Author writes of and through river’s obstacles

Courtesy of Kevin Fedarko

Kenton Grua relaxes in the Emerald Mile in 1983 before taking the dory on a legendary speed run down the Colorado River.

By Ted Holteen Herald staff writer

Legends often lose their luster when the stories face more scrutiny than they might get when told, say, around a campfire. But in the case of one of the most retold stories in the Grand Canyon, not even the folklore can live up to the reality of The Emerald Mile.

In this river-worshipping part of the world, most whitewater veterans know the story of Kenton Grua, Rudi Petschek and Steve “Wren” Reynolds the way kids know Santa. The trio gained immortality in June 1983 when a perfect storm of bravery and ignorance met near-apocalypse on the Colorado River.

While engineers fought to save the Glen Canyon Dam from a catastrophic failure, the river rats loaded into Grua’s dory, The Emerald Mile, and sped off on a death-defying, record-breaking run down river.

“I stumbled upon it because I was an apprentice river guide in the Grand Canyon in 2003,” said Kevin Fedarko, who chronicled the incredible journey in his new book, The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History through the Heart of the Grand Canyon. “This wasn’t a secret hidden story but more of a legend, the fabric of boatsmen’s tales traded around the campfires of the Grand Canyon,” Fedarko said.

The three men rowed Grua’s dory 277 miles in just more than 36 hours – it’s a trip that typically takes two weeks to 23 days. They were bolstered by floodlike conditions at Glen Canyon Dam. Normally, the water on the Colorado downstream runs between 16,000 and 30,000 cubic feet per second, but that week it was flowing about 93,000 cf/s.

“They understood that this crisis was creating a unique opportunity – the huge flood the dam was designed to prevent was being created and acted like a hydraulic slingshot,” Fedarko said. “What’s not part of the oral history is the detail of what happened up at Glen Canyon Dam that created those flood conditions. Only with the passage of time did I find this was two epic narratives – one at the head of the canyon and the other is the narrative of the speed run between Lee’s Ferry and the Grand Wash Cliffs where Lake Mead begins.”

Fedarko will speak tonight at Maria’s Bookshop and give a slideshow of The Emerald Mile story, but he’ll spend just as much time lauding the independent bookstore and those like it nationwide.

Fedarko’s well-told, well-researched book is his debut title for Scribner, a subsidiary of the publishing house Simon & Schuster. S&S is embroiled in a widely publicized dispute with Barnes & Noble, one of the last major booksellers with a national presence.

The minutiae of the case is tedious, but the short version as claimed by Fedarko and others is that a disagreement about book pricing and store placement has resulted in a de facto boycott of new Simon & Schuster authors by Barnes & Noble.

Barnes & Noble’s media relations department provided this response to an email request for comment: “As a matter of policy, we do not comment on relationships with individual publishers. However, we do support publishers who support our digital and retail book businesses.”

Fedarko is one of the affected authors.

“It’s been devastating for me, there’s no other way around it,” he said. “The publisher won’t even tell me what the run was. The implications are that this book won’t be in half the bookstores in the country. Scribner wanted to stress that when this came out May 7, the order from B&N was zero copies. Since then, they’ve ordered a couple hundred for their stores, but it’s a public relations move to prove it’s not banned. You’ll have to look hard to find it because it’s not on the front table.”

Fedarko said he understands that Barnes & Noble is acting out of preservation, not malice; the recent collapses of chain stores such as Borders and Waldenbooks don’t help authors, either, and the failure of the nation’s largest bookseller would only add to the challenges authors face in reaching readers. But if he had his druthers, Fedarko would prefer that the big companies provide the same kind of literary service as stores such as Maria’s and other independent booksellers.

“Barnes & Noble wants Scribner to pay for the good placement in stores – it no longer, if it ever did, represents the employees’ selections or opinions,” Fedarko said. “Maria’s staff makes subjective determinations, based on what they think their clients and readers should be exposed to or would prefer. They’re making judgment calls and serving a role in their communities.”

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