About Utah: The flood is gone, but great stories remain

Published: Sunday, March 16 2014 10:24 p.m. MDT

Pedestrians cross the State Street river of water during the floods of 1983 in Salt Lake City.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — It hardly seems possible that it’s already been 31 springs since the great flood of ’83.

Those old enough to remember will recall it was the opposite of now: so much snow in the mountains that State Street was turned into a river to help handle the runoff. Salt Lake City was the Venice of the West. Sandbags were like gold.

We weren’t afraid of drying up; we were afraid of drowning.

Gravity being what it is, the water went just one direction, straight down, picking up steam as it headed from the Continental Divide toward the Pacific.

Push came to shove when the Colorado River funneled so much water into Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border that the Glen Canyon Dam, already 710 feet high, had to run to the hardware store and stack plywood at the top to make it even higher and make sure the whole thing wouldn’t collapse and fill up the Grand Canyon with concrete.

If you think that’s a good starting point for a book, you’d be right.

Kevin Fedarko, a Santa Fe-based writer and sometime Grand Canyon river guide, used the flood of ’83 as the focal point for his book “The Emerald Mile.”

Fedarko’s book tells about a wild ride that took place at the height of the runoff when three river-runners in a wooden boat, the leader a Utahn who grew up in Vernal named Kenton Grua, rowed the Colorado River through the length of the Grand Canyon, all 277 miles, in 36 hours, 38 minutes and 29 seconds.

On a normal Grand Canyon river trip, that translates to breakfast on Day Two — of a two- to three-week voyage.

The record run is as offbeat as it is compelling, but in reality it serves merely as an entrée into a much broader essay on all things Grand Canyon and Colorado River.

Anyone who has ever been mesmerized by either — roughly speaking, my guess is that includes anyone who has ever been there — will find Fedarko’s book equally mesmerizing.

“The Emerald Mile” was published last year but I didn’t read it until last month — in about the same time as the record run of ’83.

When I finished, I closed the cover, contacted Scribner, the New York publisher, who got me in contact with Fedarko, whom I called in Santa Fe simply to say “Wow!”

The way he was able to weave the history of the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River, the conversation movement, dam-building, the culture of river guides, John Wesley Powell’s maiden voyage down the Colorado, and the magnificence of dory boats, in and around that 1983 speed run — which, by the way, was against the law — is true art, and I wanted to personally pass that opinion along.

It turns out that Fedarko, 48, has his own compelling story.

A native of a small Pennsylvania town called Oakmont, he got a master’s degree in Russian history from Oxford and landed his first job in journalism as a fact-checker for Time magazine in the early 1990s when the Soviet Union was breaking up. It wasn’t until he was 37 that he was introduced to river running and the Grand Canyon when he walked into the warehouse headquarters of a business called Grand Canyon Dories in Flagstaff, Ariz., in 2003 and was “smitten” by the boats he saw there.

The next thing he knew he had checked out of mainstream society and signed on as apprentice boatman in the Grand Canyon.

All season long, under the stars and around campfires, he heard boatmen tell their stories. A recurrent favorite was the record speed run of ’83.

In 2007, by now well under the spell of all things Grand Canyon, he started writing what he calls “an extended love letter” to the dories and the canyon and all that that entails.

“The Emerald Mile” has received its fair share of critical acclaim. It won the National Outdoor Book Award for 2013, O.A.R.S. mused whether it’s the “Best Adventure Book Ever?” and Kirkus Reviews ranked it as one of its “9 Most Overlooked Nonfiction Books of 2013,” a backhanded compliment that gains focus when you realize that the book was released at the same time Barnes & Noble, the nation’s largest bookstore chain, wasn’t stocking books by new authors from Scribner/Simon & Schuster because of a price dispute.

So the book hasn’t become a New York Times best seller … yet. But give it time. It’s only been 31 years since the floods of ’83 and we’re still catching up on the stories.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: benson@deseretnews.com

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