Date With Mooney

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200-foot high Mooney Falls

I can still hear it plain as day – her urgent silence against the deafening roar of the falls – and it chills me to the bone.

Me: “Where is Dan (my husband)?”

Chris (his sister): mouth moving, but I can’t hear what she’s saying through the noise of the waterfall…no sense of urgency, I assure myself as I glance again towards the pool where Dan had been frolicking like a child not two moments earlier…she’s walking towards me slowly…she’d be more agitated if there were a problem…

Me: “Where is Dan?” Jogging towards her now, realizing my husband is nowhere in sight – a sick feeling beginning to twist itself in my stomach, my worst fears inching closer and closer to the surface, about to be realized.

Chris starts walking faster, begins gesturing, pointing at the falls. I see her mouth moving but still can’t make out the words. As she nears, fragments of her voice begin to reach me through the roar of the falls.

“Danny’s in trouble!”

Oh my God. My stomach turns.  No! I can’t believe I’m hearing this.

My jog turns to a run as I rush past Chris and her husband Paul, who had been playing in the falls with Dan, and race closer to the edge of the pool beneath the waterfall. All the while, searching wildly for any sign of Dan – a bobbing head – his face above the water- a hand – anything.

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Makeshift Warning

Only minutes before, I had been languidly washing my hair in the pool that breaks the massive 200-foot drop of Mooney Falls, deep in the Havasupai Indian Reservation near the Grand Canyon. Submerging my head in the frigid water – silence…except for my heartbeat – only to rise above the water again to the crash of the falls. The whole time willing myself not to be overly concerned about Dan and Paul, who were swimming close to the waterfall’s base.  Too close for my comfort.

He was an adult after all. Did I really need to tell him to be careful? His sarcastic response to past admonitions rang only too clear…”Thanks for reminding me, I was actually NOT going to be careful until you said that.”

Up to this point in our trip, a trip replete with waterfalls, I had fought the urge to comment on how dangerous they could be.  That the depression gauged out by the falls was like a huge washing machine, trapping, churning and rotating anything unlucky enough to get caught in its cycle down into the depths of that impossibly clear blue pool.

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Look closely above the ladder at the bottom for the route up.

At 200 feet, Mooney Falls is the largest waterfall in Havasupai (Cataract) Canyon, a side canyon that meets up with the Colorado River and Grand Canyon proper about eight miles downstream. Mooney was named for an unfortunate miner who in 1882 had met his demise at the bottom of the falls after falling from a rope while trying to descend.

At the time there was no other discernible way down to the bottom of the falls, so Mooney’s friends were forced to leave his body to the elements on the canyon floor. It was only when, eleven months later, one of them noticed a local Native American wearing Mooney’s boots that they were shown a precarious route down a crevice in the canyon wall.

Unwilling to risk the dicey-looking descent, they attempted to make it more navigable by blasting a small tunnel through the rock, chipping crude steps, and drilling in iron spikes.  The white-knuckle route, slick with spray and with the rusty chains linking the iron spikes the only handholds, still serves as the only way down to the bottom of the falls and is the one visitors follow today.  At their own risk, I might add, and as a foreboding sign just before the initial descent warns.  It is not a trip for the fainthearted, nor for those afraid of heights.

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Making our way down the crude, slippery steps

On our first trip to Havasupai in 2010, after hiking nine grueling miles and trekking through the mile-deep campground, we got our first glimpse over the edge of the falls – and what magnificence we beheld!  We were immediately captivated, and have returned faithfully every year over Labor Day weekend, spending three or four days in the veritable paradise tucked away like a land lost to time.

Now, this “paradise” threatened to become a place of nightmares; a place where the unthinkable, the unspeakable, was unfolding right before my very eyes.

As I jogged across the gravelly shore and rounded Mooney’s base, I thought I saw a flash of flesh and curly hair beneath – and directly behind – the falls.  In a moment I caught a better glimpse of Dan, now clinging to the slippery rock wall carved out of the cliff by the falls, and heard his cry as he lost his tenuous grip and Mooney pulled him back into its grasp.

In a panic, I entered the frigid pool at the base of the falls, getting about waist high before spray and mist obscured my view.  The strong undercurrent pulling me towards the falls broke through my panic and I realized it was not safe to continue.

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Haze created by the force of the falls

Oh my God, oh my God…I repeated over and over in my mind, as I stood there racking my brain for a solution, feeling more helpless than I ever had in my life.  It was the end of the holiday weekend and, unlike the past three days, the campground was deserted.  On this afternoon, we were completely alone at the base of Mooney Falls.

Suddenly, before Chris or I knew what was happening, Paul struck out slowly yet determinedly through the water towards the falls, hugging the rock face of the cliff from which the powerful torrent catapulted.  As the water reached his waist, he turned towards the cliff and carefully selected two handholds, testing them before taking another step.

The next moment, Mooney spat Dan out again, and he kicked weakly, clawing at the slippery rocks before finding a handhold.  He was losing strength, I could see it in his face, and in the way the pull of the falls played tug of war with his body as he clung to the rocks for dear life.

In what seemed to take an eternity, Paul painstakingly made his way hand-over-hand, closer and closer to the spot where Dan clung to the wall, in danger of disappearing once more as the suction from the falls slowly loosened his grip.

Paul inched along patiently until he was about a foot away, just on the other side of a small rock abutment.  With a swift movement, he reached out and grabbed one of Dan’s hands.  A mighty tug brought Dan’s hand around the abutment and placed it on a hidden handhold, holding it there until he was sure of Dan’s grip.  Dan remained still for a moment, his lower body drifting back towards the falls…

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World of perpetual mist at the bottom of Mooney

Finally, with one last burst of strength, Dan relinquished his left-handed grip and pulled himself around the rock outcropping towards Paul, finding another solid handhold with his left hand. I held my breath.  Paul took Dan’s his right hand again, and carefully placed it, again not letting go until he was sure Dan could hold on.  They continued this way, one hand at a time, until Dan could finally stand on his own in the swirling water.

I will never forget his face as he turned towards me and our eyes connected.  Literally white as a ghost, he had the look of someone who had come face to face with his mortality, and was in disbelief that his life had been mercifully allowed to continue.

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Posing before the drama unfolded..

As he stumbled, shaking, through the shallow water, I ran to him and bear-hugged his freezing body.  We wrapped him in towels and helped him to shore.  After some time, we eventually made our way back up the slippery route to the campground.  Before Dan started up the rickety ladder he turned and gave Mooney one last look.  I saw him shudder visibly, and we embraced as a wave of emotion overcame him.

As we held each other there at the base of Mooney in that remote canyon, we were both engulfed by a feeling of insignificance, coupled with a new respect, in the face of such a great force of nature.  At the same time we felt an overwhelming gratitude for all the gifts in our lives, and for Life itself.  This time, unlike that day in 1882, Mooney did not win.  Dan had been given a second chance, and we both came away with a new appreciation of life that will stay with us for the rest of our days.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Adventure!


This week’s Weekly Photo Challenge speaks to a topic I love – if you couldn’t already guess – Adventure!  Maybe I’m just in Grand Canyon mode lately, but when I think “adventure”, this image immediately comes to mind.

I remember the moment captured in the photo clearly…we were at about the half-way point in our ten-mile journey down to camp at Havasupai.

I can feel the warmth of the canyon emanating up from the rocks…the excitement of it being our first hike down into the unknown…the anticipation of what we’d find there.

As we came around a bend, we suddently beheld a beautiful alcove; its hollow, arching chamber beckoning us to come in and rest a bit.  We accepted the invitation and stopped under the huge overhang, rubbing our aching feet and re-hydrating while imagining aloud who else – be it native inhabitants or outlaws – had been drawn to its inviting coolness in the past, just as we were that blazing day.

While lost in that reverie, the Canyon chose to fully maximize our feeling of adventure by sending a string of unsupervised pack mules clattering down the narrow canyon, right past our shelter!  It was a glorious site to behold.

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2012-07-02 05.58.54“If anybody is not blown away by the Grand Canyon, they won’t be blown away by Judgement Day, either.  To spend the night on rocks that have been warmed to 120 degrees by the sun, to feel the incredibly insistent and very dangerous Colorado River rush by you, to be down in the depths of the Grand Canyon with no one around you but your own party, you begin to feel your own insignificance.  At the same time, you are made larger by that realization.”
filmmaker Ken Burns, to Arizona Highways Magazine

I recently confirmed our spots on our second Colorado River rafting trip, set to embark in July of 2015.   Since doing so, I often find myself staring off into space, my mind wandering back to our pre-baby – and virgin – trip…images flash through my mind of sun-seared red sandstone cliffs…the roiling rush of the river, like a writhing beast, beneath me during the day and beside me at night…and slowly but surely I get drawn back down, down, down into the Grand Canyon. It has a way of doing that.

Like it was yesterday, I can feel the hot, industrial-thick rubber of ‘The Rail’ (what we newbie river runners dubbed the side pontoons of the raft – the front of the raft, where you’re sure to get soaked, is The Bathtub, of course) under my sunburned legs and the soft spray kissing my face…the rhythmic rise and fall of our craft as the river swelled beneath it…Like some living thing, the Canyon is already calling to me, pulling me back in.

When we signed up for our first river trip with Hatch River Expeditions back in June of 2012, one of our main goals was to check a ‘big one’ off of our Bucket List.  I mean, what adventurous soul does NOT yearn to raft the mighty Colorado at least once in their lifetime? Little did we know that the allure of the Canyon was not something easily-escaped once whisked top-side via helicopter.  Nor did I expect, even weeks later, to start from a sound sleep, feeling the roll and sway of the raft beneath me as if I were still being carried down the river.

There is something haunting about the Grand Canyon – and something absolutely visceral about experiencing it while riding on the back of the mightiest river in America, spending a whole week sleeping exposed to sheer, sun-baked rock faces under the craziest, thickest expanse of stars imaginable. That canyon gets into your blood somehow.

Nankoweap Delta
Nankoweap Delta

For all the intensity of experience and mysteries unveiled to us during that memorable first trip, one spot stands out for me above all the rest.  Nankoweap.

“Nankoweap”…I had seen that word hundreds of times, almost always gracing the caption of a stunning photograph of ancient ruins nestled high above the water back-lit by an impossibly beautiful straight-shot view three miles downriver.

Nankoweap…the humongous delta – the largest on the river in fact – named for Nankoweap Creek, which drains into the Colorado at this spot where Nankoweap Canyon and Marble Canyon meet.

To me, the name Nankoweap had become so synonymous with these ruins perched high above the river, which were not dwellings but granaries where the ancient inhabitants stored their food, that I had no idea this place held so much more.  I had read about Nankoweap in countless captions, but never did I imagine I would see it for myself, and be able to view the remnants of its ancient civilization up close – let alone bed down in the Nankoweap Delta, where Ancient Puebloan people made their home nearly 1000 years ago in what had been one of the largest settlements inside the Grand Canyon.

Indian Dick Campsite
Indian Dick Campsite

It was day two of our trip, and we had spent the preceding night, our first inside the canyon, at Indian Dick; a popular camping spot lewdly named after a prominent rock feature that overlooks it. After an intoxicating second day on the river, I consulted my trusty waterproof mile-by-mile Colorado River guidebook (which sadly ended up in its namesake when I rode The Rail on Hermit Rapid just days later) that we were approaching Nankoweap, located approximately 52 river miles below Lee’s Ferry.

I excitedly anticipated getting a glimpse of the fabled granaries from afar, as the raft whisked us around the curve of the delta and on our way. As I braced myself and my waterproof camera so as not to miss them as we rounded the curve, imagine my excitement when I overheard the guides discussing whether we should pull in for the night – a possibility as long as no other river runners had beat us to the few good camp sites on the delta.

As we rounded the bend, I sucked in my breath; pleasepleaseplease…yes! There was nobody there!  It only felt real when our guides carefully guided our boat and our sister boat to shore – we were actually spending the night at Nankoweap!

Technically inside Marble Canyon, part of Grand Canyon National Park, Nankoweap’s expansive delta was officially studied back in the 60s by an archaeologist named Douglas W. Schwartz.  Not only did Schwartz thoroughly investigate the famous granaries in the cliffs, but also a number of petroglyph sites and ruins on the canyon floor along the river – in all, thirty pueblo structures- upon which he based his conclusion that the Nankoweap Delta may have been home to as many as 900 people at one time, most likely between AD 1050 and Ad 1150.  He also concluded that the people farmed the delta, based on remnants of ancient corncobs and pumpkin seeds that he found in the granaries.

Mooring at Nankoweap
Mooring the rafts at Nankoweap

The boats drifted to shore, as crafts of millennia past must have done, and we commenced our nightly ritual of unloading supplies and setting up individual camp sites. As the sun dipped lower in the sky, casting shadows onto the canyon walls, our guides beckoned and a good number of us gathered at the foot of the salmon-hued cliffs to begin the ascent to the Nankoweap granaries.

As we started along the sandy trail, I couldn’t help but notice our guides wore flip-flops…a modern testament (in my mind) to the woven sandals the Ancient Puebloans surely wore to make this very same trek. We navigated silently among the mesquite, tamarisk, and other brush, the trail often choked with obstacles, forcing us to scramble over toppled rocks and exposed roots. Soon, the trail began to get steeper, seemingly chiseled through the exposed rock, and the granaries came into view, over 600 feet above the river.

After a bit of huffing and puffing, we finally made it up the last stretch and the granaries sat as they had for nearly ten centuries, tucked away tight in the cliff side, accessible only by a narrow walkway. In ones and twos, we carefully navigated the precarious zig-zag path up, and finally I stood on the threshold and beheld that coveted view. I looked off down the river, relishing the moment, then let my gaze wander over to the granaries themselves. So small really; humble storage caches for a people that lived and breathed and walked here a thousand years ago. A people who, after all, were only trying to survive.

Ancient granaries, tucked away in the cliffside.
Ancient granaries, tucked away in the cliffside.

I reverently approached the caches and peered inside, trying to imagine the need – the urgency – that drove these people to store seeds that would ensure their survival in such a high and inaccessible place. Was it a fear that the river would rise? Was it to keep them out of enemy hands? Archaeologists dance around the truth, seemingly getting closer and closer to The Answer; but I am convinced there are some things we will just never know.

I let my gaze linger inside one of the small depressions and a faint shimmer of blue caught my eye. Turquoise. The revered symbol of water, sky, and life itself. Like the archaeologists trying to decipher the clues left behind by the Ancient Puebloans, I will never know for sure who left this hopeful offering or why – but to me it was the perfect embodiment of the People, whose essence and spirit will always live on within the canyon.

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