“You cannot see the Grand Canyon in one view,” said geologist/explorer John Wesley Powell of the seventh natural wonder of the world; “… you have to toil from month to month through its labyrinths.” Which is exactly what writer Kevin Fedarko and filmmaker Peter McBride did when they walked the trail-less length of the Colorado River as it flows through the majestic canyon, a feat that took one year to achieve.
“I kind of thought I was done with the canyon,” said Fedarko in a recent phone interview, referencing his 1983 white-water run down the Colorado River in a wooden dory. (You can read all about his harrowing adventure in his book The Emerald Mile). “But then I got dragged back into it with this project that my friend Pete McBride thought up.”
McBride, a nature photographer and filmmaker who has an affinity for riverside treks — he strode the length of the Ganges River, for example — uses walking excursions to “take a look at our natural resources, which we don’t pay enough attention to,” he told me via a phone conversation from his home in Colorado. “I use adventure and a creative approach as a way to remind people what’s important out there.”
The Grand Canyon is currently facing pressures from developers who want to build along the rim; one particularly invasive project proposes building a gondola that would take tourists from the rim to the river. “Access is important to understand and appreciate these places,” said McBride, “but do we really need more five-star hotels? The Grand Canyon is very symbolic of how we think of landscape, sacred landscapes. If we can’t protect the Grand Canyon, what the heck can we protect?”
McBride and Fedarko will be in Santa Barbara on April 4 as part of UCSB Arts & Lectures’ National Geographic Live! series to talk about their Grand Canyon quest. The following is an edited version of my interview with Fedarko, which gives further insight into their adventure and mission.
Why did you decide to make that trip? It was a project we embarked on for National Geographic, ostensibly, I suppose, for the purpose of indulging in a wild adventure. But really the main aim of that project was to explore and expose and perhaps draw attention to the development threats that loom over Grand Canyon National Park and are poised to potentially do irreparable harm to the integrity of the landscape.
I imagine a lot of people don’t know about those developments. They’re not the sort of thing that really make their way into most people’s radar, and they haven’t received a great deal of coverage, at least in the world outside the relatively small community of people who are deeply attached to the Grand Canyon and follow things that take place inside it.
Did you train for the trip? I wish I could tell you that I embarked on a super-responsible fitness program, or I was just the kind of guy who’s an amazing athlete, but I was actually on deadline for a book, and the manuscript was due, I think, a day before we left, so I basically came straight off the couch into the hike, which was certainly a major part of the problems that we encountered. We both felt, for legitimate reasons, that we understood this place pretty well and were comfortable in it and familiar with its challenges, and as it turns out, that was completely untrue. Despite having spent literally years in both our cases moving along and thinking about and writing about the Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon, the zone that sort of begins at the edge of the river and extends up to the rims of the canyon, this zone that you have to sort of move through if you’re going to hike and traverse the canyon on foot, as opposed to in a boat — that could not be more different in every imaginable way from the world of the river.
You had to do rappel down cliffs and walk on very thin trails. It seemed really scary. The overarching fact that governs every aspect of pretty much every minute of every day inside of that space is that there is no trail. The way that you make progress laterally, moving down canyon, is by exploiting a system of very thin ledges that skirt the tops of these huge cliffs that make up this kind of wedding cake, the architecture inside of the canyon, and those ledges may continue for a couple hundred yards, or maybe a mile or two, but invariably, they give out, and then you have to climb up or down in order to find a new system of ledges. So what you’re doing is you’re just assembling the jigsaw puzzle pieces of a route inside this incredibly complicated, incredibly broken, incredibly harsh and brutal matrix of cliffs and ledges inside the canyon. Navigating through that is an enormous challenge, and then the fact that you’re often cut off from water … The river’s thousands of feet below you. The rim is thousands of feet above you, and so you’re completely dependent on, basically, puddles in the rock to survive.
Had you known how arduous it was going to be, do you think you would have done the trek? I don’t know. Given the extent to which it kind of broke my body and my spirit and messed up my life, I’m not sure that I would do it. It certainly had some amazing rewards, but the cost and the price that we both paid was very steep, for sure …. It sort of took over everything. Our lives were sort of put on hold, and I think it probably sort of broke us physically. … I think it would be self-indulgent for me to start to list the physical ailments that I now suffer from, but suffice it to say that it takes a toll, and a part of that toll, I think, is permanent. The canyon, it’s merciless … the punishments that it is capable of inflicting.
I’m sorry to hear that you have long-lasting physical effects. Oddly enough, it’s okay. I guess in some ways, that’s a testament to the nature of the challenge that we just decided we were going to try and confront and move through. In an odd way, it kind of also underscores the austerity of that landscape, and also, the other qualities, which are the beauty, and the solitude, and the silence. … The reasons why it’s brutal and the reasons why it’s extraordinary — those are intertwined in a way that’s kind of inextricably linked.
Do you feel you accomplished what you set out to? I honestly don’t know. I think that has yet to be determined. Part of the answer resides in the lecture that we’ll be giving in Santa Barbara, which is the same lecture that we’ve given in Portland, and Seattle, and Phoenix, and that we will be giving in Chicago and other cities …. I’m finding it very difficult to gauge the impact of all of this. All that Pete and I are trying to do is bring a story forth in the hopes that it might generate some awareness, but I don’t know how you calibrate the effectiveness of that sort of thing, so it’s a bit of a mystery to us whether it’s having an effect or not. We really don’t know…. Pete’s building a full-length documentary film, which is going to chronicle the entire hike, and then he’s publishing a coffee-table photo book. I think that comes out in August, and then I have to write an entire other book on the Grand Canyon. That won’t come out for another two years, but that’ll be kind of the caboose at the end of the train, I suppose.
UCSB’s Arts & Lectures’ Nat Geo series presents Peter McBride and Kevin Fedarko in conversation Wednesday, April 4, 7:30 p.m., at Campbell Hall, UCSB. Call (805) 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.