Santa trades sleigh for helicopter at Arizona reservation

Wednesday, December 15, 2010 | 12:15 p.m. CST; updated 1:45 p.m. CST, Wednesday, December 15, 2010

SUPAI, Ariz. — Children on the Havasupai reservation don't associate Santa Claus with a sleigh and flying reindeer.

They know he's coming when they hear the swooshing sounds of Marine helicopters overhead.

The Marines make sure Santa reaches even the most remote of places — a small roadless reservation that sits deep in a gorge off the Grand Canyon and the only place in the country where mail is delivered by mule train.

Wednesday will be the 15th year the Marines fly Santa into the canyon. The Toys for Tots program partners with a local food bank to deliver donated baskets of goods to every family and toys to every child.

"They get so excited when they hear that helicopter," said Toys for Tots coordinator Tina McGee. "They know it's Santa Claus and they're getting their party."

The reservation is located to the west of Grand Canyon National Park and is accessible only by foot, mule or helicopter.

The gifts could be especially welcome this year while the tribe recovers from flooding. The reservation known for its towering blue-green waterfalls is shut down to tourists who sustain the tribe's economy. Many of the tribal members make a living in the industry, working in the lodge and cafe or packing camping gear on the backs of mules.

For the Marines, the operation provides a unique training opportunity — flying in high and low altitudes, through narrow canyons and in extreme weather. While it's usually snowing this time of year, Wednesday's forecast for Supai calls for a slight chance of rain.

Planning for the operation starts in April to secure military approvals, access to tribal land and authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration, McGee said.

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