A grand quest: ‘Emerald Mile’ author is on an epic hike to protect a national treasure

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KEVIN FEDARKO

Author Kevin Fedarko speaks to a crowd of about 130 at the Cortez Public Library on May 18 in the final presentation of the 2015-16 Amazing Authors Series. Don Kirk

Maybe it was the popularity of The Emerald Mile, a 2013 book that is a favorite with boaters, outdoors types, and anyone who enjoys a good read.

Or maybe it was simmering excitement over the approach of the first boating season on the lower Dolores River in five years.

But whatever the reason, about 130 people crowded into the Cortez Public Library on May 18 for the final presentation in the 2015-16 Amazing Authors Series – a talk by Kevin Fedarko, who penned the gripping tale of a giant dam, a tremendous flood and three Colorado River titans who propelled a tiny wooden boat into river history.

Fedarko recounted how he came to write the book, beginning with his visit – while seeking first-responder training in Flagstaff, Ariz. – to an outfitting company called Grand Canyon Dories, where he was “transfixed by the lines of the boats” he saw hanging on walls and sitting in the boathouse.

“There are four or five moments in my life that I can identify through the rear-view mirror as a threshold moment,” recalled the 50-year-old. That was one of them.

His attraction to the boats led him to seek to become a guide on river trips through the Grand Canyon. “I would like to be able to say I emerged as a golden Adonis-like dory guide,” he recalled, “but it was blindingly obvious to everyone down there that I had no business holding the lives of passengers in the palm of my hands.”

Instead, he took up rowing the “poo boat” that totes toilet supplies and containers carrying passengers’ wastes, which are required to be packed out of the canyon on the weeks-long expeditions. His boat – a rubber raft, not an elegant wooden dory – was called the Jackass, and he earned the name “Groover Boy.” (A groover is the poo box.) But his experiences on the river led him to tell the tale of the dramatic “speed run” of the Emerald Mile, one of those famed dories, through the canyon in June 1983. The biggest El Niño weather phenomenon then on record had caused Lake Powell, at the eastern end of the canyon, to swell with so much snowmelt that the operators of the Glen Canyon Dam were forced to release more than 70,000 cfs through spillways and river-outlet tubes to prevent disaster.

But while engineers were biting their nails and employing all options to keep the dam from being topped, three veteran boatmen were planning to use the dangerously high water to help them break the speed record for boating the canyon’s length.

The resulting book, subtitled, “The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon,” is a mesmerizing account of not just the speed run, but the canyon’s history, construction of the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams, and the fight that stopped two more dams from being built within the Grand Canyon itself.

Fedarko thought once the book was written he would be able to move on to other things. But it bloomed into a New York Times bestseller and won numerous awards, and so became “like a locomotive engine,” pulling him in different directions. Now, he said, he gets to speak to everyone from “resentful high-schoolers” forced to read the book to receptive audiences such as the one in the Cortez library.

Fedarko fielded several questions related to the dory ride and the fate of the three men who made it, two of whom are now dead.

He discussed the contradiction between trying to make the fastest trip possible through the canyon and making what one might call the most mindful trip, such as the Hundred Days’ Journey he describes in his book. In the 1970s, when such things were still permitted, six friends took an extremely leisurely sojourn through the canyon, sometimes spending days at one site exploring side canyons and watching the river flow.

“As cool as it is to race through the Grand Canyon in a little wooden boat on top of an historic flood,” Fedarko said, “those of us who have been privileged enough to spend time inside this landscape. . . hate to face the incredibly unwelcome moment when we have to leave the world beneath the river.”

The paradox for him, he said, is that his book celebrates a means of interacting with the landscape that he does not respond to, although “the part of me that is 17 thinks, ‘Can I break the record?’”

With that in mind, he said, if he puts out another edition of the book, he would like it to have the subtitle he originally intended: “A True Story of Speed, Obsession and Grace in the Heart of the Grand Canyon.”

Meanwhile, Fedarko is on another Grand Canyon quest – hiking the entire length with a National Geographic photographer, Pete McBride. They began late last September and have been making the journey in a series of nine stages. They had trekked as far as Diamond Creek in the park’s west end by late March, when the temperature hit 111 degrees.

Fedarko displayed some cringe-inducing slides of them pulling cholla (a type of cactus) clumps from their skin and nursing enormous discolored blisters.

Their first push, he said, lasted only six days because McBride came down with hyponatremia, a serious electrolyte imbalance related to the heat. He and McBride will not return until after this summer, Fedarko said, about the time the article is scheduled to be published. “I just finished the story tonight,” he added.

He described the trek as “almost uninterrupted pain and misery. . . punctuated by moments of sheer glory.”

His purpose in making it, he said, is not adventure but to draw attention to threats that continually beset the canyon, despite its being “one of, if not the, crown jewels of the National Park Service.”

Fedarko said he used to have the idea that national parks were “giant playpens” to have fun in, as well as places where people can go on vacation and escape the complexities of life. He mistakenly believed they were “sacrosanct and inviolable” and that they were guaranteed to be preserved intact for future generations.

“I was wrong on every single one of those things,” he said.

Places such as the canyon face continual threats, any time someone sees a way to make a dollar from them. In the 1960s, “people who were dismissed as posy-pickers stood up and asserted their powers,” stopping the construction of the two additional reservoirs within the canyon that would have turned it into “a stair-stepped series of stagnant reservoirs accessible by roads and clotted by boats and jet-skiers.”

But today, a developer and the Navajo Nation administration have proposed the “Grand Canyon Escalade,” a 1.4-mile tramway from the south rim to the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers; the tram would carry 10,000 visitors a day down to a restaurant and resort. The proposal is fiercely opposed by many other Native Americans, who say the confluence is a sacred area.

Recently, the U.S. Forest Service turned down another developer’s proposal for a 2,200 homes and 3 million square feet of commercial development in Tusayan, a small town 6 miles from the Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim. The development would have required access across the Kaibab National Forest. The idea, however, is not necessarily dead.

Fedarko mentioned a glass skywalk built by the Hualapai tribe at the far western end of the canyon, just outside the park. The skywalk itself, he said, is not particularly offensive, but the site has become the anchor point for a massive system that sends some 450 commercial helicopter flights a day buzzing 200 feet above the river.

In addition, the park’s austere beauty and wild nature are threatened by air pollution, noise pollution, aquifer depletion, and nearby uranium-mining.

Fedarko ended his talk with a plea that sounds peculiar for an author – but perhaps not for one who loves the Grand Canyon as he does.

“Don’t buy ‘The Emerald Mile’,” he said. “Give your money to the Grand Canyon Trust.”

Of course, those of a mind to could do both.


Authors series dubbed a success

Organizers of the Amazing Authors Series, which brought regional writers to three library venues (Cortez, Telluride, and Bayfield) every month from October through May, say the response was encouraging and they are looking forward to next year’s series.

“I feel it went really well,” said Eric Ikenouye. “I wasn’t sure how people would respond to an authors’ series, but the response from the community was really good and it grew with each author. With Kevin Fedarko (the final author) we had well over 100.”

Ikenouye said there were even some attendees who told him they had driven from Durango to attend a talk. “I was surprised and impressed.” Kathy Berg, facilitator for the series, agreed. “It’s been such a wonderful success and I appreciate all the support from the community. The authors were truly amazing – entertaining and bright.”

Organizers are at work planning next year’s offerings. “People have been asking us already what authors are going to come next year,” Ikenouye said. He said they welcome suggestions – “We don’t want to say no to anyone.”

People with ideas for authors who will speak, or anyone who wants to help sponsor the series, should contact the library, 565-8117.

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From June 2016.