Rich Phillips Reviews The Emerald Mile

The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Though the Heart of the Grand Canyon
Kevin Fedarko

Published by: Scribner, a division of Simon and Schuster

OK, three guys row a boat through the Grand Canyon during a flood. How could you take something like that and make a 415 page book out of it?

Well Kevin Fedarko has done it, and done it in a way that conveys an immensely interesting and informative story. Sure, he could have confined himself in scope. This book could have been about just a boat named Emerald Mile, with a profile of the folks who brought it to the river in late June 1983 for a quick trip through the Grand Canyon. That would have been a good story, but it would have been vastly incomplete.

Instead Fedarko goes for the big picture. He sets the stage for the historic speed run with a well-written, abbreviated history of human interaction with the Grand Canyon and the river that runs through it. The book provides a necessary sketch of Glen Canyon dam – its history, its operations, and its operators’ response to natural events. It describes key players in not just the Grand Canyon river-running scene, but those in the Bureau of Reclamation. It provides compelling images of the power of water flowing through the Canyon, and the way the Canyon exerts its influence on not just boatmen, but almost everyone who experiences it.

After having set the stage fully, The Emerald Mile gives the reader a glimpse into what literally was a life and death challenge – three men keeping a seventeen foot wooden boat upright and functionally intact for an almost continuous 36 hours, 38 minutes, and 29 seconds, in the violence and turmoil of a flood that the Colorado River likely will never see again. (The book explains the unique situation that created a need to release such high volumes from Glen Canyon dam.)

The boatmen were presented with a once-in-a-lifetime chance. And they took it.

Fedarko’s style is smooth – moving logically between related topics, weaving them all together in an interesting way. As to his methods, it’s interesting to learn about the depth of interviewing Fedarko engaged in, with not just Rudi Petschek and Steve Reynolds (the two main participants who remained alive as he was researching) but also the supporting cast in the boating world – Martin Litton, Wally Rist, and others who had first-hand knowledge of events. His reliance on other foundational materials seems impressively extensive. He also seems to makes the most of oral history materials relating to the third crew member, Kenton Grua, whose untimely death preceded this project.

The re-telling of the run itself is well done. Most readers will never know – or even vaguely grasp -- what the Colorado River does in a constricted canyon when it reaches and exceeds 70,000 cubic feet per second. But Fedarko does a fine job in describing the ferocity and complexity of the situation boatmen confronted – particularly in a small rowing craft. You don’t have to be a river runner to grasp the danger involved, or the physical challenges.

During the first few hours on the river, learning how to negotiate massive waves, cross-currents, whirlpools, and other hazards. One man rowing, the other two keeping the boat upright by shifting their weight. In the dark.

“Drawing on their own innate feel for the river and its hydraulics, which they could sense by tuning their ears and by gripping the gunwales, they braced for each oncoming wave with a subtle lean of the shoulders here or there, and, when necessary, executing an explosive thrust of their torsos to maintain the boat’s equilibrium.”

“The Emerald Mile didn’t cut through these [hydraulic] features with her normal grace. Instead, she was batted like a cork, slammed from all sides. Each time she rose and fell to meet another swell, her bottom slapped down and a vicious crack reverberated through her chines and gunwales. The blows rattled not only the boat but also her white-knuckled crew, who were now wrestling in earnest with their biggest fear – the possibility that an exceptionally violent hit would fling one of them overboard and whisk him off in the dark.”

After a night of continuous struggle, they arrived at Crystal Rapid, which that week had already flipped several huge motorized boats, injured dozens, and killed one person.

For folks who have rowed the Grand Canyon and seen Crystal at much lower water levels, there is ample information to extrapolate what it might have been like that morning. Knowing today’s (greatly diminished) Crystal, looking at the pictures of it in June of 1983, and reading Fedarko’s reconstruction of the Emerald Mile’s run, that extrapolation is sobering.

“As the boat reached the top of the wave, she corkscrewed while simultaneously falling back on herself – an end-over-end flip with a twist… It was horrifying to witness, yet it possessed a mesmeric dimension of refinement and symmetry that Thomas [note: an NPS ranger on shore] would later describe as a kind of intricate gyre – a ‘pirouette.’ But for Grua and his companions, it was brutal, blunt, and utterly perfunctory, as if Crystal had simply bent back its thumb and flicked them away like the cap on a bottle of beer… Each man now found himself at the mercy of the same hydrodynamics – the savage turbulence and the wrenching crosscurrents – that had dismantled Tour West’s four-ton motor rig twenty four hours earlier.”

A bad swim, a damaged boat, an injured boatman, lost gear, a decision to go on.

And then the second night, with one boatman partially disabled and a number of significant rapids remaining,

“All three boatmen had now burned through their reserves, yet with the return of darkness the need for constant, unstinting vigilance redoubled. Every second not spent pulling on the oars was devoted to  intense concentration – peering, listening, muttering imprecations while trying to fathom what lay ahead, then high-siding explosively to restore the dory’s balance when the waves appeared.”

But in addition to the boating challenge, the way Fedarko captures the atmosphere and spirit of the Canyon is remarkable. Having survived Lava Falls just before dark, he says,

“As Grua and the crew pressed on, the angled evening light was now casting fantastic patterns across the honeycombed sections of the columnar basalt – black, hexagonal expanses of Miocene lava that were layered over the limestone on both sides of the river. The shadows were growing by the minute while the sun played hide and seek, dipping beneath a rise on the cliffs to the west, then reappearing briefly as the Emerald Mile rounded another turn. … This was a special time to be on the water. The surface of the river was faint and shimmering lavender, and as the night swept down the wall, the shadows gathered in layers, each denser than the last, until the abyss was smothered in darkness and the only thing visible was the sky, which was plunging toward a soothing and bottomless indigo.”
One is naturally inclined to wonder how Fedarko discerned the deep thoughts and weighty insights he attributes to various individuals outside the direct quotes. But to someone who has repeatedly rowed the Canyon, what he writes about those private moments, the way light changes the Canyon, the way water works on your spirit -- those things ring true. They just plain sound right. And beyond the more subjective sections, the overall scope of information and the way it is woven together are impressive.

Near the end, we learn the fate of the Emerald Mile. It’s not particularly dishonoring, but this historic boat is not where it should be. Some day the Park Service will find the wherewithal to establish a river museum on the South Rim -- a place where visitors can learn about the river corridor, the people and the watercraft that enabled its exploration and travel. That’s where the Emerald Mile belongs.

Many readers will start with no particular knowledge of boating, or any thoughts about how fast a boat could be rowed through the entire length of the Grand Canyon during a huge flood. For them, as well as those with river experience, Kevin Fedarko has crafted a wonderfully readable, multi-threaded reconstruction of a rather remarkable event in a remarkable place. He’s done that holistically -- by recounting the historical trajectory of Western man in the Canyon, moving through a useful review of early exploration and recreational boating, then providing a summary of water and dam construction issues, the power and influence of the river, the origins and mystique of dories in the Canyon, and the personalities that knit them all together in the modern era.

The speed run itself is the heart of the story – its culmination. But Fedarko brings so much more to it – in an interesting and informative way. Highly recommended.

Rich Phillips

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