Forty years ago this month, on June 25, 1983, one of the most incredible feats of speed, endurance, and sheer lunacy took place in the Grand Canyon. The Emerald Mile by Kevin Fedarko tells the riveting story of the quest of Kenton Grua, Steve Reynolds, and Rudi Petschek to row a simple wooden dory through the 277 miles of the Grand Canyon faster than any boat in the past. Record snowfall the winter before created larger than normal runoff into the Colorado River, filling Lake Powell, located above the Grand Canyon, above capacity. Worried that the Glen Canyon Dam might fail, federal officials released huge volumes of water downstream into the Grand Canyon.
Grua, Reynolds, and Petschek, three very experienced river guides, decided to take advantage of the situation to launch their boat, the Emerald Mile, into the Colorado under the cover of darkness. Park officials had closed the river due to the danger posed by the raging outflow of water and the chaotic maelstrom it produced. An attempt such as this would have been suicidal for anybody without the experience and knowledge of the best river guides. This trio was the best of the best, having gone down the Colorado and through the Grand Canyon hundreds of times. Not only did the crew have to navigate the treacherous rapids, but they also had to row unceasingly through the flat water as well as avoid arrest from the park rangers who had been tipped off.
More than 30 rapids are scattered throughout the Grand Canyon, some wilder and stronger than others but all capable of flipping a boat and endangering the lives of the occupants under normal conditions. On June 25, 1983, river conditions were far from normal, and the crew of the Emerald Mile would have to ride each rapid perfectly to have any hope of surviving the endeavor. While the nearly 300-mile trip usually took a couple of weeks to complete, the three river men were hoping to do it in just a few days.
Kenton Grua, the leader and brainchild behind this adventure, had spent years dreaming of and planning it. The Emerald Mile itself had been badly damaged years before and left for lost, but Grua took it as his own and painstakingly reclaimed the boat for riding the river again. Grua, fascinated with the Grand Canyon, never tired of taking river trips through it as a guide. Having hiked the entire length of the canyon, he knew it probably better than anyone else at that time.
Kevin Fedarko centers the book on this unusual and high octane journey through the Grand Canyon, but he also tells the back stories and history of the Grand Canyon and the interesting people who have been attracted to it. Beginning with Native Americans and Spanish explorers, Fedarko brings to our attention the fascinating people up to the present day who have had quests of their own revolving around this amazing river and landscape. Some have tried to tame it and others protect it, but all have added their touch to this uniquely American treasure. Fedarko does a good job of telling this story, though at times his prose is a bit flowery.
Today, 40 years later, it is hard to believe that this event even took place. During the past two decades the West has been experiencing a serious drought, and Lake Powell is down by more than 150 feet from full lake levels. This past winter, however, frequent snowstorms left huge snow packs that are now flowing into the river drainages. Who knows? With consecutive winters like the last one, perhaps one day we will see another crazy trip through the Grand Canyon.