The majestic Grand Canyon is one of the natural wonders of the world and a popular attraction for millions of tourists. It is the site of several artificial lakes created by mighty dams and hosts regular tours for hikers, whitewater rafters and sightseeing aircraft. Yet, for all its majesty, the canyon is more or less a tame beast, its habits well known. But the canyon wasn't always like that. Early on in American history the canyon was just a legend, a rumor of a vast gulf of red chasms bisected by a raging river. Even after the fabled Golden Spike united the coasts by rail and the canyon's surrounding territories were settled by miners and Mormons, the path of the Colorado River was almost totally unexplored. Into this unknown plunged a band of 10 adventurers led by John Wesley Powell, a former Union officer who'd lost an arm in the Civil War. Their perilous journey is re-created in John Vernon's novel The Last Canyon, a thrilling tale of adventure, hardship, exploration and tragedy.
Vernon skillfully weaves several threads of narration based on extensive research of Powell's 1869 voyage. Powell set off in four boats from Green River, Wyoming, with the intention to explore the Colorado's full length. In many ways, Powell embodies the positive qualities of the American frontier spirit he's intrepid, devoted to science and meticulous in his measurements and mapping. Yet he flings himself down an unknown river with a band of adventurers, most of whom have no boating experience. While some were hearty outdoorsmen, others were amateurs, and conflict among the hastily assembled group leads to trouble downriver. But the book doesn't just track Powell's crew in its journey. Far downriver a family of Shivwits natives of the canyon rim sets out on a long trek to reclaim one of its daughters, a prisoner of an unfriendly tribe. The story of their journey alternates with Powell's until the two paths intersect.
The Last Canyon is a rousing story of adventure and exploration. Better still, the many voices Vernon weaves into his tale remind the reader of the price of those discoveries for the men who made them.
Gregory Harris is a writer and editor in Indianapolis.