Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Though the Heart of the Grand Canyon

In June, 1983, the iconic Glen Canyon Dam was in crisis. A winter of super snowstorms followed by a sudden heat wave had produced massive snow melt, and the unprecedented runoff was flooding into Lake Powell faster than it could be discharged through the dam. Critical spillways were being torn to bits by the raging water and jagged chunks of concrete and rocks were catapulting out at 120 mph as the Glen Canyon groaned and vibrated. Out of options and facing a cataclysm, engineers increased the flow of the Colorado River through the dam to the maximum amount possible. The resulting torrent that roared through the Grand Canyon presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a small crew of river guides to set a speed record and make history in a wooden dinghy named The Emerald Mile.

Eluding the authorities who had closed the Colorado and were evacuating Grand Canyon National Park, the tiny crew launched the Emerald Mile at Lee's Ferry in the dead of night into a maelstrom of savage white water, deadly whirlpools, 30-foot standing waves and psychotic river hydraulics. It was a hurtling ride of mythic proportions undertaken by river obsessives and madmen incapable of giving up on a dream of speed.

Their heart-stopping story is masterfully recounted by Kevin Fedarko, a former staff writer for Time magazine and a part-time river guide who clearly knows his stuff.  He begins the Emerald Mile’s journey not

on that dark night in 1983, but centuries earlier with the first Spanish explorers who stumbled upon the Canyon (imagine their surprise), and then he weaves a narrative thread connecting them to the disaster-prone exploration of the one-armed Civil War veteran Major John Wesley Powell,  and to Edward Abbey and the fury that met the damming of the Colorado. Fedarko goes on to lay out the inner workings of the Glen Canyon (his description of the inspector who had to be lowered into the forbidding interior depths of the dam at the height of the crisis will keep you on the edge of your seat) and gives fascinating insights into the traditions of the guides who live to run the 277 miles of the Colorado as it winds through the Canyon. His expertise and enthusiasm are evident on every page of this compulsively readable book--you won't be able to put it down.

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