Glen Canyon Dam, and the enormous Lake Powell behind it, has generated more Opinions about the balance between hydropower and the preservation of nature than perhaps any other structure. Situated just above the Grand Canyon, Glen Canyon Dam controls the flow into the heart of one of America’s most beloved National Parks. When the headgates closed in 1963, the Grand Canyon was forever changed by the regulation of water flowing through its walls.
The Emerald Mile by Kevin Fedarko, follows three interconnected stories: the managers at the Bureau of Reclamation in their efforts to harness nature while providing for human energy needs; the Park Service and the guide companies on the river; and then the more specific story of Martin Litton, his Grand Canyon Dories, and Kenton Grua.
While the book is mainly about the speed runs of the dory The Emerald Mile through the Grand Canyon, it begins with the story of Europeans discovering the Canyon in 1540. As all Grand Canyon tales must, it details the story of John Wesley Powell and the first run through the canyon. (I’m not sure I can let my ignorance of Beyond The Hundredth Meridian continue much longer if I am to adventure in the Colorado Plateau). Discussion of the evolution of Martin Litton’s dories completes the stage setting for the events of 1983.
The winter of 1982-1983 was greatly affected by phenomenon known to oceanographers as the El Niño Southern Oscillation. Snowpack in the Rockies was heavy, building into May before warm temperatures in early June destabilized the snowpack all at once. Managers at the Bureau of Reclamation were caught flat footed: many of their reservoirs were already approaching full despite the large amount of water left in the mountains—and rapidly heading downstream.
The all nine power generation turbines were running at Glen Canyon and the spillways and river bypasses were opened as well. The spillways had only been tested when the reservoir reached full capacity in 1980 (that release powered The Emerald Mile to its first Grand Canyon speed record); large enough to handle 276,000 cfs, under the stress of 20,000 cfs, the eastern spillway began to fail as the concrete liner was stripped away and the soft sandstone bedrock took a beating. Soon, the western spillway began to experience the same issues leaving dam operators to figure out how to get enough water through the dam while keeping the spillways intact.
This played out as the highest water to flow through the canyon since the dam was completed. Crystal Rapid, created by a debris flow from the rim in 1966, killed one passenger and destroyed several boats. The Park Service struggled with how to keep visitors safe while allowing commercial boats to still operate. In the midst of this, Kenton Grua decided to take The Emerald Mile through the Canyon for another attempt at the speed record.
Fedarko’s book takes The Emerald Mile’s thirty-six hour odyssey and expands it into a book that looks at the complicated dynamics at work between the guides, their clients, the Parks Service, and the Bureau of Reclamation. The book is understandably critical of Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell but does celebrate them as grand achievements of technology and as hydroelectric dams necessary to our modern society. It balances that view with an understanding that wilderness such as the bottom of the canyon is necessary to our psyche as Americans, that we somehow need the ability to run rivers without permission and to test ourselves against the power of mother nature:
“The subculture [river rafting] that they have created is cantankerous and incorrigibly headstrong—its members are irritatingly independent, impossible as cats to herd. But they have preserved an aspect of the American persona that is uniquely vital to the health of this republic. Among many other things, those dirtbag river runners uphold the virtue of disobedience: the principle that in a free society, defiance for its own sake sometimes carries value and meaning, if only because power in all of its forms—commercial, governmental, and moral—should not always and without question be handed what it demands.”
The Emerald Mile is a well-written adventure story. It captures a specific moment in time where much was being decided about how the Grand Canyon would function in a time of dams and human control. It discusses the dreams and ambitions of Grua, echoing the adventurous spirit of John Wesley Powell. And like the best adventure books, it made me want to pack my bags and head for the Grand Canyon.