Skywire preperations

Workers with New York based O'Connell Electric Co. remove a preexisting cable from the Little Colorado River Gorge that was installed, but never used by a French wirewalker in 1988. (Eric Betz / Arizona Daily Sun)

Eric Betz

CAMERON -- The two narrow lanes of Highway 64 cut across the yellow and red desert sands of the Navajo Nation near the east entrance to Grand Canyon National Park.

A tattered banner tacked to an aging billboard flaps in the wind. The sign tells travelers that they are passing through the Little Colorado River Tribal Park.

At nearby vendor stands, tribal members sell jewelry, pottery and antiques. The landscape to the north falls away to the Little Colorado River Gorge, a sheer drop of some 1,500 feet to the dry riverbed below.

In an international made-for-television event, Nik Wallenda will use a 2-inch cable to walk across the "Grand Canyon" here live on the Discovery Channel this Sunday. And although viewers in other countries might not be able to tell the difference, the location is highly significant to Helen Webster, manager of the tribal park.

As part of the agreement with the Discovery Channel and NBC, which is producing the event, the Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation Department required that the two-hour television special include information about parks across the reservation and tribal culture.

More than 13 million Americans watched live as Wallenda walked the same cable across Niagara Falls one year ago. Many others watched the event worldwide. It was touted as the largest audience for a non-sports broadcast in six years.

Tribal officials hope to cash in on that audience when the majesty of their lands is broadcast around the world.

But that's not all. Webster also gets one of her oldest wishes for the park granted: a road.

"When it's all over and done with, we want to develop the site as another viewpoint," she says.

When Webster became head of the now 50-year-old park in 2006, she had to start from scratch. She worked to set up fee booths, improve fencing, install picnic tables, develop a hiking trail and build waterless restrooms. But paved parking and roads have eluded her.

PAST DREAMS UNREALIZED

Wallenda was not the first to dream of the walk -- or even the first to erect a cable and plan a two-hour live broadcast that also prominently displays Navajo culture. As evidence, more than 1,000 feet of steel cable have long hung over the edge of the canyon, stretching into the unseen depths below.

A French wirewalker, Philippe Petit, who walked between the Twin Towers in 1974, had everything set to complete the walk across the Little Colorado River Gorge in 1988 before he abandoned the site and stiffed everyone involved on the bill.

In an interview with the British newspaper The Telegraph in 2008, Petit blamed the fiasco on his financial backers, to whom he referred as "cowards."

Petit had planned to include Navajo shamans, flamenco singers and saxophones. Workers at the Wallenda site say Petit had planned to have music coming from out of the canyon below the wire.

The worldwide event was canceled twice in the months before his set date.

"It was a project I worked very hard on for 14 years," Petit says in an interview with Psychology Today in 2012. "I had some money from some sponsors. The sponsors came to the edge of the canyon. We were passing the cable, and they got very scared to death. They withdrew the money. They says, 'We cannot pay for Philippe to kill himself.'"

Petit's crude road has remained the only access to the site for 25 years.

PARK FUNDS SCARCE

Since then, the Little Colorado River Tribal Park, also known as the LCR, has remained undeveloped and scarcely patrolled. Because of a lack of rangers and development, many overnight park users don't realize -- or simply ignore -- that they need to purchase a permit at the visitors' center in Cameron.

The site is also popular with parachute-equipped cliff-jumpers, who can obtain a permit, but often opt to jump illegally instead. In December, a 37-year-old Norwegian man plummeted 1,000 feet to his death when a gust of wind slammed him into a cliff on descent and his chute failed to deploy.

Webster hasn't been able to secure additional funding to appropriately deal with all the visitors to the LCR.

"It takes an agreement among tribal delegates to get funds, so the parks haven't had any increase in funding in five years," says Geri Hongeva-Camarillo, a spokesperson for Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation. "It is difficult for parks and recreation to met the needs of all our visitors."

Four years ago, Flagstaff film-scout P.J. Connolly was contacted by Wallenda about a potential walk near the Grand Canyon -- Petit had briefly reached out to him about a possible revised attempt several years earlier. Connolly took Wallenda and his father to the current site because he was already familiar with it from arranging commercials with cliff jumpers.

When Webster started working with the men to arrange the walk, she says she suspected it was just another commercial. She had no idea the amount of work that would be required of her and her staff, or the payoff that would be possible at the end.

The Discovery Channel's high bid won it the rights to broadcast the wirewalk, but it is paying NBC to put together the production.

To bring their heavy equipment to the site, the TV network turned the four-wheel-drive-only road into one that could handle commercial vehicles. They also built a parking lot for all the news media.

As part of Wallenda's agreement, Petit's highwire and stabilizing cables were removed and given to the Navajo Nation. Officials say they thought it might be used for fencing.

Archaeological, biological and environmental studies were done to make sure their plans were legally sound.

"Everything was done to the highest standards," Connolly says.

For Webster, the project allows her to use private money to fund her dream developments without a tribal consensus. And the LCR is not the only one to benefit financially.

TRIBAL VENDORS OBJECT

For generations, the Charles family has grazed sheep on nearby cliff edges. The TV networks will financially compensate them, as well as all the other tribal families with land rights in the area.

Leeroy Charles, 66, has known the land his entire life.

He remembers returning from boarding school as a youth and a young man to help at the family sheep camp. Droughts in recent years have dried up the landscape and forced his family to abandon sheep and turn to a small herd of cattle.

He now lives with his son Charleston in a small hogan on the property. Charleston is getting some work out of the project as well. His siblings, who run vendor stands along nearby Highway 64, will also benefit.

Much of the contracting work is also being done by companies hired out of Flagstaff and Phoenix.

"(Petit) had the cart in front of the horse," Connolly says. "The positive side of doing things commercially is you have the funds to do it right and take care of everybody financially."

But others in the area aren't as excited for Wallenda's walk.

To maintain control of its news media coverage, the Discovery Channel wanted to announce the show itself, which meant Webster couldn't tell anyone about what was planned ahead of time to avoid leaks.

The Hopi Tribe, which holds the site as sacred, wasn't brought into the loop beforehand. Neither were area vendors and Cameron residents.

Webster says they have since met with Hopi officials and addressed their concerns, which largely centered on eagles in the area.

But she says some residents in Cameron, who she hasn't been able to identify, have called for people to protest at the event.

"They never really informed us beforehand," says one area vendor, who declined to give her name out of fear of repercussions. "It would have been nice if the Navajo Tribal Park let us know before they OK'd it."

As for Leeroy Charles, he says he isn't as concerned with the financial aspect as he is with what he thinks the broadcast will mean to his people.

"To me, I think it's about the people waking up to this community," Charles says. "I know history will be made. The entire community should wake up that something is going on here."

Eric Betz can be reached at 556-2250 or ebetz@azdailysun.com.

If you watch ...

There is limited viewing for 600 at Shadow Mountain Viewpoint on Highway 64, where the walk will be broadcast on a jumbotron, but Navajo officials are advising everyone to avoid the area because they're worried about congestion. The general public is not allowed at the skywire site. Also, as the walk is only viewable on TV screens, the best view is from your couch or computer.

What: Nik Wallenda's "Grand Canyon" skywire walk

Where: The Discovery Channel or www.skywire.discovery.com

When: Sunday at 5 p.m. Flagstaff time or 6 p.m. Tuba City time.

Angry
0
Sad
0
Funny
0
Wow
0
Love
0

Load comments