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Hiking into Spring

In Arizona, descending Havasu Canyon to ravishing waterfalls and an isolated Native American reservation.

March 30, 1997|JACK NILLES | Nilles is a freelance writer based in Seattle

SUPAI, Ariz. — I shivered in the dawn chill of a spring morning as I cinched up my heavy backpack and began my descent into the canyon below. The dark trail soon began to drop precipitously, and I could see in the distance the sun beginning to play on the walls of Havasu Canyon, a South Rim offshoot of the mighty Grand Canyon.

Eight miles down--and just then waking up--was the centuries-old village of Supai, center of the surrounding Havasupai Indian Reservation. Through Supai runs life-giving Havasu Creek, an aberration in this arid country. It springs mysteriously from the Coconino Plateau above, and speeds through Havasu Canyon, plunging over cataracts to meet the Colorado River.

I had spent the previous week hiking the bone-dry inner Grand Canyon, 20 miles east of here. Now I was eager to explore Havasu Canyon and to get doused by its thundering waterfalls. I would camp at the bottom for two days and do day hikes, respecting ancestral lands by sticking only to the two paths sanctioned by the Havasupai tribe for outsider use: the main Hualapai Trail I was on, and the less used Topocoba Trail. Along the way and in the village, I hoped to talk with some of the Havasupai and hear them speaking in their native tongue.

The tribe lives on one of the most isolated Native American reservations in the United States. Their language, also called Havasupai, is spoken only in this canyon. I knew that the number of American Indian languages in daily use had declined since European contact, and I wondered if Havasupai was faring any better. I suspected it is mostly used by the older generation.

Suddenly, I heard a snort. Seconds later, horses materialized from around a bend of the still-dark trail. Flattening myself against the sandstone wall of a narrow switchback in order to let them pass, I breathed a "howdy" as the mount and its sleepy-looking rider slid by with two horses in tow. The wrangler, who had dark braids and wore a baseball cap, only stared as he passed by.

Minutes later I leaped back against the wall again. Another Havasupai rider, trailing a pack train of horses laden with baskets, trudged by, headed up to the canyon rim. He was wearing a T-shirt that said "Zorro," and his raven eyes quietly bored holes through me.

Shortly, I heard hooves again. This time, a mule train, hellbent for the hilltop, threw up a dust screen.

"Nice day," I offered. Its lead rider eyed me silently as he glided by. Bob Marley looked out from his T-shirt.

I drank some water from my canteen and pushed on deeper into Havasu Canyon, puzzled by the silent reception.


At the top, these riders would mount up guests, supplies and mail and, at mid-morning, head back down to Supai. A few years ago the Havasupai decided there would be no road into the canyon. Villagers and visitors must go by foot, horseback or helicopter. Supai is said to be the only town in the U.S. that gets mail by mule.

The morning heated up. The trail gets very hot in summer; spring and fall are the best times for hiking. A heavily laden pack train carrying out guests and their gear plodded by. Canyon wrens sped down the canyon as a hawk circled above. Some lizards took cover.

By midmorning, signs of the Supai village began appearing down the widening, pale-red canyon, through which runs Havasu Creek. A young village girl watched me from atop her little pony as it drank from a smaller stream. Homes, farming equipment and planted fields soon came into view.

I reached the village about four hours from the time I'd started my trek down from Hualapai Hilltop, eight miles above. Havasupai homes were dwarfed by towering walls of ancient red rock, and I could see the tan cliffs of the Coconino Plateau, where I had come from, in the distance.

I walked past the Supai post office. Elderly men, in a timeless village scene, were gabbing in Havasupai in the shade of the old wood and sandstone building. Havasupai is a dialect of the Yuman language, distinct from the languages of the nearby Navajo and Hopi tribes. The men fell silent when I stopped.

I went to the Havasupai Tourist Enterprise office, a ranch house with a large porch where hikers are expected to check in (reservations must be made several weeks in advance). For $15, I got the required entry permit from a soft-spoken village elder. He was preoccupied by an argument between some Belgian and German hikers. I paid an extra $10 per night for camping.

Like their ancestors, who have been in this canyon at least since the 14th century, the Havasupai get around only by foot or on horseback. They farm the canyon floor in summer, and hunt game and collect wild plants on the Coconino Plateau above in the winter. They coexist with their neighbors, the Hualapai, also a Yuman-speaking tribe whose reservation begins 13 miles west.

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