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A tight squeeze

Raging torrents left Navajoland stocked with some of the world's most dramatic but off-limits art galleries -- known as slot canyons. Now, as Katie Showalter reports, a guide wants to open them up, a risk some resist.

March 16, 2004|Katie Showalter

It's a beautiful trap, this crack through which Harley Klemme shoehorns himself.

If the skies opened in a booming storm, escape could be problematic -- as a dozen hikers learned when a flash flood thundered through nearby Antelope Canyon seven years ago.

Then there's the matter of the trolls.

And yet, like all good traps, these sculpted fantasias of sandstone are powerfully seductive, seemingly throbbing with temptation. They draw people from around the world to Navajoland, senses primed for awe.

Klemme, who is part Navajo, knows this. Now in his mid-30s, with a broad face and midsection, he grew up in Page, Ariz. He worked as a plumber until the day he visited a guide at the rock monoliths in Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park due east of town. The man was running a fleet of 20 tourist-filled trucks, Klemme recalls.

"It just tripped me right there. I says, 'I'm in the wrong business.' "

After a six-month battle to win a coveted permit, he began leading paying customers into the popular Antelope Canyon. Eventually, he decided to push into new terrain -- onto an entrepreneurial path with its own obstacles, including the paradox of encroaching on secret, some would say sacred, places to sell people the solitude they covet.

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Carving a reputation

The Navajo phrase for slot canyon is Tse neh gi too na aah dis zjaa: "where water has painted a picture of itself." Water's medium in these slots is sand, and the region around Page has sand in abundance. Ancient seas and rivers left a palette of grains, most in red and yellow hues, over the course of eons. The sand was compressed and cemented together over millions of years to form sandstone. Then trickles and torrents of water moved over the sandstone surface after rainstorms and during snowmelts.

At weak spots, the sandstone gives way, and soon the water begins painting again, carving its likeness into the walls: violence as artist.

Courtney Milne, a photographer and author of "Sacred Places in North America," understands the fissures' allure, understands why, for instance, flocks of German photographers descend on Antelope Canyon every year in an ecstatic whir of shutters.

"The combination of being down there so far beneath the surface and feeling like you're in the womb of the Earth and the way the light plays off the shapes of the sandstone -- you feel like ... nature has created something magnificent [and] you're part of the creative experience that formed it."

The Bureau of Indian Affairs holds most of the Navajo Nation's 27,000 square miles, an area about a sixth the size of California, in trust, meaning the Navajo own it but the federal government manages it. The people were given home-site leases and grazing permits.

Parts of it, including the region surrounding Lake Powell, are riddled with slot canyons, and the northwestern corner of the Navajo Nation near the lake contains "some of the most beautiful in the world," says Richard Fisher, a Tucson-based photojournalist and explorer who has traversed canyons on every continent for 25 years.

Fisher, the author of "Earth's Mystical Grand Canyons," says the Navajo Nation didn't pay much attention to the slots in the '70s and early '80s. Locals who herded livestock in the region knew of them, he says, but tribal agencies weren't concerned -- until the photographers started showing up.

Now photos of Antelope Canyon are ubiquitous, and people are responding.

For some, the challenge of negotiating these secret passages is itself a lure. In canyoneering, a sport with roots in the '70s, adventurers equipped with ropes, life vests and wetsuits, go beyond mere scrambling to swim shallow puddles and deep pools or rappel down waterfalls.

"When you go climbing, at the end of the day, you're climbing," says Rich Carlson, who has been roving canyons for 25 years and now heads the American Canyoneering Assn. in Cedar City, Utah "When you go out for a day of canyoneering, you've been hiking, climbing, swimming, rappelling."

Whatever their motives, however, some who enter the canyons cause problems. They get lost or injured or worse. When a flash flood swept through the canyon in 1997, 12 French, Swedish, British and American hikers and their guide had nowhere to go. Some tried to scramble above the rising waters and wedge themselves in the rock. The moving water was too quick and powerful. Only the guide survived.

By then there were signs of backlash. The remote Kaibeto community southeast of Page had issued a resolution in 1996 closing its slot canyons after a bout of accidents. That resolution still stands. "We don't have any rangers on hand, no clinic or hospital that will tend to any hikers, no rescuers, and it's 50 miles to the nearest facility with a helicopter," says an employee at the Kaibeto Chapter House, the seat of this Navajo district's government, who would give only the name Janell.

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