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October 27, 2021
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The Green Water People

Arizona's Havasupai tribe discovered the mystical powers of the Grand Canyon's lagoons centuries ago -- now you can too

The average time spent on the Grand Canyon's South Rim is 20 minutes. It's the kind of view people spend a lifetime dreaming about and don't want to die without seeing. But once they've seen it, there's not much to do but turn around, wade through parking lots to the Guest Lodge, buy a souvenir, get back in the car and drive away. Of course, a small percentage of visitors do brave the 13-kilometre vertical hike down to the Colorado River. That's certainly a sight to see, and they never forget the hike back up.

Imagine another Grand Canyon: a near-mythical garden, lush with fruit trees and giant cottonwoods, 30-metre waterfalls and endless pools of turquoise water. And all of it's accessible by a trail that, after an initially steep descent, flattens into a slope so gentle that you'd swear the 600-metre drop you covered never took place.

The Havasupai (havasu meaning "green water" and pai for "people") thought that Cataract Canyon, one of the Grand Canyon's side canyons, was a good place to live long before the first white people came to America. In summer they farmed, and during winter they moved up to the canyon's rim to hunt and gather wood. The Havasupai traded dried agave (an edible cactus), deer skins and later, when they acquired peach pits from the Navajos, dried peaches, too.

When other tribal nations were slaughtered or forced to "integrate," the Havasupai kept to themselves and continued their way of life. But it didn't last. In 1882, all but 210 hectares of the area occupied by the tribe was declared a national park by officials who suspected that the cliffs were rich in gold. They weren't. Hunting and plant-gathering was forbidden and the population of 600 was confined to the tiny area with their winter-hunting zones taken from them. The people had no choice but to work in the mines or take part in the growing tourist industry that was just beginning to find its way into their paradise.

In 1975, the government gave the tribe back 76,115 hectares, including the much-needed land at the top of the canyon. But by then, hunting was no longer a realistic option for survival. Now, the tribe gets its income almost entirely from the tourist dollar.

"If this were a national park, there would be a giant glass wall right about here," said Brian, a guide for Outback Adventures, as we approached the top of 30-metre-tall Mooney Falls. It was named after the prospector who fell to his death while attempting to descend the massive cliff on a fraying rope (his body was buried where he landed, halfway down the cliff). When I got to the edge and peered over, I saw what Brian meant: a series of chains and worn footholds in the rock makes its way through two short tunnels hacked out by Mooney's burial crew and ends at the bottom of the cliff with a couple of rickety ladders held together with rusted nails. Some hand-painted signs at the cliff's edge warn of a $US5000 fine for jumping the 60-metre waterfall -- not that you'd be alive to pay it. This is just what visitors look for: pristine blue water, lagoons, swimming holes and plenty of adventure for those who crave it.

Seth Heald started Arizona Outback Adventures three years ago when he was 22. Since then, he and Brian have guided over 40 trips to the canyon, and their enthusiasm proves they're not jaded because of it. They have a deep love for the place as well as for the delight of sharing it with people who might not brave it on their own.

We began our trip two nights before at the Caverns Inn, just outside the town of Seligman. Handing each of us our room keys, Seth sighed fondly as he told us how well he always slept there. There was no traffic, and my room didn't have a TV. Underneath us, there were subterranean chambers the size of the Sistine Chapel. The next morning at breakfast, I found out that a 2000-year-old mummified bobcat was somewhere down there.

The 14 of us -- two couples, three colleagues, a 71-year-old traveller and her daughter, a freelance reporter for the BBC, a German dentist's assistant, two guides and I -- got up at 5:45am. We had a giant buffet breakfast at the nearby Caverns Cafeteria that was festooned with old authentic cowboy gear and rusting miner's tools. Then we headed for the canyon.

Unlike the South Rim's carefully groomed and maintained asphalt parking lots, the parking area at Hualapai Hilltop is a gravel free-for-all, while the outhouses positioned near the cliff's edge don't have doors. At the trail head, an old man in a wheelchair shielded by a multi-coloured beach umbrella, sold sodas from a plastic cooler for 50 cents. A plump six-year-old girl dragged her toes through the dust. Solemn-faced, she watched as some white kids swung on the metal hitching posts.

A string of eight horses and one mule assembled to be loaded up with our food and bags. We were given strict instructions not to pack more than seven kilograms worth of supplies. At the bottom of the canyon the guides provided us with tents, sleeping bags, pads and all our food. There was a potable spring at the campsite, but our day packs were heavy with as much water as we could carry for the trip down. By mid-morning the heat was soaring.


The landscape from the hilltop was arid and impressive; a plateau a third of the way into the canyon concealed the nadir from view and gave the canyon an intimate feel. As we began the hike down and round a few corners, a towering pink and tan butte in the distance marked our destination: the village of Supai with a population somewhere between 400 and 600. After 305 metres, the trail turned into a veritable walk in the park amongst towering redrock cliffs. The mesquite trees were in bloom, and the sweet scent of their yellow-green blossoms filled the air, while blue and yellow butterflies danced overhead.

By lunchtime the heat was overwhelming. We stopped to eat our packed sandwiches in the shade of a rock ledge. Some of us were tempted to rest, but knowing that it would only get hotter, a group of us pressed on, fuelled by the promise of the crystal-blue swimming hole at the base of Havasu falls.

In spite of the heat, everyone was charmed by the walk. Every few minutes we passed villagers on horseback: a shirtless child with a string of horses flicked a whip to prove his dominion; a father and mother with their three-year-old daughter clinging to the mother's back with a rope wrapped around both of them for security; and of course, the frequent horse trains headed for the village, heavy with supplies, mail and tourist luggage.

When we reached the shade of the cottonwoods and the path that winds around the creek bed, it was hard to resist plunging into the icy water. Saving ourselves for the promised "ultimate pool" by the waterfall, we made our way into the village. Satellite dishes protruded from the sides of wooden bungalows like mushrooms, and every house had two or three horses on the front lawn, ears flicking as we passed. The peaches on the trees were just starting to turn from green to pink. An old woman with jet-black hair and a cane hobbled ahead of us. I thought of thanking her for having us in her village, and I wondered if she really wanted us there. We trudged past silently.

The village centre has the only post office in America still serviced by mule train. There's also a new-looking flat-roofed school, a general store, a community centre and a caféthat sells fry bread and soda with ice. We stopped at the double Havasu Falls on our way to the campground and took a steep path from the top of the falls to the pool at the bottom. The scene in the water was festive. Families of tourists splashed and jumped in the dense spray thrown up by the falls. International hikers brandished video cameras and unpacked picnics.

Seth and Brian led a couple of us through the bracing water and behind the crashing falls. We inched along, clinging to the rock, blinded by spray and deafened by the thunderous sound of the water. When we reached a ledge we could stand on, Seth pointed into the seething foam where we should jump to if we wanted to swim underneath the falls. I leapt headfirst and was instantly pressed under by the force of the falling water. Seconds later, I popped up in the swirling water and made my way to the shore.

That night, despite feeling weary, I explored the campground. Other campsites were fairly obscured by trees. I followed a path that led farther down the canyon toward the single but taller Mooney Falls. On my way I passed family reunions and groups of friends, site after site. When I passed a youth group of about 40 teenagers setting up their tents, I asked Seth how many people were staying overnight. "Three hundred," he said.

During a dinner of delicious fajitas and two gourmet salads, the guides prepped us for the next day. "This is probably my favourite hike in America," said Seth. "It's like an enormous playground for big people; you're going to love it. Don't bring anything that you don't want to get wet. A waterproof camera's perfect for this hike."

We woke up early and strapped on shoes suitable for water wear. We coated ourselves in sun block and put on hats. After creeping our way down the cliff to the bottom of Mooney Falls, we waved good-bye to the intrepid 71-year-old member of our group who had braved the ladders and chains, but decided to relax at the foot of the falls for the day with her daughter. Only two Havasupai villagers had ever gone beyond the top of Mooney Falls; the rest stick to the village. Before Mooney's burial crew blasted in the tunnels no one had ever been down there.

A little ways down the creek we found a rope swing tied to a tree trunk on the creek's bank. The guides showed us how to swing out and let go at just the right moment. As we made our way farther down the creek, Seth talked about the strange rock formations that coat the cliffs and surround the falls. "It's called travertine," he said. "The water's so rich in limestone that when the mist settles on anything and evaporates, it leaves behind a thin layer of stone. Over time, the layers build up and make these bizarre formations."

We noticed bulbous-shaped rocks along the path and realized that they were once tree stumps that were consumed by the travertine. The plants all along the water's edge had literally been turned to stone. The canyon walls are another geologic curiosity: "Know The Canyon, See Rocks Made By Time," is the acrostic phrase used to remember the names of the rock layers in descending order: Kaibab limestone, Toroweap formation, Coconino Sandstone, Supai Group, Red Wall limestone, Muav limestone, Bright Angel shale and Tapeats.

After crossing the creek a few times (in water up to our chests), we approached the Field of Grapevines, an area the size of a football field that was completely covered in a sea of entwined wild grapevines between two sheer towering cliff faces. The visual effect was surreal. A narrow path led through the greenery, and a bright red tanager flew past; the canyon is known for its abundance of birds and butterflies.

Our destination was Beaver Falls, about six kilometres from the Colorado River. The only way to get there is by jumping off a six-metre-high waterfall. Some of the members of our party were apprehensive, but the guides helped them practice jumping at smaller falls along the way. We explored an underwater cave, luminous in the blue-green glow, and then got ready for the final jump. It was clear that everyone wanted to take it on despite their fears. "It's like jumping into a milkshake," someone declared. A few of us climbed back up for seconds.

The next day we packed up and prepared for a morning of swimming and falls-jumping on the way back to the village where we would catch a helicopter back to Hualupai Hilltop.

We took our last swim at a place the guides called Costa Rica. True to Seth's promise of "better and better," it was the nicest place yet. Set back from the fast-moving creek by a channel of deep green water, Costa Rica was a perfect, still lagoon with water so clear you could see the tiny fish on the bottom. None of us wanted to leave.

We heard the helicopter as it roared in and out of the village. When we reached the town centre, I was relieved to see a crowd waiting on benches in the shade to be lifted out. I was glad to have the extra time to watch the people, horses and dogs interacting in the dusty plaza.

Part of me felt attached to the place, but too soon, Seth waved me over and I boarded the chopper. We lifted off and I craned my neck out the open window to see the village pull away from me. I snapped pictures as we passed over backyards; the village was only a stretch of green between the canyon walls. We flew past the two rock-formation towers, the Wigleeva that guard the village: their collapse will signal the end of the Havasupai people.

The four-minute ride back to the hilltop retraced our 13-kilometre hike in a matter of moments. I stared down at the trail, transfixed by the sudden condensation of time and space as we pulled up into the sky and out of the canyon.


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