Niagara and the Danger of Drift
On July 9, 1960, a middle-aged resident of Buffalo, New York named James Honeycutt took the 17-year-old daughter and 7-year-old-son of a coworker for what he assumed would be a pleasant, scenic boat ride on the Niagara River. The children’s mother wasn’t entirely comfortable with the idea, but Mr. Honeycutt was her husband’s boss, so what could she do? She merely insisted that her children wear life jackets. As he had done many times before, Honeycutt pulled his 12-foot aluminum skiff, which was powered by a 7.5 horsepower Evinrude outboard motor, five miles upriver from the Falls and put in at Grand Island Dock in Beaver Island State Park. The children donned their life preservers and the three of them putted out into the river. Then, for reasons that will never be known, James Honeycutt shut off his motor. Maybe he wanted to enjoy the scenery in peace and quiet, or perhaps he wanted to chat with the children without being drowned out by the motor’s roar. Or it could be that he saw no point in expending valuable fuel to take them where Mother Nature would certainly carry them for free.
The three talked and drifted for about an hour, and eventually floated under the North Grand Island Bridge, the marker that serves the locals who frequently boat above the falls as the unofficial point of no return. Sometime later, James Honeycutt decided that it was time to start his motor, turn around, and head for home, but soon discovered that 7.5 horsepower was no match for the mighty Niagara. Even at full throttle, the boat continued to creep backward. The situation went from bad to worse when the overtaxed propeller was ripped completely off the motor. Honeycutt grabbed two oars and began to row mightily toward land, fighting the most powerful waterfall on Earth with only his biceps. As they entered the rapids above the falls the boat struck a rock and capsized, throwing all three into the turbulent, frigid waters.
The teenage girl clung tenaciously to the boat, and when the torrent finally wrested it from her grasp she found herself not terribly far from Goat Island, the huge land mass in the middle of the river that separates the American Falls from the Canadian Horseshoe Falls. A 44-year-old New Jersey truck driver who just happened to be viewing the Falls with his family from Terrapin Point (on Goat Island) that day spotted her and began to scream to the girl to fight her way to the island. “You’re fighting for your life!” he recalls shouting to her. At great peril to his own life, the man climbed over the rail (pictured below), thrust his left foot tightly between its bars, and dangled precariously over
the cascading waters by that one leg in an attempt to reach the terrified girl. As though scripted by a Hollywood screenwriter, on the child’s third desperate lunge she managed to grab the man’s thumb just 15 feet before she would almost certainly have plunged to her death. Another onlooker climbed over the rail, grabbed her by her life jacket, and pulled her to safety.
By now, her little brother had long since disappeared over the precipice. Experts later conjectured that because the lad weighed only 46 pounds the momentum of the water (which travels through the rapids at up to 40 miles per hour) must have flung him far out beyond the falls and the jagged rocks below so that he landed in deep water. When he shot to the surface courtesy of his life preserver, he was spotted by a crew member of The Maid of the Mist, the boat that routinely ferries tourists to and fro at the base of the Falls,
and rescued with only a mild concussion. Roger Woodward is now in his mid-60s and remains to this day the only person who has ever gone over Niagara Falls unintentionally and survived. The entire episode is still known among local residents as “The Niagara Miracle.” But there would be no miracle for James Honeycutt. His body was found three days later when it surfaced just a quarter-mile downriver.
James Honeycutt perished because he drifted too long, blithely assuming that he could fire-up his motor and reverse course anytime he pleased and successfully fight the current. His story serves as a parable to all who “float” through life carefree, deluding themselves with the notion that “One day (not today, but one day), I’ll get serious about my career, read everything I can find on sales or leadership, and begin to fight for my place in the world. Sometime (not at this time, but sometime) I’ll start to pay attention to my spouse and romance him/her as I know I should. But I’ll worry about that later. In the future (not in the present, but in the nebulous future) I’ll take my diet and exercise regimen and cholesterol levels seriously. When I get around to it (not now, but when I get around to it) I’ll begin to spend meaningful time with my kids.” But careers not actively being built have a way of becoming dead-end jobs. Marriages become unsalvageable. Health issues might instantly develop into irreversible conditions due to stroke or heart attack. Kids grow up and move away, carrying with them the memories of being adored or ignored by parents.
The consequences of inaction have a way of accumulating like so many snowflakes into massive snowdrifts of regret. They take on a life of their own and gradually, imperceptibly become irresistible, immovable, permanent. Like plaque on your artery walls, they build up silently and, unseen, grow deadlier by the month. Beware the seductive attraction of “someday,” lest you discover that the growing momentum of life’s circumstances, the ever-increasing inertia of a neglected relationship, and the cascading flow of untreated health issues each conceals a point of no return, a time beyond which all of your greatest efforts might prove insufficient. The sad fact of life is that it is almost impossible to stand still, for circumstances will always pull you downstream whenever you are not expending the energy required to fight the current. It takes effort just to stay where you are. It takes all the horsepower you can muster to fight the current and go where you want to go. Your goals will always be upriver, so every day that you drift takes you farther from your destination and makes your journey longer, harder, and more improbable. What part of your life will you turn around today? Are you ready to start your engine and begin the arduous, but deeply rewarding fight against the forces driving you backwards? Remember: Life doesn’t get better by chance; it gets better by choice.