Chasing Niagara Falls in a Kayak

Five years ago, pro kayaker Rafa Ortiz set out to paddle Niagara Falls. In doing so, he and his crew would definitely be breaking the law, and someone stood a good chance of dying.

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Jun 30 2016, 7:25pm

Copyright Evan Garcia

In 2011, pro kayaker Rafa Ortiz set himself an ambitious, maybe crazy goal: to paddle off Niagara Falls, a 150-foot drop. The last person to try it in a kayak, Jessie Sharp, went over the lip in 1990 and was never seen again. Only his boat was recovered, several hundred yards downstream of the falls, and it reportedly had a dent in it from an impact with rocks.

Two decades later, the rocks were what most troubled Ortiz. After three years of training for the plunge and studying the falls, he was convinced that the crumbly sedimentary rocks of the Niagara Escarpment meant he would be aiming for a shallow landing pool, as opposed to the deep plunge pools formed by more consolidated rock like granite.

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"Worst-case scenario was that I dropped 150 feet and hit a rock, which would have been certain death," Ortiz said. "I had this information telling me that it was pretty deep at the line where I wanted to go over, and people had swam over it and survived, but still—I could see the rocks right there."

After Annie Edson Taylor became the first daredevil to take the plunge over Niagara in 1901—she did it in a barrel and survived—13 more people, most of them in some kind of vessel or craft and a few of them swimmers, have attempted to follow in her wake. Five of them died. Along with the unreliable depth of the plunge pool, the volume of water—six million cubic feet per minute—makes the falls highly dangerous. Going over the falls in any way is also illegal in both the U.S. and Canada, whose border Niagara straddles. Ortiz would be running the falls illegally, without permission from either U.S. or Canadian authorities.

A feature-length Red Bull film called Chasing Niagara, to be released tomorrow on iTunes, follows Ortiz in his pursuit of the Niagara plunge. It's filmmaker and fellow pro kayaker Rush Sturges's eighth action-sports film. This one, though, didn't work out in a way that anyone foresaw.

"I wanted to make a film that was a big story," Sturges said. "That was my goal from the beginning, but it certainly didn't turn out like the story I set out to create, especially since I had a hero ending in mind."

To prepare for Niagara, Ortiz and the crew made several trips to run waterfalls in Mexico and the Pacific Northwest. They practiced rescue procedures using their Zodiac boat on the Ottawa River, and they visited Niagara Falls themselves several times. Ortiz had been training hard, and Sturges, who is close friends with Ortiz, thought he was physically fit enough to run the falls, had mastered the technical skills to pull it off, and was mentally committed to doing so.

But as the big day approached, things started to unravel.

"The whole last month was absolutely insane," Ortiz said. "There was one point when I was hiding in a cabin in Canada and the cops were looking for me, and I was just totally at a low. Everything just fell apart, from the people involved to the legal side that got super dark to everything—it all just fell apart."

One month before Ortiz was going to paddle off the falls, the crew sent two weighted kayaks over Niagara. They stashed the kayaks near the river the night before, and at 11 AM the next day, they pushed the two boats into the current. Both survived in good shape, according to Ortiz, but the maneuver also put law enforcement on high alert.

"It was good info for us," Ortiz said, "but it also made the cops be like, what are these kayaks all about? Who are these kayakers?"

He then heard that law enforcement was questioning anyone visiting the falls with kayaks on their vehicles. According to Ortiz, the authorities were aware that a Mexican paddler was in town (Ortiz was born in Mexico) and that he was planning to run the falls. He's not sure how they learned of the scheme but points to license plate readers and cameras as likely sources of their information.

Soon running the falls became less like a typical action-sports film and more like Mission Impossible. Sturges helped choreograph the plan. Under the cover of night, they would stash the kayak above the falls and the Zodiac rescue boat below them. Two of Ortiz's friends, paddlers Matt LeBlanc and Blake Mahoney, would be in the Zodiac to rescue Ortiz if necessary.

"We were poised to have the Zodiac in the river, and then Rafa would basically run across the parking lot, jump in his boat, and rally it," Sturges said. "They'd have a hard time catching us in the act, but the main thing was getting caught in the setup.... We kept saying that we couldn't look any more like drug traffickers."

The crew had already considered some of the stunt's legal ramifications; Ortiz assumed that at the very least they would get banned from Canada for life. The penalty for going over the falls can include jail time and a maximum fine of $10,000. But the more the crew considered the worse-case scenarios—namely, Ortiz or someone else dying in the water—the more they realized that the stakes included possible charges of manslaughter and criminal negligence. They also reckoned that Canadian and U.S. law enforcement would want to make examples of the athletes.

"A week before, I told them, 'I talked to a lawyer friend and now I have all this new information, and it sounds like if I die, you guys could go to jail for a lifetime,'" Ortiz said. "And you know what they said? They were like, 'Fuck it, man, we're in this and we're here for you, and we're going to take it to that next level because we believe in this.'"

The crew in Chiapas, Mexico. Ortiz sits in the van window. Copyright Marcos Ferro

Both Ortiz and Sturges say that three years of the paddling trips, the practice waterfall drops, and the stress of planning took its toll.

"You can see it physically in the film: we look older by the end," Sturges said. "I think for Rafa, there was a lot of growth in his character. He's a more calculating, wiser paddler now than he was five years ago."

During the final month of preparation, the adrenaline rush of breaking the law was replaced by an introspective reckoning that made Ortiz question his motivations. He became less certain that the accomplishment of successfully kayaking the falls outweighed the potential downside of nearly every other outcome, once in the water.

"The hardest part was holding it together emotionally," Ortiz said. "When we got to Niagara the day before, the falls were just really dark and crazy. We had put so much pressure on ourselves up until then that it was almost like it wasn't healthy any more."

The film climaxes in a hotel room. The news breaks hard over the crew. It's a somber scene.

"It was a huge shock for me and for the whole crew," Sturges said. "Maybe a year or six months before, when we kind of had doubts or when Rafa was struggling, [it wouldn't have been so surprising] because there were definitely down points you see in the film when we're frustrated. But to bail on it at the falls was a shock."

Sturges spent a year sitting on the footage he had gathered. Everyone was hungover from the experience, he says. Sturges told Red Bull, which had given him the money and creative freedom to do as he pleased, that he didn't have a feature film, and that he could probably come up with three short video segments.

But with some distance from the project, it became clear to Sturges that there was a story there after all. It was a story about walking away from death, about choosing not to put it all on the line. Red Bull supported the idea, and Sturges cut the film. The response from the kayaking community after a few initial screenings has been overwhelmingly positive.

Ortiz is as surprised as anyone at how things worked out: "I never would have imagined that as a professional athlete this would be my message."