Down the Great Unknown : John Wesley Powell's 1869 Journey of Discovery and Tragedy Through the Grand Canyon by Edward Dolnick

This book chronicles John Wesley Powell's 3+ month rowboat expedition down the Colorado River and Grand Canyon. Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran, began his trip with nine other men at Green River Junction, Wyoming in 1869 just after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.

The emphasis of the book is on the daily dangers faced by Powell and his men. The expedition faced legendary Colorado River rapids, a fire, intense desert heat, flash floods, and near starvation caused by the loss and ruin of much of Powell's original 10 month supply of food and supplies. By the end of the book, the reader is astonished that the expedition actually made it through the Grand Canyon.

After awhile, the book takes on almost a Heart of Darkness feel as the Colorado River becomes a character in and of itself. The crew of Powell's boats spends each day either rowing endlessly through calm waters or navigating, portaging, or letting the boats down the Colorado's legendary rapids by rope. Dolnick frequently alludes to the feeling among Powell and some of his men that the Colorado was playing tricks with them. Most certainly, the river did have that psychological effect on the expeditoners.

Powell's romantic obsession with geology, science, and the scenic grandeur he saw on the expedition is also captured in Down the Great Unknown. Dolnick also does a great job showing the differences in the Colorado River of Powell's 1869 expedition versus the modern, dam controlled river.

Dolnick also spends a fair amount of time detailing the rapid-running methods used by Powell and his men in contrast to those used by modern day river boatmen. Most notably, Powell's men navigated the river while facing upriver! This was to give them better rowing leverage, nevermind the fact that it also made it very difficult to see where they were going. Dolnick explains in detail the design of Powell's custom-made boats, which were of a design almost exactly opposite of what modern boatmen use to navigate the Colorado.

Dolnick writes in an easy to read style. He also frequently uses analogies, similies, and metaphors to paint a word picture of the expedition. Powell was a great turner of the English language, and I think Dolnick captures Powells writing style in his own as he tells Powell's story.

Almost all of Dolnick's research draws from primary sources. Some of these include the journals of the men, interviews with boatmen, newspaper articles, and Dolnick's own experiences as a Colorado river runner.

Thankfully, Dolnick does not leave the reader hanging about the fate of Powell and his men. After the retelling of the expedition is complete, Dolnick goes into fair detail about what happened to the men after, including the fascinating and mysterious death of three of the men who left the expedition shortly before its completion. Those three men hiked out of the Grand Canyon and were never heard from again. Dolnick does an excellent job outlining the various theories about the men's fate.

Honestly, it took me a few chapters to really get into Down the Great Unknown. The story, like Powell's expedition, soon picked up pace and drama, however, and after that, I had a hard time putting the book down.

My ratings on a scale of 5:

Historical Resource = 4.75
Entertainment = 4

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