Rocketing Into the Grand Canyon’s Great Unknown
Three whitewater guides, one wooden dory, and the Colorado River, swollen by record snowmelt and raging with a fury that boatmen hadn't seen since the days of John Wesley Powell. From Kevin Fedarko's epic new book, The Emerald Mile, the incredible story of the fastest, wildest trip ever attempted through the Grand Canyon.
For exclusive access to all of our fitness, gear, adventure, and travel stories, plus discounts on trips, events, and gear, sign up for Outside+ today.
IF YOU EVER take a guided river trip through the Grand Canyon, your guides are likely to tell you the story of Kenton Grua, Rudi Petschek, and Steve “Wren” Reynolds. These men are legends in the tight-knit fraternity of canyon boatmen, largely because of an adventure they embarked on in late June of 1983, when they defied common sense and the National Park Service and set off, at night, to attempt a record-breaking speed run down the Colorado River in a 17-foot wooden dory called the Emerald Mile.
Their starting point was the usual spot for Grand Canyon launches: Lees Ferry, a put-in 15 miles below the Glen Canyon Dam that’s marked as mile zero on river maps. The finish line was at mile 277: the Grand Wash Cliffs, near the entrance to Lake Mead. To get from A to Z, they figured, would require roughly two nights and days of furious rowing. That is, assuming they lived through it, since they were making their bid when conditions on the Colorado—especially at one notorious choke point deep inside the canyon—were almost as wild as they’d been in 1869, the year John Wesley Powell led a team that completed the first harrowing canyon passage on the then undammed Colorado.
That spring and summer, the river was especially furious, unpredictable, and deadly. Massive, rapid snowmelt from an epic western winter was straining the capacity of Glen Canyon’s mammoth concrete arch dam, completed in 1966, which regulated the flow of water into the Grand Canyon. By early June, Glen was holding back the runoff from 108,000 square miles, a region that included four western states. Failure of the dam’s enormous spillway tunnels was a serious possibility; to prevent it, federal officials took a series of extraordinary measures, at one point increasing the release of water to 92,000 cubic feet per second, the biggest torrent the canyon had seen in 25 years. But the runoff was something else, too: a once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience, in the most direct and visceral way imaginable, the ancestral majesty of what was once the wildest river in America.
The central figure in this escapade was Grua, a 33-year-old boatman who worked for the revered founder of Grand Canyon Dories, Martin Litton. Grua, who died in 2002 at 52, was the ultimate river rat, a compact, supremely fit man with an eccentric streak that was balanced by an encyclopedic knowledge of the mysterious physics of the Colorado’s notorious rapids. Before his death, he gave a series of interviews to a friend and fellow guide named Lew Steiger, who was able to record Grua’s memories of the speed run and his impressions of the men he rowed with.
Grua’s partners in the venture were Reynolds, 33, a superb oarsman who was known for his precision and power, and Petschek, 49, who’d participated in the Emerald Mile’s maiden run in 1971 and then helped salvage the boat’s carcass after it was badly damaged in a river mishap six years later.
The men had all the requisite skills, but they lacked crucial pieces of information, since they skirted authority to make their run. They didn’t know that several guided groups (still on the river as the floodwaters rose) had been slammed by the hydraulics; only 12 hours before their 11 P.M. launch on June 25, at an infamous rapid called Crystal, a rafting party was torn apart, with one fatality. They didn’t know that the Park Service had helicoptered in a ranger to stand watch above Crystal, forcing boatmen to pull over before carefully picking their way past it. In short, they didn’t know that what they had in mind was borderline suicidal. And if they had known? They probably would have gone anyway.
A FEW MILES past Lees Ferry, as Grua rowed through the canyon’s tamer early stretches, he paused at the end of every third or fourth stroke to glance over his shoulder and peer downstream, looking for the blur of whiteness that would herald a rapid. Wherever moonlight made it down to the river, he could discern the glimmer of wave tops. But in the long, canyon-obstructed reaches where everything went black, he was forced to rely on what he could feel—the subtle vibrations that the river sent through the wooden oar shafts into his fingers and hands, and from there to the places where his deeper knowledge resided. As he felt his way downstream, the river’s contours scrolled along the surface of his mind.
At the same time, Petschek and Wren were relying on a different set of sensory impressions to do their job, the crucial task of high-siding. Drawing on their innate feel for river hydraulics, which they could sense by cocking their ears and gripping the gunwales, they braced for the oncoming waves with a subtle lean of the shoulders or, when necessary, an explosive thrust of their torsos to maintain the boat’s equilibrium.
This work unfolded in wordless harmony. The plan was to row backward through calmer sections to maximize speed, but to push through the bigger rapids bow-first. Every 20 minutes the crew swapped roles, with each oarsman rowing furiously until he neared exhaustion. When his energy began to ebb, he would call for a breather, leaping toward the stern or the bow while his replacement scrambled into the oar station. The order of rowing—first Grua, then Petschek, then Wren—remained more or less the same, with each boatman circling the decks from cockpit to stern to bow as the dory raced downstream.
Combined, the men had more than 40 years of experience on the Colorado. Without that, they wouldn’t have stood a chance of completing the speed run, but even so, they knew they faced a monumental challenge. In the first hour of the trip, each began to understand that the river they were riding was something entirely new, a realization that was sobering and strange but also deeply thrilling.
For more than 20 years, the guides of the Grand Canyon had lived and worked on a diminished river, constrained by a dam that most of them believed should never have been built. But with this flood, time had unexpectedly been reversed, and the past—for a brief and intoxicating moment—had become the present. To contend with these challenges in the middle of the night, without pausing to scout before entering a rapid, all while rowing harder and faster than they ever had in their lives, would bring them closer than any living boatmen to experiencing America’s greatest river in its natural state. This was the Old Man himself, unbound, a thing of monstrous and terrible beauty. To be swept into the Colorado’s embrace, to race over its ancient bedrock, to surrender themselves to the fantastic and melancholy essence of its fleeting wildness, was something to marvel at. This was the river that had flowed through the dreams of John Wesley Powell. And like Powell and his crew more than a hundred years earlier, Grua, Petschek, and Wren were rocketing into the Great Unknown.
AS THE EMERALD MILE blazed downstream, what the men noticed first was how much had disappeared. In the upper stretch of the canyon, virtually every major river feature—the keeper holes, the crashing waves, the braided ribbons of current twisting upon themselves beneath the surface—had been washed out by the massive discharge from the dam. They found themselves considering the possibility that the speed run might be less arduous than they had initially feared.
Was this going to be a cinch? Grua wondered.
The answer arrived shortly after 1 A.M. as they entered a ten-mile necklace of nine chain-linked rapids known as the Roaring Twenties and encountered the first of the bizarre hydraulics that would plague them for the rest of the trip. The eddy fences were massive, and the standing waves—which were supposed to be stationary—were milling around on the river’s surface like a herd of coyote-spooked cattle, shifting position and angle without warning, colliding or collapsing on themselves with thunderous explosions. Trying to feel past these obstacles on the fly was alien and surreal.
At Twenty-One Mile Rapid, they had to dodge a series of moving whirlpools, huge and glistening in the dark. At Twenty-Four-and-One-Half, most of the current was flinging itself directly into the side of a limestone cliff on the right side of the river. Just to the left of that, the water formed three separate eddies, ovals inside ovals like the eye of a cat.
The Emerald Mile was batted about like a cork. Each time it rose and fell to meet another swell, the bottom slapped down with a harsh crack that reverberated through her chines and gunwales. The blows also rattled the white-knuckled crew, who were now wrestling with their biggest fear—that an exceptionally violent hit would fling one of them overboard and whisk him downstream in the dark.
Petschek, always meticulous, had anticipated this possibility and had brought new flashlights for each man to wear around his neck. But that wouldn’t do much good in a section like the Roaring Twenties, where the current was so fast and the turbulence so confusing.
Around 2:15, they punched through the last of the Twenties and entered the Redwall, a section of 360-million-year-old vertical limestone cliffs whose landmarks, lost in darkness, flashed past almost faster than they could register. On the right, at mile 32, was Vasey’s Paradise, where a lovely water-fall burst from the side of a cliff and cascaded through a hanging garden of ferns and flowers. A mile downriver on the left lay Redwall Cavern, a sand-floored amphitheater so vast that Powell had estimated—incorrectly—that 50,000 people could fit inside it. Several miles farther downstream was the site where the Bureau of Reclamation had drilled test bores for the first of two Grand Canyon dams that environmentalists had blocked in the late 1960s.
These were some of the most interesting spots in the upper canyon, places no dory trip would ever fail to stop. The Emerald Mile blew past them all.
AS THE NIGHT wore on, the flat-out rowing and ceaseless high-siding took a toll. By 4:10 A.M., as the men passed Saddle Canyon, a tributary at mile 47, the fatigue was showing in their hands. When a rower was relieved, his fingers would refuse to uncurl, forcing him to slide his fists off the ends of the handles, his fingers still forming an O. As he settled into the stern and peered downstream, he would straighten them one by one, gently massaging them back to life.
In their oarsmanship, all three men were evenly matched. But as the night wore on, Petschek and Wren found themselves reliant on Grua to assess the rapids that lay ahead. For years, Grua had been making careful notes, anticipating what floodwater would do along each bend and curve. As they moved downstream, he called out the invisible mile markers and features one by one, with uncanny accuracy. “Astonishing, man,” Petschek would remember years later, shaking his head. “He’d never run that water before, but Kenton had done it in his mind.”
Around 4:45, Grua warned that they were nearing the top of Nankoweap, one of the longest rapids in the canyon, which now featured a series of heavy laterals—angular, rolling waves that crashed together at the center of the river. As they powered through this crosshatched section of current, they sensed a subtle change in the night. The bottom of the canyon was still bathed in darkness, but the narrow ribbon of sky framed by the walls had begun to lighten, shifting from black to violet, and the rimrock was visible.
For the next hour, they raced through the false dawn while the river, wide and broad through here, swung sinuously from side to side. At mile 60, they entered a new layer of rock, the brown and coarse-grained Tapeats sandstone, and passed the confluence point where the turquoise waters of the Little Colorado River entered from the left. Just before 6:15, as they were approaching Chuar, a rapid at mile 65.5, the first rays of sunlight angled over the rim and lit the upper bands on the eastward-facing cliffs like the inside of a cantaloupe.
“Ah, thank God,” Wren said to himself. “We made it through the night.”
THIRTY-TWO MILES above one of the worst rapids of the trip—Crystal, at mile 98—the men were able to see things that had been invisible in the dark. The eddies were full of flotsam, mainly shattered tree branches and battered bits of driftwood. They also began to catch sight of other river expeditions, most still onshore with their boats tied up. The only people awake in these camps were boatmen on kitchen duty, boiling water for coffee. As the team whipped past, the boatmen stared, wondering what a lone dory was doing on the river at this time of the morning.
Around 7:20, the crew reached mile 76 and prepared to enter Hance, a long, jumbled stretch of standing waves studded with boulders and ledges. They had no intention of stopping to scout it, so they had only a few seconds to take stock and realize that a run through the center was out of the question. Grua, at the oars, decided to bear right and try to ride out a wave train that canyon boatmen normally were careful to avoid. With flawlessly timed high-siding from Petschek and Wren, they flew over the rollers without a hitch, but the size of the waves left them stunned.
At the bottom of Hance, the walls on either side of the river closed up and the morning sunshine was abruptly cut off. Here, the Colorado narrowed dramatically as the river entered Upper Granite Gorge, the canyon’s sub-basement. As the cliffs tilted toward dead vertical, it felt as if a set of stone gates had slammed shut behind them.
Squeezed to less than half its width upstream, the current began pushing against itself, and as the turbulence increased, so did the river’s power. The water seethed and churned, folding back and detonating. Now brute force was required to execute pivots that had been performed upstream with little more than a deft flick of an oar blade. The smallest mistake would flip the boat in a heartbeat.
The size of these haystacks was shocking: some were almost 20 feet from trough to crest, dimensions found on the open ocean. The wave faces were rapidly changing -direction, shifting from left to right and back again, forcing Grua to make furious corrections to meet them squarely:
BAM!—a strike from the left—wham—a blow from the right—with two more ahead, no chance of correcting for both, and a third looming in the middle just downstream—wham—BAM!
The dory reeled—it was about to go sideways and broach—but Petschek and Wren hurled their weight to the right, then left, then again to the right. Up the face of one wave, into the trough of the next. Curlers were coming over the bow from both sides, drenching the men in sheets that were heavy, green, and painfully cold.
Grua rode the rooster tail of current between the final pocket of waves, neatly threading them—but now a 20-foot whirlpool loomed into view. He corrected again—cranking sharply, pulling with his right oar while pushing on the left—and the dory snapped around on a hot dime, spinning 180 degrees. Then Grua leaned far forward, dug his blades into the water, and exploded, pulling on both oars, spearing the boat between the vortex and the eddy fence. And—whoosh—they were through, bobbing in the heaves of the spent rapid.
And so it went. They slammed through the rapids in the upper gorge—Sockdolager and Grapevine and Eighty-Three Mile—then made it past Zoroaster and Eighty-Five Mile and into Pipe Creek and the Devil’s Spittoon. It was intense and brutal and exhausting. But by God they were truly flying.
AS GRUA AND HIS companions approached the top of Crystal Rapid, Park Service Ranger John Thomas found himself wrestling with a tangle of conflicting impulses.
Word of the Emerald Mile’s illicit departure had been reported to a ranger at Lees Ferry, but by the time the news had reached the South Rim, Thomas was already aboard a helicopter and clattering into the canyon, under orders to flag down boats and warn them that the only way to get past Crystal was by hugging the shallow water on the far right shoreline. When the dory materialized, he knew nothing about the speed run. But Thomas was a boatman, too, and the instant he spotted the Emerald Mile the dominoes tipped over in his mind. Nearly 30 years later, he laughed about it. “I knew exactly who it was,” he said, “and what they were doing.”
Thomas’s time on the river had overlapped with the golden age of guiding, the period in which visitation had skyrocketed from a handful of eccentrics like Martin Litton to tens of thousands of river tourists. He was old enough to remember the freedom that had prevailed back then, when a man could launch a boat and disappear downriver without having to ask permission or wait in line. Like everyone who had known the Colorado during that era, Thomas mourned its passing.
Officially, of course, he couldn’t condone the men’s actions. This piece of performance art that Grua was trying to pull off was dangerous, irresponsible, and just plain wrong. In addition to undermining the authority of the Park Service and dishonoring the tragedy that had taken place at Crystal, Grua’s stunt was an insult to the people at the Glen Canyon Dam, who were desperately trying to prevent Lake Powell from blowing a gasket.
But as he stood and watched the Emerald Mile complete its approach, Thomas had to acknowledge the tremors of admiration and envy pulsating through his body. Yes, this was scandalous and deplorable and unforgivably dumb, but he also knew that a speed run under these conditions took ferocious courage and a shining sense of vision—and that, as such, it was glorious.
Thomas had no interest in telling the crew of the Emerald Mile that they had to pull over, so instead he did this: he walked away, pretending not to see. Without looking back, he turned from the river and started climbing a hill to a rock terrace above the rapid to watch the run unfold.
AS THOMAS ENACTED his charade, Grua was busy focusing on a ritual, a silent liturgy performed only at the top of the biggest hellbenders on the Colorado. Every boatman has one, and although the details vary, the basic outline, even today, is more or less the same.
First, you cup a hand in the river and run the water over the back of your neck and face to reduce the cold shock of what’s coming. Then you spit into your palms and twirl your oar blades to confirm that they’re rotating smoothly in the locks. Finally, you settle into silence and begin talking yourself into a mental space where you prepare for the threshold moment—the point where the world drops away, the jitters subside, and a cool resolve seizes the tissues of your chest and belly.
Grua drew several deep breaths and rolled his shoulders. He cast a quick glance toward the shore to gauge his speed, then snapped his gaze back to the current line, bending his mind to the task ahead.
Listen. Stare. Breathe.
Just beyond the bow post, he could see where the river dropped off. Past that line, erratic bursts of spray were being hurled into the air by invisible waves.
And now he waited for it. At the top of every rapid, a moment comes when the topography of the whitewater reveals itself. This happens in an instant; there is no preamble. One second you’re approaching a flat horizon line, the next, what lies beyond is visible in all its fury. That final flash comes like a slap in the face, the sting amplified by the knowledge that the choices you’ve made—your angle, your timing, your speed—are now irrevocably set.
As Grua approached this point of no return, he processed a few last-second details. A slice of calmer water was sluicing past the right-hand shoreline—he could see that now. But that water was too shallow for a wooden boat, studded with half-submerged boulders and laced with broken tree limbs that stuck out like punji sticks.
“Do you think I should cut right?” Grua shouted over his shoulder, looking for confirmation from Petschek.
“You don’t have a chance of doing it,” Petschek called back. “Keep her straight!”
The men braced as the current seized the hull and slung them toward the biggest mess of whitewater that any Grand Canyon boatman had ever seen.
From the shore, Thomas had a full view of the scene, and as he watched he was overcome by a sense of dread. Grua’s route would take them straight into the main hole. What the hell are you guys thinking? he wondered. Why are you all the way out there?
Then it hit him: Grua didn’t know what had taken place at Crystal during the previous 36 hours, so he had no idea of the horror show in store for anyone who failed to avoid the center and pick through the safer line on the right. All Thomas could do was stand there, exclaiming to himself, No, no, no!
PETSCHEK WOULD never forget what he saw as the Emerald Mile slid into Crystal’s maw and he got his first glimpse of the thing that rose beyond the hole.
“I remember looking downstream over the rest of the boat, and there it was, a wall of -water, absolutely vertical, that extended almost clear across the river,” he said. “Between two and three stories high, I think. Just a white wall of boiling water.”
The wall’s bottom face featured a texture of water that rivermen call glass. Smooth and unblemished, it rose cleanly for almost 30 feet, and inside its whiteness there was an aspect of deep green. But the top wasn’t glassy. It was enraged and seething—a churning fury created by the wave’s breaking apex.
To the men in the dory, it seemed as if the entire river was trying to surge over that wall, falling back on itself to create an endless, recycling grinder. It was like a psychotic animal, a leviathan attempting to eat its own entrails.
There was no turning away from this monster, and as they slid into its lair, Grua found himself marveling at the terrifying splendor. “It wasn’t a regular hole,” he later told his friend Lew Steiger. “It was perfection in a hole.” Thomas watched as the dory bulldozed into the trough and began clawing toward the crest. He could see Grua leaning forward, arms extended, the shafts of his oars cambering under the strain. And he saw this, too: the man at the front of the boat, who was wearing a blue life vest, was doing something illogical, an act that seemed to fly in the face of the most basic survival instincts.
With the dory now tilted almost straight to the sky, that man’s best option—his only option, really—was to crawl into the front footwell, using it like a foxhole. If he curled into a tight ball, he might be able to shield himself from the cannonade of water that was about to erupt over the bow.
The man was Wren, and he did just the opposite. Springing from his seat and lunging forward, he seized the gunwales on either side of the bow, anchoring himself to the front hatch so that his torso and head extended far out over the bow post. With his hooked nose and hawkish face, he was now jutting off the front of the Emerald Mile like a chrome-plated swan on the hood of a runaway tractor-trailer.
Wren’s primary hope was that his shift in body weight might somehow help drive the boat through the top of the water wall. But he was also trying to tap into something that transcended ordinary physics. Perhaps when the river gods saw him perched out there, they might fathom just how badly he wanted and needed the dory to get through Crystal. It was an act of supplication, a plea that the river would condescend to allow this little boat to surf through the chaos on the shining fortitude of her own righteousness.
As the Emerald Mile reached the top of the wave, it simultaneously corkscrewed and fell back on itself—an end-over-end reverse flip with a twist. Thomas could see the three boatmen clinging like terror-stricken cats to the decking as the dory performed these dual rotations, a macabre ballet that he would later describe as a pirouette.
For Grua, Petschek, and Wren, getting tossed was brutal and blunt. “The flip was instantaneous—there was nothing rhythmic or graceful or easy about it at all—it was just boom,” said Petschek, who was summarily dumped into the river.
Grua was holding his oars as tight as he could. As the boat toppled, they flew from his hands, and he followed Petschek into the current. But the worst punishment was reserved for Wren.
The river was now handling the Emerald Mile like a 17-foot-long battering ram, and the force of the entire boat, all 400 pounds of her, was concentrated in the bow post. As the dory tipped and spun, the bow post shot out of the water with astonishing speed and drove itself into Wren’s face, smashing directly into his glabella, the part of the skull that sits between the eyebrows just above the top of the nose.
Then, like Petschek and Grua, he too was gone.
IN THE RIVER, each man was at the mercy of the same hydrodynamics—the savage turbulence and wrenching crosscurrents—that had dismantled a three-ton motorized rafting rig 24 hours earlier.
Grua got off easiest. He felt himself pulled down hard and twirled like a baton, but the current soon lost interest and spat him to the surface. When he blinked the water from his eyes, he saw that he was floating less than an arm’s length from his upside-down boat. Seizing the lifeline around the gunwale, he turned toward the sound of wet gurgles and spotted Petschek bobbing 20 feet downstream.
Petschek had been pulled a little deeper, but the river had released its grip after a few seconds, permitting him to flounder toward the surface. A few hard strokes were enough to put him within reach of Grua’s extended foot and grab on. At that moment, their priority was to right the dory, get her oars into the water, and lever her into Thank God Eddy, the last place to pull in before the current swept them into Tuna, the next rapid below Crystal. There was no time for discussion, but none was needed. Both men knew the drill, a laborious process of trying to turn the boat over using muscle, dexterity, and a flip line designed to help lever it upright.
Neither could see Wren, who was still in serious danger—wounded and battling the crosscurrents a yard below the surface. His first move was to run his hand across his forehead and hold it in front of his face to see if there was any blood. “What a stupid thing to do!” he would say later. “I’m three feet underwater and I’m wiping my head to see if it’s bleeding. Of course I didn’t see any blood. And then I just got sucked down deep.”
Going deep in the Grand Canyon is a horrifying ordeal, an involuntary trip to the absolute bottom of the bottom. It’s a poorly understood place—mysterious and frightening, where the topography and hydraulics can vary so radically, even within the space of a few yards, that no two visits are ever the same. Among those who’ve been dragged into that realm and permitted to return, some say it’s terribly still, a watery version of being locked inside a sarcophagus. Others describe currents so vicious that it feels like being caught in a cement mixer. A few report an eerie hissing sound, created by suspended particles of sediment as they sluice downstream. If the canyon has a symphonic requiem, this is it.
Whatever the case, almost everyone undergoes the same sequence of abuse. First, painful pressure builds in your inner ears, similar to what scuba divers suffer, and it gets worse as you’re pulled deeper. Next comes the cold—water temperature in the river is usually around 53 degrees, and it gets even chillier as you descend. But the scariest thing is watching the light vanish as the water color changes from foamy white to bright blue to deep emerald, then to absolute black.
Wren’s plan, following accepted wisdom, was to ball up while waiting for the current to release him. But after several seconds he was running out of air, and now he began a long and desperate crawl toward what he hoped was the surface.
At first he swam in darkness, but as his strength drained, he started to see signs of light—faint and tremulous and far above. He kept swimming, his arms and legs like dead weights. Finally, several seconds past the point where he thought he couldn’t muster another stroke, his head broke the surface and he drew a ragged, gasping breath of air.
When he cleared his eyes, he could see that he was in the middle of the river, racing downstream. Off to the right, he caught a glimpse of the dory, upside down, with Grua and Petschek clinging to the sides.
“OK,” Wren told himself, “get to the boat—get to the boat.”
But the current seized him and he disappeared again, pulled down for what he was certain would be the final time.
WREN'S SECOND dunking wasn’t as long as the first, but that hardly mattered. -Depleted, he was still reeling from the bow-post strike. When he flailed to the surface and caught his next breath, he had only one thought. “I just started swimming,” he said. “I don’t even know if I knew which direction I was going in.” He seemed to be making no progress—
he was barely able to go through the motions of dog paddling, and his life jacket was impeding what little progress he made.
Wren was swept past Thank God Eddy, and now the only remaining point of sanctuary was a tiny indentation in the cliffs just downriver. Somehow he made it, mustering an effort that let him paddle into the little pocket, where he wallowed through the shallows and draped himself over a boulder, convinced he would collapse and drown if he attempted to make the final steps to shore. When he wiped the blood from his eyes, he looked upstream and saw his companions standing on the bottom of the dory, which had been swept into Thank God Eddy, heaving on the lines and trying, without success, to right her.
Please right the boat, he pleaded to himself. I don’t want to get back in that water! Please, please, please.
After several failed attempts, Grua and Petschek glanced downstream, caught sight of Wren, and glared. The meaning was unmistakable: What the hell are you doing? Get out here. We need your help!
Wren groaned and slithered off the rock, slid into the water, and started swimming.
When he reached the dory, Grua and Petschek hauled him out, and together the three of them hauled away until the bottom slowly flipped. After they clambered back aboard, they took a moment to collect themselves, taking stock of what had happened.
Chunks of the bow post and stern were missing. Their cooler was blown open, and they realized that the entire eddy was strewn with floating trash.
Some of it belonged to the canyon—driftwood and twigs and trembling little atolls of brown foam. But there were other objects, too—soggy sandwiches, bobbing pieces of fruit, and a sodden lump that turned out to be Grua’s wallet. The covered storage hatch at the front of the boat had blown open, and most of their gear had been hurled overboard. They scooped items into the boat as fast as they could. In the midst of this, something else appeared—something hulking and huge that emerged like a breaching whale.
A gray 37-foot motor rig was plowing into the eddy so fast that it nearly smeared them against the rocks on the shoreline. In the stern was a boatman with his hand on the throttle, and he was almost as surprised as they were.
“Wow, I’m glad I didn’t hit you, man,” shouted the boatman. “I’m sorry, but I have to make this eddy—and if I was you I’d get outta here, because in about two more seconds, another guy is pulling in right behind me, and he isn’t nearly as good at this as I am.” With Wren and Grua continuing to snatch up pieces of fruit, Petschek scrambled into the cockpit, seized the oars, and pulled toward the eddy line. He had just broken through into the main current when something even worse than a giant motor rig materialized. Over the roar of the river, they heard a dull thuk-thuk-thuk and looked up to see an orange-and-white helicopter hovering directly overhead. It was the Park Service.
WHEN THE Emerald Mile flipped and disappeared, Thomas had immediately reached for his two-way radio. His signal was picked up by one of the repeaters on the South Rim, bounced to the dispatcher’s office in the park’s Emergency Services Building, then relayed directly to Thomas’s boss, Curt Sauer. When Sauer learned that a lone dory had been involved in an accident at Crystal, he knew it was Grua. Fearing that an evacuation might be necessary, Thomas summoned Helo 210, which at the time was flying above Phantom Ranch, only a few minutes away, to conduct a sweep and find out if any of the boatmen were injured or dead.
When the chopper reached Thank God Eddy and hovered over the dory, Thomas spoke to the pilot by radio.
“You see the boat?”
“Is it right side up? What’s going on?”
“How many people in it?”
“Do they have oars in the water?”
“Yeah, they have oars in the water.”
Thomas was relieved. The Park Service wasn’t going to need to stage an evacuation. But the wheels of law enforcement had now been set in motion. Sooner or later, Thomas knew, there would be a reckoning—a development that, at the moment, was only one of several big problems besetting the Emerald Mile.
AS HELO 210 BANKED away, Petschek pulled the boat into a small eddy just above Tuna Rapid, and Grua tied them off to some rocks. They needed a time-out to collect themselves and make some decisions. Grua applied a butterfly bandage to Wren’s forehead and then set about doctoring the dory with a roll of duct tape from the repair kit.
The situation was grim. Most of their food was either lost or soaked, along with their spare clothing. The Park Service obviously had a bead on where they were and what they were doing. Grua and Petschek were exhausted and almost as badly beaten up as the dory itself. Worst of all, one of their oarsmen had just been cut down. As the biggest and strongest member of the crew, Wren was absolutely critical to the venture; now he was dazed, concussed, and bleeding like a stuck pig.
They were barely a third of the way into this venture, with 179 miles still to go—a stretch that included the rest of the Inner Granite Gorge and another three dozen rapids, including Lava Falls, the biggest of them all. And in another ten hours, they’d confront their second sleepless night of rowing in the dark. “At that point, we were very demoralized—I mean, extremely so,” Petschek said. “We were so beat up. I remember just wanting to get out of there. To not even be there.”
Sitting in the boat, all three men acknowledged that the only remotely sane option was to haul the Emerald Mile out of the water, hike up to the rim, and limp home. No one in the river community would think any less of them for having been whipped by Crystal.
They looked at one another, each man seeking confirmation that his own instinct was shared.
Screw that, they agreed, and then started back downstream.
Kevin Fedarko's book The Emerald Mile, from which this story is adapted, is published May 7 by Scribner.