And the Waters Receded;
Havasupai Indian Reservation a Year After the Flood
As I enter the canyon I feel like Dorothy leaving her cottage, crashed down in Oz. I leave the bland sepia-toned Arizona landscape and suddenly everything is in color.
The canyon walls are ribbons of dark red, pastel orange, and an almost royal purple. Deep green mosses cling to ledges where frozen springs hang like crystal. My trip will lead me ten miles into the gorgeous canyon to stunning vistas, tepid emerald pools beneath towering waterfalls, and down cliff faces beside roaring cascades.
During my three days on the Havasupai Reservation one thought followed me. “I almost didn’t come here.” If I’d listened to the people back home I wouldn’t have. I would have missed, not only the beauty of the canyon, but a chance to participate in the area’s rejuvenation and preservation. After my three days I was determined to spread the word about Havasupai, what it has to offer, and what can be done to save this treasure.
Until my trip to Havasupai in December of 2009, I hadn’t thought much of the desert. I grew up in the mountains of Wyoming. I worked as a trail guide in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. I’d spent several summers building trails and marking areas for re-vegetation. For me the mountains held all the magic the wilderness had to offer. The mountains were my home and, for me, there was no place like home.
I first heard of Havasupai in 2008. A friend, and fellow trail guide, had visited Havasupai that spring and, after his review, a few of us made reservations for October. In August, two months before our trip, disaster struck. A flash flood devastated the area. The village in the heart of the canyon had to be evacuated. There are no roads leading through the narrow canyon, so helicopters had to get the people out. Local news stations covered the catastrophe. Along with the concern for the people, the commentators lamented the loss of the canyon’s natural features.
“Navajo Falls is completely destroyed,” one reporter lamented. “Surely we’ve lost a natural treasure.”
“This will be devastating for the village’s tourism business.” “Will the landscape ever recover? Outdoor enthusiasts are doubtful.”
Outdoor enthusiasts were indeed doubtful. “I’ll never go back now, they say the landscapes totally changed,” “Yeah it’s trashed.” Even the friend who suggested Havasupai in the first place told me to “Forget it, stick to the mountains, at least for a while, it’ll take them years to rebuild.”
Our trip was canceled and Havasupai was closed for several months. It was summer before they began letting people back in. I headed back to Yellowstone. The reviews of Havasupai, post flood, were mixed at best. Most people found it shabby, especially compared to its former beauty.
I probably would have left it at that, mourned the loss of Havasupai along with everyone else, but for some reason I didn’t. Perhaps I was trying to defy the reports. Perhaps I love a lost cause and wanted to help. More likely, like a driver slowing down to see a mangled car wreck, I just wanted to see the devastation for myself. Whatever the reason, over Christmas vacation 2009, six of us left the mountains and drove off toward Arizona.
By the time we reached Flagstaff, I wanted to turn back. The brown desert stretched out endlessly around us. Light snow covered the barren landscape. It was far worse than Dorothy’s 1930’s Kansas. The 60-mile drive from Flagstaff to the cusp of the canyon was not encouraging either. The barren landscape seemed as endless as the gray sky. At last, we stepped out of the car onto snowy gravel. The smell of mules hung in the cold air. The mule drivers were friendly and directed us to the trailhead. From above, the canyon looked depressing, the same yellow-gray grass dusted with wet snow.
After fifteen minutes of steep switchbacks we reached what I’d thought was the canyon floor. From above, the canyon looks rounded and plain, but at the bottom the streambed cuts deeper. Like most of its beauty, Havasupai itself is hidden. We followed the dry streambed as it tunneled into the canyon floor.
Walls rose up around us; smooth, almost fluid, cliff faces and dramatic overhangs. The desert orange was contrasted against stripes of black, red, and purple. Young trees were growing out of the dusty gravel.
My mother was with us. She summited Survey Peak in the Teton Range and bush-whacked her way through Targhee National Forest. She always points out hidden beauties. In the canyon, she stopped often to show us how the floodwater carves terraces that trap dirt and eventually became small natural gardens, and how the trees’ twisted roots anchor them against the constant floods.
The eight-mile hike was easy. We were all strong hikers but we didn’t need to be. Except for the first switchbacks, the slope was gentle and the walls provided shade. Twice we heard the crunch and bustle of an oncoming mule train. The second time, as we stepped aside to let them pass, my sister waved to the drivers calling out, “The canyon is beautiful.” The driver nodded and replied, “This is only the beginning.”
Hurried along by this prospect, we reached the village just before dark. A small pack of loose dogs met us at the mouth of the canyon. The dogs were not mangy or sick looking but they didn’t seem to belong to anyone. They accompanied us through the town.
In the village we began to see the effects of the flood. I’ll admit this is where my spirits began to sink. More than a year afterward, you could still see the remnants of the devastation. Old tree stumps lay partially uprooted along the path, fences were still leaning crookedly, and some houses showed obvious signs of patching. The town had a small store, a post office, a church. I’ll admit that after the pristine beauty of the canyon, the village seemed out of place.
The next day we left the village and entered another broader canyon. I was unsure what to expect. The first part of the canyon had obviously survived the devastation but what about Havasupai’s famous waterfalls? Would we be disappointed?
We visited three waterfalls on our first day in the canyon. The first we came to is on the site where Navajo Falls stood before the flood. I’d seen pictures of the old falls and I was anxious to see what was left. I admit, at first, my heart sank to see it. The flood tore a great gash down the valley. The riverbank, once covered with groves of tall trees, collapsed. Mounds of dirt had been pushed aside to rebuild trails. An unfinished erosion barrier lined the riverbank. There were rolls of chain link fence. I squinted skeptically at my mother and sighed, “Looks like it’s still under construction.”
I’m not sure when my attitude began to change. I think it was that thought, “under construction,” that did it. As we walked, accompanied by a stray dog from the town, we called him Toto, I mulled the thought over in my mind. I began to realize the area was under construction. Before our eyes the landscape was being rebuilt. No wilderness is static, the flood did not destroy the natural beauty of the canyon. The flood is part of nature.
With this new attitude I began to explore the waterfall canyon. The scar that before, seemed ugly, became the quick slash of nature’s putty knife. As I looked closer at the rubble I could see colorful spirals, the ancient marks of tree roots. The mounds of dirt were filled with overlapping and twisting layers of sediment and tiny fossils from the riverbed. It was a geologist’s Wonderland.
Everywhere life was springing from the devastation. Already mosses were growing over displaced boulders and young grass clung to the new cliff face. New pools and estuaries glowed bright green against the dirt’s pastel orange. Navajo Falls was gone but in its place recent cascades tumbled over the freshly broken ledges, bringing life to earth that lay dormant for centuries. The whole scene was a symbol of hope and rebirth. The land was still tender and scarred, but Lazarus was already leaving the tomb.
I was impressed by New Navajo Falls but it was only the beginning. A mile or so further down the canyon, Havasu Falls took my breath away. The water spilled over a 100-foot drop into a jade pool. It was a cool day in December but the water was too inviting to pass up. We had to go swimming. To my surprise the water was warm, about seventy degrees, comparable to the Fire Hole River in Yellowstone. We swam and splashed, beneath the fall’s curtain. We ate lunch by the side of the pool. Except for Toto we were alone in our hidden paradise.
New Navajo Falls impressed me, and Havasu Falls left me breathless, but after another mile, Mooney Falls topped them both. Towering over two hundred feet, the crash of the torrent filled the canyon. From the crest we could see how repeated floods over the millennia have left their mark. Loose sediments solidified over time to form hanging stone curtains, stalactites, columns, and shallow caves. Young life surrounded the roaring cataract, spray fed mosses, hanging vines, as well as small storm twisted trees.
A trail, of sorts, led down the cliff face to the bottom of the falls. We worked our way down slowly. We had to crawl through tunnels and cling to chains. Spray covered us and the crash drowned out our laughter. Sound, and life, and color, were everywhere. I leaned back against the slippery rock face and breathed in the wet air. Without a doubt I’d fallen for the desert.
Havasupai is not the forest of Yellowstone, or the crags of the Tetons, or even the Havasupai it was two years ago, but Havasupai has its own beauty. It is beautiful because it is the desert, because it is constantly changing. It is beautiful because of the flood, not in spite of it.
I could have listened to my friends and missed Havasupai. I could even have visited Havasupai and still missed its magic. In order to see the beauty of Havasupai there are three things one must do.
First, adjust your expectations. Not lower them, by any means, but accept that Havasupai is what it is. Hiking in Havasupai is unlike hiking in the National Parks. Before Havasupai, I’d spent so much time in the heavily controlled and conserved Parks I had forgotten a few things about the wilderness. Now, I am not disparaging National Parks. I agree with Ken Burns they are “America’s best idea.” Still, like museums, they are heavily curated, held in suspense, almost artificially. Havasupai canyon is a raw living wilderness. People live there. People whose hands and mule trains have carved the canyon along with the floods. Some backpackers are disappointed to find a village at the end of an eight mile trek, but the people of Havasupai are a natural part of the landscape, as much as the wild goats, or waterfalls. Their dogs have become as native to the area as the wild foxes and grouse. The village, and the dogs, and the flood torn landscape are part of the natural beauty.
Second, do something to contribute. Practice no trace camping. The facilities make this easy. There is no need for bear bagging or cat hole digging. The campsites are clearly marked. Cleanup efforts have not cleared all the debris washed down canyon so bring a trash bag. Pick up your own garbage, and any other garbage you find. Any trash left in the campsites or village has to be carried out by mule so pack it out your self. The Tribe offers a $5 refund on fees if you take a sack of garbage out with you to the hilltop. You should pay all fees, don’t try to slip around them. Making a reservation can be tedious. The Tribe limits use and charges entrance and camping fees, but I promise that the reward is worth waiting your turn and paying your dues.
Third, walk slowly and look for the hidden beauty. Stop often in the canyon to examine closely the plants and rock formations. Think about how the plants must cling to the rocks during the monsoon season and then go for months without a single drink of water. Stop to dangle your feet in the warm stream. Feel the twisted patterns in the bark of an ancient tree. In the village, talk with the people. Visit the store. The village is not a break in the landscape it is part of the landscape. Oh, and send a postcard. It’s the only mail route in the U.S. to use a mule train, and each letter gets a special postmark. You should leave no trace on the land but your presence can help the Reservation, not to rebuild, but to build anew.
Three days went by quickly. Toto followed us back up the canyon. The vivid colors faded and, after the last push up the switchbacks, we were standing in the gravel parking lot. A mule train was just getting ready to head down the canyon. The driver asked how we liked our trip. When we told him how much we enjoyed hiking in the canyon, swimming in the falls, and visiting the village, he smiled and said, “Good, then tell a friend.”
Well friend here I am. Go to Havasupai. Don’t miss this chance to enjoy it, to see its raw authentic form, and contribute to the preservation of this Natural Treasure.