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Adventure : Books

Kevin Fedarko Rips Through the Grand Canyon (And Its History)

On July 1, contributing editor Kevin Fedarko’s The Emerald Mile (Scribner, $17) was released in paperback. The book tells the tale of three men who attempted a speed run through the Grand Canyon (on a Colorado River that was swollen to epic levels by historic flooding), and of the engineers who were desperately trying to save the Glen Canyon dam from those same floodwaters.

The book received the 2013 National Outdoor Book Award for History/Biography, the Reading the West Award for best nonfiction book of the year, and was the unanimous top pick of Southwest Books of the Year. As of this writing, it was also shortlisted for the PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing. We tracked Fedarko down between rowing and reporting trips to talk to him about the book.

OUTSIDE: What originally drew you to the dories of the Grand Canyon?
FEDARKO
: The first time I laid eyes on a whitewater dory was during a road trip through the Southwest when I dropped by the offices of a river outfitter in Flagstaff that runs commercial expeditions through the Grand Canyon.

When I walked in, I found myself staring at a navy of a dozen diminutive rowboats that were unlike any kind of watercraft I had ever seen. Most were painted in bright colors, and several of them had been adorned with hand-drawn scenes from the desert rivers of the Southwest: a bighorn sheep, a cluster of scarlet monkey flowers, a peeping frog.

What struck me most forcefully, though, was that the profile of each boat boasted the simplest and loveliest set of lines that I had ever seen. My jaw just hit the floor. And I decided that I was going to have to follow those little boats into the hidden world of whitewater at the bottom of the Grand Canyon by signing on as an apprentice river guide.

How did signing on as an apprentice river guide go for you?
A commercial dory trip in the canyon usually involves sixteen passengers who ride in four boats and are served by a crew of six. If it’s an expedition run by Grand Canyon Dories, which is the outfitter I worked for, each guide captains a seventeen-foot dory christened in memory of a natural wonder that was heedlessly destroyed by the hand of man—haunting names that include the Ticaboo, the Music Temple, and The Vale of Rhondda.

Each trip is also supported by a pair of large inflatable rafts that boast absolutely none of the dories’ seductiveness or charm. The first raft, the kitchen boat, bears the name not of a vanished ecological treasure but of a barnyard animal: either the Mule, the Ox, or the Clydesdale. The other raft, which was my boat, was called the Jackass.

And what did your boat do?
This is somewhat embarrassing, but there’s no way of getting around it. Every river trip is required by the National Park Service to containerize all human waste. It’s called the poop-boat, and that’s the role that the Jackass performed when I rowed her. I once calculated that I transported more than 7,800 pounds of excrement over a total distance of 3,800 river miles. That’s roughly equivalent to rowing a septic tank from Tijuana, Mexico, to Point Barrow, Alaska.

Did you ever get to move up to a dory?
No. Very early on, I managed to demonstrate such a colossal level of incompetence when it came to rowing whitewater that it was immediately obvious to everyone—including me—that I had no business holding the lives of passengers in the palms of my hands.

So of all the stories you heard on the river, what made you decide to write this one?
Well, first and most obviously, it’s a tremendously exciting adventure narrative. During the spring of 1983, the runoff on the Colorado achieved a size and a level of savagery that had not been witnessed in generations.

But I also came to understand that the legend of the Emerald Mile was more than a turbocharged anecdote about a speed run. It also embraces the larger story of the canyon itself: its discovery and its exploration, as well as the complex and fascinating narrative of the Glen Canyon Dam.

The speed run is one part of the story. But the science of the nearly-demolished dam is every bit as fascinating. Why did you devote so much time and energy to these elements?
The great hydroelectric dams of the West represent a phase of this country’s development that touches upon some central aspects of who we are as Americans—especially our relationship with the land itself. Those dams stand as some of our greatest technological achievements.

But those same dams also embody a level of hubris that we are only now fully beginning to confront and grapple with. These enormously impressive machines that we at one time thought represented the best of who we were turned out to have a dark side.

And yet the dam engineers are portrayed as incredibly smart, dedicated, and resourceful individuals.
Anyone who works on the river is encouraged to think of the Glen Canyon Dam as evil and the people who are associated with it as misguided and wrong. But that’s just not true, and this was something I needed to discover. Another discovery was that the battle that the engineers fought to save the dam is so compelling as a story, in terms of sheer drama, that it almost threatens to overshadow the speed run itself.

In the end, perhaps the theme that resonates most deeply for me is that the collision of ideas between the two worlds at the center of this story— the values of science represented by the Glen Canyon Dam and the values of nature represented by the unruly citizens of the river—was crystallized and underscored by the flood of 1983 in a way that had never been done before. You have these two separate subcultures that don’t even speak the same language and which, in many ways, truly hate one another—and yet they were united, unwittingly, by an event that challenged them both. 

How did you get both sides—the engineers and the river guides—to trust you?
I could never even pretend to do what the engineers do. I was quite forthright, however, about my ignorance, and I asked them to teach me what I didn’t know. People can open up when you demonstrate a willingness to listen to their stories with attentiveness and respect.

Within the corps of river guides, I literally worked my way into the matrix by living and laboring alongside of them. I was never really considered an insider, but with time, the men and women who row the dories came to accept my presence and took me under their wing—mainly because they are decent and generous people; but also in part, perhaps, because I was rowing their sewage down the river. 

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How to Beat the Blerch

When The Oatmeal comic-strip author Matthew Inman first started running, he invented an invisible fat cherub called the Blerch.

In Inman’s head, the Blerch represented the chubby self he was trying to run away from. The Blerch earned that name because it was the most disgusting sound he could think of, “like mayonnaise squirting from a tube,” Inman says. On those early runs, Inman told himself that he just needed to keep jogging until the next stop sign or tree, or else the Blerch would catch—and become—him. 

Years later, after he’d logged hundreds of miles and shed his extra pounds, Inman decided to turn the Blerch and all of his reasons for running into a comic. Within days of publishing it online last July, the strip, called “The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances,” had received several hundred thousand Facebook likes. “It went crazy,” Inman says. “It seemed to resonate with a lot of people.”

Not only did runners love it, Inman found, but also rowers, CrossFit enthusiasts, martial arts practitioners, and all sorts of other athletes embraced the Blerch. They loved Inman’s honesty about why he runs: for therapy, for selfish reasons, and “so I can treat my mouth like a garbage disposal." 

Now, Inman has turned the popular comic strip into both a book and a race. The 140-page book, which bears the same title as the first running-themed foray that debuted on Facebook, comes out on September 30. Inman recently took four months off from updating his website with new comics in order to finish the book, which will be his fifth. The new book includes tips for what not to do in a marathon, such as sprint at mile one or have 15 water bottles attached to your body.

In addition to the book, Inman is launching a new race, “Beat the Blerch,” taking place on September 20 and 21 in Carnation, Washington. Each day, runners will compete in a 10K, a half marathon, or a full marathon. Race volunteers wearing Blerch fat suits will chase runners, and aid stations will have couches, cake, and Nutella. “It’s a former fat kid race,” explains Inman, who recruited local race directors Roger Michel and Porter Bratten to handle the logistics for him.

When registration opened for Beat the Blerch, the race sold out all 2,000 spots in 20 minutes. Inman ended up opening a second race day so some of the runners from the wait list could enroll. Half of Beat the Blerch’s participants are coming to Washington from out of state, which is why Inman chose the Snoqualmie Valley River Trail for the race.

“I don’t want to send runners down Aurora,” Inman says, referring to the busy, motel- and parking-lot-populated thoroughfare of Highway 99. “I want to showcase how beautiful Washington State is. And since I’ve got 2,000 runners a day, I can’t put them on Cougar Mountain. They’d destroy it.”  

Inman already plans to expand Beat the Blerch to other states. Assuming he can secure a permit, he’ll run the race in San Diego this fall. He also wants to put on an East Coast race, likely in Philadelphia or Boston, next spring.

Though Inman first started running to lose weight, he now relies on his jogs for other reasons. He often fleshes out ideas in his head for new comic strips during afternoon runs at Seattle-area running areas like Discovery Park, Green Lake, or Cougar Mountain. Inman works from his house on Puget Sound, but figures he wouldn’t really get anything done between two and five in the afternoon anyway.

“You can convince yourself that you’re working, but you’re really just on YouTube or Facebook,” Inman notes. “Getting out to run really helps me come up with ideas. When I run, I fall into this weird little zone that’s almost like meditation.”

Inman has delved into both marathons and ultramarathons. He ran his first road marathon after a friend suggested it, and ended up placing second in his age group.

“I got a plaque, and the last time I’d won anything was in the fourth grade,” Inman says. “From there, I was hooked.”

Rather than sticking to the 26.2-mile distance and trying to get faster, Inman decided to also try an ultra. He compares ultrarunners like himself to stumbling mountain goats who stop and graze on food along the way. By contrast, marathon runners, he asserts, are trying to be cheetahs. 

“It was kind of a selfish, lazy thing,” explains Inman. “Rather than run a ton of marathons and improve your PR, you just keep running longer. Unfortunately, there’s nothing longer than an ultra, so soon I’ll have to run an ultra in a bear costume, or do something else to make it harder, so people will still be impressed.”

Inman didn’t pick a simple 50K to kick off his ultra career. Instead, he listened to a friend who had done the White River 50 Mile Endurance Run near Washington State’s Mount Rainier. The course’s technical trails, which traverse up and down two mountains over their 50 miles, total 17,400 feet in elevation change.

“It was a horrible idea,” Inman says. “There were f-ing ladders going up the mountain. When my friend finished, they had to slap his face and pick him up off the ground.”

Against his better judgment, Inman signed up for the race in 2011, along with his brother and the same friend from the White River run. His friend once again collapsed at the finish line. His brother took so much Aleve and Tylenol that, by the end, his liver revolted. As for Inman, he ended up feeling so good, he found himself running seven-minute miles over the last stretch of trail along Skookum Flats to the finish line. 

In 2013, Inman and his brother decided to enter the race again. This time, it was Inman who fell apart. He became nauseous by mile 20, and ended up dry heaving for most of the rest of the race. This was about a week after he’d published his running cartoon, so he was wearing a special Beat the Blerch T-shirt.

“Everyone saw my shirt and said, ‘Go Oatmeal!’—and there I was, puking by the side of the trail,” recalls Inman. “I’m thinking, ‘F- me, I’m going to DNF this race wearing this stupid shirt!’”

In the end, Inman managed to make it to the finish line. Inman says that his memories of the nausea and pain aren’t bad enough to keep him from signing up for White River again, though this year he has to be in San Diego for Comi-Con International that same July weekend.

These days, if Inman wears a Blerch shirt on his runs, he chooses a version with a very small logo so someone would have to look very closely to see the connection.

“It would be like Eddie Vedder wearing an Eddie Vedder shirt,” Inman said. “It feels a little weird.”

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Summer Reading with a Vengeance

Family legacies are hell to outrun, especially when violence is entwined in the ancestral DNA. This month a new batch of novels offer modern twists on the ancient themes of family, duty, revenge, and justice. The most anticipated is Peter Heller’s The Painter (Knopf, $25), the Outside contributing editor’s follow-up to his bestselling The Dog Stars. Jim Stegner, the title character, is a forty-something artist struggling to remake his life in the Colorado backcountry following the death of his teenage daughter.

Trouble finds him in the person of Dellwood Siminoe, a hunter who’s mean as a sack of razors. Conflict ensues, and Stegner soon finds himself with the added burdens of both the law and Siminoe’s vengeful kin, who have a habit of showing up drunk, angry, and armed at Stegner’s favorite fishing holes. The Painter isn’t the postapocalyptic revelation that The Dog Stars was, but Heller creates in Stegner a more flawed, reflective, and fully realized protagonist than the pining loner at the center of his first novel.

A son’s duty to his father forms the backbone of Louis Bayard’s novel Roosevelt’s Beast (Holt, $27), a fictional play on Theodore Roosevelt’s 1914 expedition down Brazil’s River of Doubt. This isn’t a full record of that journey (for that, see Candice Millard’s classic The River of Doubt) but a fanciful what-if that imagines T.R. and his son Kermit captured by the Cinta Larga, a real-life tribe that shadowed the expedition as it floated the river.

Bayard, bestselling author of historical thrillers like The School of Night and The Pale Blue Eye, hangs the novel on Kermit’s battle to become something more than his father’s valet, an elusive goal for a son who lacks Teddy’s tallyho bluster. “Of all the Roosevelt children,” Bayard writes, “he was the least likely to force himself on the world’s attention.” Beast tends to run a little too J.J. Abrams–ish for my taste, what with all the strange killings in the jungle. “We are in a strange land, Kermit,” says the old man. “Should we not be braced for strange outcomes?” But Bayard offers his readers a fun ride right to the end.

There’s no escaping family, duty, or violence when you’re a member of the Kings clan of Loosewood Island, the lobstering dynasty at the center of Alexi Zentner’s gripping second novel, The Lobster Kings (Norton, $27). The Kings have been pulling bugs out of the water around Loosewood since the 1720s, and they’ve always policed the grounds on their own. When young tweakers from the next town over start poaching their prey, Cordelia and her father, local big man Woody, must battle for Loosewood and their livelihood.

The struggle continues even as the family business comes under fire, with Cordelia rising as Woody’s power declines. By laying Shakespearean themes over the culturally rich New England lobster grounds, Zentner, a former newspaperman and climber, produces a deeply satisfying novel that reveals what is required by and given to those who inherit a family’s legacy.

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Is Consumerism The Climate's Enemy?

Recently, the National Climate Assessment revealed myriad ways climate change is already altering our daily lives. And more recently, a NASA study revealed that a significant chunk of the Antarctic is in "irreversible retreat" and that the resulting sea-level rise during this century will force the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to revise upward its already daunting prediction of one to three feet. What do we do? Once we pick our jaws off the floor, most of us have little choice but to continue on with our day. Oh, and of course drive less, buy organic, and eschew plastic bags. If that hardly seems like it's enough, you're right. It's not.

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In his new book, The Big Pivot: Radically Practical Strategies for a Hotter, Scarcer, and More Open World, Andrew Winston—author of the 2009 bestseller Green to Gold, and an expert on green business strategy—argues that environmental changes are forcing companies that make our cars, our food, our plastic bags, and everything else we choose to buy or not buy, to sink or swim. Consumers play a major role in their fates.

We talked to Winston about what consumers really care about, how environmentalism is like the gay rights movement, and whether it's okay for clothier Patagonia to cash in on its good intensions. 

OUTSIDE: You write in your book about how our increasingly connected world is forcing businesses to be "radically" transparent about the types of ingredients and manufacturing processes they use. Yet, when I go shopping I see a lot of overworked, harried people who seem to want to fill their carts and get on with their day.
WINSTON: We've had 44 years of Earth Day, and the percentage of people who really changed what they buy, how they live, in a way that is really deeply based on the environment is very low. That said, studies show things are changing. One study found that 40 percent of consumers will buy better, lower-footprint products when given the choice.

For years people did not buy energy-efficient light bulbs because they cost more upfront. But, over the years, as Walmart, Home Depot, and others started really pushing compact florescent bulbs, people started buying them. Now they're selling LED blubs. They also cost more upfront, but over time people started to understand the larger picture: that if they use this more expensive bulb over a number of years it's actually not more expensive (thanks to energy savings).

Still, we have not seen a giant movement in American consumers. I think, to be kind, it's because we are busy and we can't know everything about every purchase we make. For some categories we pay attention, personal care products and food—things we put on our bodies and in our bodies. There is more attention paid to those products than, say, asking where the wood in our bookcase came from.

So, what are the roles for consumers, versus government and business, in righting the ship?
To deal with something as serious as climate change and to address resource scarcity, all three (consumers, government, and business) need to shift the way we live. Consider a region dealing with drought: everyone has to act and sometimes you hear about people reporting on their neighbors who wash their cars (in violation of water restrictions). You have to have a sense of the common good.

Unfortunately, I think we're in the midst of a pretty big pendulum swing away from common good, thanks to political partisanship and Libertarian every-man-for-himself ideology. I get that, but as much as you want to say every man is an island, it's just not true. You have to think about how you affect other people. I don’t think that's so radical. 

These pivot points in society happen seemingly fast. Look at the gay rights movement. That happened seemingly very quickly in this country, but it was actually after decades of work. There is always a lead-up for many years and then some things (like discriminating based on sexual preference) become socially unacceptable. For another example, look at what happened with Clippers owner Don Sterling (and his remarks about African Americans). I think there is going to be a time when it's unacceptable to be a profligate user of natural resources or to be unaware of your impact or to habitually waste a lot of food. There will be increasing peer pressure not to do those things.

But I don’t rely on consumers to lead the charge. I think business and government need to work together to change the way we make energy, how we make products. That said, it would be a heck of a lot easier to get business and government to change if people made more noise and showed a clear preference in the things that they bought. Retailers care, but not as much as they would if consumers were walking in and clearly picking the greener stuff.

Patagonia, through its Worn Wear program and Eileen Fisher, through its Green Eileen stores, are buying clothes back from consumers and then reselling them. That really starts to subvert the retail paradigm. But in the end, consumers who sell their clothes back to those retailers get store credit… with which they have no choice but to buy more stuff. So at the end of the day, can retailers—even if they're super green standouts like Eileen Fisher and Patagonia—actually not be about consumerism?
It's a profound question. I think a company can grow and sell more stuff if it is taking (market) share—if it is selling more at the expense of other companies that are making less sustainable stuff.

So if the Patagonias of the world are selling something that lasts longer, that is made of recycled content, can be recycled, and so on, you want them to grow. Yet the total pie of resource use has to be in control.

Another way to look at this is through the work of Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart and the Cradle to Cradle movement. If things can be made in such a way that they can be cycled, almost endlessly, while using renewable energy, then consumption is less and less the problem. If a company, by its existence, makes things better, then you want more of them. It's a [positive] abundance thing, rather than saying, 'Oh, population is a problem, every new person and every new product is a problem.' But obviously we're still a long, long way from that.

It is a fair question to ask can public companies lead this charge? By their nature they need to keep shoveling growth and that is a problem. The math does not work to grow forever. But I think a (private) company like Patagonia, they are a $600 million company. They could still grow a lot and be selling more and more stuff, because theirs' are better products that last longer (than their competition). That is not different than the way businesses have always worked. The best ones survive and the worst don't.

We're going to be 9 billion people (by 2050), we're going to need things—but clearly they need to be made differently. The power that we use to make them needs to be renewable. We need fundamental changes. 

In the book I use the example of Kingfisher, a European home-improvement store, which has a goal of being net positive—they want to help people build homes that generate more energy than they use. Let's say you built a home and all the materials were recycled and/or local, and then home made more energy than it needed so that over time I actually netted out the energy it took to make. Don't you want more of those homes?

Climate is a big problem. Resources are a big problem. There isn’t an easy answer. People should take a hard look at their consumption habits, absolutely, but we still need things. No one is going to do well by telling everyone to just sit in a dark cave. But if, through our choices, things get better, then consumption isn't necessarily the problem.

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