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DOWN THE GREAT UNKNOWN by Edward Dolnick Kirkus Star


John Wesley Powell’s 1869 Journey of Discovery and Tragedy Through the Grand Canyon

by Edward Dolnick

Pub Date: Oct. 2nd, 2001
ISBN: 0-06-019619-X
Publisher: HarperCollins

A harrowing history of the one-armed Civil War hero’s 1869 expedition down the Colorado River that focuses on the dangers involved in the momentous journey rather than on Powell’s political views.

Dolnick (Madness on the Couch, 1998) animates the perilous adventure in which Powell, a geology fanatic, and nine novices battled relentless rapids in spindly boats that their predecessors consider “the technical equivalent of walnut shells.” Drawing on diaries, Dolnick lets the amateur sailors speak for themselves, allowing an array of colorful personalities to emerge. Powell yearned to put the western US on the map and observe the geology of the Colorado River region. After 80 miles, however, the scientific exploration turned into a hair-raising survival test—when rapids smashed one boat to pieces and destroyed a third of the provisions. Spoiling food and the inhospitable conditions of the Great Basin Desert—sandstorms, monsoons, scarcity of game—posed new challenges. Fearful that he would lose another boat, Powell often demanded his less cautious companions line the boats down the side of the rapids, or carry them through the rocks along the shoreline. As Powell’s companions tell it, this drudgery was “all bad. . . . We all have horrible scars from our knees downwards to remind us of the days when we made portages.” Dolnick uses interviews with contemporary boaters and the Colorado’s sanguinary history of tourist accidents to emphasize the alarming odds the ragtag expedition faced. On land, tension between rock-obsessed Powell and his cantankerous crew brewed as Powell wasted days searching for fossils while his men despaired of reaching civilization before they starved. After four members decamped, the remaining explorers, with only nine days’ worth of musty flour left, miraculously reached their destination and ended the era of western exploration.

Written with authority and zeal, this rich narrative is popular history at its best.