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June 2024
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Havasupai Reservation Adventure
Filed under: General, NM & SW US, Medical, Supai Canyon AZ
Posted by: Ken @ 8:30 pm

This post is the first of four installments.

Not too many people can say they closed down the Grand Canyon. Well, just a piece of it, but I am getting ahead of myself here. This adventure started in 1969 during my rotation with the Indian Health Service as part of my Tulane University School of Public Health Preventive Medicine residency training. My six week assignment with the Phoenix Area Indian Health Office was to include an orientation visit to Supai Village in the Havasupai Reservation. The reservation is located 2,400 feet below the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Only about 300 people inhabited the reservation, the most isolated in the United States, accessible only by helicopter or on foot or pack animal down a trail carved out of the sheer canyon walls. It was said to be the only place in the USA where mail was still delivered by mule.

View from Hualapai HilltopHenry Keneally, the Health Educator from the Area Office accompanied me. After an overnight stay in a little motel west of Flagstaff, we arose very early to drive about two hours westward on Route 66 past Peach Springs. We then turned to the north on a dirt road for another 66 miles to Hualapai Hilltop (view from Hilltop pictured), our staging area. There was nothing much there except for a corral with horses and mules.  

An Indian guide greeted us, and as we saddled up I cast an anxious glance at the edge of the canyon that gaped before us. Havasupai means “people of the blue-green water,” but there was no water and nothing green in sight. I learned that the name derived from the color of the water in the stream that passes through Supai Village. The water is high in minerals and is populated by blue-green algae that impart the distinctive color after it is aerated by tumbling over many little falls.

The guide helped me on the mule, the first I had ever ridden. A mule sways as it walks, making you feel like you are riding in a rocking chair. As we approached the edge of the cliff I thought we might be planning to fly down, but the trail suddenly appeared and we moved slowly through switchbacks and one hairpin turn after another. The mule had a disturbing tendency to walk on the very outer edge of the trail, sometimes less than a foot from a 500 foot plunge. I found myself leaning away from the ledge, but the guide cautioned that this only made the mule move farther out. After about a mile of white-knuckle descent, the trail began to level out, and then we entered the head of Cataract Canyon, about six miles from the Village.

Greenery appeared, and as we progressed down the canyon we began to see moisture underfoot. Then we heard the gurgle of water as it erupted from several springs along the way. In no time the creek had become a spectacular rushing torrent. The arroyo widened into Supai Canyon, and eventually we could see the buildings and animals on the flat and green canyon floor. To the sides, the canyon walls were adorned with grotesque statue-like formations, the Wigleeva Rocks (photo). Finally we arrived at the clinic. The physician who usually conducted the regular Tuesday medical visit had the week off, and one of my duties was to cover for him. The next few days turned out to be very eventful.

Next Installment: Vacating the Grand Canyon

3 Responses to “Havasupai Reservation Adventure”

  1. Judie Says:
    Hi again, I apologize for my negativity. Your story is wonderful. I first hiked Supai in the early eightys. Having come from MA in 78 It was something I had never imagined. I guess the Norma Ray in me is rising again. Your reply brought me right back. Yes, this is epidemic. I am only focusing in on this isolated instance. But!! Where do we start? Thank you for balancing me.
  2. Dave Montalbano Says:
    Ken– I was the first semi-permanent NPS ranger at havasu 1971/72 (6mos on/6mos off)… do you know/remember what ever happened to John Greenfield???? write me- interested in your stories.. very similar to mine as you might suspect. Dave M.
  3. Ken Says:
    Hi, Dave– Thanks for writing. You just reminded me that John Greenfield was actually a missionary the other half of his time. Guess he never preached to me! He was quite a guy. That night when the epidemic broke out among the campers below Havasu Falls was really exciting. John was mentoring two medical students from Loma Linda, and they were of tremendous help when we had to set up a field hospital. Wish I remembered their names, as I would like to look them up.

    Were you John’s immediate successor? I lost touch with the Indian Health Service, or at least with the Havasupai Reservation, after I finished my residency at Tulane and a fellowship in Tropical Medicine in Central America. Were you aware of the 1969 epidemic? I believe the main contributor to the contamination of the creek was the fact that the privies were open pits and, since they were in limestone there was no filtration. A rainstorm simply flooded them and they overflowed into the creek, causing the contamination by Shigella organisms.

    Did you know Henry (Harry) Keneally, Health Educator from Phoenix Area Office of the Indian Health Service? I know he visited the res fairly regularly. I also studied the alcoholism problem in urban Indians during my three month study tour with IHS– s big problem with few solutions! Guess you are now among the retired as am I. Best wishes, Ken

    Dave replied:
    My senior moment... I did not know any of the folks you mentioned.  When my
    6 month tour was up I was a ranger on South Rim Grand Canyon, then Lake
    Mead. I don’t believe they replaced me after I left but I’m not sure. John
    Greenfield was like an assistant (worked 3 days week I think and watched
    things on my day off) who new much more than a 22 year old kid but he led by
    example for which I will be eternally grateful.

    I remember one time I caught two young Havasupai boys stealing from
    campground. I arrested then and marched them up to the village where John
    and Daniel tribal officer decided that it would be best to set an example–
    I walked them out in handcuffs the 10+miles and drove them to the jail in
    Flagstaff where they served 30 days! After that I had no more reports
    stolen items but boy- the justice seemed extreme to me.

    Enjoyed your blog.. brings back memories.

    Thanks for writing Ken… John was a part-time ranger who kept an eye on
    things for Waren Hill, the district manager. George Billingsly and myself
    worked for the River/Havasu district. George was the River Ranger and I was
    Havasu. I guess in a way I was Greenfields boss but John actually helped me
    survive down there. I was the first real presence for the NPS down there
    and at the end of my tour I recommended the Park Master Plan return the
    lands to the Indians. During my internet searches I found out John
    Greenfield died August 2002.

    I also had an ecoli scout outbreak theI believe in April 1971 and had to
    march the two miles to the village and make an emergency call to helo out
    two scouts. I also made that trip for two idiots that jumped off Havasu
    Falls after I warned them Not to jump.

    I believe the strangest thing that happened to me was the first 10 day down
    there John invited me to the Church (and dinner) to watch a movie. It was a
    western film and it seemed most of the village turned out to watch it in the
    church building. As the cowboys killed Indians the Indians would cheer and
    I was very uncomfortable. Later I asked John about it and he said the
    Indians identified with cowboys and laughed. I knew then it was going to be
    an interesting 6 months.

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