Big Canyon/George Mancuso

"Irresistible Lure, Inescapable Trap"
By Elias Butler
All photos copyright 2006 Elias Butler

This story originally appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on January 18, 2002.
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Outdoor photographers in Arizona tend to be a regional lot. Some obsessively haunt the slot canyons of the Arizona-Utah border, others crawl amongst the saguaro-studded desert to the south while still others spend their years traipsing about the red rocks of Sedona.

Yet none were as defined by a region as George Mancuso. Choosing to spend at least a week out of every month backpacking in Grand Canyon, Mancuso's life was shaped and bent by his muse. Certainly the Canyon has affected just about every photographer who ever visited the Southwest, but Mancuso was different. His was a hunger diminished only by death.

I remember the day last summer when he and his companion, Linda Brehmer, were killed by a flash flood in Big Canyon, a little-known tributary to the Little Colorado River Gorge east of Grand Canyon. I was driving towards Flagstaff on Highway 89A that afternoon through a powerful monsoon thunderstorm; each creek and wash I passed along the road was running full of muddy water.

I stopped for some photos at one point when an impressive flood steamrolled down Hamblin Wash, a large drainage that would eventually dump its load into the Little Colorado.

At the time, Mancuso and Brehmer were down in Big Canyon, exploring and pausing occasionally so that Mancuso could take photographs. Ignorant of the storm that was miles upstream, they had no reason to suspect they were in danger. But at some point, Big Canyon revealed its secret. What happened next is subject to speculation. By the end of the day, both Mancuso and Brehmer were dead.

In the aftermath, many people asked, "How could a man -- with thousands of miles of Canyon experience under his belt -- fall prey to such a fate?" There seemed to be no shortage of opinions on the matter. But hardly anyone knew anything about Big Canyon and what the place was actually like.

To try to find an answer to this question, I decided to visit Big Canyon. The reputed beauty of the place intrigued me. Also, I had met Mancuso a couple of times, and perhaps with some first-hand knowledge of the area, I might be able to get a little closer to the truth.

CANYON DELVES DEEP

The first thing I discovered is that whoever named Big Canyon did not exaggerate. In places, it's 3,000 feet deep and characterized by sheer walls. Big Canyon cuts a gash every bit as impressive as Grand Canyon itself. Access is difficult, and if you get into trouble here, you're out of luck.

In order to get down to where Mancuso and Brehmer were, I had to retrace their steps down a neighboring side canyon called Bekihatso Wash. Bekihatso, also known as Salt Trail Canyon, has traditionally been used by some Hopi as a pilgrimage route to access salt deposits on the Colorado River. However, the canyon is on the Navajo Indian Reservation, so you must obtain a hiking permit from the Navajo tribe before entering.

Bekihatso is not a casual place. A footpath dives immediately down from the rim through a very steep gully over and around unstable-looking boulders. Footing is loose and a misstep could lead to a broken pair of legs. It took my full concentration to get down the canyon with a loaded backpack.

THE LITTLE COLORADO: SEA-LIKE ENVIRONMENT

Once at the mouth of Bekihatso, I rested and set up camp in the same tamarisk thicket where Mancuso and Brehmer had camped last August.

With the brilliant turquoise-blue waters of the Little Colorado River flowing noisily nearby, it was hard to resist the urge to go for a swim. But recreation was not my purpose here, and I was soon headed upstream towards the mouth of Big Canyon.

I couldn't help but notice the abundant signs of life down by the riverside. Numerous animal tracks and the rich odor of marshy reeds attested to the life-giving force of the river and the many springs in this part of the canyon. With eyes closed it was easy to think I was on the Pacific seashore.

This wasn't just my imagination. After pumping some water from a healthy-looking spring I took a big swig and nearly gagged: salt water. Apparently, the water that percolates down through the surrounding rock passes through salt deposits before exiting at the springs. I got used to it, but it never seemed to satisfy my thirst. In the desert, however, you learn to be thankful for anything that keeps you alive.

EMERALDS WELL-GUARDED

It was about a 15-minute walk to the entrance of Big Canyon. At first glance, the canyon looks almost impregnable -- choking the mouth is what appears to be a collection of haphazardly flung toy blocks belonging to some giant-child. Scratching and scraping my way through tamarisk trees, slithering amongst the great boulders, I quickly found out that it takes a considerable effort to make it even 100 yards up into Big Canyon.

Up above I could barely glimpse what Mancuso called the Emerald Pools. I wanted to see them up close, but I had no choice but to retreat when I came to a spot that barred further access.

With some careful scrambling and reconnoitering though, I managed to get up above the boulder pile and into the upper part of the mouth.

I approached the lower pool cautiously. There was something about the place that felt eerie. The springs that poured out of the canyon walls would normally be a welcome sight, but here they appeared somehow malevolent. I decided I did not want to linger any longer than necessary. At last at the edge of the Emerald Pool, I stood for several minutes staring into the glimmering water and at the red travertine slide that fed the pool. Nothing could have been more desirable for weary desert hikers than this spot on an August afternoon. If ever there was a desert oasis, then this must be it.

POOLS OF UNEASE

Yet the disquieting feeling inside did not stop.

Directly above and out of sight, a great hallway led off into the unknown: Big Canyon. If a flood were to suddenly appear, especially a big flood, it would have smashed down to the lower pool within seconds. I looked around and did see a couple places with which to escape, but I felt no sense of security. I felt exposed.

I quickly set up the camera for a few shots, and as I was doing so, I noticed a metallic object poking out from underneath a nearby slab of limestone. I stooped down for a closer look and saw that it was a small tripod. Immediately, I knew it must have been Mancuso's, and that the last time he had touched it would have been the afternoon he died. I thought of the last moments of his life and felt the power of a great violence that he and Brehmer had briefly witnessed.

It took a while to find a stick large enough to pry up the rock but I did get the tripod out. It still stood straight, although many grains of sand had forced themselves into the moveable parts. More importantly though, it led me to think that both Mancuso and Brehmer were probably at this lower pool, or perhaps further up canyon, when the flood hit them. This would have meant that they would have been in a place where escape would be almost impossible from a large, sudden flood.

And with two people, it is easier to be distracted by the other rather than be focused on one's surroundings. This may have contributed to them having even less warning that a flood was coming. In any event, it seems that Big Canyon was, for Mancuso and Brehmer, both an irresistible lure and an inescapable trap.

A short while later I left Big Canyon, relieved to be out of there. The bright glare of sunlight on the Little Colorado River dispelled the feelings of uneasiness I had earlier. Knowing that Mancuso finally came to rest in these same waters seems fitting -- it was, after all, the place he loved best.