Sunday, June 17, 2012

Havasu & Mooney Falls

Day #2 (and evening #1) - Exploring the waterfalls of Supai
Mooney Falls 
     There was a short amount of time where I thought that I was done for the evening, that I’d just lay there in the tent on my little blow-up air mattress and fall asleep, my thin sleeping bag rumpled all around me, too tired to even change my still damp clothes from Havasu Falls.  But as the sun started to set, my body began to move of its own accord, a hiding place in my mind persuading me onward with the promise of some bewitching ideal.
     We were an even mile from Havasu in one direction and Mooney in the other.  I’d been waiting three years to see Mooney Falls and now that I was one mile away I could’t very well wait another day.  So we grabbed some water and my camera and we hit the trail once more.
     The easiest way to Mooney is to stay on the West side of the creek. There is a clear sandy path that leads right through the campground.  You will know when you have reached Mooney Falls.  The sandy canyon floor that you are walking upon fades into a rocky ledge, which ends abruptly and opens up before you.  This will be your first view of it:

     Remember that prime campsite I mentioned earlier?  Look closely at the top right corner of this photo and you will see the picnic table that marks the site.  
     Here is another view from the top, edging out just a bit closer to the sheer drop:

     This is a great spot to view Mooney.  If I could give just one word of advice about Mooney Falls overall, it would simply be watch your step.  There are no guardrails anywhere, and the paths that you take from this point on are dangerous. If you have a great fear of heights, this might be the best spot for you to enjoy the waterfall.  It only gets worse from here.  
    From the top of the canyon, you can make your way down to the next viewpoint by walking down a few steps and curving inward toward the canyon wall.  At this point, there is a precarious but nice place to sit.  This is the view you will get from there:

     Turn and start to zigzag down another 20 feet or so; the path is narrow with the travertine rock towering above you on one side, and sheer drop offs on the other.  There is a point where it looks as though the path has broken away and there is a four foot section that is only about 10 inches wide.  It’s very doable, just be extremely cautious and take it slow.  After that you must go through a short tunnel.  Upon emerging from it you will find yourself wedged inside a little cavern.  This is where the chains start and the second tunnel begins.  A lot of people consider this far enough and I don’t blame them one bit.  Besides, in my opinion, this is where you get the absolute best view of Mooney:

     From here, you get a perfect head-on view, tucked behind thick veils of ancient travertine.  It hangs down all around you.  Imagine the previous waterfalls that must have flowed all around at some point in the distant past to create all the spires and shapes that you are seeing.
     It wasn’t enough to just stand there; we were compelled to head down.  The descent I will describe in further detail later on in this entry.  Let’s suffice it to say that we made it down safely enough, but by the time I was coming down that last ladder, I was shaking so badly that the ladder was shaking too.  It is all worth it because once you’re at the bottom, this is what you get:

     We found ourselves completely alone at the bottom of the waterfall, the canyon ever darkening around us, the water turning blue as though reflecting the deepening of the sky.  There are few places left in the country where you can feel so detached and at peace.  This is unquestionably one of those places.
     One of the reasons why I revere Mooney Falls is because of the unique contrast it possesses.  The water plummets in heavy torrents for 200 feet, and where you would think that it would crash down like a white monster and delve itself into a deep rugged pool, it does just the opposite.  As the water hits the ground, it seems to barely make a sound, turning into a billowing mist that rises softly as a cloud, the pool shining demurely like a flat blue diamond, continuing on to ripple over rock and sand in a lucid sheath.
     This is why I love photography.  I can attempt to describe it but in words I’d never be able to do it properly.  There are some sights for which photos do a great deal more justice than words ever could.  Therefore, this is the closest way I can explain it to you, in this photo:

     The water barely covers my ankles from where I stand in the creek.  From the base of Mooney, it continues on down a few more layers of bone white travertine, and then past several more waterfalls that are not as grand but are still absolute perfection in their own way, until eventually 8 miles later it meets up with the Colorado River.
     That night, despite a rowdy group of people who were up well past midnight doing nothing to abide by the 8pm - 6pm quiet hours, I dreamed about waterfalls.  Perhaps the creek being a foot outside my tent door had something to do with it.  Before I knew it my eyes were opening, blue light was filtering in, and it felt like I hadn’t slept at all.
Havasu Sunrise
     The next morning we made it to Havasu Falls just before the sun did.  While walking through the campground in the quiet early morning, I noticed that many people had ingenious ways of making camp.  There were a couple of guys who brought in air mattresses and blankets and that’s it.  Air mattress set right into the sand by the side of the creek, covered with one blanket, and I’m going to presume a heavy dose of bug spray since they had no tent.  Others had thin, simple tarps hanging from trees and sleeping bags nestled right into the sand, some had no more than a hammock.
     It would be worth fighting off the bugs and sacrificing the tent if it means that much less weight to carry on the 12 mile hike.  Every ounce makes a difference when you’re hiking through the desert.  
     When you walk up to Havasu, the first thing you might notice is its travertine:

     The blue color was still vibrant as ever because the sun wasn’t up yet.  Once again, Brett and I found ourselves quite secluded, sharing the falls with only one other photographer.  
     Havasu is 120 feet tall and falls in one feathery stream down into a deep blue pool.  It’s perfect for swimming and this, along with the ease of getting to it, is probably the reason why it’s arguably the most popular waterfall in the Supai lands:

     This was a photo I was trying to compose but the sun began to come up right at that moment:

     The photographer left as soon as the sun started hitting the water.  After that, we had Havasu Falls to ourselves and we couldn’t believe our luck.  Here are some different views of the falls- from the front of it and also from the side, where the sun is hitting the canyon wall and lighting it up:

     Several mineral springs flow down from the Grand Canyon and feed into what is Havasu Creek.  To make a complicated process short, basically what happens is the waters filter in with the limestone that is in the creek bed, and as this happens, the limestone gives off carbon dioxide.  Once the carbon dioxide is dissolved and calcium carbonate precipitates out of the water this allows the other rocks in the groundwater to take shape into what becomes travertine as it utilizes its ability to lime over other materials such as logs, sticks, leaves and other debris.  The lime builds and creates what are the benches and dams that make Havasu so unique and alluring.  
     If you look closely, you can actually see it happening before your eyes.  All along the creek and at the base of the falls especially, you will see fallen trees becoming subject to preservation under a guise of aqua-white lime.  
     Travertine is found all over the world, frequently in caves.  A famous example are the terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park.  Left to its own devices, travertine will build and build as mineral-filled water pours over it.  Unfortunately, the limey travertine is relatively fragile and a vigorous flood has the potential to devastate it.  The last time that happened was in 2008.  
     It’s hard to imagine the possibility of Havasu Falls being any more beautiful, but before 2008 it used to pour from two sides whereas now it falls from just the one, and its pool used to be twice the size. The line it used to fill is obvious as there is now a deep basin lining the present pool with logs, debris, and loose rocks.  There also used to be several more travertine benches, leading up to the waterfall like an ethereal liquid staircase.  Some still remain, while others are being built at this very moment:

The Descent to Mooney Falls
     After the sun came up, we went back to our campsite and ate an early lunch.  Our food for the three days that we were there consisted of summer sausages and dense cheeses, rye crackers light as air and apples.  Foods that were small but full of calories, protein, and essential nutrients suited us best for the long trails.  I couldn’t have survived too many more days without a vegetable, but for this trip it was fine.  I’m grateful the Havasupai let us use their spring, but the water comes out lukewarm and doesn’t taste so well.  What really helped was bringing crystal lite lemonade packets to put in the water.  
     Maybe it was the fact that there was a throng of people there, or that the hot sun was beating down and making my hands sweat, or that I knew ahead of time exactly what I was in for, but the second trip down to the base of Mooney Falls was more difficult than the first one:

     This is me looking out at beloved Mooney, from the nice viewpoint before the first tunnel:

     Here is Brett about to head into the first tunnel:

     The tunnels are short and in the daytime enough light filters through where if you just watch your step you will be fine.  
     This is where things get frightening.  From this point, it’s still over 100 feet until you get to the ground.  From the second tunnel, your descent begins with what I’d like to call stairs, but are really just footholds chiseled into the side of the rock.  From this point of view, it doesn’t look so bad:

     Brett has a little smile on his face because he was hardly fazed by the descent, even though he was carrying our backpack and my tripod.  This made him a sublime partner to head down the face of the cliff with as he encouraged me the whole time and told me precisely where to put my feet as there were some points where I couldn’t see or feel anything.  
     Every once in a while there is an iron plank meshed in with the wall so as to make a step or two.  There is a series of chains nailed into the canyon and held down by iron spikes.  You will use them, trust me.  There will be parts where if it wasn’t for the chains, you would be falling backwards like a bad dream.  In fact, there is one part where you literally have to lower yourself down from a swinging chain:

     I’m 5’2” so this was the worst part for me as I literally had to repel myself against the cliff wall to get to the next tiny ledge of space.  Then you continue on down, inch by inch.  I got some strange looks but I found this much easier to do barefoot.  I like to be barefoot anyhow so maybe I’m just more comfortable this way but if your shoes are slipping and making you nervous, it’s worth a try.  This view might give you a better idea of how steep it is:

     The chains are very sturdy, but the whole time you’re climbing down you can’t help but think that you’re doing something very, very stupid.  You just keep going.  The last part is the ladders.  There are two.  The first one takes you down to a tiny platform where you so very carefully have just enough space to turn around and start heading down the next one.  One of the rungs was broken off and replaced by a piece of wood and wire:

     And then you’ve done it.  You’re at the bottom.  It’s scary.  There’s no doubt about it.  There are places where you don’t know where to put your foot, where you’re clinging onto a chain and your hand is sweating and you’re slowly slipping, but just be assertive and take it slow.  There will always be a foothold.  I would advise everyone to go with someone, for physical and moral support.  I didn’t see anyone going up or down by themselves, not even the experienced guides or hikers.  And I promise you this:  going up is not nearly as hard as going down, so don’t stress about it while you’re at the bottom of the falls.  I honestly believe anyone in respectable physical shape could do it if they’re just careful.
     Here is a picture of Mooney in the sunlight that day:

     Mooney Falls was named after a miner who died here in 1882.  His death is somewhat of a mystery, with different stories being told about what happened.  Deeper research into the miners’ records show that no one actually saw it happen.  They discovered him missing at the end of the day and then saw his body on the ground below, at the base of the falls.  At that point in history, no trail had been cut to the bottom of the falls, the miners had been using ropes to lower themselves up and down.  It was almost a year until they could get to the bottom to retrieve and bury his body, which was encrusted with limestone by that time, and has been buried somewhere in the west wall of the canyon.  
     Not long after Mooney's death, a Supai Indian was noticed wearing his boots and when the miners asked him how he’d gotten them, the Indian then showed them a way down following an extremely narrow crevice along the side of the canyon wall.  The miners refused to take the same trail but ultimately this is what inspired the path be carved.  This crevice became the trail that you will follow today, as the miners discovered two natural caves and then widened them and blasted through them, also making stepping stones in the bottom.  These became the tunnels.  They then worked to chisel steps and handholds into the wall, dredging the massive iron nails into the rock and attaching chains, with two wooden ladders being the last millstone to get you to the bottom.  Back then, Mooney Falls’s pool came right up to the ladders.  Over time the rock has grown right up over the Iron planks that assist as steps.  They have been climbed upon so many times over the past century that parts of these rocky steps are polished smooth, making the trip down even more challenging. 
     Depending how adventurous you feel that day, your journey can stop right there at the bottom of the falls where there is plenty of room to sit and relax under the cottonwood trees, or you can hike 3 miles downstream to Beaver Falls, which is a massive staircase of four wide cascades.  From there continue on for 5 more miles and the canyon opens up, becomes flooded with trees and you can keep hiking in the creek until it takes you right out into the Colorado River.  Shortly after Beaver Falls, the Havasupai Reservation ends and becomes Grand Canyon National Park.
     This is the first piece of travertine after heading downstream from Mooney:

     The creek heading for miles just waiting to meet up with the Colorado:

     Brett in the water which stays around 70 degrees the whole year long:

     Travertine and mini falls, what I believe to be a cottonwood tree, and the mist of Mooney:

     This is where I should probably mention how important water shoes are.  Get a good pair with a sturdy sole that stays on your feet.  The rocks at the bottom are painful.  I brought water shoes but wasn’t able to wear them because the 12 mile hike to the campground gave me a hellacious blister on each heel, something that wasn’t done haunting me yet, but that’s for another story.  
     Brett had some good ones and was able to meander through the creek with perfect ease:

     We made it about a mile downstream.  Every so often there would be another dam of travertine and another little cascade; pool after pool dropping into one another, the sheer orange canyon on one side of us and trees and dark shade on the other.  It was surreal how beautiful it all was.  
     It was a precarious journey for me holding my camera and not having any water shoes.  If the circumstances had been a little different no doubt would we have made the journey to Beaver Falls but we were happy with finding another small cascade down the way:

    This is the view from the top of that little unnamed waterfall:

     Next to the falls was a smooth patch of dirt and green plants growing.  The rocks above bore yet another spring down into Havasu Creek.  These ribbony cascades were everywhere. It was the perfect place to sit until the sun got so warm on my skin that I had to get into the water:

     There were little benches to sit on in the sun and spray of the falls:

     At the base, on the edge of these rocky ledges, Brett jumped off and sunk straight down in over his head.  We had no idea how deep it was and it was a shock when he jumped off and disappeared completely for a few moments. 

     Other groups passed by on their way to Beaver Falls, some stopped to enjoy the tumbling water alongside us, and others just stood at the lip of the falls before turning back.  
     We lost track of time.  We could have been there one minute or one full day.  Time has a way of warping your memory when you’re victim to such nostalgia.
Havasu Sunset
     We hiked back to our campsite and sat at our picnic table by the creek playing cards and swatting away bugs as the sun began to set.  By that time, we noticed the campground was even emptier than the day before.  Then we decided to head back to Havasu Falls to end our day.  When we got there, the last bit of sun was in dregs in the sky, so the water was showing a tremendous blue color like this:

     That’s when I finally got the shot I’d had in my mind all day:

     I wanted to capture the travertine terraces and the falls in a unique way, and it wasn’t easy because I had to balance my tripod in the creek with nothing behind me but a two foot drop into some dark plants, the force of the water coming at me and over my legs, but it was worth it because this shot represents the seductiveness of travertine.  
     Here is another picture with the same idea:

     Another, this time focusing on the thin ribbons of white:

     Here is a close up of the water and the beautiful green moss that grows all along the back wall, adding such life and color:

     Here we are.  Hey ... we're not in Iowa anymore:

     And just like that morning, we had the waterfall to ourselves again.  Apparently the waterfalls just aren’t as popular with the majority of the tourists unless the sun is shining down.  That is just as well with me since it is one way to experience the waterfalls at all, but to get to enjoy them in the solidarity of their natural state, unencumbered by none other than your own thoughts and your own eyes, feeling like you’re the only person in the world... that is another experience entirely.  Those are the experiences that bring you closer to god.  
     If you walk to the west of the canyon wall you can cross a wooden beam and up twenty feet of sand and rock onto a ledge and get an entirely different view of the falls:

     Here I am standing on that ledge and looking out at Havasu:

     See how blue the water is here?  Even the falling water itself glows blue since the sun isn’t shining down to defract its white light upon it.
     Back against this wall the immortalized travertine breaks apart in layers and you can see another spring gushing from some unknowable source, coursing its way to join up with Havasu Creek.  Also, this is where I discovered a big cave, and inside, surprisingly, is a picnic table.  I’m going to assume that not many people know about this, so if you find yourself there on a hot day and want some cool shade, check out this cave.
     Just as my light was disappearing completely, I found another magnificent vantage point from the South, just above where the creek begins meandering around the bend and towards the campground:

     By this point, the water was as blue as I’d ever seen it.  For a scattering moment while editing these photos I thought about desaturating the colors in Lightroom because I thought, everyone is going to think this is fake, but the thought left as soon as it entered my mind.  There are some things that are too good to be true, and yet there they are.
     Then before we knew it, it was time to head back.  We got to our tent just as the darkness settled completely, and fell asleep to the resonance of Havasu Creek, the only sound for miles.

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