The Emerald Mile
By Kevin Fedarko
Reviewed by Matt Lindon of the Friends of the Park City Library
Kevin Fedarko’s book The Emerald Mile was first published in the summer of 2013 and became an instant hit with river rats and water geeks alike. It is basically the story of the spring of 1983 when the winter snow pack continued to build unexpectedly in the Rocky Mountains until Memorial Day weekend when it all started to melt all at once. This snow melt runoff caused unprecedented flooding along the Colorado River systems that stressed the Bureau of Reclamation on-stream dams, their engineers and their operators. From this adversity came an opportunity for a select, almost mythical, group of river runners and guides. They seized the moment, as well as the high water, and attempted to break the fastest rowing record thru the Grand Canyon. These stories are seamlessly woven together in this book to provide an enlightening and entertaining story of the various, often competing, special interest groups, and stakeholders of the rivers and the water in the west.
Kevin Fedarko was originally a staff writer for Time magazine and a contributor to Esquire and Outside as well as other magazines. He is a part time river guide in the Grand Canyon which manifests as respect, almost reverence, for that place and the river that carved it. This may contribute to his over-the-top storytelling and his fraternity to the culture of the river guides. Every chapter is an adventure, and every subsequent chapter is an exciting opportunity that is not to be missed. He also translates the complex hydrologic engineering concepts and numbers into layman terms that flow like water. The book therefore reads itself and is impossible to put down.
Along with his complete history of river running and the development of the culture of the western river guides, Fedarko does equally well in describing the operating engineers for the Bureau of Reclamation at Glen Canyon Dam. They are first seen anxiously watching car sized sandstone boulders shooting from the spillway tunnels and then hopefully putting plywood on the dam’s spillway gates to hold back the relentlessly rising level of Lake Powell. Only BOR dam operator Tom Gambel really knows how close we really came to losing the dam that year. From this gripping true story we all become more aware of the power, persistence and patience of the Colorado River from this story. As these competing cultures converge in a crescendo of crisis, Fedarko navigates the storylines like a well season river guide riding an invisible eddy line.
The story starts benignly enough at the beginning, where most good stories start. Don Garcia, a captain in the 1540 Coronado expedition sent to find the seven golden cities of Cibola, accidently stumbles upon the Grand Canyon and is relatively unimpressed. From that inauspicious first sighting of the Canyon by a white men, to the courageous first navigation of the Canyon in 1869 by John Wesley Powell, the story proceeds systematically to the dam builders, conservationist and the river runners of modern times.
Martin Linton is presented as the enlightened entrepreneur and environmentalist who perfects the method of running the river in elegant but fragile wooden Dory boats. He also fights along side David Brower of the Sierra Club against the dam builders for the preservation of the canyon. His Dorys are subsequently named after environmental tragedies and we are introduced to a beaten and battered boat called the Emerald Mile that is named after an old growth, Redwood clear cut in Northern California. This bastard boat is adopted by guru guide Kenton Grua and meticulously repaired and rebuilt for its epic run.
Along with his equally skillful and obsessive friends, Steve Reynolds and Rudi Petschek, Grua ignores the National Park Service closing of the flooded river and, on the night of June 25 1983, launches the Emerald Mile just below the dam into a river swollen to almost 100,000 cubic feet per second. This book is unmistakably about this historic run but it is wrapped nicely in the other side stories of the canyon, the river, the dams, the conservationists, the guides, the bureaucrats and the competing interests for the American west.
It could be the text book of a Western Water 101 course and stands among the great books in this category along with Cadillac Dessert by Mark Reisner and Beyond the 100th Meridian by Wallace Stegnar. The Colorado River is the poster boy for the exploitation of the waters and the resources of the American West and this book is a revelation of the complex consequences that arise when you mess with mother nature, for thrills or for profit.
This is also the story of hubris and arrogance, confidence and adventure and the surprisingly counter-intuitive forces of nature on our unsustainable life style. It is a rollicking ride full of the hyperbole and didactic exaggeration, courage and legend and the conquering of the gear and the fear that is the lexicon of the river culture. Strap yourself in and prepare for a frantic and fantastic journey. You will not be disappointed.