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Backpacker Magazine – June 2007

Freefall: Tragedy in the Grand Canyon

Arizona's Havasu Canyon is a hiker's paradise famed for its jaw-dropping waterfalls. But now there's trouble in paradise—serious trouble.

by: Annette McGivney


**Editor's Note: If you would like to read the full "Freefall" article before reading the update added October 2007, click here.**


Supai Update, October 2007 In "Freefall" (June), Southwest Editor Annette McGivney reported on the murder of Japanese tourist Tomomi Hanamure near Havasu Falls, AZ. On September 18, Havasupai tribal member Randy Wescogame, 19, plead guilty in U.S. District Court, Phoenix, AZ, to one count of second degree murder. The plea agreement stipulates that Wescogame spend the rest of his life in prison without possibility of release, and that he waives all rights for a trial or appeal. According to an account read in court, Wescogame said he encountered Hanamure on May 8, 2006, hiking alone on a trail to Havasu Falls in the Grand Canyon. Wescogame lured Hanamure off the trail with the intent of robbing her and then fatally stabbed her. Wescogame will be formally sentenced January 17, 2008.


Our investigation begins with the disturbing disappearance of a solo female backpacker, and culminates with shocking evidence of a larger, darker crisis—a tribal culture teetering on the brink of collapse.

PARADISE LOST
The trail begins at the edge of the Earth, where the sagebrush flats of the Coconino Plateau meet a 3,000-foot-deep expanse of rock and space. Just past the last hairpin turn on Indian Road 18, the Grand Canyon explodes into view. This is where the path to the community of Supai begins. This is where Tomomi Hanamure began her 34th birthday.

The 8-mile path dives through colorful layers of geologic time: ivory Kaibab Limestone, green Toroweap Formation, white Coconino Sandstone, the blood-red scree of Hermit Shale. Then the trail reaches the sandy, cobblestoned bottom of Havasu Canyon. Just above the village, an aquamarine creek emerges, for which the Havasupai tribe ("people of the bluegreen water") is named. The stream gurgles through town, then picks up velocity. In 4 miles, the waters cascade over four huge waterfalls, plunging into fern-decked, turquoise pools. Nearly every travel and outdoor magazine, including this one, has waxerhapsodic about this Shangri-La. More than a few have called Havasu Falls the best swimming hole in the world. And more than 20,000 vacationers a year follow the path to Supai to visit this famed backcountry paradise.

An independent, adventurous woman who lived near Tokyo in Kanagawa Prefecture, Hanamure enjoyed traveling alone to outdoor destinations worldwide. She had special feelings for the Grand Canyon, having spent several recent birthdays hiking to Phantom Ranch, a lodge on the canyon floor. No doubt, Supai seemed an enticing alternative. Like Phantom, the village is surrounded by a lush riparian area and dramatic buttes, and no roads lead there. And like the famous ranch 70 miles upriver, Supai has the creature comforts of a lodge, restaurant, and store, as well as a community at trail's end. All of which could provide a sense of security to a woman traveling solo.



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Jul 15, 2013

Just visited Havasupai this past June 2013 and was appalled and shocked by the indolent and disgusting behavior by those of the Supai village, not to mention their total mistreatment and disregard for the health of their animals. I know this is not "Disney Land" as one person mentioned but it should also not be thought of as a safe place to visit. Our group of 8 nurses hiked down, camped and explored. The nature in Havasuapi, which has NOTHING to do with the Suapi Indians is beautiful and worth the effort. However, one of the women in our group became ill the day of our hike out and nearly died of dehydration due to the lack of help and action from the people of Suapi including the town doctor who reminded us, no less than four times, that it would, "cost us" to get our friend treated in the clinic. We pleaded with the helicopter operator to give our friend a seat out (which we paid for), as soon as possible and he refused to move her to the front of the line without a note from the doctor. We convinced the doctor to speak to the helicopter man. When he did, he joked about getting a cut of the money for drumming up more business! The helicopter man agreed to put her on but insisted she would have to ride alone even though she could no longer stand up. Several other tourists were willing to give up their seats in front of us so one of us could accompany our friend. The helicopter man told them that they could not give their seat to us without being moved to the end of the line for their ride out. As things became very bad for our friend,unbeknownst to the helicopter operator, we switched spots with several tourists and got our friend to the top. The time it took to get the town doctor to come to our friend and tell us that we had to pay him, and to get our friend on the helicopter took over an hour. With her condition swiftly declining we knew that time was of the essence but the people on Suapi that we dealt with, simply did not seem to care about the fate of those funding their livelihood. Once to the top and in the car on the road out, our friend went into shock and had dangerously low blood pressure and ended up having to be air evacuated out as she started going into cardiac arrest. I know this is an impoverished place that has many problems. I also know that even though tourism funds their livelihood, there resentment towards the, "White man", is still palpable in Suapi. Regardless, nationality, economic status, past travesties towards the Indians etc, should not excuse or make our fiend's near death experience acceptable or even understandable. My only advice for anyone thinking of hiking into Havasupai is to go armed with the knowledge that you are literally taking your life into your own hands. And just FYI... Although it has not made it into the papers yet, a woman just died in Havasupai this past weekend from a falling tree branch in the campground!!!

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Bob
Feb 27, 2012

Just got back literally hours ago from hiking/caming in Supai. All be it, I had a great time and saw some great sites and did tons of hiking....the area and this village are very very sketchy. It is kind of ironic when you sign the "Rules Form" there is a statement saying no alcohol when you can see in the eyes of some villagers that they are drunk or on some type of narcotic. Not to mention the 10 mile trail being littered with liquer bottles and beer cans that is clearly the doing of "tourists" who hike with excess alcohol weight ;l .The village is full of punks running around wearing baggy clothes and listening to rap music. They say not to judge a book by the cover but judging by the grafitti, the trash, the hazed over eyes, and the rudeness of some of these people, a book tells a very telling story. The town is littered to the T. The horses and mules are treated horribly, and the campground/village arent as it seems. Save your time and effort people and find a better outing. As I said I had a good time and saw some great sites but this place is very very VERY skethcy.

supai
Aug 28, 2011

no need for all the name calling. all this seems to have come about with what the white man has invented. it was because of these old time hikers that brought down all this. If that did not happen then maybe we would not have all this technology coming down here. So Do Not complain
when your cell goes out during a power outage.

supai
Aug 28, 2011

no need for all the name calling. all this seems to have come about with what the white man has invented. it was because of these old time hikers that brought down all this. If that did not happen then maybe we would not have all this technology coming down here. So Do Not complain
when your cell goes out during a power outage.

Dana
Jun 17, 2011

I find it interesting that different readers with different experiences focus on different aspects of this article.

I think the author did an excellent job of putting the murder in a broader social and historical context. She never told people not to visit Havasupai, only that women should not hike alone - which is advice that applies on all trails throughout the world.

The author was very honest in her description of the reticence of the local people. A critical reader should be able to realize that maybe she wasn't told the whole story. She never claimed it was the whole story - just the story she was told.

I taught and lived on a reservation for several years, so on my three wonderful visits to Havasupai, I was not shocked or appalled by the condition of the village. Appearances can be deceiving and often reflect a differing set of priorities rather than a lack of stewardship or wealth.

During my visits in the summers of 2007, 2008, and 2009, I was polite and respectful and the same courtesies were bestowed upon me. I don't recall being approached by any teenagers... but I am a high school teacher and would not have viewed any such conversation as unusual. Teenage boys try to intimidate me on a daily basis. But I never felt threatened, thankfully.

Do not hesitate to visit Havasupai, just know that you are hiking through their home and be respectful. Understand that you are visiting a reservation which is in many ways like a separate country. Take precautions like you would if hiking in Central America or Southeast Asia or wherever.

For unrelated reasons, I was unable to visit this summer or last summer, but I look forward to returning next summer. It truly is a wondrous place of healing waters.

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what2be
May 11, 2011

Jdub, you hit the nail on the head so to speak.
Too many tourists feel they "deserve" to be somewhere and are entitled to the easiest way possible, whether that means Helicoptor's or Mules.
It is a damn shame.

jdub
Mar 27, 2011

After guiding trips to Supai annually since 2000, the place is in the worst shape ever.

As much as it is an oasis in the desert it is being destroyed. The overcrowding campers in such a small area is resulting in litter and toilet issues. The bathrooms they built recently are nice but keep getting flooded away and they won't be able to burden that cost over and over again. Originally you dug a hole, then porta-potties. Now with so many people they need a "system" but the place is prone to flooding.

The earth, people, and the indians lost Navajo Falls from the '08 floods which elminated 80% of the trees and added 6 feet of dirt in the campsite. That act alone did great damage.
Then the flood of '09!

To me the canyon needed a good "sweeping up" and mother nature did it. But they haven't learned anything. The answer is not more people but less.

So long as the indians try to "make more money" rather than PRESERVE THE LAND, we will all lose.

If it were me, I would eliminate the helicopters and donkeys. If you can't backpack the 10 miles....tough! You can't helicopter to the top of Everest either. Hopefully never!

But our PC culture will be offended by my statement and in 2020 a paved wheel-chair ramp will take you to Havasu Falls.....and it won't be worth a damn.

Supai is a mircocosm of what ails America.........
.....excess. Too much. Whether it be excess debt, excess stuff, excess work, excess stress, excess concern with money, EXCESS!

Which leads to fake lifestyles. People live in houses they are losing, drive cars they can't afford, and hate jobs they are forced to work at. All the while they go to an indoor climbing gym and then proceed to call themselves a rock climber! It's as ridiculous as the Supai having a twitter feed.

What made Supai great was their minimalism or simplicity. Their ability to survive so remotely.
It is what drew myself and others to their land.
But now they too are caught in the excess spiral and that spiral is down, just like America.

I hate to admit it but Supai is so last century.
The brave explorers who really backpack or rock climb have moved on and found new, private, and remote areas more beautiful. The outdoors used to be a place where development, training, and maybe even apprenticeship led to an exhilirating experience. Today, you can see a North Face jacket at an art fair, take a helicopter to Supai, and floss a 5.10 at the gym.....but in reality you aren't doing a damn thing!

Now, when you go the Havasu Falls you will get in line to swim in the fake pools created by sandbags as an empty Cheeto's bag floats into your lap.

Damn shame.

BackpackOrCode
Oct 24, 2010

I doubt my comment will be read but I'll try anyway

People don't understand that native americans are actually MORE susceptible to being addicted to drugs and alcohol because of their biology. They are also more likely to be diabetic as well. The arrival of drugs and high sugar diet really hurt them. I learned this from a native australian.

This high susceptibility makes it difficult for them to get over the addiction and really magnifies the problem. The tribe that I met, it was the women who finally decided they had enough and the alcohol ban is strictly enforced to stop the violence.

elizabeth
Oct 16, 2010

I went there 2 weeks after the murder of the young girl, did not know at the time, we found out 3 weeks after we hiked there. My husband a I stayed at the Lodge, the door looked like it had been kiked open previous, that was scarry, but we figured some one problably got locked out, and kicked it in. We went out to talk to other people staying there they told my husband to keep an eye on me because there was trouble with the locals, the Restaurant that caters to hikers, the windows had been boken by one family, 2 families were having conflicts, because they did not like the fact that they cater to hikers. There was a lesbian couple on the bottom flor of the Lodge we were witness to this the children were calling them them all kinds of names, They left early. We had fun I even had a book that I bought there autographed by Supai Waters. They do have Police there, but no matter where you go you should still be carefull no matter where in the world, and always go with other people, avoid hiking alone.

blaze
Mar 05, 2010

Supai is a place of great personal and spiritual importance to me. I have been there three times in my life and have been baptized in the creek by my father in the mid seventies and proposed to my wife at hualapai hilltop in 1989. i now am considering taking my children and friends to this paradise. I was however concerned about the safety of my party because I had heard of locals at least harassing campers 20 years ago. I never had a problem and in fact loved the place. finding this site has concerned me and I would like to know from those in the know if in fact Supai has become what some have described here. Should I read the entire backpacker article? the murder of a hiker doesnt comfort me much.

Mike G.
Dec 17, 2009

Jenn, I'm sorry to say you are very misguided in your comments. The few days you spent and the beauty you've witnessed are short lived. You are best to speak with those who know. Those who are aware of the problems have spent many, many years there. Should you desire answers feel free to contact me. I can be found !!

Jenn
Oct 07, 2009

Just back from an 8 day adventure in Havasupai. The indigenous people there were only caring, thoughtful and kind as were the fellow tourists/hikers. The tribe has worked diligently repairing the trail damage from last year's flood to amazing results. It's tragic that you all are avoiding such a genuinely enigmatic and rare spot on this earth to justify your own lack of tolerance and acceptance--Discounting an entire population based on one incident is akin to apartheid--and No, JT This beautiful little canyon and Supai village are NOT places of violence and death, and NO whomever, robbery & rape are NOT everyday issues, and the person who wrote about the children attacking teachers and the 300% higher than national average addiction rate--did you make that up--I can't seem to find any evidence or information that supports that.
Jenn.

Kia
Jun 01, 2009

It is hard to respect the Havasupai for doing this to themselves and their land.

You blame people who are long dead, and you are as racist as the worst racists.

You embrace misery -- perhaps some of you are right, and the recent floods were to smite you. The "white" people you so loathe take far better care of the land than YOU do. Look in the mirror for the shame that is so well-deserved. I did nothing to you. But you CONTINUE to be your own worst enemies. Pathetic.

No reverence from me for people who respect nothing, but expect everyone else to respect them blindly. You are NOT worthy.

JT
Jun 01, 2009

This place, Havasupai Village, is filled with violence and drugs with an addicition rate 300% higher than the national average. Small school children have been arrested for trying to attach teachers and playmates while high on meth, the drug of choice in the Village.

Robbery of tourist/hikers as well as rape and beatings are every day issues in the Village. You can find more drugs in the Village per capita than you will in an major city.

This is a place of violence and death with no social justice since the Indians say they are a seperate and independent nation and not bound by the outsiders laws....good luck if you travel there.

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