Tennessee Outdoorsman Jessie Sharp Challenged Niagara's Mighty Falls in a Tiny Canoe—and Lost

updated 06/25/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/25/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The secret of Jessie Sharp's obsessive dream now lies with him, somewhere under the roiling waters at the foot of Niagara Falls. Brandishing his paddle aloft, the 28-year-old Nashville native went over the crest of the 176-foot Horseshoe Falls in a closed-deck canoe on June 5. He was wearing neither a helmet nor a life jacket. His paddle popped to the surface in 10 minutes. His dented canoe, named Rapid-man, was spotted several hundred yards downstream an hour later. A week after the plunge, Sharp's body had yet to be found.

The canoeist's ride over the falls on the Canadian side of the river took place in front of horrified honeymooners, police officers and three friends of Sharp's from the tight-knit white-water paddler community near the Tennessee-Georgia border. The three are back home—and they are definitely not talking to the press.

Others are, though often reluctantly and anonymously. As one white-water guide in Ocoee. Tenn., where Sharp had lived for most of the past year, put it: "Paddlers are like a big family, and when a brother gets killed, we don't want to talk about it; we just want to get in our boats and go out on the river and paddle." After a pause he adds, his eyes lighting up, "It was tragic, you know—but, man, what a way to go."

Sharp had spent a lot of time running the rapids on the Ocoee River, which has five miles of some of the most challenging white water in America. The son of a Nashville lawyer, Sharp had moved there after his discharge from the Army, and, although he occasionally worked in a photographer's studio, it seemed that most of his days were spent on the water. And always, there was the dream of Niagara. He had proposed running the famous falls as long ago as 1979, when he was 17, but had been talked out of it. "He'd talk about it when he came in," says Roger Scott, owner of Ocoee's only kayak store, "and while I hoped he wouldn't, I felt he was somehow going to go through with it eventually. There was something about him that told you he wasn't just boasting, that he was really going to do it."

Since Annie Edson Taylor survived a plunge over the falls in a barrel in 1901, 11 other daredevils had attempted the feat; three had died. Nevertheless, Sharp was confident enough to leave his car downstream and make dinner plans. His parting words to his friends were, "See you at Howard Johnson's."

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the attempt was Sharp's decision not to use protective equipment. "To have a chance of surviving, he would have to have had a properly designed life jacket with a crotch strap," says Scott. "But Jessie felt he would stay with the boat. I think he really believed he would make it—but to do that he would have had to land in a pool. It's clear from the condition of the boat that he landed on rocks. He didn't have it worked out carefully enough."

A Nashville lawyer who has known Sharp since he was a boy insists that there was nothing frivolous about Jessie's doomed dream. "Make sure people understand this was not a stunt; this was a quest," he says. "Jessie was a great guy, and there was nothing crazy or irresponsible about him. He was an adventurer. Jessie Sharp had the blood of Admiral Peary flowing through his veins."

—Michael Neill, Gail Wescott in Ocoee

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