What I’m Reading: The Emerald Mile

Nicole Seltzer

Nicole Seltzer

As those close to me know, I am a poor student of history.  It’s not that I see no value in learning about the past (being “doomed to repeat it” and all) but most historical films or books don’t hold my attention.  And this just makes me feel guilty.  I am an educated woman of the 21st century–I am supposed to be enthralled by an esoteric tome on the history of all things.  Right? Well, to be straight with you, I’m generally not.

To compensate for my lack of interest, I often look for the “guilty pleasure” book that keeps me hooked but also teaches me a few things along the way.  For example, I made it through Ken Follet’s Century Trilogy over the summer, giving me some insight into World War I and II.  But even better is when I find a non-fiction book that combines adventure, history and things I care about like water and boats!  A tall order, you say?  Well, you clearly haven’t yet read The Emerald Mile, Kevin Fedarko’s history of the 1983 Colorado River flood and its impact on dam operators and river runners alike.

CFWE Executive Director Nicole Seltzer, braving Grand Canyon whitewater in 2012

CFWE Executive Director Nicole Seltzer, braving Grand Canyon whitewater in 2012

Here is a quick blurb from the jacket cover…

 IN THE WINTER OF 1983, the largest El Niño event on record—a chain of “superstorms” that swept in from the Pacific Ocean—battered the entire West. That spring, a massive snowmelt sent runoff racing down the Colorado River toward the Glen Canyon Dam, a 710-foot-high wall of concrete that sat at the head of the most iconic landscape feature in America, the Grand Canyon. As the water clawed toward the parapet of the dam, worried federal officials desperately scrambled to avoid a worst-case scenario: one of the most dramatic dam failures in history.

In the midst of this crisis, beneath the light of a full moon, a trio of river guides secretly launched a small, hand-built wooden boat, a dory named the Emerald Mile, into the Colorado just below the dam’s base and rocketed toward the dark chasm downstream, where the torrents of water released by the dam engineers had created a rock-walled maelstrom so powerful it shifted giant boulders and created bizarre hydraulic features never previously seen. The river was already choked with the wreckage of commercial rafting trips: injured passengers clung to the remnants of three-ton motorboats that had been turned upside down and torn to pieces. The chaos had claimed its first fatality, further launches were forbidden, and rangers were conducting the largest helicopter evacuation in the history of Grand Canyon National Park.

For anyone interested in Colorado River hydrology, the history of dam building in the West, the burgeoning environmental movement of the 1970’s, white water boating or the Grand Canyon, this book will have you hooked from page one.  It deftly weaves together stories about the history of commercial river running, the building and operation of Glen Canyon Dam, and the reckless yet poetic “speed run” during the height of the flood through the Grand Canyon.

But the thing I appreciated most was the author’s own musings on water in the west.  My favorite passage from the book is toward the end, as he tries to make sense of the dichotomy that exists at the base of Glen Canyon dam, which is also the start of the best wilderness adventure most people will ever have…

 “And together the canyon and the dam offer a far more meaningful reflection of the society that claims them both: its triumphs and its failures; what it has been willing to sacrifice and what it has chosen to preserve; the things it celebrates and those it mourns; the price it has willingly paid for progress and modernity, as well as the lessons that have been levied by those transactions. Perhaps nothing else speaks so succinctly and with such eloquence to who we are as a people— where we have come from, what we have gained and lost on our journey, and what we must eventually embrace to make ourselves whole.”

In reading the book, I felt a kinship with Mr. Fedarko (though I’ve never met him).  Partly for his obvious love of one of my favorite places on earth: the bottom of the Grand Canyon.  Mostly because he was able to aptly balance the stories of two completely opposite worlds.  This is what CFWE strives for every day, and it’s great to find others working in the same vein.  I was therefore excited to extend an invitation to Mr. Fedarko from CFWE and the One World One Water Center at Metropolitan State University to visit Denver and speak about the book.  Look for a date in January 2014, and in the meantime, pick up a copy of The Emerald Mile.  It’s a pleasure to read that you don’t need to feel guilty about.

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4 Comments

Filed under Book Club, Staff

4 responses to “What I’m Reading: The Emerald Mile

  1. Amanda Andriese

    The decision to create dams is an interesting one because at the time when the Hoover dam and the Glen canyon dam were being built the environmental impacts were not yet a concern and nobody new how much a dam could change the river and surrounding habitats.
    For example: lack of rich sediment water downstream, health of the native fish, and the rate at which Lake Powell would evaporate. Which is why I think that when they considered putting a dam in the Grand Canyon, people decided that something that grand and magnificent should not be dammed.

  2. Kevin

    i’ll try this over Christmas. For more good weather thrillers try “‘Isaac’s Storm” by Erik Larson, killer

  3. Kevin

    By the way the skiing in Steamboat was unbelievable the winter of 83-84!

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