Dolnick: Down the Great Unknown

January 21, 2012

Down the Great Unknown
Edward Dolnick
(Harper Perennial, 2002)
383 p.

Down the Great Unknown tells the story of John Wesley Powell and his companions, who were the first to explore the full length of the Grand Canyon by boat. They made their journey in 1869, just a few years after the end of the American Civil War. (Indeed, Powell lost an arm at the Battle of Shiloh, and several of his crew were also battle-scarred veterans.) The trip was conceived as a scientific and exploratory enterprise, with the intention of producing maps and gathering fossils from this still unexplored part of the American frontier. It ended with more modest ambitions: simply to survive.

Ten men began the trip, but four abandoned the effort at various stages of the journey. (Three “jumped ship” just one day before the journey ended, hoping to walk to a nearby settlement rather than risk the dangerous rapids confronting them. They were never seen again, and Dolnick discusses various theories about what may have happened to them.) Astonishingly, none of the men had much boating experience, much less in white water. Their boats were heavy and totally inappropriate for running rapids. They were able to survive principally because they portaged or lined the rapids whenever it was possible to do so. (“Lining” is a technique of guiding the boat through the rapids from shore using a set of ropes, rather like animating a marionette.) When the six remaining men did finally emerge from the Canyon, they had travelled about 1500 km in the course of 100 days. They were threadbare and half-starved, but alive.

At least three of the men kept journals during the trip, including Powell himself, who later worked his notes up into a book, The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons. Powell’s prose in that work tends to be flowery and euphoric. Happily, Dolnick has also drawn on the other journals when crafting his account of the journey, which provides some welcome contrast. For example, when describing a particularly glorious canyon wall, Powell wrote,

The river turns sharply to the east and seems enclosed by a wall, set with a million brilliant gems. What can it mean? Every eye is engaged, every one wonders. On coming nearer, we find fountains bursting from the rock, high overhead, and the spray in the sunshine forms the gems which bedeck the wall.

Meanwhile, his companion J.C. Sumner merely wrote,

The white water over the blue marble made a pretty show. I would not advise anybody to go there to see it.

Reading the excerpts from Powell’s book made me happy that I had decided to read Dolnick’s second-hand account rather than Powell’s first-hand one.

I don’t know if you have ever boated through river rapids. I have done it a few times (on the Kicking Horse River in British Columbia), always under the guidance of an experienced boater. It is a scary business. The hazards are many: sink holes, whirlpools, water falls, submerged rocks, unsubmerged rocks. Every time I have gone, at least one person has fallen out of the boat (and was as quickly pulled in again). I am amazed that Powell and his men survived. I suppose they would not have if they had been less cautious about portaging. But there were times when the canyon walls — one mile high! — came right up to the river’s edge so that portaging was impossible. In such cases they got through by sheer bravery, tenacity, and dumb luck. It’s a good story, well told, though Dolnick does sometimes indulge the temptation to embellish his prose with laborious metaphors. Still, I enjoyed it very much, and it ranks with the more interesting adventure stories that I have read.

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