Four Havasupai Men Saved Us

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It was a beautiful and pristine weekend on the Havasupai Reservation in Grand Canyon. Late on a Thursday night we hiked eight miles into the Grand Canyon to Supai Village and arrived at the tourist office shortly before day-break. After we paid our dues we headed straight for Supai campground two miles away to set up camp for the weekend. That very same day, I wanted to head back into the village while others went swimming in the falls. That afternoon I visited with various Supai villagers and engaged in small talk. This was my first time to Havasupai and it turned out to be a life-changing experience.

Friday and Saturday I spent hiking with my buddies Robert and Joe. Saturday I wanted to hike 7-8 miles down to the Colorado River from the campground but couldn’t get anyone in our group to accompany me that far so I settled for Beaver falls about three miles down from Mooney Falls. My first impression of the waterfalls in Havasupai was the sheer beauty of the turquoise green waters going through the canyon and the travertine formations that sculpted each spectacular waterfall. It was utterly amazing, it was almost like the first time I set eyes on the Grand Canyon when I was eight years-old. All my life I’ve seen various waterfalls around the Southwest and nothing was on par with Havasupai. Every outdoorsman should go to Havasupai at least once in their lifetime!

Late Saturday night as we were hiking up from Mooney Falls and were told to evacuate the area around Mooney because there was a flash flood warning in effect until ten o’clock. Joe and Robert headed back to camp and I hung around Mooney Falls to shoot a few more images as the waterfall began turning reddish brown. In camp everything was calm that night and we enjoyed an evening with only mild rain.

Around midnight early Sunday, I woke up to people screaming and a man shaking my tent alerting me of the massive flood. As I emerged from my tent I saw the ravine next to the tent filling with a raging torrent. The evening before it was bone dry. Boulders rolled through it with ease being pushed along with sticks and driftwood. On the other side was Havasu creek. It was completely overwhelmed looking more like a muddy Colorado River. All kinds of debris went rushing by including an outhouse, tents, water toys, cottonwood trees and boulders. The floodwaters completely surrounded the high ground that stranded our group of twelve people. There were others; a scout troop with six boys and one other couple with their friend. It became a long night as we all waited for morning to swing around. The water kept rising until 4 A.M. and then slowed down. We made a camp fire and everyone huddled around waiting for morning.

There was a lot of confusion, panic and uncertainty even in the morning when rescuers hadn’t arrived. It wasn’t until around 9 A.M. that four Havasupai men came to our rescue. By this time we saw a couple of private helicopters arriving on the scene. One of them dropped an old rope on our island. The Havasupai men helped us construct a line across the floodwater about 40 feet long but no-one wanted to cross because of the strong flood current. The first to traverse the line was a guy named Jerry and he barely made it. The rest of us would follow after being warned that another wave of flood water was just minutes away from slamming us. One of the Havasupai men said we had three choices; we could cross the line, climb a tree, or drown in the flood! My buddies ran up some trees but I couldn’t get into a tree and that’s when my survival instinct kicked in. I ran towards the ropes with a pack on. The only thing I was carrying was my flute, my camera, a blanket my mother made me when I was a child, and my 150 dollar cowboy boots. Everything else was lost to the flood. I zipped across the rope line. It was easier than I had expected though I did slip but was able to pull myself to safety with the help and encouragement of the Havasupai men. Two more people had crossed before me and everyone else followed across the line except Joe and Robert, my friends from Parowan, Utah. They were still up in trees on the island!

The water was beginning to rise and that’s when I began to snap a little. I felt guilty for crossing the line and having my friends still on the other side. It was tear-jerking! It was hard dealing with the uncertainty as to whether they could make it out or not and I couldn’t bear the thought of them dying in the the flood. The others in our group were from Vegas and when they saw me, they began shouting in unison for Robert and Joe to come across the line. Not long afterwards they arrived and both crossed to safety. The scouts were still on the island as well but there was an old Havasupai man that was able to find an access route to the island on foot and they were able to bring the scouts across quickly and safely before the next surge of floodwater hit. Everyone on the island made it out alive. I was so overjoyed that my friends made it across safely. We all made it higher ground. We followed the four Havasupai up some steep inclines and a hidden trail that lead back to the village two miles away. By the time we arrived in the village there was FEMA warnings posted on the trees letting everybody know that an earthen dam up the river had failed. We were airlifted in Blackhawk helicopters out of the Canyon.

Almost two days have passed since we left Havasupai behind and already I’m missing the beauty, solitude, and tranquility of the water falls. Late last night I dreamed about them. The campground is only thing that really sustains the Havasupai people. Without the tourism they would have a very hard time indeed. Our group is forever indebted to the four Havasupai men that risked their lives to save ours. I may not be writing this if it hadn’t been for them.

I’ve seen the best and the worst of Grand Canyon. While we were all on that island death was a constant reminder that life is short. Looking into that floodwater all night really forced me to introspect carefully about my life. Now I want to experience all that my life has to offer. The blood that runs in my veins is that of a pure desert rat and I’m grateful for this experience and having survived. I hope everyday becomes an adventure or misadventure!

Click Here – For photos of the flood!

Correction made to this post – Only twelve people in our group became stranded on the island. Seven others left earlier before the flood hit.

Comments

  1. Hey, bud great story! I’m glad you lived to tell this story. Alot of my work peers have camped at Havasupai. They are familair with this exact area.

    Great story.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Dad

  2. John Dougherty says:

    I’m the Arizona correspondent for the New York Times. Please contact me at 602-710-9433. I want to get details on your harrowing escape from Havasupai.
    Thanks, John Dougherty

  3. Wow, you guys were lucky. 16 of us were there 2 weeks before that happened. I can’t even imagine how scary that was to have the water rushing towards you so fast. I hope you got to see the beauty of the area before the flooding. I doubt that it will be the same again for many years to come. Thanks for sharing your story. Sandy

  4. Finally I’ve found your blog! Awesome!

  5. I’m just catching up on your blog. I’ve heard about this, but am glad to read your story. Thanks.

  6. Do you know to what extent the falls have cleared up?

  7. Alldarker says:

    One year to the day of the flood… Hope you are still doing well! Thank you for your account.

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