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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