Book review: ‘The Emerald Mile,’ by Kevin Fedarko
Special to the Daily
The Grand Canyon is one of the most familiar and beloved landmarks in the United States, even to those who have only seen it in pictures. The 277-mile chasm is as iconic as Yellowstone and Yosemite and is still revered by the native tribes who made the surrounding lands home long before Europeans came to North America. The Colorado River, once unfettered and untamed, is the heart and soul of the canyon, acting as both nurturer and destroyer, and it has proven to be an angry mistress to many who have tried to woo her.
Now, after many years of controversy and governmental power plays, the once mighty river has been gentled into submission, and it persists in its role at the epicenter of the battle over the priceless water of the Western states. Though the Glen Canyon Dam has existed for nearly 40 years, the impact on the pristine and wild river to its south is still being discussed and felt. For author Kevin Fedarko, there is clearly a deep love for the river upon which he works as a part-time river guide, and his book, “The Emerald Mile,” a recent winner of the National Outdoor Book Award, is a roaring and reverential adventure story that plays out against the backdrop of the history and the politics of the Grand Canyon, focusing on the men and women who make their lives along the temperamental waters of the Colorado River.
The Emerald Mile was the name of a boat, a legendary wooden dory that was once thought dead. It had been wrecked beyond repair, until it was saved from a fiery funeral pyre and lovingly rebuilt to fight another day upon the most famous rapids in the world. It was this unassuming vessel that carried three men on a record-setting mad dash down the Colorado River at the very moment when the engineers charged with managing the immense Glen Canyon Dam upstream were trying desperately to hold back the billions of gallons of water in Lake Powell, which was being inundated with spring run-off after an intense El Nino season.
Throughout Fedarko’s nail-biting account, he evokes the power and potential that is always present in the water of the Grand Canyon. Literally, the hydraulics of the turbulent waterway provide vast amounts of hydroelectric power to millions in Arizona, Nevada and beyond, and for whitewater recreation, the iconic rapids of the Colorado River are unparalleled.
For river guide and daring oarsman Kenton Grua, the taming of the Colorado River was a grievous wounding of a mighty and wild beast, beautiful in her anger and power. Grua was one of several in an elite crew of boatsmen, all of whom piloted the wooden row boats made famous by Grand Canyon conservationist and activist Martin Litton, who played a pivotal role in saving the Colorado River from a much worse fate than that which was inflicted by the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam.
Fedarko describes, with evident admiration, Litton’s fervent efforts to save the portions of the Grand Canyon and points north from the hungry jaws of the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency responsible for the hundreds of dams now dotting the rivers of the west and irreversibly transforming the topography of this nation.
At the core of the story of the Emerald Mile, though, is the convergence of the river managers of Glen Canyon Dam, the river magicians of Grua’s intrepid boat crew and the rare climatic conditions that impacted their actions and reactions that unforgettable summer of 1983.
Most of the river guides during those years were drifters, young, idealistic men fresh out of school and eager for adventure. As whitewater rafting had become a big business in the canyon, the Park Service established rules, and the various companies involved established a system of running the rapids. Because of the immense size of the Grand Canyon, and the risks involved with taking novice boaters down a volatile river, the rapids were given names and each one was studied carefully, as no fewer than 30 of the canyon’s water features were considered high risk, and some smaller rapids had hidden dangers if not handled properly by a knowledgeable guide.
The rapids took on personalities over time and became the dysfunctional, but beloved, family members of the Grand Canyon guides. Every rapid had the potential to destroy, and it was often a hair’s breath difference between the two that kept the wooden dory men coming back for another go; the thrill of both potentials is what lured them in.
Grua was a small but powerfully built young guide who was a larger-than-life character, obsessed with everything about the Grand Canyon, both on the water and off. Aside from solo hiking the entire length of the canyon — riverside — he dreamed of piloting his wooden boat, the Emerald Mile, rescued from the flames and rebuilt with deeply thought amendments, on the fastest speed run down the river.
Grua and two companions first shattered the standing speed record by six hours, and many adventurers would have stopped there, but the experience, laudable in itself, acted like a drug to the young guide, feeding his desire for the next and faster run. Thus, it surprised no one when Grua eyed the swelling waters of Lake Powell in July 1983 as the moment he had been anticipating.
What plays out in the second half of Fedarko’s fascinating book is the stuff of both dreams and nightmares. For Grua, the rising waters meant a chance to run the river in conditions as close to how its natural design had intended it to flow — fast, furious and uninhibited. For the team of geologists and engineers frantically trying to prevent a full-scale dam failure, the hydraulic events of that summer were spine chilling. Though it was universally understood that the Glen Canyon Dam was exceptionally well constructed, it was also evident that Mother Nature would have the final word.
In harrowing detail, Fedarko’s book takes readers along for the ride of a lifetime, showing those intense hours through both the eyes of the imperiled Glen Canyon Dam’s protectors and the daring young oarsman of the Emerald Mile.
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