Have you ever received a book you thought you'd dislike, only to discover that once you started reading it, you could scarcely put it down?
Such was my experience with Kevin Fedarko's amazing The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon.
Yes, it's about my favorite river, the Colorado, and a breakneck ('suicidal' might be a better word) trip by three men in a fragile wooden dory (named the Emerald Mile) trying to set a record during the height of the El Niño-fueled runoff during the spring and early summer of 1983. I recall that time - I was still working at the Desert Research Institute before moving to Atlanta. En route I took a detour to see Lake Powell in August 1983. It was still full - a far cry from what it is now.
Although I have rafted a few times on rivers not nearly as challenging as the Colorado I am hardly a rafting enthusiast. So when friend and colleague Todd Jarvis placed this book in my mailbox as a gift I flipped through it and thought, '400 pages about a raft trip? Really!' So there it sat on a corner of my office desk, quickly buried by assorted papers, for six weeks or so. Then, about to embark on a trip and looking for something other than a 'WaterWonk book' to read, I grabbed this and soon started my journey.
Throughout the book, Fedarko provides graphic lessons on geology, fluvial geomorphology, open-channel hydraulics, dams, and related topics. His discussions of the river's hydraulics are so spellbinding and graphic that they even conjured a problem involving Lava Rapids that I had given my graduate students 20 years ago. I doubt I could solve it now. Notes are meticulous, as are references. The index is excellent. The only factual error I noted was the few times he referred to Lake Powell's maximum capacity of nine billion gallons. It's actually closer to nine trillion gallons (roughly 27 MAF), a figure he does use once. No big deal - you're more than forgiven, Kevin. Probably a typo anyway.
Fedarko is a great raconteur. We get the history of the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River. We've all heard about John Wesley Powell (boy, what a character!) but it was a young Spanish captain - Don García López de Cárdenas - who was the first white person to view the chasm in 1540. Fedarko masterfully cajoles us into joining Powell's 1869 expedition and we're glad to be going along - vicariously, thankfully.
We're told of the construction of Hoover Dam, and its significance and importance to a Depression-wearied nation. We learn about the battles between environmentalists and development interests over other dams on the Colorado River. Fedarko then escorts us to the upstream end of the Grand Canyon and the massive Glen Canyon Dam, a structure that figures prominently in the book's central theme.
A part-time river guide himself, Fedarko introduces us to the Grand Canyon river guide community - the men (mostly) and women who escort greenhorns downstream on breathtaking runs on the river that has both captured and captivated them. I was reminded of the ski bums I encountered in my younger days in the Lake Tahoe basin: 'Live to ski. Ski to live' except that it in the canyon the mantra was 'Live to raft. Raft to live.'
The story gravitates to Martin Litton, who became infatuated with dories while recreating Powell's 1869 expedition. Litton founded Grand Canyon Dories, and soon attracted a cadre of 'true believers' even though his wages were lower than those of the other companies, which used rubber rafts or pontoon boats. Litton was sort of a 'Pied Piper' when it came to dories and their virtues. Three people he attracted were Kenton 'The Factor' Grua, Steve 'Wren' Reynolds, and Rudi Petschek. Grua, by far the most intense and charismatic of the three, would lead the charge to set a record through the canyon in the Emerald Mile, accompanied by the other two.
What prompted the run for the record? Adrenalin for sure, but nature kicked in with the allure of the tremendous runoff produced by the snowfall during the legendary 1983 El Niño event. Lake Powell, the USA's second-largest reservoir after Lake Mead, filled to the brim during the runoff season - so much so that jury-rigged plywood panels had to be installed so the lake would not overtop the dam.
But that overtopping was the least of the Bureau of Reclamation's worries. Reclamation engineers were releasing torrents of water through Glen Canyon Dam's emergency tunnels. But cavitation was eating through one of the tunnels, thus potentially triggering a catastropic event (a euphemism, for sure). Fedarko details the effort by a handful of Reclamation engineers to control the cavitation. His description was absoutely riveting and spot-on. You will be amazed when you learn what actually initiated the cavitation. Would you believe a small knob on the ceiling? Unbelievable! Oh, yeah, and then there is that 90-degree bend in the tunnel...
With this hydraulic havoc as backdrop, three intrepid (crazy?) men set off in a flimsy wooden boat on the morning of 25 June 1983 to fly through the Canyon. They had no Park Service permit, but that was not going to thwart them. Fedarko's skillful storytelling ensures we are in that puny dory (or dumped in the river) with them. It's quite a ride.
You would be well advised to take that ride. You need not be a river guide or a WaterWonk to appreciate it. Upshot: read the book!
Can't wait for Kevin Fedarko's next offering.
Thanks, Todd. You know my reading tastes better than I.
"No matter how full the river, it still wants to grow." - African proverb (from The Emerald Mile, p. 202)