June 25, 1983
On any given evening in summer, but most notably in late June, there comes a moment just after the sun has disappeared behind the rimrock, and just before the darkness has tumbled down the walls, when the bottom of the Grand Canyon gives itself over to a moment of muted grace that feels something like an act of atonement for the sins of the world. This is the fleeting interregnum between the blast-furnace heat of the day and the star-draped immensity of the night, and when it arrives, the bedrock bathes in a special kind of light, the pink-and-orange blush of a freshly opened nectarine. This is also the canyon's loveliest hour, when there is nothing sweeter, nothing more calming to the soul, than standing along the shallows at the edge of the Colorado River and breathing in the wonder of the place. The ramparts rising nakedly for more than a vertical mile above. The locomotive-size slabs that have peeled away from the terraced cliffs and shattered to pieces far below. And most bewitching of all, the muscular, sluicing, glimmer-gilded surface of the great river itself.
But June 25, 1983, was not any given evening. Not by a long shot. And with twilight now fading, the face of the water turned menacing and unknowable as the biggest flood in a generation throttled downstream into the night.
An hour or so later, the moon appeared, ascending with stately deliberation until it was suspended in all its fullness inside the thin ribbon of sky between the rims. There it hung, fat and heavy, casting the upper faces of the cliffs in a silver and faintly malignant glaze.
Deep within the canyon's corridor, the defile between the escarpments was too narrow to accept most of this illumination, and so the bottommost bands of rock, the ancient strata of Zoroaster granite and Vishnu schist that lined the edge of the river, were lost in shadow. But far upstream at a place called Lee's Ferry, where a breach in the cliffs marks the spot where all river journeys through the canyon begin, the walls widened and the river was able to open itself to the sky. Here, the moonbeams streamed down the hunched shoulders of Shinarump shale and spilled across the water, etching each wave, every ripple and eddy, in a spectral radiance.
Out there in the millrace, the rush of water was broad and powerful, and as the current pushed past, it did so with an eerie silence. But if you cocked your body at just the right angle, you could detect a faint thrum, a kind of basal tremor. The frequency of that vibration was impossible for the ear to pick up, but it registered unmistakably on the hairs of the forearms, the wall of the chest, and deep in the belly. This was the muffled resonance of a runaway river, the sub-audible bell-tone of water surging with ungovernable force into the throat of the canyon.
Just beyond the riverbank, a road led away from the water, snaking off in the distance toward Highway 89, the only thruway in this remote outpost of northeastern Arizona. The surface of that road was strewn with loose gravel, and about an hour before midnight, it crunched softly with the approach of a vehicle whose driver was proceeding guardedly.
Behind the headlights loomed the boxy silhouette of a small delivery truck, a contraption whose appearance, in this place and at this hour, was perplexing because it seemed to herald the sort of business that never unfolds at the ferry — an after-hours FedEx pickup, perhaps, or the arrival of a stack of tomorrow's newspapers. The mystery was resolved only after the driver wheeled across the parking lot at the edge of the water and it became clear that the truck was towing a metal trailer. Cradled on the bed of that trailer was a small wooden dory.
The boat's profile was distinctive — an upturned prow that terminated in a sharp point, and a hull whose bottom was curved like the blade of a scimitar. Lashed to her decks were two sets of ten-foot oars hewn from straight-grained Oregon ash, and tucked into the footwell at the center of the boat lay a cable connecting a car battery to a pair of powerful searchlamps, the kind of devices that jacklighters use when hunting deer in the dark. There was just enough light to make out her colors — a beryl-green hull and bright red gunwales. And if you looked closely, you could discern the black-and-gold lettering emblazoned along the right side of her bow that spelled her name: Emerald Mile.
As the truck completed the arc of its turn, three figures leaped out and began racing toward the river while the driver, who had now cast off all signs of hesitation, backed the trailer smartly alongside a line of rubber rafts that were moored at the shore.
On the decks of those rafts lay a squadron of half a dozen slumbering river guides, who had arrived at the ferry's boat ramp several hours earlier, only to be told by the National Park Service ranger that the Colorado was closed due to the flood. As the guides awoke to this burst of activity, they scratched their heads in confusion. Then, intuiting what was about to unfold, they roused themselves from their sleeping bags and hustled over to lend a hand by loosening the straps that anchored the dory to the trailer and heaving her into the water.
She hit with a sharp slap and shot almost a quarter of the way across the eddy before coming to a stop, bobbing gently like a champagne cork. Meanwhile, the mysterious trio splashed through the shallows and hauled themselves on board.
The first of those figures presented an image that seemed to cut in two directions at once. In some ways, his appearance perfectly embodied the demeanor of the unbound river. His hair was wild and out of control, while his limbs moved with a fluid grace as he scrambled across the decking and positioned himself at the oar station in the center of the boat. But in other respects, he appeared to have no connection at all with the water he was about to ride. His breathing was even and measured, and the expression on his face was composed as he threaded the oars into their locks, curled his fingers around the handles, and waited calmly for his two companions to stow the spotlights and the battery, then settle themselves into their seats in the bow and the stern.
When everything was ready, all three men turned toward the shore, where their driver was now staring at his wristwatch while completing a silent countdown.
When the second hand on his watch reached exactly 11:00 p.m., the driver cried, "Go!" — and with a sharp intake of breath, the wild-haired boatman thrust his torso forward with his arms outstretched, a move that sent the shafts of his oars planing sternward. At the top of this stroke, he snapped both wrists at the same time, a maneuver that squared up the oar blades just as they entered the water. Then he pulled back with his entire body while driving the balls of his feet directly into the front end of the footwell.
His first stroke sent them skimming across the eddy, and the second speared them into the main current. There, the boatman paused for a half second to permit the stern to swing downstream. As the dory completed this clockwise turn, the river seized the hull and hurled them toward the swiftly rising walls of rock that marked the gateway to the Grand Canyon.
And just like that, they were gone.
Well, almost gone.
In the final moments before the boat vanished, another vehicle pulled into the parking lot at the ferry and a second set of headlights swept the edge of the river. Inside that vehicle sat a family that had driven all the way from New Mexico in the hope of embarking on a rafting vacation, only to learn from the ranger that all launches were forbidden — disappointing news, given the hassles they had gone through to secure a highly coveted noncommercial permit to run the canyon. After motoring back to Highway 89 for a late supper at a roadside diner, they were now returning to their tent and arrived just in time to catch sight of the mysterious boat as she cast off and disappeared — an incident that they planned on reporting to the ranger first thing in the morning. In the meantime, they were left to ponder what had just taken place.
What in the world were those clowns up to, they wondered, launching into the teeth of a flood on the near side of midnight with the assistance of a gaggle of guides who knew perfectly well that the Colorado was closed? Were they out of their minds?
In a way, yes, they truly were — although the men aboard that boat were also engaged in an urgent mission. A gesture of poetry and defiance quite unlike anything the canyon had ever seen. A quest that was inspired and driven by the obsessions of the fanatical boatman who was now gunning his dory toward the maelstrom that awaited them downstream.
Kenton Grua was a veteran of the river world as well as one of its most vivid and eccentric characters, a dreamer whose passions for the canyon ran deeper than almost anyone else's, and whose prowess as a dory captain was unmatched by all but a handful of boatmen. The voyage upon which he and his companions had just embarked, however, would call upon all of his skills and more.
Between Lee's Ferry and the Grand Wash Cliffs, the sandstone portals at the edge of the Mojave Desert that marked the western terminus of the canyon, lay almost three hundred miles of river, the worst of which were studded with the most storied white water in all of North America. Threading that gauntlet in a rowboat was an odyssey that typically lasted at least two weeks and could take as long as twenty-three days. Yet Grua's illegal pre-midnight launch on the crest of this flood tide was designed to smash that timetable to pieces.
If he and his accomplices could steer through the darkness and keep their bow square to the biggest waves; if they could somehow avoid capsizing or drowning or being broken apart on the rocks; if they could stay awake and maintain their pace by spelling each other at the oars while dodging the brigade of irate rangers who would soon be alerted to their unauthorized presence on the river — if they could carry out all of those tasks without a single hitch, it was possible that the swollen Colorado might serve as a kind of hydraulic slingshot that would pitch them all the way from the ferry to the cliffs so swiftly that the duration of the trip would be calibrated not in weeks, or even days, but in hours.
At which point, if everything unfolded according to plan, the little green dory with the bright red gunwales would be catapulted into legend as the fastest boat ever propelled — by oar, by motor, or by the grace of God — through the heart of the Grand Canyon.
Excerpted from THE EMERALD MILE: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon. Copyright 2013 by Kevin Fedarko. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.