Thou shalt not” is soon forgotten, but “Once upon a time” lasts forever.” – Kevin Fedarko, The Emerald Mile
Forty years ago, in 1983, the Colorado River Basin saw unprecedented water levels. Snowpack went through the roof, and the dams came to almost overflow.
A series of events almost caused a catastrophic failure of the Glen Canyon dam that year, too. So much water that only some last-minute finagling with plywood prevented a flood that would need Noah’s ark.
And during this backdrop, three river rats set an FKT of paddling the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon from point to point in thirty-nine hours. A record that stood for over thirty-five years.
A book that chronicles these events? The Emerald Mile by Kevin Fedarko.
Published in 2014, this book covers the FKT of the Colorado River and the fascinating story of the Bureau of Reclamation dealing with this historic flood. Along with the history of rafting, travel, and inhabiting The Grand Canyon, it includes a bit of water rights politics and the contentious history of damning the river. Picture “The Perfect Storm” with a dash of popular adventure books, combined with “Cadillac Desert.”
It sounds like an odd read, but the mix of All The Colorado Plateau’s facets makes it an engaging yarn.
I don’t need to sum up the book more than that, as others have since the original publication of the book. The short promo video below gives a compelling synopsis.
Instead, I’ll say this book is one you should read if you are interested in inspirational journeys in the outdoors and enjoy diving into the history, politics, and culture of the Colorado Plateau and the Grand Canyon particularly.
For me, reading this book gives a feeling or an experience. Something akin to watching a movie that lingers days or weeks long after you view it. You can almost feel the rush through the rapids, the escalating danger posed with flooding dealt with the classic American “can-do” attitude, and the quiet, contemplative aspects of the river journey.
I particularly enjoyed one passage as it encapsulates, for me, what it’s like to push yourself to the point where the immersion into the journey seems complete –
“He rowed them past the last of the stars. He rowed them clear of the night’s embrace. He rowed them straight into and beyond the break of day. And somewhere along that stretch of river, he also rowed them across an invisible fault line, a seam on the American continent that separates the terrain where the ephemeral events of everyday reality unfold from a more rarefied and singular realm, the place where mythic and permanent journeys of the imagination, such as those of John Wesley Powell, reside – the place of legends.”
The story starts slow and lays the groundwork to set the account while meandering for a bit. Perhaps much like the start of a river journey.
But the patient reader soon finds themselves engrossed in the story and the journey. You turn each page and want to see what’s around that next bend of the literary canyon wall.
Read this book as it is, in my opinion, one of the essential stories to understand and appreciate the complexity of this region.
I’ll leave with a bookend, of sorts, for our modern times –
Disclosure – I read this book through that excellent resource of my local library.