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NPR Arts & Life

Chasing A Dream, Speeding Down 'The Emerald Mile'


It was the year 1983. The Colorado River that roars through the Grand Canyon was running higher than anyone could remember. It was the kind of whitewater that the Canyon boatmen craved and a chance to tame water like this - or at least match it - was irresistible. Many boatmen dreamed of trying to set speed record down the canyon. That year, three men actually did. Kevin Fedarko has written their story. His new book is called "The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History through the Heart of the Grand Canyon." Kevin Fedarko joins us from Santa Fe, New Mexico. So nice to talk with you.

KEVIN FEDARKO: Hi, Rachel. Nice to be here.

MARTIN: So, this is an amazing story. I mean, let's start with the man who led this fateful ride. His name was Kenton Grua. He was an unusual breed, to say the least. Can you introduce us to him?

FEDARKO: He was. Kenton Grua was a professional river guide and he spent most of his early career inside the Grand Canyon and essentially became obsessed with the place. In the 1970s, he actually became the first person to walk the entire length of the Grand Canyon. But his primary fixation, the thing he felt most passionate about, was a particular type of boat that's used in the Grand Canyon, a wooden dory, and worked for the only company which conducted commercial river trips through the Grand Canyon exclusively in these boats.

MARTIN: Because at the time, this is when the big rubber rafts are really what is dominating commercial trips down the canyon, right?

FEDARKO: That's exactly right. Rubberized rafts that are - some of them are oar rafts and some of them are motorized.

MARTIN: What was the allure of the wooden boat, these dories?

FEDARKO: Probably the first thing to mention is that there's kind of an unbroken historical connection. Between the first person ever to explore the Grand Canyon, a man named John Wesley Powell, who conducted the first river trip through the canyon in the summer of 1869. He established kind of a tradition of tackling whitewater in these very delicate wooden boats which require enormous dexterity and an exceptionally nuanced understanding of the dynamics of whitewater.

MARTIN: Kenton Grua has a particular, almost emotional, spiritual connection even to one boat called the Emerald Mile. Is that right?

FEDARKO: That's right. He did have an unusual connection to it. The Emerald Mile, as it turns out, was caught in a terrible accident and it was essentially bashed to pieces. Grua announced he was going to put her back together, restore her and make her into his own boat, which he did.

MARTIN: So, we've talked about the man, we've talked about his boat. Let's talk about the river that they would conquer. In 1983, what was happening to the river that year? There were a lot of exceptional things going on.

FEDARKO: 1983, as it turns out, was the largest El Nino event on record, a series of massive storms swept off the Pacific Ocean and across the American West. And in late-May, the temperature shot into the high 80s and an entire snow pack melted almost all at once and came roaring out of the Rockies and into the Colorado River Basin and began racing downstream in the direction of the Grand Canyon.

MARTIN: When did the idea to race the river take root in Grua's mind?

FEDARKO: One of the ideas that he became fixated on was to break the Grand Canyon's speed record. There had been a number of boats that had raced through the canyon as quickly as possible and established a speed record of right around 48 hours. A typical commercial river trip at the bottom of the Grand Canyon generally between two weeks and three weeks if you're in an oar boat. And so it was Grua's idea to use this flood in the canyon as kind of a hydraulic slingshot to propel himself, his two friends and the Emerald Mile straight through all the way to Lake Mead and hopefully break the record so decisively that it could never be bested again.

It's important to remember, you know, the Colorado River was really the wildest river in the West until Hoover Dam was built in the 1930s. It really shackled the bottom of the river. And in the 1960s, Hoover's counterpart, the Glen Canyon Dam, was built at the top of the Grand Canyon. So, what a lot of people don't understand - I myself didn't understand it until I became a boatman in the canyon - is that the Grand Canyon is really sandwiched between and bookended by two enormous hydroelectric dams. And those dams succeeded in kind of shackling and locking down what up to that point was a wild river. And for Kenton Grua, what was, I think, more attractive and seductive than anything else was the idea that this flood of 1983 enabled him to kind of ride the hydraulics of a river that was returning to a mode of ancestral fury that hadn't been seen since before the construction of those dams.

MARTIN: In the end, they do it.

FEDARKO: They absolutely did. They broke the record by more than 10 hours.

MARTIN: And I believe you can still take a wooden dory down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon today, can't you?

FEDARKO: You absolutely can. And not only can you take a wooden dory through the canyon but you can be rode by some of Kenton Grua's friends and successors. And at night, when they have pulled their boats over to the side of a sand beach and set up a camp and lit a campfire, you'll sit around the campfire in a circle and they'll tell you the story of the Emerald Mile.

MARTIN: Kevin Fedarko. His new book is called "The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History through the Heart of the Grand Canyon." Kevin, it's been so fun to talk with you. Thanks very much.

FEDARKO: Thank you so much, Rachel. It's been such a pleasure.


MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.