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Down the Great Unknown: John Wesley Powell's 1869 Journey of Discovery and Tragedy Through the Grand Canyon (2001)

de Edward Dolnick

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454953,945 (3.98)8
Drawing on rarely examined diaries and journals, Down the Great Unknown is the first book to tell the full, dramatic story of the Powell expedition. On May 24, 1869 a one-armed Civil War veteran, John Wesley Powell and a ragtag band of nine mountain men embarked on the last great quest in the American West. The Grand Canyon, not explored before, was as mysterious as Atlantis--and as perilous. The ten men set out from Green River Station, Wyoming Territory down the Colorado in four wooden rowboats. Ninety-nine days later, six half-starved wretches came ashore near Callville, Arizona. Lewis and Clark opened the West in 1803, six decades later Powell and his scruffy band aimed to resolve the West's last mystery. A brilliant narrative, a thrilling journey, a cast of memorable heroes--all these mark Down the Great Unknown, the true story of the last epic adventure on American soil.… (mais)
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In 1869 John Wesley Powell and ten other adventurous men set out to explore the Green and Colorado Rivers. The story of the trip down through the canyons was told through actual letters and diaries that [a:Dolnick|11059|Edward Dolnick|https://s.gr-assets.com/assets/nophoto/user/m_50x66-82093808bca726cb3249a493fbd3bd0f.png] researched. This would have been more than enough to give this book a 4 star rating.

The problem I had with it, was the constant insertions of 1) other times in history 2) extensive descriptions of the canyon wall and cliffs 3) modern day tales of disasters on the rivers.

I enjoyed the book, but not not as much I wanted too. ( )
  JBroda | Sep 24, 2021 |
Years later when asked how he and other members of his party managed to be the first to take boats down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in 1869, John Wesley Powell replied simply, "I was lucky."

More than luck was involved, of course, yet Powell and the others certainly were lucky, as Edward Dolnick explains in his adventurous 2001 book “Down the Great Unknown.”

Consider that Powell himself, leader of the expedition, had but one arm, having lost the other in the Battle of Shiloh. Consider that their large wooden boats were totally unsuitable for running river rapids and and no less suitable for carrying around the worst of the rapids. Consider that the rowers faced backwards. Consider that none of the men wore lifejackets or helmets. Consider that, because they were the first, they had no idea what might be beyond the next curve in the river. Many others, including some in recent years, have died trying to go down this river. That Powell and the others succeeded in their first attempt had something to do with luck.

Most of the 10 men who started the 99-day, 1,000-mile river trip that started in Wyoming Territory were Civil War veterans. Having survived the war, they figured they could survive anything. They were all eager for adventure, although Powell himself was also in pursuit of science. He wanted to map the river and study geology along the way. Names he gave to rapids, canyons and other features along the way are still in use today.

Only six of the 10 completed the trip, the others bailing out along the way because of the hardships they endured. Powell was cautious, choosing to avoid the worst rapids whenever possible, but to his crew carrying those heavy boats long distances over rocks often seemed worse than taking their chances with the rapids.

Dolnick makes a nail-biting adventure story out of this river trip, describing what happened each day along the way. At the same time he tells us much about river rapids in general, about the Grand Canyon's history and geology and about others who have ventured down it. His book makes exciting and informative reading. ( )
  hardlyhardy | Sep 4, 2021 |
On May 24, 1869 a one-armed Civil War veteran, John Wesley Powell and a ragtag band of nine mountain men embarked on the last great quest in the American West. The Grand Canyon, not explored before, was as mysterious as Atlantis—and as perilous. The ten men set out from Green River Station, Wyoming Territory down the Colorado in four wooden rowboats. Ninety-nine days later, six half-starved wretches came ashore near Callville, Arizona.

Lewis and Clark opened the West in 1803, six decades later Powell and his scruffy band aimed to resolve the West’s last mystery. A brilliant narrative, a thrilling journey, a cast of memorable heroes—all these mark Down the Great Unknown, the true story of the last epic adventure on American soil. ( )
  Gmomaj | Mar 28, 2021 |
An extremely detailed and readable account of Powell's 1869 trek, drawing on the contemporary and later writings of the participants. While the text tends to get a bit monotonous after a while (bacon for breakfast, then rapids again?), the human drama of the group pulls the story together well. The only thing that really bugged me about this book was Dolnick's use of really weird and unnecessary metaphors throughout; some judicious editor ought to have excised those and improved the book greatly. ( )
  JBD1 | Jan 13, 2015 |
Down the Great Unknown is the story of one of the great adventures of US history, the 1869 expedition to explore the Green and Colorado Rivers, led by John Wesley Powell. Ten men entered the Green River in Wyoming with four boat and supplies to last ten months. 99 days later 6 men, with two boats and food for perhaps 3 days, emerged on the far side of the Grand Canyon. They were the first people to venture into the river and come out alive at the other end.

Like the expedition led by Lewis and Clark 60 years earlier, the Powel Expedition had been given up for dead, presumed to be victims of an unknown fate while attempting to penetrate an unknown landscape. The true story, as told by Edward Dolnick, was one that was made up of nearly every kind of human emotion as the group beat the odds time and again. Reaching their goal at the southern end of the river was not such victory as it was survival, and it is a story that Dolnick tells well.

Dolnick relies on the journals kept by Powell and two other members of the group as his primary sources and works into the story accounts from other river explorers, as well as the perspective of more modern river travelers. Powell set out on what he intended to be a scientific exploration of an unknown region of the country. He planned to map the river and its significant landmarks, as well as to engage in study of the geology of the southwest. He had little idea of what the river itself would be like and consequently was ill-prepared as the exploration unfolded.

Not only was this expedition entering unknown territory in terms of geography, they were also in unknown territory in terms of how to navigate white water. Taking rowboats designed for fast movement across flat water they learned that their boats were poorly suited to the conditions of these rivers. They frequently portaged around rapids, carrying the supplies forward and then moving the boats through by the method of 'lining.' It was time-consuming and strenuous work. Rarely did they run rapids, although in the last week of the journey they did so frequently, out of a sense of desperation, as their food supplies ran critically low.

Dolnick tells the story well, easily on par with the account of Lewis and Clark in Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage. He doesn't gloss over the hardships, nor fill-in gaps with information that can't be connected from his sources. And his primary sources are three men whose variety in perspective creates a three dimensional portrait of an incredible, and true, journey into was truly an unknown territory. ( )
  BradKautz | Apr 5, 2014 |
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Drawing on rarely examined diaries and journals, Down the Great Unknown is the first book to tell the full, dramatic story of the Powell expedition. On May 24, 1869 a one-armed Civil War veteran, John Wesley Powell and a ragtag band of nine mountain men embarked on the last great quest in the American West. The Grand Canyon, not explored before, was as mysterious as Atlantis--and as perilous. The ten men set out from Green River Station, Wyoming Territory down the Colorado in four wooden rowboats. Ninety-nine days later, six half-starved wretches came ashore near Callville, Arizona. Lewis and Clark opened the West in 1803, six decades later Powell and his scruffy band aimed to resolve the West's last mystery. A brilliant narrative, a thrilling journey, a cast of memorable heroes--all these mark Down the Great Unknown, the true story of the last epic adventure on American soil.

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