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Down the Great Unknown: John Wesley Powell's…

Down the Great Unknown: John Wesley Powell's 1869 Journey of Discovery and… (2001)

by Edward Dolnick

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327655,694 (4.01)7
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.… (more)



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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 |
In 1869 John Wesley Powell decided to set off down the Green River and follow it to the Colorado and then down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon. All of this was territory that had been unexplored by Europeans. Edward Dolnick recounts the passage in Down the Great Unknown. It's a fascinating story told masterfully of a courageous -- or foolish -- adventure.

His companions had no experience running rapids and their equipment was sturdy but not designed for shooting rapids. Fortunately, by starting high on the Green, they were able to learn some of the basics without killing themselves. Water, because it cannot be compressed and is fluid, does some strange things when running through narrow canyons and over rocks. Speed is not the greatest hazard: "Waves ricochet off rocks and cliffs and collide with one another; water rushes over rocks and dives down into holes and moves upstream to fill in 'empty' spaces behind obstacles." Water is moving in so many directions at once and at so many different speeds that obstacles such as rocks, dangerous in and of themselves, become even more hazardous.

Many of the canyons were very deep making portages around bad rapids impossible. Their first hint of difficulty came after Brown's Park, a lush hidden valley favored by cattle rustlers, called Lodore Canyon. The entrance was described as a "dark portal to a region of gloom." The walls of the canyon extended upwards some 2,000 feet. "The Gates of Lodore hinge inward, cruelly joined, hard rock, ominous, and when the mists skulk low between the cliffs, they become an engraving by Gustave Dore for one of Dante's lower levels of hell." This a description by a modern writer who extols the river.

And this was before they got to the tough parts. ( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
On May 24, 1869, John Wesley Powell http://www.canyon-country.com/lakepowell/jwpowell.htm and a small band of frontiersmen set out from Green River Station, Wyoming Territory, in four wooden boats. The one-armed Union veteran and geology professor, Illinois State University, planned to explore the uncharted Green and Colorado rivers and pass through the mysterious Grand Canyon. Ill equipped and inexperienced in navigating wild rivers, the main party - - long given up for dead - - reached their destination. This is a great story of early exploration in the American West. Learn more at NPR's The Vision of John Wesley Powell http://www.npr.org/programs/atc/features/2003/aug/water/part1.html (lj) ( )
  eduscapes | Apr 22, 2010 |
This was and enjoyable book about the challeges of the Powell expedition down the Green and Colorado river. It was a straight dry account of the events, personalities and challenges of the group. Anyone with an interest in the Grand Canyon or running rapids will find it entertaining. I don't know that Powell rises to the level of Livingston, Shakelton , Admedsen or other great explorers. ( )
  cwflatt | Jan 16, 2010 |
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To Ruth and Lynn, The girls in my life.
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The few inhabitants of Green River Station, Wyoming Territory, gather atb the riverfront to dheer off a rowdy bunch of adventurers.
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