There are moments in time that forever alter the course of your life. Some are planned, some sneak up on you like a thief. This one was the latter, but what this thief took was all of my preconceived notions about FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), judgments of other peoples based on my own lifestyle bias, what a vacation may or may not be all about, and left me awash with a much different perspective. The chain of events leading up to our struggle for survival started out predictably.
Pre-Trip – We spent the night at Hualapai Lodge on Route 66 which is the last bastion of creature comforts before heading out the 60 miles of Indian Highway 18 to the Havasupai Hilltop Trailhead. Three notable things happened this night.
- No matter how hard I tried, I could not make a Native American smile back at me, or even acknowledge me passing through their world. I assumed they are still angry at Caucasians, and rightly so.
- There was an extremely loud and obnoxious group (hiding a little barky dog in one of their purses) staying at the hotel and I hoped they were not going down to Havasu Falls.
- My husband bought a hat at the gift shop and while checking us out, the Hualapai Native gave it an old Indian blessing that nothing bad would ever happen to my husband while wearing it. He didn’t really pay attention to it while I thought it was incredible, and took in every word and gesture. I was mad at him afterward for not taking it more seriously.
Day 1– We checked the weather one last time and noted a 30% chance of rain, with only a 10% chance the next day. We added rain gear to our daypacks.
We drove the 60 miles to Havasupai Hilltop early in the morning to try and get a jump on the desert heat. We had a 10 mile canyon trek ahead of us (8 miles to the Supai village, and another 2 miles to the campground) and had to drop off our backpacks at a designated area to be hauled down to camp by mules (there are no roads). We had daypacks full of water, food, and other essentials that wouldn’t fit into our backpacks. We were not traveling light as we felt it necessary to plan for any contingency during the 5 nights and 6 days we would spend in Havasu Canyon, which is on the Havasupai Indian Reservation in the Grand Canyon, a world away from convenience stores.
Us at the trailhead
The trek down was long, hot, and humid (it rained a little along the way), but incredibly beautiful. I was so glad we had not opted to take a helicopter flight down. The vastness of just this arm of the Grand Canyon is so magnificent, you begin to get a small glimpse of how insignificant a human is on it’s truly grand scale.
On the trail
From research on other blogs…I knew to be aware and steer clear of the mule trains that traveled back and forth along the trail. It is the only way for supplies and mail to be delivered to the village (some supplies are taken by helicopter).
One of these mules would be swept away and drown the next day (I learned from the owner/driver of this train who took our gear out later in the week).
We got our first glimpse of the blue-green water in which the Havasupai get their name before entering into the village. It is a part of nature that defies being accurately captured in any photograph.
The blue-green water (natives don’t say turquoise).
My hubby entering into the village just ahead of me.
Did I see the animals described in other blogs? Yes. Horses/mules so painfully thin that every bone in their body was evident, and I wondered how they were still standing. It haunts me still. But I also saw well fed horses and mules. I saw a young man intentionally trip a black dog that was at a full run and it went tumbling along the road for at least 6 feet, but got up and kept running unhurt. I tried not to be mad about it. I’m still trying.
Did I see the trash others described in their blogs? Yes. But I also saw neat and tidy homes. I intentionally did not photograph either what I thought to be the good or the bad, as photos tend to capture only a tiny fraction of what may be a bigger picture. More on this later.
The landscape kept getting more indescribably beautiful as we hiked past the village. Waterfalls were everywhere.
Little Navajo Falls on the way to the campground.
Next was Havasu Falls on the way to the campground. We stopped and refreshed ourselves here. Despite the photo I was able to capture with no people, the place was quite crowded. We all eyed each other as interlopers on a personal dream. In other words…not in a friendly way. Along with the landscape, this would change drastically in just a day.
Havasu Falls in all of it’s spectacular glory pre-flood.
The campground was much more crowded than I expected for mid-September, but we were able to get one of two adjoining campsites creek side. We left our daypacks there to hold it and hiked back up to the campground entrance to wait for our backpacks to arrive by mule train.
While we waited, the obnoxious group arrived (just as loudly and with much fanfair as in the morning at the hotel) and headed into the campground. I knew it. The most I could hope for now is that they would not be within earshot.
Our backpacks arrived and we headed back to our spot with our gear and to set up camp. Who had set up camp right next to us? You guessed it, the obnoxious group. The cigarette smoke was noxious, barking of the little yappy dog was endless, and the incredibly loud voices ensured the conversations of the 6 people would drown out the sound of the babbling creek.
I was really mad about it and vowed to find another campsite the next day. How could I know that every decision being made this day and the next would mold the fate of each of the people making it?
Our camp taken from the side so as to block the OP (obnoxious people).
That night I slept with an awareness of rain off and on all night. The next morning we awoke to a glorious cloudless sky. The rain from the previous night had left not a trace of change to the landscape, and this contributed to a false sense of security of events in our very near future.
Day 2 (Flash flood day) – We dressed for the warm weather and for our 7 mile round trip trek to both Mooney and ultimately to Beaver Falls. I emptied my daypack of the ten essentials (except water and a water filter for some inexplicable reason) for the first time all summer as I was tired of carrying a load from the day before. A mistake I was soon to deeply regret and will never make again. Luckily my hubby did not follow suit.
As we headed out I noticed a campsite was still available that I had found the day before (when this photo was taken) in the middle of where the creek split that was perfect and far away from the OP.
I knew with new people arriving this day (Monday, September 14, 2015) it wouldn’t last long, but my hubby objected at the amount of work it would take to move our camp. I was mad about it, but to placate me he said we could move if when we got back from the day’s adventures it was still available.
Another fate molding decision to be sure. In just a few hours the people that were on islands would have to be rescued by both Supai and federal rangers. The bridge I was standing on would be tossed aside by a raging river.
As we started out on our trek my hubby snapped this photo. I would have you note the deceptively blue skies.
We proceeded onto the vertical corridor of various gangways, each slippery and requiring a different skill set. The warning should be duly noted by all proceeding down it’s treacherous throat.
I proceeded with the necessary caution especially due to the wet conditions from the waterfall mist.
Note the still cloudless blue sky…
Finally we reached Mooney Falls. Taller than Niagara Falls, this is as close as we dared get.
We didn’t tarry here but to take the photo and we were on our way to Beaver Falls another 3 miles down the narrow canyon. We were blissfully ignorant of the clock already counting down on a wall of water headed our way.
Onward we went, crossing the creek several times throughout our little trek. Fatefully I snapped this photo of the place that would be impassable in short order, and trap us in the canyon for over 15 hours. This shoreline would disappear under a seven foot swell that would roar and rage as swiftly as an over fueled freight train.
We stopped to take photos of flora and fauna along the way, had a leisurely lunch near Beaver Falls, not knowing that every one of these moments would waste what little time we had left to make it out of the canyon.
Big Horn sheep trailside..
We finally made it down to Beaver Falls where we talked with two other groups…one group would leave the area slightly before us, and one group of 5 beautiful young Asian Americans we would pass as they made their way to Beaver Falls as we were headed back. I would worry myself sick about these 5 people all night, not knowing that they were rescued by helicopter, along with the group that had left before us. We alone would be trapped in the canyon.
This is a photo of me being all dumb, fat, and happy in Beaver Falls. The first clap of thunder and our first indication of a storm would occur just after this photo was taken. We hadn’t noticed that the sun had quite suddenly disappeared.
How could we know that it was already too late.
We took off running as the skies were lit up with bone chattering thunder and blinding lightening that seemed to happen simultaneously. The rain poured down making every step muddy and making the trail increasingly harder to find.
Then we saw brown muddy waterfalls forming all along the canyon walls, and terror gripped me as the full realization of what was happening hit. In the same millisecond I took in how narrow the canyon was.
We ran faster still clinging to futile hope that we could make it out. The canyon walls became monstrous spouts of water.
We were becoming surrounded by brown water as seen in this photo.
A rescue helicopter passed us several times and at some point I knew they saw me, but never stopped. I didn’t know they were busy with the 5 downstream. What we did know at that point is that it was up to us to save ourselves.
My hubby’s inner boy scout kicked in and we made our way further upstream where there was higher ground, but not high enough. We reached a point where we had to cross the rising water to get to a knoll my husband has spotted. I would not be more terrified than when he directed me to a point that he felt was safe to enter and I dropped into a hole with water up to my neck.
As I struggled to get my footing and felt the water taking me with it, I screamed for my husband and he was able to grab the hand I had held out and pulled me back and up to where he was while I got footing to keep following him. We held hands to steady each other and finally made it to the other side. We later learned from a Supai ranger that we should have held onto each other’s shoulders. Swift water rescue was not something I had learned for my summer of backpacking.
We reached the high point and settled for a minute to watch the water below. It continued to rise until nothing was recognizable. As it rose it started foaming like a mad horse charging blindly through the canyon. Then we saw debris. Lots of it. Huge logs and tree limbs and even cut lumber (later we would realize this was parts of picnic tables and bridges).
We sat there helplessly watching as the world transformed. I’m not sure if I withdrew into my poncho to retain body heat or to distance myself from the grim picture before me.
Always a person of action my husband suggested we move further down the trail to see if the water was passable.
When we came to the water’s edge, I stuck my six foot stick into the water and it disappeared. The waters edge kept collapsing into the roiling brown river that moved up and down like a swift moving canyon serpent devouring everything in it’s path.
To enter into it would have been suicide.
We returned to our vantage point and took stock of our situation. We looked for anything to take shelter under. Even though it had stopped raining (temporarily as it turned out), the river kept rising.
My enterprising hubby had noticed an animal den and we went back down to find it and see if we had to fight an animal for it
Luckily it was empty and we proceeded to move in and make it our own. It would be our home for the next 15 hours. And even though we were wet, cold, hungry and tired, we were thankful to have it.
I had 15 hours to think about the events leading up to this moment. We had made judgments about a 10% chance of rain based on our So. Cali knowledge (which means no rain), and we were paying for it.
I said prayers for God to preserve our stuff so I could someday have warm clothes and food. Then I realized that our ordeal was not over and I prayed for the rain to stop and the water to subside before I had to spend another night here. Then I just prayed that we would live. I also prayed for the animal that lived here to not return. It didn’t.
Our view before it got dark…
At some point during our long night it did stop raining. We had to exit our cave about once an hour to stretch our cramped legs and to check the sky.
I pondered if the Indian blessing my husband’s hat played a part in our being able to survive thus far.
At one point I noticed that there were little points of light twinkling in the jungle outside our cave. I realized I was seeing fireflies. I hadn’t seen them since I was a little girl spending a summer with my Daddy in Oklahoma. I had forgotten about them since then. For a moment I was transported back in time and was with the Daddy that I miss so much. Such a magical gift at such a frightful time. I will remember it forever.
It was a long night and my hubby and I worked hard to make little jokes in an attempt to make the other laugh. Like me telling him I was looking forward to my spaghetti being rehydrated by the time we got back. We shared two packages of cheese crackers my hubby had squirrelled away in his daypack. God bless him.
Finally, the sky began to become light.
Day 3, 4, and 5 – When there was enough light to make out footing, we headed back up to our vantage point to check the water levels. In another answer to prayer, the water had receded but was still muddy.
We used our staffs to check water levels and made our way back to Mooney Falls and the vertical jungle gym that was now muddy in addition to wet.
We were tired so it was tough going back up, but we did it. I had imagined during the night that the whole camp would erupt in applause when they saw us making our way out of the canyon. We would be reported as missing by the OP when they noticed we had never returned.
The reality was much different.
There was a Federal Ranger filming the canyon at the top of Mooney Falls where we made our grand entrance. He was nonplussed at our appearance and seemed much more concerned with the landscape. We told him about the 5 young people we were worried were still in the canyon and he made a note of it.
Later I would put together when I heard that 9 people had been rescued out of the canyon. That would account for the party of 4 that left before us, and the 5 youngsters downstream from us.The ranger still sent down 2 others to double check that nobody else was left between Mooney and Beaver Falls.
He said, “The flash flood happened so quickly.” I thought that was curious and still wonder why he would tell us something that was so obvious we already knew. Don’t get me wrong…everyone entering the back country needs to take responsibility for their own actions. Period. But after I returned home and read that seven canyoneers were killed by a flash flood in Keyhole Canyon “despite Ranger warnings of imminent flash flooding” I thought back on what the ranger said.
Were they really warned though? I wonder. I can’t help but doubt they would have gone in knowing that flash flooding was imminent. We wouldn’t have.
As we made our way through the campground we didn’t really notice the destruction as much as we noticed it was eerily empty. I dreaded seeing what had happened to our campsite.
Another prayer answered. Our campsite was one of only a couple creek side that was left untouched. The flood waters had eaten up shoreline before and after our tent but mysteriously went around our tent. Not mysterious to me. God had answered my frivolous prayer.
The OP’s had been also spared but were silently and quickly bugging out. They obviously didn’t report us missing as they never even looked our way. I didn’t care anymore if they stayed or not. I was just happy to be alive and to be able to get into dry warm clothes and eat!
This is how close the water came.
We spent the rest of the day eating and sleeping. A few die hard campers returned and we learned that the camp had been evacuated and most campers bugged out that morning.
The route to Beaver Falls was closed for the duration of our stay.
The next day we offered to the Supai Rangers to clean up the trash around Havasu Falls, and from then on worked with the humble, hard working Ranger Ron who taught us the proper swift water rescue technique.
Here he is already at work on repairs. The two rangers to everything by hand.
We cleaned up Havasu Falls and then took a dip in the waters that were slowly turning back to it’s normal color. As if nothing had happened. The black dog I had seen being abused earlier found me and we became fast friends.
As I watched Ranger Ron and other natives interact, I realized that I had completely misjudged their “niceness”. Their communications are quick and direct. Not filled with niceties or superfluous language. Nor do they feel the need to apologize for it.
We walked around the camp and took in the devastation. The zip line was still up from rescuing people from the island where I had thought I wanted to move.
The campsites like ours just downstream from us.
The rangers have their work cut out for them for awhile…
My hubby’s victory pose over the flash flood of Havasu Falls Sept. 2015.
On day 5 we rose early and took the helicopter out to the “hilltop”.
I left a much different person than who I went down the canyon as.
FOMO (fear of missing out)? Never again. Each journey is the one we are meant to travel, not the dream we build from other’s experiences.
As I sat in the helicopter waiting to take off I couldn’t help but wonder, how would we fare if our lives/community were laid bare for hundreds of travelers a day from all over the world to judge us based on their egocentric standards? I doubt that our lives would be as picturesque as we would like to think.
We don’t have the right to judge other peoples here or anywhere. Their world is not ours, and if we have been granted the privilege to travel through it, we must focus on the experience it leaves us with, not the one we bring with us.
As we parted, Ranger Ron told us we were welcome on Havasupai land anytime.
I had an incredible experience and it was a value added bucket list trip for sure, but I think once was enough.
Until next time dearest.