Ten years ago, right before Kevin Fedarko’s first encounter with the watery force that barrels through the Grand Canyon, he found himself enraptured by the humble riverboat known as the dory.
Though Fedarko had years of experience as a travel writer for publications like Outside and Esquire, he knew little about river riding and even less about dories. But as he stood in the Grand Canyon Dories boathouse, a garage owned by a river outfitter in Flagstaff, Ariz., the sleek, colorful wooden vessels lining the wall arrested him, and the burial ground of fragmented dories that had been claimed by the Colorado River demanded his respect. And as he took in the majesty of this niche boat, something pale-green in the far corner tugged at his gaze.
“[There was this] dilapidated dory hanging from the ceiling with nylon straps, covered in dust, with used cans of paint and power tools on a bench surrounding it,” Fedarko says. “I didn’t realize that what I was looking at was the Emerald Mile.”
Later, while sitting around the campfire on that river trip, his guides told the story of Kenton Grua, Rudi Petschek and Steve “Wren” Reynolds and their legendary voyage on the Emerald Mile. After a massive snowmelt in June of 1983, the surging Colorado River made a Glen Canyon Dam collapse a real possibility. However, the three boatmen couldn’t miss an opportunity to confront the re-awakened beast. Through bravery, skill and sheer luck, they not only survived their harebrained venture, but also broke the record for the fastest speed run down the Colorado.
At the time, Fedarko didn’t know he would spend close to six years of his life writing The Emerald Mile, a nonfiction book that was released on May 7. All he knew was that he wanted to enter an apprenticeship to become a river guide. Though he started as a lowly baggage boatman in charge of transporting waste, the job meant he followed behind dories on his rubber raft.
“In some ways I kind of became a little bit obsessed with the canyon and the Colorado, and I was definitely obsessed with the dory,” Fedarko says. “It’s hard to explain the appeal because it’s not a very sophisticated design. There’s something about the simplicity of the lines and the austerity of the shape itself. They are extremely appealing out of the water, but in the water they come alive; they interact with the current and in some ways come to mirror the movement of the river in a dance.”
By around 2007, after years of hearing boatmen immortalize one dory in particular, Fedarko decided to take his own crack at the tale. But as he embarked on a story that spans a mere 36 hours, he realized it was missing a larger context. In Fedarko’s effortlessly engaging narrative, he details the history of the Grand Canyon, dams, dories and the Emerald Mile’s crew. Though he worries some readers won’t enjoy peeling back layers to get at the adventure story’s meat, he says that these dimensions are essential.
“You have to do homework before you get out on the water,” Fedarko acknowledges about his book. “In some ways I think this will make the book fail, but in some ways I couldn’t do otherwise. The history of the canyon is so rich and is an essential part of the contemporary narrative, so to just tell one without the other is to really do an injustice to the whole thing.”
Fedarko spent years simply reading about every aspect of the story, the pains of which can be seen in his extensive bibliography. He tracked down people who had been with the Bureau of Reclamation during the dam crisis, corresponded with Petschek, unearthed a recorded interview with Grua, who died in 2002, and was even able sit down with Reynolds six weeks before his death in 2009. For Fedarko, building a historically sound portrait of every event and character was of the utmost importance.
And it’s no secret why — The Emerald Mile is a labor of passion from an adventurous journalist who still calls the Grand Canyon home. By bringing readers onboard an exceptional little boat, Fedarko hopes to reveal the heart of an American landmark.
“This may sound dramatic, but I think it’s a magical little kingdom that thrives down at the bottom of the canyon,” Fedarko says. “I wanted to open it up to people who hadn’t really experienced it before.”
Kevin Fedarko will be at the Boulder Book Store at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 15, to speak and sign his book, The Emerald Mile. Tickets are $5.