrived yet, there was a shortage of digital cameras, websites, and IMAX screens, leaving him with only his mouth to promote the mighty leap. In 1829, most people didn’t know what Niagara Falls was yet (actually Niagara wasn’t labeled yet but was the ‘great falls by the City of Falls‘, now there’s some great imagination at work).

Just a month after his jump into Niagara, on November 6, 1829 he attempted a shorter jump of 100 feet from the Genesee Falls in Rochester, New York.

He died.

The Swimmers

Of course there’s the ‘Hermit of Niagara’ – but that’s another story for another day. He wasn’t a daredevil – he was just crazy is all. Let’s jump to…

…Captain Matthew Web – the first person to swim across the English Channel in 1875. Oh, how the English press raved! He could swim anything, anywhere, anytime. Niagara? Phefff – what’s a Niagara?

Born in Shropshire, England in 1848, he was the recipient of a gold medal from the Royal Humane Society of Great Britain for jumping off the steamer “Russia” to save a sailor who had been washed over board.

Webb came to Niagara Falls during the Summer of 1883 boasting to challenge the Niagara River. He had been promised a $2,000 reward if he swam the Niagara River Whirlpool Rapids.

On July 24, 1883 he was rowed from the Maid of the Mist landing and he slipped into the water downstream from the thunderous Falls to begin his swim through the Whirlpool Rapids. He made mighty strokes and showed the form that conquered the English Channel as he swam through the rapids in just two minutes. He truly was a great swimmer.

From there things didn’t go too well. At the vortex of the Whirlpool – he disappeared.

  His body surfaced four days later between Lewiston and Youngstown

The Barrels

“Some of those pictures were of men and women who had gone over the Falls in contraptions they called “barrels” but which usually didn’t look anything like a barrel. Just some old fart standing next to some gizmo called a barrel, staring at the camera with bug eyes in his long underwear like a zombie. Big deal—bo-r-ring.” Kevin; Bridges – a Tale of Niagara

In 1886, Niagara Falls witnessed its first barrel stunt. Carlisle D. Graham, an English cooper (that’s a barrel maker for you generation ‘Xers). Graham had made a five and a half-foot barrel of oaken staves and handmade iron hoops he planned to house himself in for a trip down the rapids.

On Sunday July 11th 1886 Graham began his trip from what is now the Whirlpool Bridge through the great gorge rapids and the whirlpool. Graham stood six feet tall had to stoop over once inside the barrel to allow the water tight lid to be screwed into place (why didn’t he make a six foot barrel?).

The initial trip took 30 minutes. Graham survived but had become extremely ill from the ride.

Carlisle Graham made a second trip on August 19th. Graham survived but sustained serious hearing loss. The next day, James Scott, of Lewiston, New York attempted to swim the rapids and lost his life.

Graham made three more trips through the rapids in a newly designed seven foot long barrel. He nearly suffocated after getting caught in a whirlpool in his last trip.

(those long johns became the rage after his ride – but worn down low – you know “pants on the ground”)

On September 6th 1901, Graham loaned his barrel (was there a waiting line?) to Martha Wagenfuhrer of Buffalo, New York. Miss Wagenfuhrer became the first woman to successfully navigate the rapids and whirlpool alone.

On September 7th 1901, Graham arranged a double performance with friend Maude Willard of Canton, Ohio. Willard would ride the barrel through the rapids to the Whirlpool and then both she and Graham would swim the rest of the way to Lewiston.

Ms. Willard entered the barrel with her pet dog for the journey through the rapids. As the barrel reached the Whirlpool it became stranded for six hours. When recovered, Maude was dead. Her pet dog jumped out of the barrel uninjured. The dog survived the ordeal by putting its nose to the only air hole the barrel had allowing the dog to breathe which resulted in Maude suffocating to death.

(As a side note, in 1886, Carlisle Graham offered $10 to anyone willing to retrieve his barrel from the Whirlpool following his daredevil stunt ride. James Scott accepted the offer. Scott made a practice jump into the water at the Whirlpool. Scott failed to resurface.)

Annie Edison ‘Maude’ Taylor –  Schoolteacher – looking to make some money (teacher salaries were really low back then) had a unique idea to go over the brink of Horseshoe Falls in a barrel.

And so, in October 1901, the 63-year-old school teacher did just that and was the first person to go over the Falls in a barrel (canoes don’t count).

After exiting the barrel, she said, “No one should ever try that again.”

She didn’t and she didn’t make any money neither. While she made some meager dollars posing for photographs and selling pieces of her barrel, her manager took her for everything she owned and left her ‘high and dry’.

Bobby Leach On July 25, 1911, became the second person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. As he went over he was heard singing, “Anything you can do, I can do better….”

Bobby Leach was a circus stuntman in England. He announced his intention of becoming the first person to complete the “triple challenge” of Niagara: (a triple-dog dare)

1.) making a barrel trip through the rapids to the whirlpool,

2.) parachuting from the Upper Suspension Bridge into the  river upstream of the rapids. (Did they invent parachutes before airplanes?)

3) going over the Great Falls in a barrel.

On July 1st 1908, Leach jumped off the Upper Steel Arch Bridge using a parachute – 1 down.

In 1910, Leach returned to Niagara Falls to ride the barrel through the Great Gorge Rapids to the Whirlpool. Leach had attached an anchor to his barrel (?) but it got stuck in the rocks (duh!) and was cut. Leach’s barrel bounced from rock to rock through the rapids before becoming stuck in an eddy in the WhirlpoolWilliam “Red” Hill Sr. (more about him later) risked his life swimming to Leach’s barrel and dragging it into shore. Leach was removed from the barrel unconscious.

Liking the limelight, ‘Red’ Hill climbed into the barrel and rode it through the lower rapids to Queenston.

During that summer, Leach made the successful trip through the Whirlpool Rapids. – 2 down – 1 to go.

Riding inside an eight foot steel drum, on July 25th 1911, Bobby Leach took eighteen minutes to reach the brink of the Horseshoe Falls before going over. The barrel became stuck in the river at the base of the falls before Fred Bender tied a rope around his waist and swam to the barrel and tied a rope to it. Leach was removed from the drum and rushed to the hospital suffering from two broken knee caps and a broken jaw.

He spent six months in the hospital recovering and then went on a publicity for his mighty deed.

In New Zealand (of all places?) he slipped on an orange peel.

Go figure – he died.

THE TIGHTROPE WALKERS

There seemed a special attraction for watching those daring souls venture across the gorge on a thin wire rope. It was a nonstop stream of ‘rope walkers’ doing crazy things over Niagara.

“The good pictures were of those guys who walked across the gorge on tightrope. Of course, they weren’t ropes at all but wires (why didn’t they call them “tightwires”?), and everyone always said those guys walked across Niagara Falls, but I’d never seen a picture of anyone doing that. It was always the gorge they walked across, away from the Falls. No matter, these guys were amazing. They did everything out there on those wires, suspended over the middle of the gorge with that wild river below them.” Kevin, Journeys Across Niagara

(Well, now we know that’s no longer true – on June 15, 2012 Wallenda ‘tightwired’ across Niagara!  Let’s trace his forerunners.

Jean Francois Gravelot, better know as “The Great Blondin” was the most famous of them all. He was born February 28th 1824 in St. Omer, Pas de Calais in Northern France.

Blondin came to Niagara in early 1858. He was obsessed with crossing the Niagara River on a tightrope and on June 30th 1859, he successfully walked over the river. He utilized a 1,100 foot long – 3 inch diameter manila rope stretched from what is now Prospect Park in Niagara Falls, New York to what is now Oakes Garden in Niagara Falls, Ontario.

During the summer of 1859Blondin completed eight more crossings. He crossed carrying his manager, Harry Colcord, on his back.

During the summer of 1860Blondin returned to Niagara for a second successful year of tight rope walking across the Niagara River for hundreds of thousands of sightseers. His acts included pushing a wheelbarrow along as he crossed and cooking breakfast on a stove, lowering it to guests on the Maid of the Mist below.

Thousands jammed the shores and climbed the trees – hoping to see him fall.

He never did.

The crowds actually became despondent and upset with him that he didn’t fall. What’s the matter with him – didn’t he know how to entertain?

Blondin died in 1897 at the age of 73 years.

William Leonard Hunt was born Lockport, New York in 1838. During the early summer of 1860, a young 22 year old Hunt watched intently from the shore of the Niagara Gorge as the Great Blondin made his way across on a wire. Hunt turned to his girlfriend and boasted that he could do that too. She laughed. That night, Hunt gave notice to his employer (his girl friend’s father!) that he was quitting to pursue a career as a rope walker in order to challenge Blondin. His girlfriend immediately broke off their engagement (think daddy had anything to do with that?).

William Hunt changed his name to Signor Guillermo Antonio Farini (couldn’t go wrong now) and he left his home in Port Hope after his father accused him of being a disgrace to his family by becoming a circus performer (“whats the matta for you?”).

He joined the Dan Rice’s floating circus on the Mississippi River and was reunited with his family after buying his father a farm (he made him an offer he couldn’t refuse).

He issued a series of challenges to Blondin but they went unanswered. Blondin was a polished acrobat however ‘Farini’ was a much more powerful performer and a much better businessman. Blondin usually took a collection at the end of each performance while ‘Farini’ marketed and ticketed his performances to ensure financial success.

His first performance at Niagara Falls occurred on August 15th 1860. ‘Farini‘ began the tightrope walk while carrying a balancing pole and an additional coil of rope strapped to his back. When he reached the mid-point he tied the pole to the tightrope and using the coil of rope he carried with him, Farini lowered himself to the deck of the Maid of the Mist boat 200 feet below.

Getting down was relatively easy. On the deck of the boat, he drank a glass of wine before ascending back to the tightrope above. This task was much more demanding than he had anticipated and he was near total exhaustion and nearly fell on several occasions. But he did make it back to the tightrope, and continued to the shoreline. After a brief ten minute rest, he made the return crossing blindfolding and wearing baskets on his feet. He would quickly become known as “The Great Farini”.

Blondin did not try to equal this feat.

In the weeks that followed, Farini matched or surpassed each of Blondin’s performances. He balanced himself on his head, hung from the tightrope by his toes and carried a person across on his back. On September 5th 1860, Farini carried an Irish washer woman across the gorge on his back.

When Blondin took out a stove on the tightrope and cooked an omelette, Farini carried a washtub out on the tightrope and lowered a bucket to the river below for water to wash a dozen handkerchiefs.

Farini had a passion (but still no girlfriend).

Farini performed at Niagara Falls twice each week. Although his acts were more daring and drew larger crowds, he never received the attention and press coverage that Blondin received.

For Farini, tightrope walking was but one of his many interests throughout his life. During his life he was an inventor, an explorer, writer, secret service agent, painter and sculptor. During the American Civil WarFarini was a member of the Secret Service for the Confederate Army.

In 1864, Farini attempted another death defying feat. Wearing a pair of specially made stilts, he waded out into the cascading water just above the American FallsFarini planned to walk to the brink of the Falls on the stilts but one of the legs got caught in a crevice in the riverbed causing it to break. Farini suffered a badly injured leg but was still able to reach Robinson Island which is nearest the Luna Falls. Here he was rescued. Farini left Niagara Falls defeated, deflated and de-dollared.

The Great Farini retired to Canada in 1899 where he took up the art of oil painting.

William Leonard Hunt, aka: The Great Farini died in January of 1929 at the age of 91 years. The Great Farini was one of the worlds greatest tightrope walkers ever, but to this day remains hidden behind the mystique of Blondin.

And of course – let’s not forget Maria…..

“There was one picture that Chuck didn’t like at all. It was another picture of a daredevil walking on a tightrope, just like the others, but that’s where the similarities ended. Two things made this picture different. First, the daredevil had a wooden bucket on each foot. As unbelievable as this way, it was the second difference that outraged Chuck to no end—the daredevil was a girl.” Kevin, ‘Journeys Across Niagara’

Signorina Maria Spelterini (also spelled as  Spelterina) was a buxom, beautiful woman of Italian descent, famous for wearing outrageous costumes. Her stunts included walking with her feet in baskets and performing wearing shackles and chains.

She was the first woman to ever walk cross the Niagara Gorge (as far as I know, she was the only woman too).

Many of her stunts were done at the age of 23, as part of the celebration of the United States Centennial in 1876. Her final crossing was on July 26th 1876.

Her personal life remains a mystery. The date and place of her death are unknown.

Note in the pictures above that in one she is wearing a hat and in the other she is not – obvious proof that she walked across at least twice with buckets on her feet.

Also note the Suspension Bridge in the background, jammed full of people watching. This is the bridge that ‘Lizzie’ and her ‘mammy’ escaped across to the:

lan o’ plenty – where the colored man be free. Mother Moses, ‘Journeys Across Niagara

An exciting, yet relatively unknown feat was done in 1846 involving the famous Maid of the Mist’. The first Maid of the Mist was launched on May 27th 1846 and was not a joy ride but was a ferry, being the only method to cross the border. In 1848, when the first suspension bridge was built, the ferry was no longer required.

What to do? Fold or change?

Change.

The Maid of the Mist ferry boat service became a tourist boat attraction.

And it was so popular, on July 14th 1854, a larger boat, the Maid of the Mist II was launched. It was a single smoke stacked 72 foot long steam propelled paddle wheeler. But alas, in 1861, due to the impending American Civil War, the Maid of the Mist was sold at public auction was sold to a Canadian Company. That is, providing the boat could be delivered to Lake Ontario. The Maid of the Mist would have to be navigated through the Great Gorge Rapids, the Whirlpool and the Lower Rapids prior to delivery.

The thought was mind boggling and terrifying. Who would do it?

On June 6th 1861, 53 year old Captain Joel Robinson along with two deck hands, began the perilous journey. His engineer, James Jones tended the boiler, ensuring maximum power was available. With the shores lined with people come to watch and with a short blast of the whistle, Captain Robinson and crew rode the Maid of the Mist through one of the world’s most wild and dangerous white water rapids.

The first giant wave, threw the men to the deck of the wheel house and ripped the smoke stack from the boat. Engineer Jones was thrown to the floor of the engine room and the boat was now at the mercy of the mountainous waves crashing against and over the tiny boat. Carried by the water at 39 miles per hour through the rock strewn rapids, the Maid was propelled into the Whirlpool. The tranquility of the Whirlpool allowed Captain Robinson to regain control of his boat.

Captain Robinson struggled to break the Maid from the grip of the Whirlpool before challenging the dreaded Devil’s Hole Rapids. The Captain Robinson did the best he could to steer through the channel with his damaged vessel.

Being motivated by a five hundred dollar reward, the Captain and his crew had accomplished something no one had done before and thought impossible. But at a price – the frightening experience caused Captain Robinson to give up a career that he loved. He retired into near seclusion and died two years later at the age of 55 years

Stephen Peer was born in Stamford Township and was 19 years old when Blondin performed his first tight rope walk in Niagara Falls. He signed on to become an assistant to Henry Bellini (another ‘wire walker’) by helping Bellini string the rope across the gorge.

Peer made his first public appearance using Bellini’s equipment but without obtaining Bellini’s consent – not cool.

Bellini tried to stop Peer by trying to cut the rope, with Peer on it.

Bellini was chased out of town.

Peer became famous enough to begin performing under his own billing. But on June 25th 1887Stephen Peer was found dead laying on the bank of the Niagara river directly below his wire cable. It is speculated that Peer tried an unscheduled night crossing, on a dare, after an evening of drinking.

On May 30th 1930, a crowd estimated at twenty-five thousand lined both sides of the Niagara River to witness a spectacular feat performed by legendary river man “Red” Hill.  Born in Niagara Falls, Ontario, now at the age of 42, Hill was going to fulfil his promise to run the Great Gorge Rapids and the Whirlpool from the docks of the Maid of the Mist.

Hill Sr.’s barrel was of steel construction, six feet long and three feet in diameter with a manhole for entry. There were air holes on the sides of the barrel with were plugged with cork to allow them to be opened in an emergency. It was weighted by a steel keel consisting of a section of railroad track.  The barrel was painted bright red with gold lettering with “William Red Hill, Master Hero of Niagara” inscribed on the sides.

On May 30th 1930, Hill climbed into the barrel and set off on his journey. It took one hour and forty minutes caught in the back eddies before the river released his barrel, allowing it to enter the rapids. In ninety seconds he was through and in the whirlpool, where it became stuck in the vortex. It was three and a half hours before his friends were able to free the barrel so he could resume the journey through the final set of rapids.

He suffered a few minor bruises and the next day went back to work driving a taxi.

This was actually Hill’s second trip through the rapids. His first trip occurred in 1910 using the barrel of Bobby Leach. On Memorial Day 1931, he made a third trip using the barrel of George Strathakis, who had died in the barrel while attempting to go over the Falls.

Red Hill Sr. had officially been credited with saving the lives of twenty-eight persons from drowning. He received more lifesaving awards from the Canadian Government than any man before or since.

Red Hill Sr. was the foremost expert in the knowledge of the rivers treacherous tides, undertows, whirlpool and eddies. He had grown up near the gorge and it was his playground. During his lifetime, Red Hill Sr. recovered the bodies of one hundred and seventy-seven persons who had died from accidents or suicides.

Hill Sr. spent the waning years of his life showing off his barrel and selling pictures of himself in a souvenir store. On May 14th 1942, William Red Hill Sr. at the age of 54 years, died of a heart attack.

William “Red” Hill Jr. felt compelled to fill the shoes of his father.

He had helped on most of his fathers twenty-eight rescues. He helped his father in the recovery of 117 of 177 corpse recovered. On his own Red Hill Jr. pulled another 28 dead bodies from the river. He twice made the strenuous and dangerous swim from the base of the American Falls to the Canadian shore and he twice rode the Great Gorge Rapids and Whirlpool in a barrel.

Red Hill Jr. acquired fame but the fortune eluded him. A month after his second ride, a bailiff seized all of his goods, to include the three famous barrels of the Hill family, for sale at a public auction in order to satisfy his creditors.

On the last Saturday of July 1949, Hill Jr. decided it was time to restore the legend and the financial status and so he challenged the Great Gorge Rapids once again in a torpedo shaped steel barrel. The journey garnered little media coverage and no financial gain and Hill Jr. had to be hauled up the gorge in a basket and hospitalized.

But his dream for a memorial to his father weighed heavily and he planned a ride over the Horseshoe Falls.

Oh, how fickle are the winds of fortune! On August 5th 1951, Red Hill Jr., with no funding, built a cheap ‘barrel’ called “the Thing”. It wasn’t a barrel at all, but rather was a contraption of thirteen large heavy duty inner tubes lashed together with canvas webbing. These were encased in a heavy gauge fish netting.

“The Thing” was launched on the Canadian shoreline approximately three miles upstream from the Horseshoe Falls. With Red Hill Jr. inside, ‘the Thing’  rode through the upper rapids and went over the the Horseshoe falls, was caught under the falls and the pressure of the falling water broke it apart.  It was long minutes before pieces of ‘the Thing’ began to surface. There was no sign of Red Hill Jr. Above the thunder of the FallsRed Hill Jr.’s mother, wife and children frantically called out for him.

The vigil lasted through the night.

His body was found in the morning near the Maid of the Mist dock.

Following a public outcry over his death, a special order to the directors of the Niagara Parks Commission was issued to arrest anyone who commits an act of stunting upon the properties of the Niagara Parks. Since that day, no permission has been granted to allow any stunting within the park.

But, of course, that didn’t stop them…they continued to evade the police and challenge Niagara, some over the brink, some running the rapids, some …. well, you take a look….

THE KAYAKER!

There’s few pleasures in life as soothing as a quiet ride in a kayak down a peaceful river with the birds chirping and the fish jumping.

This is the last picture of Jessie Sharp, who chose to ride his kayak on the Niagara River on June 5, 1990, without a helmet or a life vest (he didn’t want to hide his face from the cameras).

On June 5th 1990, the 28 year old bachelor from Ocoee, Tennessee and an experienced kayaker, attempted to ride over the Horseshoe Falls in a twelve foot long, thirty-six pound polyethylene kayak. Having planned the trip for three years, he brought a crew to video tape his journey.

He confidently had made dinner reservations at the Queenston Park Restaurant, as his plan had been to continue riding the Niagara rapids after he successfully went over the Falls.

Sharp was never seen again.

His body was never recovered.

THE SKIER!

On October 1st 1995, Robert Overacker, a 39-year-old man from California, went over the Canadian Horseshoe Falls on a single jet ski. Entering the Niagara River near the Canadian Niagara Power Plant, he started skiing toward the Falls. At the brink of the Falls, Overacker  ignited a rocket propelled parachute that was strapped to his back. His plan was that the rocket would quickly deploy the parachute allowing him to safely land in to river below the Horseshoe Falls where he could be rescued. Overacker did ignite the rocket which deployed the parachute as planned. Unfortunately as the parachute deployed it fell away from Overacker to the ground below. Unknown to Overacker the parachute was not tethered to his body. The parachute was not packed by Overacker prior to the stunt and he was unaware of this fatal error. His step-brother and a friend witnessed this unfolding tragedy as Overacker fell to his death to the water below the Falls.

Robert Overacker was married and had no children. Overacker became the fifteenth person since 1901 to challenge the Falls.

He paid with his life. His body was recovered by staff at the Maid of the Mist.

So – what do you think?

From jumpers to barrel riders – from rope walkers to skiers – Niagara Falls has attracted them all for almost 200 years. Officials say that they recover an average of 20 people per year who chose Niagara Falls to commit suicide, but there are those who choose to go over the Falls in the name of adventure or fame or fortune.

The Niagara daredevils of today can’t compare to those of years gone past. The power of the mighty Falls has been sucked dry – bled away from the brink to power the unending thirst for electricity. Technology has removed the gadgetry of the daredevil and replaced it with scientific analysis and design. The odds of failure have been greatly reduced.

Daredevils can be best summarized as persons who wish to take conscious risks with their lives. It’s all a question of odds. Some risks are so great that the odds of survival are so little that they become suicidal in nature.

It may be a thin line between being a ‘daredevil’ and being ‘suicidal’.  The definition of a daredevil is success.  Fail and you’re suicidal – succeed and you’re a daredevil.

The public doesn’t really care – they want to SEE it and hopefully SEE it FAIL! Most spectators come in the anticipation of a deadly outcome. Successful stunts are actually boring.

Want to know more?

‘Google’: ‘Niagara daredevils’ and you’ll find more than enough information and pictures to fill a scrapbook.

or view more pictures at the Historic Niagara Digital Collection

or visit: Niagarafrontier.com  thunder alley  daredevils

or Read: ‘Niagara Daredevils – Chills and Spills over Niagara Falls ’ by Cheryl MacDonald

or go down and have some ‘dare-deviling’ adventure of your own riding the:

Whirlpool Jet Boat!!

Well – there you have it, all the thrills and chills and kills!

Niagara is a wonder – and it has and always will beckon to the daredevil. 

Are you ready?

Until Next Time:

Embrace Life’s Bridges – For they Define Who You Are

dk Levick

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Recently, I was asked, “Just what is a river rat, anyway?”

In the fly-leaf of ‘Journeys Across Niagara’, I describe myself as growing up on the Upper Niagara River, as a ‘river rat’—(I didn’t think anyone actually read fly-leafs anymore.)

Well, let’s go to the source for the answer—Wikipedia:

“…a large, herbivorous, semiaquatic rodent and the only member of the family Myocastoridae. Originally native to subtropical and temperate South America, it has since been introduced to North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa, primarily by fur ranchers. Although it is still valued for its fur in some regions, its destructive feeding and burrowing behaviors make this invasive species a pest throughout most of its range. There are two commonly used names in the English language for Myocastor coypus. The name “nutria” (or local derivatives such as “nutria- or nutra- rat”) is generally used in North America… In Italy the popular name is “nutria”, but it is also called castorino (“little beaver”), by which its fur is known.”

Quoting from Elvira Woodruff, The Christmas Doll (2000):

“To her horror, she discovered that the rope she was holding was not a rope at all, but a tail. And attached to the tail was a large river rat that scrambled frantically in midair, thrashing to get away.”

Whoa – let’s just wait a minute there fella– ‘a large rodent’?– ‘an invasive pest’? that ain’t a gonna do it.  ‘A semiaquatic rat’ called “little beaver”?   That’s not what I want on my tombstone. What do they know?  Who reads the lousy Wikipedia anyway? And,we all know how shallow internet research is, — don’t we? (see ‘Research-the Writer’s Mantra’).

Let’s check another source – one that understands real people. How about the Urban Dictionary?

 “Someone who either lives or represents El Rio, California. Usually low life wannabe gangsters who frequent Wal-Mart stores and attempt to steal sh_ _ only to be caught and think they are bad ass mofos. They start fights only to run away from it.”

Say what? I’m either a hairy wet rodent or a Wal-Mart wannabe gangsta?

Well—how much can a dictionary that calls itself ‘urban’ know anyway? Bet they never even seen a real river.

Ok – let’s go to the master book of definitions itself – Webster’s Merriam Dictionary.

Nothing. No entry – it’s not in the dictionary.

They’re kidding right? Now, I don’t even exist? Wait – here’s something in the Expanded Webster Merriam (so, I do exist – I’m just rare):

“…one who spends his leisure time on or along a river.”

Ok, that’s getting closer, but, it’s rather bland, isn’t it?

Wait a minute…what do we have here? This looks more like it:

Trademark Search > Trademark Category > Clothing Products > WHAT IS A RIVER RAT? DEFINITION OF A RIVER RAT (RI-VER RAT) N. Mammal, Unique and rare breed. Thrives best on or near water. Usually travels in groups, but may be spotted alone. Capable of consuming mass quantities of adult beverages. Peaceful by nature, respects others, loves life. Heavily concentrated in Louisiana, but can be found worldwide. WARNING: APPROACH WITH CAUTION IF PROVOKED.” Legal Source

Now we’re getting somewhere, or as Betty Bryant wrote in ‘Here Comes the Showboat!’ (1994):

“While other children were learning how to walk, I was learning how to swim, and I knew how to set a trotline, gig a frog, catch a crawfish, and strip the mud vein out of a carp by the time I was four. Dad called me a river rat.”

That a girl, Betty! Ride that boat!

Being a ‘rat’ on the Niagara River (actually it’s not a river at all, but a ‘strait’, see ‘The Niagara River – a Wonder of Creation’) I wasn’t in wonder of the mighty Niagara Falls, located downriver. I feared it greatly, viewing it as a threat—as the ultimate and final judgment for my escapades.  More than once, I found myself fighting to escape the swift current, carrying me to that huge, misty cloud ahead, as various capers went astray. Rather than captivating me, like it did the crowds of  ‘ohhing‘ and ‘ahhing‘ tourists, it scared the living daylights out of me. I’d look downriver and loath that huge cloud on the horizon, knowing that while I tinkered and toyed along the length of the river, it was always there, beckoning and calling to me with open arms to enter its eternal embrace.

Not that I ever did anything stupid, you understand. Things just seemed to happen for no reason of my own. It was the ‘river gods’. They were out to get me. It’s true. I’ll give you an example and you’ll see what I mean. How about an ordinary Bass fishing trip?

Navy Island is a small island that sits off of Grand Island, in the middle of the Niagara River, just a short distance above the brink of the mighty Niagara Falls.

The current along the island is fast, around 8 to 12 miles per hour, picking up speed as it approaches the abyss ahead. It’s also home to one of the best Smallmouth Bass drifts in the entire river (some great Musky fishing too). Get in a boat, shoot to the upper tip of the island, put the motor in neutral and drift the length of the island and you’ll tangle with some of the most beautiful three to five-pound smallies anywhere.  Great fishing – if you have a boat, but make sure your motor is running  – you wouldn’t want to stall here! The picture below shows the downriver end of Grand Island, with Navy Island off to the left and the Falls above it.)

Well, at the time of this fishing trip, I was 16 years wise and did, in fact, have a small, 12 foot aluminum Jon boat with an old, beat up 18 horse outboard on it. It was dinged up pretty bad and wasn’t much as far as boats on the Niagara go, but it worked, and to me it was the Queen Mary luxury liner. Unfortunately, at that time, it was sitting on the bottom of Lake Erie at a place called Sturgeon Point, after a Coast Guard Officer emptied a full clip of .45 hollow point bullets into it (but that’s another story).

Meanwhile, it was the peak of the Smallmouth bite and I was determined not to be left out. I managed to get possession of a 10 foot inflatable rubber raft that had a 3 ½ HP motor on it, a friend used on a small, inland lake. I tested it out – the raft didn’t leak and the motor ran good – so I was going bass fishing.

At daybreak, on the shore of Grand Island, I pumped up the raft with a foot pump, fastened the motor to the mount, loaded up all my gear, and pushed off for Navy Island. It was slow going, cutting across the swift current, to cover the  half mile to the upper tip of Navy Island, but I finally made it and was elated and feeling quite pleased with myself that I was going to get in on the fishing. I cast out a chartreuse Mister Twister, topped off with a live crawfish, and got ready for the action as I started the first drift.

It didn’t happen.

Unless I was trolling for birds, the drift was too fast for the lure to sink as it skipped across the surface. I put on a half ounce drop sinker—no go. One ounce – no good. Two ounces – still not working. The inflated raft, riding on top of the surface, having no hull friction below the waterline, skimmed across the surface – like a surfboard catching a wave at Maui. By now, I’d drifted down to the end of the island and it was time to motor back up to start another drift. Those 3 ½ horses barely moved me against the current, but after enough time to read “Crime and Punishment” a couple of times through, I arrived back at the head of the Island, ready for another drift, and – I had a plan. The slow journey back up the river had given me plenty of time to figure out a solution. I untied the anchor rope from the five-pound mushroom anchor, and strung the rope through the hole of the anchor. I then tied one end of the rope to one side of the back of the raft and the other end to the opposite side, with the anchor riding free in the middle. Ready to start the drift, I tossed the anchor overboard. It quickly sunk and I could feel it bouncing along the bottom of the river as the raft drifted.

It worked great! The dragging anchor slowed the raft down to enable the perfect drift, and if the smallies cooperated, it was going to be a great fishing day!

I had boated (rafted?) a nice three-pounder and was setting the hook on a second one, when all hell broke loose. The anchor snagged the bottom of the river and didn’t bounce – but held fast.  With the raft anchored firm on the river’s bottom while being pushed hard by the current on the river’s surface, the ten-foot raft instantly became a five-foot raft as it buckled in the middle, with the back half going completely underwater – motor and all.With half the raft underwater, and the river claiming the rest, inch by inch, everything that was in – went out – into the river and either sunk or floated, carried off by the current. Tackle box, rods, lunch – everything. When the bait box of crawfish went down, I had a fleeting thought of seeing the largest smallie in Niagara inhaling it and flipping me a “Thank you” with a smirk on its face.

But I was losing the raft fast. In a panic, I began sawing through the anchor rope with my pocket knife. When the last strand finally let go, the back of the raft popped up out of the water, like a jack-in-the-box. Whew—tragedy averted! Everything was gone, but the motor was still mounted on the back of the raft. Thank God!

Yanking on the starter cord, it didn’t start. Again – nothing; and again—and again. Nothing. Not a purr. Not a putt. Not a cough. Water ran out of the housing. Looking around, no boats were anywhere in sight. The shore of Navy Island was only about 70 feet away, but the raft was surfing by it and would soon be past the Island. Again I panicked—once past the Island, there was nothing between me and those thundering cataracts downriver. Looking ahead, I could see that ominous cloud on the horizon and I swear it was grinning.

Holding the rope in one hand, I dove into the river and began swimming for Navy Island. I knew if I didn’t reach the shore before the current carried me past the Island, I’d be fish food. I swam as hard as I could. But swim like I did, I was losing ground. The raft was flying with the current – and was taking me with it. I let go of the rope and swam like the devil for the island (believe me, the devil can swim).

Nothing in my life ever felt as good as when I felt ground under my feet as I was about to past the end of the island.

Pulling myself onto the shore, I sat there, watching the raft skimming along the surface, until I couldn’t see it any more.  After fulfilling my need to scream and kick a bunch of trees and rocks, I started waving and hollering for help. Finally, another fisherman came along (having a real boat), who gave me a ride back to Grand Island.

I never did know what happened to the raft.

So you see, it wasn’t anything on my part that caused me to fear and dislike the Falls – it was those river gods that didn’t like me and were out to get me. You can see that—right?

Later in life, I made amends with the Falls. Upon going down into the gorge below the cataracts, I was in wonder of the great canyon, the awesome rapids and the lush beauty of this glorious place that was right under my nose all these years. I was consumed by the mystery of it. I realized Niagara was actually two rivers, the “Upper” and the “Lower” Niagara, and they were as different as night is from day. One is an open faucet, emptying the ‘Great Lakes’, with a roar and thunder in a cloud of mist. The other is a living monument, craving across the earth, leaving a trail of beauty and attitude.

Much has been written about Niagara over the years, most about the mighty cataracts—little about the Niagara Gorge. This is truly amazing, when one considers the beauty, the challenge and the extensive, exciting history that engulfs the lower river  .          

Regardless of where on Niagara – Upper, Lower or the Cataracts themselves, my heart resides in the River, watching—listening to the “water”. When the time comes for me to depart this life, my ashes will finally fold into those beckoning arms of Niagara, and like the ‘Hermit of Niagara’, I’ll be ‘one with the water‘…

Until Next Time:

Embrace Life’s Bridges – For they Define Who You Are

DK Levick

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Is there anyone in the world – who hasn’t heard of Niagara Falls?

Well – I’m sure there is, in the deepest jungles of Africa and Brazil, and on the remote steppes of Mongolia and the grassy plains of the Yellow River – and on various desert islands across the oceans – there can be found lonely people wandering about who have never heard of Niagara Falls.

But, everyone else walking on the face of the planet, has heard that somewhere, within North America, there exists a magnificent waterfall, called Niagara.  In fact, millions upon millions have seen it, standing in awe at its immense power and majesty.

No – they’re not the tallest or even the most beautiful waterfalls in the world, (actually, there are about 500 waterfalls in the world that are taller than Niagara (Angel Falls in Venezuela is the tallest, at 3,212 feet), but most have little water flowing over them)…

Iguazu Falls – Brazil

…but they are the most known and visited. The combination of height and volume separates Niagara from all the others and makes them the spectacular wonder that they are.

Over 28 million people visit Niagara’s waterfalls each year. Since 1825, the world’s leading statesmen, monarchs, authors, painters, scientists, politicians, celebrities, business leaders and people from all walks, colors and languages have journeyed to stand in awe of the majestic falls and hear them roar their song of glory.

The Niagara River and Niagara Falls have been known outside of North America since the late 17th century, when Father Louis Hennepin, a French priest, at the request of King Louis XIV, accompanied the explorer La Salle, and first witnessed them in 1679. He wrote about his travels in ‘A New Discovery’ of a Vast Country in America (1688). While his painting of the Falls contained some exaggerations and distortions, it was widely circulated in Europe and became the icon of the “new world”.

But, what are the Falls and from where do they draw their strength?

Let’s take a journey down the Niagara River.

(more…)

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When a faded picture from a by-gone era sets in motion a perilous quest…

…five young men not only encounter harrowing danger in the forbidden Niagara Gorge, but must confront the swirling illusions of the world they knew – changing their lives forever.

The day we decided to go down into the gorge of Niagara Falls—to walk on the ice bridge—had started out normal enough but quickly showed itself as anything but normal …

Living in the City of Niagara Falls in the early 1960s, winters were simple for teenagers – like snowball fights and warm-ups at “Ol’ Gordy’s” general store, and arguing over his “wall of pictures.” It’s a ritual—sipping Cokes while studying the old photographs … listening to Ol’ Gordy’s tales..and dreaming about the daredevils of old.

Then, on a frigid February morning, all that changed. An ice ball to Kevin’s face, and a funny looking picture, snatched from Ol’ Gordy’s wall, sets in motion a journey from which they will never recover. Despite Ol’ Gordy’s warnings (or perhaps because of them) that, not only is it extremely dangerous, but against the law, they secretly vow to venture forth and walk on – the ice-bridge of Niagara Falls.

The ice-bridge of Niagara Falls – an aberration of nature—steeped in history – fraught with tragedy – challenged through the ages, by daredevils, bootleggers and tourists alike – lures them from the world they know into the depths of the mysterious Niagara Gorge. As in a time machine, they enter an exhilarating bygone world of impassable rapids, massive frozen sculptors and unassailable walls of ice.

Coming face-to-face with the mighty Falls itself, from the bottom looking up, as it proclaims its dominion over them, they find themselves in a struggle of life and death with a Niagara they never knew existed.

Peeling back time, along the way we encounter others, who had made their own journeys across Niagara in eras gone by. We’re there when the ‘Hermit of Niagara’, living on top of the mighty Falls itself, finds his destiny in becoming one with the water. Years later, we stand in awe on the day Niagara stood still and explore a riverbed never before walked on by man – until the water returns – sealing the mystery of the flute.

We follow the journey of the feather, and witness slavery through the eyes of a runaway slave girl, as she rides the ‘Underground Railroad’ seeking to find the bridge to freedom and paying the fare to ride that train.

We march to the beat of the drum and the chant of the the tom-tom, as nations clash and cultures collide when the journey of a British drummer boy converges with that of a young Iroquois brave at the brutal and bloody “Devil’s Hole” massacre.

‘Journeys across Niagara’ (previously titled: ‘Bridges -a Tale of Niagara’ and recipiant of the Readers Favorite 2011 Silver medal for General Fiction YA), is much more than a simple tale of camaraderie and adventure shared by young men. It a  tale that is rich in both historical fact and fiction, weaving a series of unique historical events, in a twist of mystery and revelation, with a group of 1962 teens, caught up in the complexities of a changing world around them. While each struggles with his own inner demons and angels – together they face the demons and angels of the Niagara Gorge.

It is my hope that you enjoy the journeys, and that you hear the crack of the ice, while feeling the tremor beneath your feet travel up your loins, knowing the mighty Niagara is reaching to claim you as well. ‘Journeys’ is a kaleidoscope of adventure and history, exploring the questions confronting people of all ages and from all times.

The earth is forever, and we’re just visitors—and only for a short time at that. By the time we begin to understand enough about the world to ask the right questions, our visit is over, and someone else is asking the same questions.


Until Next Time:

Embrace Life’s Bridges – For they Define Who You Are

DK Levick

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Hello Friends –

Buried among the hundred plus emails I received yesterday was one that brightened up the room, made this old wrinkled face break into a huge smile and , how do they say it it? – Made my day.

It was an email from Reader’s Favorites, the international book review organization and they were announcing the 2011 award winners.

It’s with a great deal of pleasure, happiness and humility that I can tell you that “Bridges – a Tale of Niagara” has won the Silver Metal for Young Adult General Fiction!

YOUNG ADULT GENERAL FICTION

To share this celebration with you, use this code “Bridgesone” and buy the book on Amazon at a reduced cost.

I want to thank everyone who has help to support ‘Bridges’ and especially all those who have written reviews on Amazon and Goodreads – they are greatly appreciated.

I’ve been working hard on a couple of projects. Will have a new short story “The Man in the Painting” coming out next week on Amazon and Smashwords and another is in the mill.

Mostly, I’ve been working on a new novel that I plan on releasing the first part of by November. Will be something different.

Until Next Time:

Embrace Life’s Bridges – For they Define Who You Are

dk Levick

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This past Friday, June 15th,  the great Wallenda walked across Niagara Falls.

What is the history of those daring men and women who challenged Niagara over the years?

In tribute to Wallenda’s feat, I’m rerunning a post I did a while back about them.

Enjoy! 

   Ahhh –  Niagara, nature’s majestic triumph,

                                                             God’s glorious gift to humanity,                                                                                                              

Home of those….

CRAZY MEN AND WOMEN IN TIGHTS!

For strange – unknown reasons, NIAGARA has been (and remains) a mystic magnet, pulling in people who have thoughts of fame and fortune or just plain weird and crazy thoughts about becoming a part of the drama of the mighty cataracts – and some fulfill their dream and remain forever in Niagara’s lore (and depths).

“The pictures we liked the best (meaning those we argued the most about) were of those daredevils who’d done those bad-ass tricks and stunts over the Falls. While those pictures were exciting, they made us feel cheated as well, because the cops didn’t let anyone do cool things like that anymore.” Kevin; ‘Bridges – a Tale of Niagara’

Beginning in 1827 (see last week’s post “the ‘Pirate’ ship, the buffalo and the loss of innocence”) and right up to the present, people have challenged Niagara.  Whether it’s the surging brink itself, the powerful whirlpool, the steep walls of the gorge above or the raging rapids below – there’s been a steady stream of human fodder offering themselves to the water god in exchange for a moment of glory. Cowabunga!! 

The age of the Niagara stuntmen had begun!

(more…)

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I want to thank everyone who has or is reading ‘Bridges’. It thrills me to know you are enjoying the book and the stories within.

More than one reader has come back asking about the ‘Ice Demon’ the boys ‘encountered’ on their journey down into the Gorge. What was it?  Was it real?  Was it their imagination? What did it mean?

Who among us hasn’t had experiences they can’t explain? Seen something – sensed something – heard something – that wasn’t there?

Who hasn’t had the hair stand up on the back of their necks and a chill run down their spine when a sudden wind blew across their face?

Or felt goose bumps run up and down their arms? Or heard the shuffling of feet outside their door at night – when no one was there?

Or the tolling of a bell where there is no church?

How many times  have  we seen a shadow flicker across the corner of our eyes and upon jerking our heads around – we see nothing?

There are things that happen in life we can’t explain – and we accept them because if we don’t  – we go mad.

The boys seen something – that much I know.  There was something in the ice.

Was it only the sunlight reflecting through the giant ice pillar?   Maybe

Was it only the cold that fused their hands to the ice and kept pieces of their flesh?  Maybe

Was it their imagination, their adrenalin or their heightened sense of awareness that made them feel and sense things they otherwise wouldn’t have?  Maybe – these are plausible explanations, and like the things mentioned earlier, we find plausible explanations – to keep from going mad.

Or was there a living force dwelling inside the ice?  If so – was it a ‘demon’  or an angel?

I don’t know – I only recorded their story.

Like me – you now have their story too – what do you think it was?

I know this: Before they touched the ice, Kevin and Chuck were adversaries with a gulf of turbulent water between them and after they touched the ice,  a  ‘bridge’ crossed that turbulent river changing their relationship from that time on.  Why?  What happened?  I don’t know – maybe you do.

25 years later – Kevin still didn’t know what they touched in the ice that day.

thks

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