Kevin Fedarko: Author, Former Senior Editor at Outside on The Emerald Mile and Colorado River Guides in the Grand Canyon

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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.

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