In 2004, 38-year-old writer Kevin Fedarko quit his job to spend his summers as a baggage boatman, rowing boats down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, to experience one of the most iconic places on earth and hear its stories. One of the stories stuck with him after his career as a boatman: Guide Kenton Grua’s idea to take advantage of the massive runoff of the spring of 1983, which created a flow of 70,000 cubic feet per second (it typically averages between 8,000 and 25,000 cfs), and make an attempt at a speed record-frantically rowing with two partners a 280-mile length of river in less than two days.
Fedarko’s 2013 book about the speed attempt, The Emerald Mile, took a Grand Canyon campfire story and made it into a classic of adventure literature, weaving together the stories of early Grand Canyon exploration (including the Powell expeditions), the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam, the history of river guiding in the Canyon, and Grua’s biography into a rich narrative. The book won a 2013 National Outdoor Book Award, made the New York Times Bestseller List in September 2014, and has put Fedarko in a role of defending the Grand Canyon as a sacred place. We chatted with him about the book, his career as a boatman, and the Grand Canyon.
1. The Emerald Mile is an impressive work and incredible story on many levels. Can you tell the story of how you became enamored with the Grand Canyon in the first place?
It’s a very simple story. In the spring of 2003, I saw my very first whitewater dory when I walked into a boathouse on the outskirts of Flagstaff, Arizona. The moment I saw the dory, I had one of those incredibly powerful and alarmingly problematic epiphanies that sometimes overtake people who find themselves connected to the Grand Canyon. In that moment, I decided I had to find a way of suspending my work as a freelance magazine writer in order to devote myself to an unpaid apprenticeship in hopes of becoming a dory guide at the bottom of the Grand Canyon-a dream at which I failed miserably, largely because of my total incompetency as an oarsman.
But, in the six river seasons that followed, as I was fruitlessly pursuing this rather deranged quest, I also had the privilege of being part of a river crew and working alongside dory guides, most importantly sitting and listening to them tell stories on their boats or around the campfire. That exposed me to some of the lore and the legends of the river, many of which revolve around, or wind their way back to the story of the legendary runoff of 1983 and the events that transpired around it-including the speed record.
2. Why was telling the story of Kenton Grua’s speed run important to you?
There are two reasons, which are kind of linked together: The story of the Emerald Mile is one of the great river tales of the canyon, and one of the few such narratives that rivals the greatest river story of them all-which is of course the story of John Wesley Powell’s pioneering expedition down the Green and Colorado rivers and ultimately through the Grand Canyon in the summer of 1869, which was the first recorded trip in history through the Grand Canyon. In addition to being all of that, the story of the Emerald Mile is the only river story I’m aware of which provides the kind of piece of narrative connective tissue that links together the two subcultures that exist on the river within the canyon: the community of engineers and technocrats at the Glen Canyon Dam, and the cantankerous community of boatmen and guides who spend their lives on the river.
Those two subcultures not only dislike one another, and fail often to even speak the same language, but each represents a set of values which is fundamentally different from, and in some ways opposed to, the other. And those two subcultures frame the world of the canyon in a way that’s very compelling and provocative and also have tremendous symbolic significance that extends far beyond the canyon itself, because they represent two different aspects of what I think of as the American ethos.
So the story of this little wooden boat trying to set the speed record through the Grand Canyon in the spring of 1983 is about so much more than simply an adrenaline-fueled, turbo-charged adventure story. It has symbolic and metaphoric dimensions that extend far beyond the canyon and have great relevance and significance, I think, to everyone who cares about landscape, and nature, and our relationship as Americans with wildness.
3. Why should everyone read The Emerald Mile?
I’m not sure that I think that everybody should read it (laughing). But I’m drawn to the idea that it’s not a bad thing for people to read something like The Emerald Mile-for the same reasons that Wallace Stegner once said that the thing about wilderness that is so extraordinary is that it not only has the power to reshape and transform our sensibilities about who we are, but that it’s powerful enough that it’s able to do that for people who cannot actually go into wilderness, but may only have the ability sometimes to drive up to the edge and look in. And wilderness has that power among other reasons because it is enough sometimes to contemplate and wrestle with its meaning, and simply knowing that it’s there.
I think that one of the values that stories like this have is not that they’re exciting and entertaining, it’s that they enable us at a kind of metaphoric level to do what Stegner was talking about. You don’t necessarily have to be inside the Grand Canyon-you can be on a subway on Long Island heading into New York City-and you can kind of move up to the edge of the Grand Canyon and look into it. That’s what really powerful stories enable people to do. I think that there’s tremendous value and meaning, potentially because I think we are still struggling to come to terms with our relationship with the land itself. And this gets back to what I was talking about a moment ago, how the story of the Emerald Mile sort of touches on these two different subcultures: We are people who define ourselves in terms of technology and science and our ability to control nature. We are also people who are shaped and honed by an extended 250-year-long encounter with raw wilderness. Those are two different aspects of who we are, and we have not reconciled those two things. And stories help illuminate that disconnect in a way that is provocative and revealing.
4. You obviously spent a lot of time researching the history of what happened in the spring of 1983. What was the biggest challenge in gathering everything for the story?
Deciding what to leave out. There was just so much. The subject itself is just so incredibly rich. Trying to imagine a spectrum of information that extends from geology and the notions of deep time on one hand to hydroelectric engineering and hydrology on the other, and it’s just an incredibly rich pool or reservoir of information to swim in. Ultimately, there was so much.
I was confronted with the great challenge of any writer, anybody who tries to stitch together a book: Stories of book length are like whitewater rapids. They just present a tableau of complete chaos. And when you look at all that information, you see spray flying in the air, current traveling in multiple directions at once, and a picture of total confusion. The challenge at a narrative level is a to find a clean line through that mess, in the same way a boater finds his way downstream, through a section of Class 5 whitewater. And in picking a clean line, you rule out all the other potential routes. So that, for me, was the greatest challenge.
5. What’s your favorite spot, or memory, of your experiences in the Grand Canyon?
I think my favorite spot is probably a place called Nankoweap, which is a camp on the right side of the river, roughly 50 miles downstream from Lee’s Ferry. It has a whole bunch of things going for it, but what draws me most deeply to it is you can sit on the deck of your boat, facing out toward the river, and you will find yourself staring across the river at a set of walls comprised of Redwall limestone that extend from the river almost to the rim, and they’re largely unbroken, sheer cliffs, and they’re almost completely vertical.
The Redwall is distinctive because it has this pastel, rosy hue to it, interspersed with oranges and kind of toasted browns-it’s just extraordinarily beautiful. To stare at that wall and watch the pageantry of light play across it as late afternoon bleeds into evening is to experience, I think, an aesthetic response that is as powerful as anything one could experience in any museum or cathedral in the Europe. So for me, Nankoweap is certainly special because of that reason. Those moments I’ve spent in late afternoon and early evening watching that unfold are some of my best moments and memories inside the canyon.
6. What was the worst moment you had at the oars of a boat?
Hard to say, because there are so many of them. I was a baggage boatman, and the boat that I rowed was called the Jackass. It was responsible for transporting the toilet, toilet supplies, and all of the poo that we generated on the river, and the prospect of turning the Jackass upside down with all of that stuff on board was a source of almost continuous anxiety for me as a boatman. For reasons that still remain a mystery to me, I somehow never managed to turn the Jackass upside down, but I committed almost every other mistake you can possibly imagine on the river. Including-and this probably qualifies as my worst moment-missing my line in a rapid called Horn Creek, and biting off a chunk of the large hole on the right side of the bottom of the rapid, and then flying out of the boat, getting knocked on the head with my right oar blade as I went under, and being taken for a very long swim, at the end of which I popped back up to the surface and noted with immense relief that unlike me, the Jackass had performed an almost flawless run and emerged at the bottom of the rapid and was sitting in an eddy, right side up. And doing quite well.
7. You have to row one of the following Grand Canyon rapids at night, with only a full moon for light. Pick one, and say why: Crystal Rapid, Lava Falls, or Horn Creek.
I know this sounds kind of crazy, but I would have to probably pick Lava, the reason being that, unless I’m mistaken, the river is considerably wider at Lava than it is at Horn Creek or Crystal. The thing about moonlight, and old river guides will tell you this, is that if you really want to study moving water and understand the dynamics of current, sitting by the river by the light of the full moon and just watching the water flow past is a very useful exercise, because there’s something about lunar light that illuminates very subtle aspects of current that are invisible at midday. And you can discern nuances of current and truths about how water moves-where it’s headed, and where it wants to head, which is not always the same thing-and how it’s going about the business of getting there, at night. So, although I’ve never tried it, and shudder at the prospect of it, I would think that my chances of nailing the entrance on the right side of Lava properly by the light of a full moon are better than my chances of doing the same way upstream at Crystal, and even further upstream at Horn Creek.
8. Why do you think should everyone want to get on a boat trip on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon?
I guess the answer to that question gets to the heart of what makes the canyon itself so unique and so special and so important, and why the messages, the insights, and the truths that it has to impart can best be absorbed not during the course of a quick visit when one is staring into the abyss from a parking lot on the South Rim, or taking a 20-minute helicopter flight overhead, but immersing themselves within the world of the canyon for a period not just of hours or even days, but a couple of weeks. And that world is a world that is defined not only by the fact that it’s framed by these towering, mile-high ramparts of unimaginably ancient rock, it’s also defined by the fact that it is so implacably cut off from the rest of the world-what boatmen and river guides refer to as “the world beyond the rim.”
That world has a whole bunch of things to say, to individual people and to us as Americans, that I think it behooves us to listen to. But in order to hear that, we actually have to can it long enough to leave the world that we’re so connected to-perhaps too connected to-behind. And that’s a process in and of itself. It takes several days. And then we have to be in it long enough to start tuning in and listening to everything else: the sound of the river as it pushes through the canyon, the music of birds such as the canyon wren, and most of all perhaps listening to what may be the canyon’s greatest treasure, and the one that is least understood, which is its silence. And it’s also the canyon’s most vulnerable treasure.
Silence is an increasingly rare thing, and a thing that we benefit enormously from listening to. I think that that alone-the idea of listening to the symphony of silence at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, is probably reason enough for most of us to take a river trip through it.
9. Your career as a boatman and now author of The Emerald Mile has no doubt endeared you to the canyon. Two projects now threaten the Grand Canyon as we know it: A developer working with Navajo leaders wants to built a 1.4-mile tramway to bring 10,000 visitors a day from the south rim to the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers, an area sacred to Native American tribes. Another developer wants to build a housing and commercial development in Tusayan, a town of 550 people 6 miles from the Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim, which would draw water for its 2,200 homes and 3 million square feet of commercial space-from the same aquifer that feeds springs in the Grand Canyon. What are your feelings on those?
My feeling about all of the development threats that are poised to harm the canyon boils down to two things. First of all, a sense of outrage, over what these developers are proposing to do, and a sense of weariness, over the fact that nothing ever seems to change-because the Grand Canyon has been threatened by people who have sought to make a buck off of it since before it was ever designated a national monument, much less a national park.
And my response is also defined by a sense of resignation and resolve, which is rooted in acceptance of the fact that these sorts of people who are behind it are a permanent part of the landscape. As much a part of the landscape as the rocks or the river. And the reason for that is the motivation that drives these developers, which is not a noble desire to help ordinary Americans access a beautiful place, as they claim it is, but rather something considerably less noble and more base, which is simple human greed. That motivation rests at the heart of who we are as human beings.
In these latest instances in the canyon, which is always the case when the canyon is threatened, we as a nation are confronted with a choice of what we value more: feeding our greed, or feeding impulses which reside in the better part of who we are. And those are choices which test our character individually and as a nation, and that is something that the canyon does over and over again. In these latest instances, be it Tusayan, or the tramway, or the rampant use of helicopters in western Grand Canyon, force us to undergo a kind of national character exam that may not be a bad thing. I simply shudder at the possibility that one of these days, we’re going to fail that test, and the canyon will become less like the canyon and more like Niagara Falls.
10. Why is the Grand Canyon important to America?
It’s important to America because no other piece of landscape anywhere presents such a blunt demonstration of the insignificance and ultimate irrelevancy of not only individual human beings, but perhaps all of human history, if not all of human civilization, and it thereby imparts a sense of humbleness and humility, which is a necessary element for human beings to live with balance. And those truths are things that we often lose sight of, as Americans, as members of a nation and a society that I think is too often too impressed and too infatuated with its own noise-the shock and awe that we think we generate as we go about our business in the world.
The canyon has things to say to us as Americans that we very much need to hear. And although there are many many other places all over this country that are equally beautiful, no other piece of landscape cuts so directly to the heart of that truth as the canyon. Which is why it’s so essential to protect it and to keep it in a state where it’s able to continue to communicate those truths with the force and the power and the directness that it does today.