Mad Waters

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

A River Running West: The Life and Times of John Wesley Powell, by Donald Worster (Oxford, $35). On May 24, 1869, a one-armed Civil War veteran named John Wesley Powell put in to the Green River, in what's now Wyoming, with a crew of nine roustabouts, bound for the last hidden part of the American West. The men aimed their four small boats south toward the Colorado, a river so unknown that mapmakers marked its theoretical course with a dotted line. Only one expedition had penetrated the surrounding territory, in 1859, and its commander, U.S. Army Captain J. N. Macomb, had been sorely disappointed. "I cannot conceive," he wrote, "of a more worthless and impracticable region." Then came Powell. By summer's end, he'd mapped the entire Colorado, encountered canyons both sublime (Glen) and awesome (Grand), and thoroughly debunked Macomb's dismissal. "A place that repelled everyone before him," writes environmental historian Donald Worster in this exhaustive new biography of Powell—the first since Wallace Stegner's masterful Beyond the Hundredth Meridian in 1953—"proved to be a place of exquisite color, diversity, light, and form, of natural harmony." Worster reveals his subject as an unlikely heir to Lewis and Clark: A schoolteacher and self-taught naturalist, Powell was strong and courageous, but no outdoorsman. ("The major as usual has chosen the worst camping-ground possible," one of his men grumbled into his journal.) Stegner remains unrivaled as a literary historian, but A River Running West unlocks a trove of data about the man who helped found the U.S. Geological Survey and who predicted the water wars of the next century. Where Stegner tells the dramatic story of the "second opening of the West" (his subtitle), Worster explores the political and economic forces that gave rise to his hero's life—and the force that his hero exerted back. —Bruce Barcott

What You See in Clear Water: Life on the Wind River Reservation, by Geoffrey O'Gara (Knopf, $25). A turn-of-the-century Indian inspector once rode into Wyoming's Wind River Canyon and predicted that it would "rival the Yellowstone Park and the Grand Canon [sic] as an attraction for lovers of scenic grandeur." He was wrong. Over the next hundred years the Wind River Valley attracted only a few hardy farmers, ranchers, and roughnecks. The grandeur lovers flew by doing 75 on their way to Old Faithful, and the government did what it usually does with bad land: put Indians on it. O'Gara, author of A Long Road Home, tells the story of this demanding, beautiful country by following the Wind River upstream to its headwaters and following its residents in a water war worthy of Powell himself, one pitting Shoshones and Arapaho against white farmers. The tribes want the Wind to run high and clear to nurture trout—and tourist money. The farmers want their ditch water. O'Gara paints a clear-eyedportrait of Westerners trying to pull a living from a difficult land. After years of fighting, one combatant wonders if "the fundamental conflict—divvying up the water when the river got low—would go on forever." No, probably not forever. Only as long as there is an American West. —B.B.

The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk, by Jennifer Niven (Hyperion, $25). Mercifully, the great first-person accounts of bone-chilling survival—journals from Bering's Aleutians shipwreck in the 1740s, Sir John Franklin's 1820s Arctic expedition, the Donner Party of 1846, Robert Scott's suicidal 1912 Antarctic bid—are as close as most of us will come to cannibalism or freezing to death. Promising to deliver the understated terror of such narratives, The Ice Master is an account of the disastrous 1913 Canadian Arctic Expedition, led by scientist Vilhjalmur Stefansson. In an eerie mirror image of the Endurance's fate just months later at the bottom of the world, the Karluk was frozen in Arctic ice for five months, then broke apart and sank, but Stefansson—no Shackleton—had already abandoned his men for a "hunting trip" that led him south to safety. The remaining 22scientists and crew—along with an Inuit woman, her two young daughters, and a cat—endured storms, frostbite, and malnutrition; by the time rescuers arrived, 11 had died, including one man apparently shot by his tentmate. When Niven, a television screenwriter, lets her characters "speak on these pages in their own distinctive and passionate voices," the story comes alive, but her flat prose, tailored to provide the next true-life adventure best-seller, leaches drama from the rest. —Caroline Fraser

Tinkering with Eden: A Natural History of Exotics in America, by Kim Todd (W.W. Norton, $28). Pigeon, brown trout, gypsy moth, nutria: Over the past 500 years, more than 4,500 nonnative species have been loosed upon American ecosystems, often with catastrophic results. Reaching back to the original farmers, crackpots, and scientists who opened this biological Pandora's box, Todd uncovers a Greek tragedy of human heedlessness: the 19th-century dumping of mosquito larvae in Maui's streams (by whalers emptying ships' water barrels) that doomed native birds to extinction via avian malaria; the lunatic ambition of Eugene Schieffelin, a druggist who released 80 European starlings in Central Park in 1890 in a scheme to bring all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare to the New World; the misguided boosterism behind the 1925 introduction of mountain goats into the Olympic Range by a mountaineer who feared that the peaks lacked large charismatic animals to draw tourists. This beautifully written natural history strives to consider the usefulness and the "unmistakable joy" brought by some exotic creatures—the honeybee or the colorful monk parakeet—even as it ends where it must: "To see the country before the first European footprint...would be frightening; it would be awe-inspiring; it would be a place we've never been." —C.F.

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