Without a Barrel

Surviving Niagara? No sweat. The real challenge is figuring out what drove Kirk Jones over the edge.

Jun 1, 2004
Outside Magazine

ON A CRISP AFTERNOON last October, Kirk Jones climbed over the steel safety rail at the top of Niagara Falls and contemplated the troubled direction of his life. From his perch, Jones had a clear view of the Niagara River, where a frothing torrent of Class VI rapids roiled for several hundred feet before reaching the precipice beyond. A heavy mist swirled around him, and a dull roar filled his ears.

"I just couldn't let go of that railing," he recalls. "As much as I wanted to, a part of me said, No. No human being has ever done this and lived."

It was, oddly enough, a situation Jones had imagined many times before. "Ever since I was six, I've been fascinated by Niagara Falls," he says. "I wondered whether a human being could go over, without a barrel or a life jacket, and live. I've always thought there must be a way."

Jones had visited the falls a handful of times since childhood; now he was rapidly approaching middle age, without a job, a wife, or a home to call his own. As he puts it, "I was a 40-year-old man with no purpose." This grim realization prompted Jones to round up $300 and convince a friend, 52-year-old Bob Krueger, to make the five-hour drive from Detroit to Niagara Falls, New York. They arrived on October 19 and spent most of Kirk's money at local bars and a strip club before crashing at a cheap motel. The next day, as a skeptical Krueger stood by pointing a video camera, Jones vacillated above the water.

It was a stranger's voice that finally convinced him to go for it, that of an unidentified woman who happened to be taking in the view. "So, what are you going to do—jump?" she called out sarcastically.

"Yes, ma'am, I think I will," Jones replied. Right then, he let go of the railing, dashed down an embankment, and leaped into the current. Moments later, he flew feet first over the brink of Horseshoe Falls (the Canadian side of Niagara), plunging 170 feet into the water below.

"It felt like I was being swallowed by a living organism," says Jones. "I was flying straight down at a tremendous speed. The force was so great, I thought it would rip my head off.

"Then it became dark. My ears popped and I was trapped under 40 feet of water. The water was beating the living hell out of me, and I couldn't get to the surface. I even remember thinking, Well, Niagara, I think you've beaten me. Then I was pushed upward, and the sun hit my face."

The odds of surviving a trip over Niagara Falls are insanely slim. More than 3.6 million gallons of water pours over the falls every minute, flowing at an average rate of 100,000 cubic feet per second—five times the average flow of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Jones probably hit the Maid of the Mist pool, a 150-foot-deep cauldron of undercurrents and eddies, at 25 miles per hour.

"The fall alone could have killed him," says Paul Gromosiak, 61, a New York-based historian who's written eight books about the falls. "It's a small miracle that his body wasn't sucked under the water for several days. Many bodies are in pieces when authorities finally locate them."

Yet Jones emerged at the base of the falls with only two fractured ribs and a couple of bruised vertebrae. He managed to swim to the Canadian shore and stand up before the Niagara Parks Police arrived, demanding to know why he'd jumped. Jones explained his act as a dramatic remedy for boredom and chronic depression. It was a life-or-death test in which he tempted fate: If he died, his unhappiness would be over; if he lived, his life was bound to be charged with new meaning.

THE POLICE CONFISCATED Krueger's camera and escorted Jones, with a throng of reporters in tow, to Ontario's Greater Niagara General Hospital for three days of testing, psychiatric evaluation, and rest. "The media was camped out front the whole time," says Jones, "but the psychiatric ward had lock upon lock upon lock. No one was getting in."

Well, almost no one. Halfway through Jones's stay, a package mysteriously made its way past security. Inside was an Ozzy Osbourne sweatshirt and a note from Diane Sawyer inviting him to share his story on Good Morning America. "Somehow, they found out I was an Ozzy fan," Jones says. "That really impressed me."

Jones accepted Sawyer's offer and appeared on GMA, along with the tabloid-style news show Inside Edition—but not until he'd spent three days in an Ontario jail, where he was charged with criminal mischief and performing an illegal stunt, then released on $1,000 bail. (He pleaded guilty last December and paid fines of about $3,600.) After his television interviews, Jones spent a couple of days sightseeing in New York, compliments of the GMA producers. Then he caught a flight to Portland, Oregon, and quietly receded into the obscurity from which he'd come.

Obviously, Kirk Jones hoped something big would come out of his jump—lasting fame, perhaps, or a place in the record books—and you can see why he got his hopes up. If a professional daredevil like Evel Knievel had announced that he was going over the falls without protection, the stunt would have been globally televised, and people would still be buzzing about it.

All Jones got was an Ozzy sweatshirt and a trip to the local mental hospital. In a way, he did get the new life he wanted, but so far it's been a mixed bag. These days, Jones has a vague role as a "performer" in the Florida-based Toby Tyler Circus. For all practical purposes, he's a carnival act.

"I don't want to call him a human oddity, but he is one," says Philip Dolci, 40, media director at the Toby Tyler Circus. Each year, he explains, the circus recruits "the latest, greatest attractions" from around the world. (Past crowd pleasers include Khan, the eight-foot man from India, and the Wolf Family, Mexican brothers covered from head to toe with hair.) The week after Jones went over the falls, Dolci hired a private detective to track him down and invite him to check out opportunities with the circus. In mid-November, Jones signed a one-year contract, and he began touring with the troupe in January.

Having grown up near Niagara Falls, I appreciated what Jones had done from the outset, and I wondered why he had taken such a colossal risk. After pursuing him on the phone for a few weeks, I finally get a chance to meet him on a warm southern morning in Biloxi, Mississippi, one of the early stops on the Toby Tyler Circus's 11-month, 42-state tour.

Jones doesn't look like much of a showman: He has watery green eyes, thinning brown hair, and a slight double chin speckled with stubble. He slouches when he sits, and when he talks, he mumbles. But when I offer to take him to breakfast at the International House of Pancakes to discuss his trip over the falls, Jones jumps into my car and gushes at the prospect of leaving circus life behind for even a few minutes.

"This is great!" Jones exclaims as we drive past the Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library, with its giant Confederate flag, and the Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum, with its handful of underwhelmed visitors. "This is why I joined the circus—to see the country. So far, all I've seen is a bunch of auditoriums and parking lots."

On some level, Jones sees himself as a happy-go-lucky version of Sir Edmund Hillary. He likes to describe his plunge as an epic leap of faith in which he proved to himself and the world that he was capable of greatness. "Why does a man want to sail around the world alone, or ski to the South Pole?" he asks, as we slide into a booth at IHOP. "What makes a man want to do the impossible? Perhaps it's in man's destiny to try these things."

The comparison is apt, to a degree. Like Hillary and other great 20th-century adventurers, Jones ignored conventional wisdom and dared to challenge the forces of nature. But he can't credit his success to hard-spent years of physical and mental preparation; he can't claim that skill had anything to do with his survival. In essence, Jones played Russian roulette and won. Any bravery he exhibited has been overshadowed by his apparent recklessness, not to mention the unheroic specter of suicide. Is Jones a kind of explorer, or a man in need of counseling? There's a fine line between those two personality profiles, and Jones's makeup seems to involve a little bit of both.

Over pancakes, Jones says his hard times started a few years ago, when he was laid off from a sales position at his parents' gauge-manufacturing business, in Canton, Michigan, 30 miles west of Detroit. More trouble came last September, when Ray and Doris Jones, whom Kirk had lived with for most of his adult life, sold their floundering company and retired—just the two of them—to Portland.

"They were always the backbone of my existence," he says. "When they left for Oregon, I felt an emptiness and a void, and I'm sure that was a contributing factor in my decision to challenge the falls."

The word challenge is foremost in Jones's current explanation of why he did what he did. Gone are any references to dead-end depression; these days, Jones invokes the bright smile and cliché phrases of a motivational speaker. "In life, you don't regret the things that you do; you regret the things that you don't do," he tells me with a wag of his index finger. "Sometimes you have to believe in yourself, even when no one else does. I had a deep inner belief that I could do this."

It's this new, upbeat Kirk Jones that the Toby Tyler Circus hired as a headliner. He's billed as the World's Greatest Stuntman, although his current responsibilities include little more than marching in the opening parade, signing autographs, and answering questions about his jump during the 20-minute intermission.

It's not quite the movie deal or fat book contract he'd hoped for, but Jones isn't complaining: The circus gig comes with a $50,000 salary, a warm place to sleep, and—thanks to some last-minute contract negotiations—all the cherry snow cones he can eat.

"That's my diet," he says. "I eat three or four of them every day."

ROUGHLY 5,000 PEOPLE have died by accident or suicide at Niagara Falls since 1854. Of those, five were attempting stunt descents, riding over the falls in wooden or steel barrels, inner-tube craft, and, in one 1990 case, a kayak. Kirk Jones joins a list of only ten to pull off a stunt and live.

Officially, Jones is the first to survive the falls without the aid of a boat, barrel, or safety device, but some Niagara buffs argue that the title is rightfully owned by Roger Woodward, who survived an accidental trip over the falls 44 years ago, when he was seven, wearing only his clothes and a life jacket. "In my mind, Roger is the first to go over unprotected," Paul Gromosiak says. "That life preserver by itself wasn't enough to save him."

Woodward's story provides a particularly haunting contrast with that of Kirk Jones, for as much as Jones hoped to capitalize on celebrity, Woodward has tried to avoid it. Today, Woodward is a 51-year-old telecommunications executive living a quiet life outside Huntsville, Alabama. But everything got crazy again when Jones's leap put him back on the radar. Within hours, reporters tracked Woodward down and pressed him to talk about his once famous Niagara Falls experience.

It happened on July 9, 1960. Roger and his sister, Deanne, 17, were taking a boat ride on the Upper Niagara River with a 40-year-old family friend named Jim Honeycutt. About an hour into the trip, the boat's engine hit a rock and lost power; the craft was battered by waves and soon capsized. Somehow Deanne swam near shore and was rescued, but Roger and Jim torpedoed over the falls. Jim drowned; his body was found a few days later. Roger was rescued immediately—shivering, with a concussion and a few scratches.

The media response was frenzied. The New York Times published a front-page article with a diagram of Roger's route. Life magazine ran a six-page story titled "Miracle at Niagara." And reporters besieged the Woodwards' Niagara Falls home, a small pink-and-white trailer in a residential park called Sunny Acres Mobile Estates.

Roger's parents refused interview requests politely, then firmly, until they couldn't take it anymore. Late one night in the summer of 1961, they piled into the car and fled 300 miles to Coxsackie, New York, giving the kids stern instructions on the way: To ensure a "normal life" for themselves, the children shouldn't tell anyone where they came from or what happened. Roger and Deanne obeyed—they didn't discuss the accident, even between themselves, for the next 34 years.

Drastic though it was, the Woodwards' plan worked. Roger enjoyed an anonymous, normal boyhood and married his high school sweetheart. He often wondered why he had been the one to survive, while Honeycutt perished, and his questions led him to briefly pursue a career in the Baptist ministry, in the early eighties. He's returned to the falls several times, once with Deanne, but he remains stubborn about keeping a low profile.

"I don't really like all this attention, because I didn't do anything," Woodward told me. "My sister and I were part of a tragic accident, and luckily we survived. But we conquered nothing; we sought to achieve nothing. We just happened to be there."

When I asked how he felt about Jones, Woodward fell silent. "I don't know what his motives were," he said finally. "If he wanted to take his life, then I'm thankful he is alive. I hope he finds the help he needs. But if he's just trying to beat the system and get rich or famous, he's missing something very important."

AFTER BREAKFAST, Jones and I return to the Mississippi Gulf Coast Coliseum, where the circus has set up camp, and sit down at a rickety picnic table with two of his new friends: forty-somethings Patricia White, a tiger trainer, and Pierre Spenle, a golden-maned French elephant trainer.

As we chat and sip coffee, I learn that the circus's management is busy trying to come up with a flashy stunt Jones can perform. Safety is a big issue, especially in light of the legacy of Canadian Karel Soucek, who survived a 1984 plunge over Niagara in a barrel but died in 1985 while reenacting his feat—using a 180-foot-tall platform and a ten-foot-deep pool of water—in Houston's Astrodome.

At the moment, Jones is more concerned with handling the questions that fly during intermissions. Patricia and Pierre offer to help him practice his spiel.

"Tell me why you did it," Pierre demands in a thick French accent.

"I had an inner belief . . ." Jones begins.

"Just tell people you slipped and fell in the river," Patricia suggests.

After a few more minutes of brainstorming, Pierre goes back to his elephants. When Jones heads off to take a shower, I'm left alone with Patricia.

"The whole affair," she says, "would be a lot less awkward if it had been a stunt."

"So you believe he was suicidal?"

"Yes," Patricia says quietly. "Right now, what he needs is a good canned response, because he can't bare his soul every time someone asks why he did it. Kirk hasn't really had a chance to sort things out—and now here he is, at the circus."

That evening, the coliseum fills with parents and children toting flickering glow-in-the-dark sticks. The scent of cotton candy mixes with the stench of elephant dung as hundreds of kids fidget giddily. As the music starts, I grab a seat.

First come the Arabian horses, 12 of them galloping in unison. Next come the acrobats. Finally, during intermission, the ringmaster introduces "the man who defied Niagara Falls!"—and Jones takes the stage, decked out in a cherry-red suit with a sequined cummerbund. As people gather around, Jones nervously fumbles through a stack of tourism brochures.

"It's a great sight," Jones tells a mother who's standing with her young son and daughter. "Come up and see it sometime."

"Were you in a barrel?" the boy asks.

"No," Jones says. "I was the first human being to go over without any protection—just the clothes on my back."

The boy mulls that a second, then says, "You must be the craziest man on earth."

"I wish I could go over Niagara Falls," says the daughter.

"Why did you do it?" a man calls out.

"I had an inner belief that I could challenge the falls and survive," Jones answers.

"I heard it was a suicide attempt," says the man. "That's what they said on TV."

"Well, yes, I know," Jones says awkwardly. "But now, you see, it's really more about my will to survive."

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