Most deaths here, our guide explains, can be attributed to poor judgment. Hikers underestimate how much water they will need, how close they are to a ridge, how much the temperature can change after sunset, how quickly and high the water will rise during a storm.
None of it has kept Bruce Corey away. He is in his mid 50s and has hiked more than 1,500 miles here, in the Grand Canyon, and he knows many of the 600 side canyons that lie within these 2,000 square miles.
The Grand Canyon is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. The average traveler spends three hours at this national park, but more like 10 minutes in the canyon.
Most people visit the North or South Rim. Our group of 17 heads west, for a stay at the Havasupai reservation, which draws roughly 15,000 visitors per year, compared to the South Rim’s 5 million. We are about 75 miles northeast of Kingman, Ariz.
It is an 8-mile walk down Havasu Canyon, to the village, then 2 more miles to our luxury campsite. We wonder what that means: grilled rattlesnake by candlelight?
We follow a winding and dusty route that many of the 450 residents use, some herding a string of weighed down packhorses. It is a dusty downward trek, and often smarter to watch the ground than the skies. We are lucky that it is a clear day, with an occasional gentle breeze.
Loose gravel can be easier to navigate than the fine, red sand. Sometimes the ground turns into a green powder, with the odor of sun-baked horse urine. The views are incredible and imposing, frustrating to photograph because the sun is ablaze and no lens is wide enough to capture it all.
Our backpacks weigh 8-10 pounds; we each carry four bottles of water, which we will drink in six hours. Our leaders know how to pace us, where to find a patch of shade. We are near no sheer cliffs, and we learn to give four-legged creatures the right of way.
It is a smooth but long haul. One hiker wears duct tape over her heel, to shield raw skin. The shoe of another falls apart; duct tape temporarily holds the sole intact.
Me? I return to Wisconsin without a blister, partly because I wimp out of a tough day hike. After arriving at our campsite, I show my cowardice early and without regret, preferring to use a morning to take photos and notes.
The Guy? He is much braver, but leaves scathed: a few prickly pear spines in his thigh, plus scrapes and jammed fingers from a rope swing into water that went awry. He relied on that swelling hand to make his way – using chains and metal posts – up a 60-foot cliff, through a 25-foot tunnel, past 200-foot Mooney Falls and back to base camp.
Another hiker shared arnica, an herbal salve, to relieve the bruising and pain. Our three guides had an herbal mouth spray that eased the anxiety of others during this adventure.
“Always maintain three points of contact with something sturdy,” lead guide Brian Jump had advised, and this is where my own bravery began to fade. No one ridiculed my decision to stay behind.
The tiny village, we are told, would have a hard time existing without the tourists. They will pay $85 for a 12-minute, one-way helicopter ride into or out of the canyon. It’s about the same to rent a horse to ride out. Mail is delivered by mule.
A family sells Indian tacos and fry bread near the public campground entrance. The town grocer can triple the price for a can of Coke, even if it’s room temperature, and still get customers.
There also is indifference. The lone restaurant is open irregularly. The tourist center has one public toilet – dirty, but it flushes. The helicopter takes locals before visitors.
There is beauty and squalor, mangy dogs and satellite TV dishes. A campground can accommodate about 300, most of whom will stay just one night.
We arrive in our cargo pants that zip into shorts, our backpacks with water bladders, our polarized sunglasses, our light hiking boots. We pass poor and weather-beaten faces, as a group that will be pampered in ways the Havasupai cannot.
Our tent lodging on air mattresses, with cozy sheets and sleeping bags, plus meals better than the average restaurant back home, in 2006 will cost $1,440 for a two-night stay. That also includes pre-hike grub and lodging at a clean Route 66 motel, plus the breathtaking helicopter ride out of the canyon.
We are fed often and lavishly, hacking at thick wedges of brie with herbs, before the grilled halibut, filet mignon and asparagus spears arrive. The next night it will be salmon steaks, with a hint of maple syrup in the marinade.
Dessert is gourmet cheesecake. Snacks are from Trader Joe’s. We bring our own Shiraz in a box, as liquor is neither sold nor imbided by the tribe.
Luxury camping, in this place, is about having ice and packhorses to carry your gear. It is about having camp chairs and hammocks, being surrounded by glorious canyon walls during a full moon.
We are told that George Strait pays $10,000 to hunt elk and mule deer here, that Nicolas Cage brought Lisa Marie Presley here, just to hang around.
Only an occasional horse’s neigh or raven’s caw breaks up the white noise of a nearby creek, our private swimming hole, as it rushes toward the next waterfall.
When night arrives, the Havasupai – the “people of the blue-green water” – disappear indoors. It is time to open the canyon trails to the spirits that they cannot see but will always feel, in one of the world’s most splendid creations.
For more about Arizona Outback Adventures, which offers this outdoor adventure and others, see www.aoa-adventures.com or call (866) 455-1601. The company’s excursions also are a part of REI Adventures; there are REI outdoor gear stores in Madison and Brookfield.