Take a walk on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls any night this summer and look up in the sky at 7 p.m. Nearly 600 feet above your head, you’ll see a slender figure in a red, white and blue-sequined costume stepping onto a wire the width of your thumb.
At 68, Jay Cochrane seemingly should be working on his short game at the golf courses near his home in Ocala, Fla. Instead, he’s leading a daredevil renaissance in Niagara Falls one step at a time by completing North America’s longest and highest skyscraper-to-skyscraper walk. Not once, but 81 times.
Just before the Civil War, Jean Francois Gravelot -- a French daredevil nicknamed The Great Blondin -- became the first person to walk a tightrope across the Niagara River in the shadow of Niagara Falls. In the years that followed, Blondin developed a can-you-top-this rivalry with an American daredevil, William Leonard Hunt, known as The Great Farini.
On one occasion, Blondin took a stove with him on the wire, cooked an omelet and then lowered himself down a rope to serve it to stunned passengers on the Maid of the Mist boat ride. Farini responded by washing handkerchiefs in a washtub he dragged onto the wire.
The two men inspired dozens of imitators as Niagara become a haven for daredevils. But wire walking eventually became passé, and by the turn of the 20th century, wire walkers had all but disappeared from the Falls. Earlier this summer, Canadian authorities reversed a longtime ban on stunts that was imposed after a daredevil died trying to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel in 1951. This reversal allowed Nik Wallenda to walk a tightrope across the Falls live on ABC.
But while Wallenda had to beg, plead and cajole Canadian authorities to let him cross the falls, Cochrane was invited to walk the wire in Niagara by the Tourism Partnership of Niagara in a bid to stimulate tourism. Each night since July 6, Cochrane walks a tightrope one-quarter mile between the Skylon Tower and the Hilton Fallsview Hotel.
“I’m doing this 81 times, and I’ve only missed two shows so far,” Cochrane said in an interview. “Both due to high winds.”
He maintains that his show, which is being promoted by tourism officials as “The Summer of Skywalkers,” was scheduled before Wallenda received approval to cross the Falls, but it’s clear that he considers himself the world’s pre-eminent tightrope performer.
“I’m glad someone crossed the Falls,” the Sudbury, Ontario, native said, noting that he’s been trying unsuccessfully for 37 years to obtain permission to do so. “He’s a young fellow trying to make a name for himself -- you can’t blame him for that.”
Cochrane’s manager noted that his wire is half the width of Wallenda’s, and while Wallenda wore a tether attached to his wire, at his sponsor’s insistence, Cochrane wears none. Cochrane insists that he’s working on a feat that will be “bigger and better” than crossing the Falls, and intimates that the stunt may involve both he and Wallenda, though he won’t divulge details.
What possible motivation could a 68-year-old man have for risking his life every night? Cochrane insists that he puts his neck on the line to help children. He received $200,000 from the Tourism Partnership of Niagara to defray his expenses, but maintains that 100 percent of the proceeds from his walks, which are scheduled through Sept. 24, will go toward two charities: Tender Wishes, which grants wishes to children with terminal illnesses, and the Boys & Girls Club of Niagara Falls.
Cochrane said that he ran away from home at 14 to join the circus and spent years shoveling manure before learning to perform circus acts. In 1965, a poorly built tower collapsed during a performance, and he had to spend nearly four years recovering from a 90-foot fall onto a concrete floor.
But he persevered and has now been walking on wires for more than 50 years, having made his first foray between two skyscrapers in Toronto in 1970. He claims to hold six world records, including living on a wire in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1981 for 21 days; a 1995 walk 1,340 feet above the Yangtze River that made him an instant celebrity in China; and a 1998 walk, in which he walked blindfolded across an 800-foot-long, 300-foot-high wire strung from a Las Vegas hotel.
Nonetheless, Cochrane says that his Niagara walk might be his most daring feat yet, because of the height, the distance and the fact that he’s doing it 81 times. He says he’s never had a nightmare about falling and scoffs when asked if he ever looks down while on the wire.
“You have to look down to see where you’re going,” he said. “There is no room for error. Look, if I was afraid to fall, I wouldn’t be out there in the first place.”
But for those watching him down below, it can be a harrowing experience.
“We hold our breath until he makes it across,” said Robin Garrett, the CEO of the Tourism Partnership of Niagara.
More than 150 years after Farini and Blondin captured the public’s imagination, Wallenda and Cochrane are ushering in a new era of daredevils at the Falls. Next year will be Cochrane’s last on the wire, but he says he’ll continue to train 26 Chinese acrobats that consider him like a parent.
“I’m going to get tired,” he said. “I’m not going to retire.”