A week in the life of Haversu Canyon

It was a wet, cold and windy week in England. When we emerged from the arrivals lounge at Phoenix airport we were hit by a wall of heat. It was so sudden that we shied back in to the air-conditioned lounge and gasped. At that point we dug out shorts, and Teva’s only to find that they do not offer the best protection against the UV of 105 degree full on sun.

The trip really started after a 2 hour drive to Flagstaff via Oak Creek Canyon in Sedona. The huge red towering walls and spires were majestic in the setting sun. The receding ball of heat was being pursued by a dark and angry storm cell which spewed out lightening bolts and rain that evaporated before it hit the ground. As the storm developed, The electricity bounded around the canyon walls. The ground, hard from the baking heat, let the ever heavy rain water pour on to the road.

Following the night in Flag, we had an early morning call to track a mountain lion in the land at the back of our friend’s house. Tony runs a company that teaches people primitive survival and tracking skills, although we never found the lion or the people supposedly living in the caves beyond. Perhaps the mountain lion had eaten the desperate inhabitants and was sleeping in a nearby tree. We did see the old ruins of the first inhabitants of Flagstaff and learned that we could use the insides of a Prickly Pair Cactus to draw out the sting of a scorpion or snake bite. Lovely. Getting to the inside of a Prickly Pair however is no easy task. If the large spines don’t get you then the thousands of tiny stinging hairs it the base of the spines will. Duck tape, so we were told, removes most of these quite well!!

We spent the rest of the day hiking around native Indian ruins and exploring Sycamore canyon, a long and dry gorge which is second in size and spender only to the Grand canyon. We spent some time watching people climbing the canyon just beyond the trail head and wished we’d brought our climbing gear. Tony, on discovering that we could dangle from ropes without showing our fear, got excited about the possibility of exploring some ancient native cave dwellings as yet unexplored.
That’s for another adventure though. This trip was about The Haversupai and the canyon in which they live. Haversupai means "the people of the blue green water" and as we were to discover it was a very appropriate mane for them. The real trip began at the Haulapai (Wallapie) trail head of Cataract canyon and wound it’s way down the side of the plateau from around 6, 000 ft in to a narrow dry canyon which had been chiselled and moulded by uplift and flood over a very long time. The geology of the area is very complex and a mixture of deep ocean deposition of silts, sands and mud. Following this the uplifting of volcanic and tectonic shifting combined with vast water action has led to what we see to day of the Grand Canyon and all it’s subsidiaries. There, that was painless and easy to understand !! Actually, having descended a side canyon from the top it was easy to see how water could actually sculpture the landscape as the rock is brittle and dry. Flash floods constantly change and scour the landscape, making the canyon even deeper until they reach the Granite bed-rock some 5,000 feet below.

After the descent from the plateau and a trek across a desert floor we entered Cataract Canyon proper. The world changed and became quiet as the walls crowded in. What little cooling wind there had been outside had gone and the heat became intense. As the afternoon wore on and the sun began to be lost outside the canyon walls we found shade at odd corners and rested often. Although only 10 miles to walk, with a heavy pack in hot, dry and rough country, we were slowed up somewhat.

The intake of liquid in this environment is a must. A body loses 3 litres of fluid in an hour just sitting in this heat. We carried water and filters and sipped as often as we could. The stomach can only absorb I litre and hour so sipping is the best way to hydrate the body as the small amount of water can be absorbed in to the blood stream in a few minutes. We found the source of the Haversu river in a tiny spring and natural well 1 mile from the village of Supai. It was a dirty water hole with a dead horse near by. The stench was overwhelming. After half an hour resting in the shade and by the coolness of the water we entered the village.
Supai had not always been in this location . Originally it was further up the canyon but an enormous flash flood has wiped the old village out and they had moved to the flat valley in the canyon above the confluence of 2 rivers. There are only 4 rivers in Arizona that run all the time and the Haversu is one of them. The Indians keep themselves to themselves and consider it impolite to be to familiar too soon. They live now for the most part in prefabricated huts and houses brought in by helicopter and horse train. The traditions of the tribe remain more here than anywhere else in the US. Satellite internet brings lessons to the schoolhouse and the US Post office is the last in America still to be served by horseback.

The early travellers were trail hardened and generally not given to emotional reactions but entering Haversu canyon put words in their mouth like "unfathomable abyss — a tortuous trail, the most dangerous and difficult I have ever travelled".

Father Franicsco Garcia was the first European to leave a written account of Haversu canyon after travelling across the Sonoran desert in 1776. He found the Haversupai to be warm and friendly and stayed with them many days. This was in stark contrast to the hostile reception he received from the Hopi Indians to the east.

We arrived at the camp site another hour later to be confronted with a huge water fall and green blue pools of water. The Tribal lands permit camping only in certain places next to the river. The land is straight out of Conan Doyles "The Lost world" and has everything but the dinosaurs. We spent our first day exploring the waterfalls and the rock pools. If we thought the 75 ft Haversu falls were impressive we were in for a surprise with the Mooney falls further down the river. At 210 feet, and surrounded by curtains of travertine, we were stunned by the beauty and might of this canyon. The Indians and then the prospectors had dug through the travertine to rig a steep and dangerous route to the bottom of the falls. Often on hands and knees or holding on to a chain and climbing down a make shift ladder, this was the only way to the bottom short of jumping over the falls.

The big falls have always been the most sacred of waterfall of the Haversupai. They called it the "Mother of the waters". The Indians had claimed that no one had ever passed beyond this point. They said that it was only possible for birds of the air or spirits of the dead. They are now called Mooney falls after Daniel Mooney following his death there in the winter of 1880. His party had come to prospect for gold, silver and vanaduium. Mooney, a sailor, intent on getting to the bottom was lowered over the cliffs on a rope. The rope jammed and as he was pulled up and down to free the rope, it broke sending him over the edge to his death. It was 10 months before anyone could get to him only to find his body encased in Travertine.

Today the decent is still difficult and requires some skill on rock and a good head for heights. In the valley below the water leaves everything covered in a layer of travertine minerals

Below the falls is a wonderful forested world of Cotton Tree and Willow, Arrow Wood and Acacia. Terraces of Barrel Cactus and Prickly Pair hide amongst the cliffs and caves erupt at every turn of the canyon.

We spent the next day exploring below the falls. The blue—green pools of water were ideal for swimming and the water cooled the air causing a cool draft to wash over us. With an Indian village upstream it probably is not the freshest water supply. The dead horse didn’t help, but with the help of a natural spring percolating through the sandstone and a water filter we managed to get enough water inside us. We used an old rope to swing from a tree and jump into the river. It was like being children agin for a few minutes. I was always aware though of the remoteness of the place and the hidden lurking dangers from a cocktail of plants and animals. Even a twisted ankle out here would be a real problem.

We had a look at many of the caves and prospectors mine shafts making a mental note to return to explore properly. There were many great overhanging caverns big enough to get the Albert Hall inside, obviously gouged out by water action.

The day ended with a swim in the large pool below Mooney falls. We tried to approach the falls themselves but with a river of water falling over 200 feet we were blasted back by air and water. Huge logs floated in the pool like crocodiles waiting to eat supper. The roar of the water was deafening and we were forced to retreat.

That evening we sat by the Haversu falls up stream from the camp-site and enjoyed the approaching darkness and the emergence of the stars. The moon was rising , which gave an eerie glow to the water. In the distance there was the faint rumble of thunder and the odd flicker of light, like a child playing with the light switch.

We should have known. In the middle of the night there was a huge flash of light and a roar like an express train. The wind suddenly buffeted the tents and the air grew heavy. Lightening was jumping around the walls of the canyon, lighting up the sky for minutes on end. Those of us who did not have tent flies on quickly set them up. The rain came with a vengeance and the storm raged overhead for 2 hours. The percussions around the canyon walls were deafening. Eventually we had to sleep but the noises echoed around the canyon and the my mind even through sleep.

The next day we were concerned about flash flooding and really wanted to get to the Colorado river between 6 and 198 miles away depending on who you talk to. The Native guide assured us that the flooding would not be too much of a problem, but darkness was the issue. We determined to set a turn back time to allow us back to camp before dark. We had three and a half hours to travel what we estimated to be about 8 to 10 miles in rough canyon country. We travelled light and fast. The going was far from easy, using the river as a foot track in many places and crossing over at least a dozen times. Any thought of keeping dry feet was soon lost although the heat soon dried our clothing. At times the path disappeared altogether or would head up a cliff or along a terrace of Prickly Pair Cacti high above the river.

The canyon deepened and dropped as we progressed, passing through yet more layers of geological time. A condor circled high above us. The yellow tags of the Park ranger service visible even at that height. The birds, which have a 10 foot wing span were re-introduced to the Park but are not faring too well. They had nothing to fear from us, but I suspect had their eye on our party just waiting for us to drop dead.

20 minutes before our turn around time we arrived at the mighty Colorado river. We were so surprised to find the confluence full of 3 river raft boats. They had been on the river for 14 days and had another 4 to go. The river was in flood pushing a dirty dark brown sludge down the Grand Canyon. Here the big canyon was just narrow and deep. The rafters had been forced to leave the beach they were sleeping on the night before as they had lost 12 feet of beach in 20 minutes. They had not seen anybody else for the duration of the trip and were alarmed to see us appear out of no where looking like we’d been in the jungle for several years.
They did however have surplus supplies of beer, chocolate, pringles and water, which they seemed only too happy to give away. Too much of a good thing I think !. It was a mixed team, one had a nasty gash above her left eye, whilst a second had a bandage around the side of her head. "I nearly lost my ear in an accident with an oar" Their team doctor had sewed the offending appendage back almost in the right place. It reminded me of the potential for epics out here.

Once the raft team had consumed as much beer as they could manage, they headed of down stream at an alarming rate entering a huge rapid with one member of the party still stood aloft and drinking the final drops of his Budwieser.

It was hard to leave the sun soaked rock platform just above the river. We headed back up the gorge 20 minutes late thanks to the goodies we had just consumed. Going back up the gorge was hard work, but quicker given we did not have to do any route finding. We climbed the travertine curtain of Mooney falls just as it was getting dark and fell into the river to cool off.

If I said that the following day I felt fresh, then I would be stretching the story too much. We were faced with a 10 mile hike back out of the canyon to the trail head. We stopped at the Indian village to absorb the culture a little and to refill water bottles before the heat of the day set in. it took 8 hours altogether to get out of the canyon. Our stops became more frequent and the water was disappearing. The only food bars we had left were the hard crunchy ones. The kind that feel like you are eating straw that has been left to dry for several years.

The drive back to Flagstaff was welcome, especially the big cheese burger that happened across our path. We had another objective in mind for the following day. This was another forced march down the bright angel trail from the south rim of the Grand Canyon proper. It was a 10 mile hike dropping 3000 feet on a well trodden but steep trail. Many people were venturing down the first few feet of the trail and then retreating again. People who had stayed in the camp-site at the bottom were making their weary way back up to the top. Mule trains were heaving loads and people up and down but there was not enough room for both man and beast on this trail unless you were riding one.

We had heard of a man that had been riding a mule out of the Grand Canyon when the mule had a heart attack and had fallen over the edge of the cliff taking the man with it to his death.

The view from here is beyond description and even when seen takes some believing. One mile deep, 13 miles across and 277 miles long, the Grand Canyon has it’s rightful place as one of the natural wonders in the world. On May 24, 1869 Major John Wesley Powell, a retired Union army officer who had lost his right arm during the civil war at the battle of Shiloh, set out to travel the whole length of the Colorado river by boat.
On august 13 in his personal journal he wrote about the canyon " We are now ready to start on our way down the great unknown. Our boats, tied to a common stake, chafe each other as they are tossed by the fretful river ….. we are three quarters of a mile in the depths of the earth, and the great river shrinks into insignificance as it dashes it’s angry waves against the walls and cliffs that rise to the world above; the waves are but puny ripples, and we but pigmies, running up and down the sands or lost amongst the boulders. We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not. Ah, well! We may conjecture many things."

We had shared in the privilege and the uncertainty of Powell’s experiences. After 7 days in the desert sun their was no uncertainty about what the weather would be like back home !!