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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

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Hike deep into the Grand Canyon

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The creek is laden with carbonates that separate when they meet the dry canyon air coating the stream bed. [L.Kramer photo]

You have to hike 16 long, hot, dusty kilometres to reach Havasu Creek, but when you finally reach this oasis of fast flowing water on the valley floor of the Grand Canyon you will be astonished by its brilliant, blue hue. You’ll wrench your backpack off your tired shoulders and wade into the cool water, gratefully allowing the soft current to wash the desert sand from your skin.

The Havasupai Indian Reservation starts on the canyon rim and extends deep inside the Grand Canyon, neighbouring the Grand Canyon National Park. To get there you drive four hours north of Phoenix, arriving with sufficient water, energy and supplies to hike into the canyon, or a budget to fly in by helicopter.

The travellers who come this way hoist backpacks on their shoulders, committed to the hike and ready to go. Some have been before and experienced the magical beauty of Havasupai. Others, like this writer, have seen pictures of the ice-blue creek and its many spectacular waterfalls and have known instantly they want to see it firsthand.

Each year a million visitors go to the lip of the Grand Canyon National Park, peering over the edge for an average of 12 minutes before returning home. For those who want to go deeper, to smell, touch and traverse those time-pocked sandstone walls, the trails to and around the village of Supai are the answer.

We joined a group with Arizona Outback Adventures, making our way down the canyon wall’s switchbacks in the early morning and hiking along the canyon floor as the sun gradually illuminated the deep, rich reds and browns of the vertical rock face. Six miles into the hike spiky cacti give way to a trail lined by lush cottonwood trees. You feel the creek’s moisture in the air before you hear its bubbling sound and when you finally lay your eyes on it, its sheer colour is stunning.

It’s travertine you’re seeing in that brilliant blue water. The creek is laden with carbonates that separate when they meet the dry canyon air, coating the stream bed and giving it a turquoise, icy hue that’s nothing short of brilliant. Take photos of this water as it cascades over curtains of mossy rocks and they look too good to be true. They must have been digitally enhanced, others will say. But no, you’ll tell them. It’s really, truly this magnificent. 

Two miles past Supai Village lies a campground, and there, steps from the creek, is our base camp. Once there we settle in for two days of exploring the canyon, examining its exquisite symmetry, picking its fossils from the ground, swimming in its waterfalls and learning of the people who came this way before us.

Not all of them came out alive. At the 200-foot Mooney Falls, the largest of the canyon’s waterfalls, we clamber through tunnels and pick our way carefully down the rock face to feel a refreshing mist of spray at the bottom. Robert Mooney was one of the early explorers here, a man who fell to his death at the falls. Ten months later, in 1883, when his brother excavated a better way down the rock face, he found the body of his deceased sibling packed in travertine.

We spend the day on trails that follow the bubbling creek, crossing valleys filled with fragrant canyon grape and plunging frequently into pools of clear creek water to escape the searing desert heat. At Beaver Falls, which marks the boundary between Havasupai land and the Grand Canyon National Park, we unleash our inner child. There are joyful yelps as swimmers young and old do cannonballs over the smaller falls, standing beneath curtains of travertine that drape the slope of the falls to feel pelting water relax tired shoulders.

On day two we hike into Carbonate Canyon, clambering over limestone boulders discarded by flooding water, and pick crinoids, sponges and brachiopods, marine fossils that date millions of years, from the ground. We use flashlights to delve inside an old galena mine on the hillside, and we return energized to base camp, our minds wondering at the geology and exquisite beauty of the day’s sights.

It’s easy to understand why the Supai villagers continue to live here, more than 800 years after their ancestors arrived. One of the most remote Indian tribes in the country and the last remaining place where U.S. mail is delivered on horseback, the political boundaries of their land have changed drastically over time, but not their way of life. Two pillars of stone, called Wii Gli’iiva, overlook the village, considered the guardian spirits of the community of 600. According to legend, if they should fall to the ground the canyon walls will close and the village will be destroyed.

The desert is at its finest as dusk falls and tiny bats begin a moonlit dance between the cottonwood trees. A chorus of red-spotted toads deliver throaty chirps as they leave the creek and the canyon walls change colour as they fall into shadow. We watch the beauty unfold from a hammock as our guides prepare a steak, chicken and quinoa meal from a portable kitchen, food that belies our remoteness some 2,500 feet inside the canyon.

The hike out on our final day begins literally at the crack of dawn, but we’re grateful for the morning shadows, moving quickly from oasis back to desert and towards the steep switchbacks that traverse Hualapai Canyon. Much later, after the horses have lugged our bags from campsite to hilltop and the long drive back to Phoenix is behind us, we check into Scottsdale’s Four Seasons Resort for some well-deserved luxury.

First on the menu is a long shower, chased by a couple hours in the spa beneath the hands of an expert masseuse. The Healing Hiker Massage removes any last traces of travertine from our skin leaving us scented with mountain arnica and a sublime sense of accomplishment at having truly experienced the Grand Canyon.

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