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Why Should Nik Wallenda Have All the Fun?

06/18/2012 05:41 EDT | Updated 08/18/2012 05:12 EDT

In these days of bucket lists and former U.S. President George Bush Sr. skydiving into his eighties, the sky seems the limit for retirees.

But this is ridiculous!

Grey beards Peter DeBernardi, 65, of Hamilton and Dave Munday, 75, of Cape Breton Island, say they may plunge over the falls in barrels this year or next in a stunt which has killed five people as the age of daredevils appears ready for rebirth here in the Honeymoon Capital.

They may be joined by young whippersnapper Steven Trotter, 49, a bartender in Freeport, Fla.

Whether DeBernardi and Munday actually shake off Father Time or just happen to be whistling past the graveyard, this is a potential headline-grabber which has tourism operators in glee and authorities in gloom.

No one has tempted the dangerous, 165-foot cataract since Trotter went over in two hot water tanks covered in Kevlar in 1995.

But tight-rope walker Nik Wallenda, of Sarasota, Fla., sparked interest and some furor when he was granted unprecedented permission by New York and Ontario governments for a high wire act over Horseshoe Falls, which he successfully completed on Friday, drawing a massive television audience of more than 10 million.

The Niagara Parks Commission says Wallenda's is a special case involving a skilled professional and it will not allow another stunt for 20 years. That upsets Trotter and Munday, each fined about $30,000 for going over the falls twice apiece in the 1980s and 1990s.

DeBernardi, a former drug addict, went over with friend Jeff Petkovich in a barrel in 1989, to bring awareness to drug abuse. This time, he wants to link his event to the bicentennial of the War of 1812-14. He and Trotter want the parks commission's blessing to take the plunge again, but Munday says he might go ahead without permission.

Trotter is building a new barrel 72 inches in diameter he calls the Trottersphere, which takes designs from four daredevils of the past. The big ball has a shell of carbon fiber with numerous layers of Kevlar and will be insulated with foam to help it bounce if it hits rocks below the falls.

The last time Trotter went over in 1995, he injured his back and spent a week in jail, bailed out from money raised by his friends in Florida bars.

He said at the time it was "a huge rush. . .but an even greater rush is getting away with it -- when authorities and police are trying to stop you."

Now Trotter and his lawyer will appeal to authorities. "I don't want to have to smuggle a barrel into Canada again or build half of it there, and be secretive about it," he said recently. In the past, Trotter has been stopped by Canada Customs, but got his barrel to Horseshoe by going over the border at Vermont (in 1985) and putting another in the upper river off Goat Island on the American side ten years later.

Trotter says he was a wild seed when he first took the plunge at age 22 in two pickle barrels reinforced with fiberglass, balsa wood and nuclear warhead packing. He's making his new ball with help from an engineer and on his safety crew will be two Navy Seals. "I may try some crazy stuff, but I'm huge on safety," he said. "Now I wear glasses and go to bed by midnight. But I want one last shot at that falls. Maybe the third time's a charm. For some reason the falls is calling me back."

Two pet turtles will join him for the voyage.

Munday, a retired diesel mechanic who has recently been getting his thrills from bowling, is the only other person to have gone over the falls twice, in 1985 and 1993. If Trotter does it for the third time, Munday says he will round up his old crew of retirees and put together a new barrel.

Unlike Trotter, who estimates he earned about $100,000 over 10 years appearing in exhibitions or on TV programs, the quiet Munday is no showman and has done stunts for personal satisfaction.

Munday hates the carnival atmosphere at the falls. "I'm just waiting for the elephants and lions and tigers to come out," he said. Yet he believes today's barrels are so high tech and safe, a tourist ride could be built above Horseshoe Falls "and you'd get five hundred people a day going over in a barrel."

But Trotter warns, "Unless the barrel design is right, you're going to die at the falls. It can be unforgiving, like two freight trains roaring together at the bottom."

The only thing never accomplished is going over the rock-studded American Falls. At one time, Munday was planning that in a bullet-proof barrel "until the American Coast Guard hand delivered me a summons, threatening to fine me $50,000 and a jail sentence if I tried."

Munday believes the Wallenda ruling will bring even more daredevils out of the woodwork.

Meanwhile, the 33-year-old Wallenda, who comes from a long line of circus performers of The Flying Wallendas, discourages anyone from taking such a plunge. "Mine was not really a stunt. I'm a professional," he told the media.

The historic age of daredevils at Niagara bloomed with French tightrope walker Blondin in the mid-1800s.

Since 1901, 17 people have gone over the falls in 15 contraptions, from huge rubber balls to jet skis. Five died. In the 1940s and 1950s, such stunts drew crowds of up to 250,000.

Besides the huge television audience on ABC-TV, the Wallenda performance draw an estimated 112,000 spectators to the falls.

Author Michael Clarkson is writing the first in-depth book on Niagara Falls daredevils. He can be reached at Michael.paul.clarkson@gmail.com