In 1983 a record snow yield in the Rocky Mountains created the highest volume of meltwater ever to surge through the Colorado River. The massive buildup of hydraulic pressure threatened to overcome the 710-foot barrier of the Glen Canyon Dam and sent a devastating current of destruction at incredibly high speeds through the mile-deep gorge that winds its way through the Arizona desert. The Grand Canyon was inundated with a catastrophic wall of the deadliest whitewater seen in a generation. And as the National Park Service conducted the most extensive helicopter rescues of trapped and injured boaters in its history, a trio of inspired fools launched themselves down the rapids in an open wooden dory called the Emerald Mile. By the seat of their pants the three-man crew braved a 277-mile journey in the fastest decent of the Canyon ever recorded.
In his first book, former Outside magazine senior editor and Grand Canyon river guide Kevin Fedarko tells the amazing story of Kenton Grua who lead the seemingly suicidal mission to row a boat through these treacherously turbulent waters of the Colorado River. Named for the legendary dory, The Emerald Mile is also an exciting tale that illustrates the history and exploration of one of the most mysterious but little-known natural features in North America.
“The book was certainly written to provide more than just a turbo-charged adventure story,” Fedarko told The Clymb. “Indeed, the story of the speed run that’s at the heart of this book is honestly just a subversive excuse to indulge in an extended portrait of and love letter to the dories, the river, and the Canyon itself.”
We had a chance to talk with Kevin about his new book and what life is like for guides on the Colorado:
The Clymb: Your book The Emerald Mile details the story of the fastest descent of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in an open dory in 1983. What inspired you to share this particular tale of adventure?
Kevin Fedarko: I first heard about the story in 2003 when I started working as an apprentice river guide. This particular story, both the speed run of the Emerald Mile and runoff of 1983 which made the speed run possible, are part of the oral history of the Grand Canyon. At night after dinner has been prepared, what river guides tend to do is sit around and tell stories about their past trips. It’s pretty much impossible to get down the Canyon and not hear somebody tell a story of 1983 and the story of the Emerald Mile.
The reason why I was drawn to expand that into a fully fledged book is that at a certain point I came to the understanding that the story of the Emerald Mile, the story of the speed run, offered a common thread upon which you could then hang the entire story of the Canyon, the story of how it was discovered, the people, the tradition of rowing wooden boats through the whitewater, the very colorful and inspiring subculture of whitewater guiding, which is a pervasive and secret world. And then of course there’s the story of the Glen Canyon Dam, which sits at the head of the Canyon, how it has effected the environment and what happens when two different worlds that are fundamentally opposed to one another, the world of engineering and hydraulics and the world of whitewater boating, collided at the crest of the largest flood that had descended on the Canyon in a generation.
The Clymb: You are yourself a guide on the Colorado River as well as a talented writer and journalist. What motivates you to blend your apparent passion for whitewater paddling with a career writing books?
Kevin Fedarko: I had no experience as a paddler. In fact it’s impossible to overstate the depth of my ignorance about whitewater in general. It’s also important to note that I am not a licensed river guide. I set out with the dream of working my way through an apprenticeship that I had hoped at the time would culminate in me being allowed to jump into the driver’s seat of a dory. But I proved to myself and to everyone else that I was so colossally incompetent at oaring it became clear that the company I worked for had no intention of ever letting get within spitting distance of a dory. So I ended up specializing in the baggage boats, in particular a boat called the Jackass, which is known as the “poo boat” that carried all the toilets and was also responsible for transporting all the raw sewage generated through the course of a river trip. And so I was the captain of the Jackass!
The Clymb: Thanks for your candor, but from that position on the river do you think you might have had a better perspective on how to tell this story as well as glean your appreciation for the work of being a professional river guide that made this story possible?
Kevin Fedarko: Well I never got to row a dory. But what I did get to do, by virtue of being at the helm of the Jackass, which was invariably the last boat in the running order, was that I got to follow behind the dories. I spent hour and days and weeks and months of accumulated time rowing behind those gorgeous wooden boats. I watched them and obsessed over them. I was seduced by them. I got to see them under every set of conditions imaginable at all hours of the day and night from one end of the river season to the next. I also got to participate in and be part of a dory river crew. In some ways the fact that I was relegated to the poo-boat, the baggage boat carrying toilets was in some ways totally appropriate because as a writer you’re never really part of the scene that forms and frames your subject. My role in the back of the flotilla, watching and thinking and making notes and observing was I think a reflection of the larger role I was playing as a writer.
The Clymb: You’ve dedicated much of your professional life to sharing stories about adventure through one of the most exciting bodies of fast moving water in the world. What do you do to train or prepare yourself to work and play in this very high energy and (sometimes) dangerous environment?
Kevin Fedarko: In the Grand Canyon, on the Colorado you largely learn by doing. I started out my first trip as a swamp rat. I was not at the oars. I was serving as an assistant to a baggage boatman. But by my second trip I had my own boat and I was responsible for rigging it and getting it downstream intact and if possible not flipping it upside down—every night de-rigging it and re-rigging it every morning. There’s no instruction manual for the Grand Canyon. Your colleagues become your friends and then your family metaphorically. They teach you how not only to do your job but how to behave in the Canyon.
It’s a formidable thing to row a 400-pound wooden dory with four passengers safely through the Canyon. It’s also a formidable thing to row a one-and-half-ton baggage boat filled with not just simply the components of an entire toilet system but also a huge part of the gear and equipment, the infrastructure that’s responsible for supporting 22 people for 21 days at the bottom of the Canyon. It’s not something that you would ever want to flip upside down and if you do you better hope that you rigged it properly. My boat by the way was the only boat that got heavier. That threw in it’s own set of complications as well.
The Clymb: When you venture out into these challenging whitewater situations what’s your most mission-critical piece of equipment? What is the must-have gear in your kit?
Kevin Fedarko: The absolutely essential piece of gear that no guide would be without is a river map. There are two, both published by different authors but they provide you with a blueprint of the bottom of the Canyon and the river and the rapids you’ll encounter. What everyone does is fill their river map like a flip chart. Much like a reporter’s notebook you fill it with notes, warnings, observations, curses, admonitions, resolutions not to ever, ever do that same mistake you did at that particular point again. You augment the maps with a diary of your own experiences and out of that comes a blueprint that resides inside your head, eventually to the point where the really great guides rarely refer to their maps. They have every inch of the river memorized along with every single run.
The Clymb: In writing the book the Emerald Mile you made quite a few trips down the Colorado River. What can you tell us about one of your most memorable moments?
Kevin Fedarko: It would have to be the night I discovered that there are two rivers in the Canyon, not just one. There’s very little artificial light on the either the north or south rim of the Grand Canyon , so when you are down at the bottom of a mile-deep gorge lying on the deck of your boat in your sleeping bag, drifting off to sleep and staring up, you’re staring up at a ribbon of sky framed by the north and south rims of the Canyon whose contours perfectly mirror the contours of the river itself. That ribbon of sky is pitch black but filled with stars. So there’s a river of stars above the Colorado River that is a reflection of the river that carved the Canyon. When I first realized that it was a magical moment.