February 15, 1998

Desert Paradise Nestled In Northern Arizona Scrubland Is The Lush Landscape Of Havasu Canyon

Debbie Garlicki The Allentown Morning Call
 

I rolled out of my sleeping bag damp with dew as early birds in the truest sense ushered in first light with chirps. For a night person, I was performing the supreme sacrifice. I was up.

I wiped sleep from my eyes, not accustomed to opening at 5 a.m., and remembered I was no longer in Las Vegas but on a bare patch of parched ground minutes from Hualapai Hilltop, elevation 5,200 feet, in Northern Arizona.

We had shed the trappings of civilization the previous night when we turned off Route 66 onto a remote road dotted with juniper trees and pinon pine. A sign stated simply, “No services.”

Soon, we would break camp and make the 10-mile descent from the hilltop to what Eric Bajon, owner of Mild to Wild Tours, billed “the Hawaii of the desert” Havasu Canyon in Supai.

Donning day packs, we began the five-hour hike to the little-known destination, accessible by foot, horse or helicopter. Bajon, canyoneer extraordinaire, environmentalist and philosopher, pointed out Indian paintbrush and lizards darting in and out of crevices.

The closer we got to the campground, the greener the landscape became. Sand kicked up by horses’ hooves and the odor of dried manure made me doubt the accuracy of a color photograph on the glossy tour brochure.

“Wish you were here?” the brochure asked, showing a magnificent waterfall cascading down surrealistic limestone walls into an idyllic swimming hole. The answer was yes.

“It’s the most beautiful place on the continent,” said Bajon.

I’m taking your word for it, I thought, as we trekked to the Havasupai Indian village with its modest homes and yards with tethered horses. I was startled by rap music blaring from one house.

The village has a lodge for tourists, a school, a small restaurant and two general stores, the last chance to buy propane, a forgotten toothbrush, ice cream and comfort foods. Stopping at one store, we took advantage of the air conditioning, flush toilets and sink, the last we would see for the next five days.

Just as the urge to ask, “Are we there yet?” seized me, Bajon promised that the falls were up ahead. And they won’t disappoint, he added.

Then I heard it. Rushing water mixed with children’s squeals of delight.

My pace quickened with anticipation. Rounding a dusty curve, I looked below and saw a jaw-dropping, heart-stopping wonder.

White water tumbled down Havasu Falls into a large blue-green pool at the base. It flowed into many mini-pools created by dissolved limestone, which had formed natural dams. People basked on small beaches in the noon sun and dived into the translucent water. Children tried their balance on a 20-foot log bobbing in the waves like a buoy.

The lush foliage surprised me. Except for the towering canyon walls, the campground resembled a Pennsylvania state park. The Havasu Creek, which springs from rocks and flows to the Colorado River in this southwestern branch of the Grand Canyon, sustains life one never thought imaginable in the desert.

After finding a camp site, we headed for Havasu Falls and walked into the inviting pool. And quickly stopped. The water felt much colder than the 70 degrees it was said to be. Plunging in was the only way to go. Before long, it felt no colder than lake water on Memorial Day.

“It’s worth the pain,” said a Chicago writer about the hike and his first trip to this diamond of the desert, where the water rivals the Caribbean in color and clarity.

At Havasu Falls at dusk, at least one person could always be found sitting on the dams. Gazing at the waterfall, I understood how you could lose yourself - or find yourself - here.

Havasu Falls is one of four distinctly different waterfalls in the canyon.

At Navajo Falls, which has no beach, tourists perched on fallen logs. Indian children dove and surfaced in the churning water, caught minnows and played with an inflatable sea horse under their mother’s watchful gaze.

Hiking to Beaver Falls, farther down the creek toward the river, was as much fun as playing in the puzzle-piece-shaped pool.

On the eight-mile round trip from the campground, we waded through waist-deep water with our packs hoisted over our heads. We gingerly picked our way through narrow sand trails where prickly pear cactus, hidden in a mile of wild grapevines, scraped shins. We gently pushed aside cattails to avoid stinging cuts.

Unfortunately, to get to Beaver Falls, we first had to pass Mooney Falls, named after James Mooney, a sailor turned miner, who prospected below Havasu Falls in 1880.

“You’re not afraid to die, are you?” asked Bajon. We had walked through two small caves and had come to the point of reckoning - a 70-foot drop to the bottom.

Bajon picked an inappropriate moment to tell me about Mooney’s demise. The adventurer had fallen to his death while climbing down the falls on a rope.

Slowly, I made my way down the cliff, gripping metal spikes embedded in the rock wall and clinging to heavy metal chains designed to make the descent easier. I would think about climbing up later.

The reward was an endless series of swimming holes in a natural playground for adults and children. I excitedly took photograph after photograph to freeze not just the scenes but the colors blue sky, green grapevines and calcium-rich water reflecting blue light, giving the creek a turquoise hue. We debated the color of the canyon walls in the late afternoon sun. Not quite salmon. Terra cotta maybe. Or shrimp, or bright copper.

After a day of hiking and swimming, it was time to return to camp. I had almost forgotten the dreaded ladder at Mooney Falls.

Standing at the bottom, I took a deep breath. There was no other way up, unless of course you fell, breaking bones or worse, and had to be choppered out.

One by one, I climbed up the crude steps in the rock. Halfway up, I froze. I remembered the sign at the campground entrance: “The Havasupai tribe … is not responsible for damage or injury to person or property for any cause whatsoever.” Did a tribal lawyer write that?

I was afraid to move. Take deep breaths, advised Bajon. “You’re psyching yourself out,” he said.

I leaned into the rock but didn’t heed his advice to look at my feet for fear of seeing how far I could fall. “If you don’t look at your feet, you can’t decide on your next step,” Bajon said in a patient tone.

Kinda like life, I thought, trying to calm down. To get where you’re going, you have to look at where you’ve been.

Eventually, after much coaxing, I made it to the top. A tear of relief slid down my cheek as Bajon offered a high five.

The remaining days were filled with swimming in the falls and forgetting, in the midst of so much beauty, the minor discomforts and things you can do without if you have to.

By the end of the trip, I had gotten used to composting toilets and bats flying by my head at night.

No camp fires are permitted. There is no refrigeration, so we relied on nonperishable items and packaged foods that could be heated on camp stoves.

All food must be hung carefully from trees to keep it out of reach of mischievous animals that will make off with it. (A raven stole my bag of peanut M&Ms; while I was swimming.)

Safe drinking water from Fern Springs flowed through a pipe in the canyon wall. I had to shake the habit of wanting to turn off the faucet.

“You are tied to your things, bounded by your strings,” mused Bajon, 41, who has operated Mild to Wild Tours for five years from his home in New Orleans.

Back home, I waited anxiously for my photographs of Havasu to be developed. I was disappointed, as I suspected I would be, but it was not the fault of the lab.

Capturing on film the serenity and the scenes that inspired it may be impossible. But whenever I pull out the photo album, I know its purpose. I remember that a place like that - and a peace like that - really do exist.

Map of Havasu Canyon area

MEMO: Two sidebars appeared with the story:

1. IF YOU GO

Entry fee to Havasu Canyon is $15 from April 1 to Oct. 31 and $12 from Nov. 1 to March 31.

The nightly camping fee is $10.

Having a horse carry you and/or your gear from the hilltop to the lodge is $50 one way and $80 round trip. There are late charges for departures during certain times of the day. Fees are slightly more to the campground.

If hiking and horseback riding aren’t your bag, you can fly in or out by helicopter for $55 one way.

For those who don’t want to camp and prefer to stay in a lodge with a soft bed, air conditioner, shower and bathroom facilities, the seasonal rates at the lodge in the Havasupai Indian village range from $75 for single occupancy to $96 for four people. Off-season rates are $45 for a single and $66 for four people.

The lodge accepts VISA, Master Card and travelers checks. Rates don’t include a 5 percent tribal sales tax.

The walk from the lodge to Havasu Falls is a mile. For a fee, you can ride a horse to the falls.

For reservations at the lodge or more information, call (520) 448-2111.

For information on Mild to Wild Tours, call (800) 376-8924 or (504) 283-4351.

2. HAVASUPAI HISTORY

The Havasupai, “people of the blue green water,” have 650 enrolled tribal members, 450 who live in Supai.

Their native language, Havasupai, has been a written language for about 20 years.

Tourism fuels the economy, providing jobs in the tribal-run enterprises, such as the lodge, the tourist office and the restaurant.

When the reservation was created in 1882, they lost 90 percent of their land and were confined to 518 acres at the bottom of the canyon.

In 1975, the federal government expanded the reservation, and they recovered 185,000 acres of their original hunting grounds.

Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. IF YOU GO Entry fee to Havasu Canyon is $15 from April 1 to Oct. 31 and $12 from Nov. 1 to March 31. The nightly camping fee is $10. Having a horse carry you and/or your gear from the hilltop to the lodge is $50 one way and $80 round trip. There are late charges for departures during certain times of the day. Fees are slightly more to the campground. If hiking and horseback riding aren’t your bag, you can fly in or out by helicopter for $55 one way. For those who don’t want to camp and prefer to stay in a lodge with a soft bed, air conditioner, shower and bathroom facilities, the seasonal rates at the lodge in the Havasupai Indian village range from $75 for single occupancy to $96 for four people. Off-season rates are $45 for a single and $66 for four people. The lodge accepts VISA, Master Card and travelers checks. Rates don’t include a 5 percent tribal sales tax. The walk from the lodge to Havasu Falls is a mile. For a fee, you can ride a horse to the falls. For reservations at the lodge or more information, call (520) 448-2111. For information on Mild to Wild Tours, call (800) 376-8924 or (504) 283-4351.

2. HAVASUPAI HISTORY The Havasupai, “people of the blue green water,” have 650 enrolled tribal members, 450 who live in Supai. Their native language, Havasupai, has been a written language for about 20 years. Tourism fuels the economy, providing jobs in the tribal-run enterprises, such as the lodge, the tourist office and the restaurant. When the reservation was created in 1882, they lost 90 percent of their land and were confined to 518 acres at the bottom of the canyon. In 1975, the federal government expanded the reservation, and they recovered 185,000 acres of their original hunting grounds.


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