Tonight Nik Wallenda tries to become the first person ever to tightrope walk directly over Niagara Falls, braving mists, winds and maybe peregrine falcons on an 1,800-foot crossing 200 feet above the roiling water between the U.S. and Canada.
There are two big questions: whether he'll make it, and whether he'll take off his safety harness en route across Horseshoe Falls.
ABC, which is televising the walk live, has insisted that Wallenda be tethered to the wire, to spare its viewers the sight of someone falling to his death on live TV.
But Wallenda's family - the Flying Wallendas acrobatic troupe - is famous for working without a net or its equivalent. Wallenda says he's only wearing the harness because he needs ABC's financial support for his million-dollar project.
"It feels like I'm cheating," he told USA TODAY.
The 33-year-old daredevil says that such a device invites failure - "If you think you can fall, you're more likely to" - and that it's not what his audience expects: "People don't watch NASCAR just to see a car race."
Some speculate that Wallenda will drop the tether once he's out on the wire. If he makes it safely across, would ABC dare not to pay him for a ratings blockbuster? And if he doesn't, the issue is moot.
"I'm betting he takes it off," New York State Sen. George Maziarz, who co-sponsored legislation to give Wallenda a waiver to the century-old ban on stunting at the falls, told TheBuffalo News. He said be doubted ABC would interrupt its live feed even if Wallenda did take off the harness. With millions watching, "It's gonna add to the drama," Maziarz said.
If Wallenda discards the harness, he will be in trouble, according to Paul Gromosiak, a local historian whose books include one on Niagara Falls daredevils. Although tightrope walkers have crossed the Niagara Gorge near (but not over) the falls dozens of times, the last confirmed crossing was in 1896.
Gromosiak says the proximity of Wallenda's wire to the falls makes his walk far riskier than any other. "The mist could be so thick he won't see his own hands holding his balancing pole," he says. Spectators, he adds, "won't be able to see him fall."
"This walk has never been done before, for good reason," Gromosiak adds. "He's playing with fire. I don't think he's going to make it."
Others are more optimistic, including Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster: "There are a lot of professions that are dangerous. For him, this is risk management."
Gromosiak worries that if Wallenda were to kill himself on television it would be a public relations disaster for the region on the order of President McKinley's assassination in Buffalo in 1901.
But Dyster says he doesn't think the daredevil's demise would create much of an image problem.
The reason? Death is as much a part of Niagara's mystique as the rainbows, the mist and the roar. "One of the things that has attracted people (to the falls) is that it's simultaneously beautiful and terrifying," he says. And it's a place where a lot of people come to end their lives through suicide. "Death is a recurring theme at Niagara Falls."
Dyster says a famous wirewalker's death while pursuing his dream might merely heighten "the mystery of the falls."
Wallenda says he'll be safe. As for the mist, he says he only needs to see a short distance in front as he slowly takes one step after another.
He says that while practicing on a wire in the parking lot of a local gambling casino, he mentally imagined himself over the falls. When crossing the falls, he says, he'll try to imagine himself back in the parking lot.
As for distractions, such as wind gusts or hovering helicopters, he says, "I've trained all my life not to be distracted by distractions." That includes falcons, a family of which nests on the Canadian side of the falls.
Wallenda has expressed concern about the harness tether getting caught on the counterweights that will hang from his 2-inch-thick wire like pendulums to stop it from twisting. He says he'll be able to jettison it if he feels it's endangering him.
But, he told USA TODAY, "I don't see that happening. I've given my word. I have a future with these people (ABC)."
Even without a harness, he says, a stumble or fall need not be fatal, because he can always grab the wire - second nature to a Wallenda - and hang on until help arrives from either end of the wire.
Wallenda is a member of the seventh generation of the Flying Wallendas. His great-grandfather Karl died in fall in 1978 at age 73. Nik is married and has three children.
Tethered or not, Wallenda's crossing sounds boring to one expert, Dominique Jando, a San Francisco-based circus historian and administrator. "A crossing is a crossing," he says of Wallenda's route.
To Jando, the issue is how Wallenda crosses, and what he does on the wire. He says he thinks Wallenda will cross safely, but finds his straightforward plan - one foot in front of the other - uninteresting.
By Rick Hampson, USA TODAY