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Exploring the Colorado River

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Exploring the Colorado River: Firsthand Accounts by Powell and His Crew. By John Wesley Powell and Others. Edited by John Cooley (Dover Publications, Mineola, New York: 2004. Pg. xii, 210. Photographs.) ISBN: 0-486-43525-3.

Reviewed by Sheldon Ztvordokov - January 5, 2005

Major John Wesley Powell and his team of explorers were the first men to chart the Colorado River. In 1869 they set out on a thousand-mile excursion down the Colorado that was to last three-months. This book, Exploring the Colorado River: Firsthand Accounts by Powell and His Crew is a faithful, unabridged republication of The Great Unknown: The Journals of the Historic First Expedition Down the Colorado River. This first hand account, written by the ten men who first mapped the river, is mesmerizing and breath-taking.

This book was edited by John Cooley, who has enhanced the basic text with the inclusion of biographical sketches of the explorers and introductory background material. He has also added explanatory notes to the text that help to clarify the discrepancies that exist between various entries and to explain vague references. The text of this book consists of excerpts of the journal entries, accounts, letters, and other first hand accounts of the expedition. This collection gives the reader several different perspectives on the expedition and reinforces the magnificence of the area they traversed.

As part of their journey down the Colorado, Powell and his crew passed through the Grand Canyon, and their account of this event is perhaps the most outstanding of the book, especially when you consider that before they entered the canyon, they had no idea of its grandeur or what they would find within its cliffs. As Powell foresaw in a journal entry just before entering the Grand Canyon, "... we are ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown."
Although (when they entered the Grand Canyon) they were only 217 miles and 18 days from the end of their pilgrimage, this final act of their drama was the most difficult to play out; it demanded all the strength and courage and resolve they had left. It battered their boats and depleted their food and equipment until they were forced, in their final ordeal, to act out of utter and perhaps foolhardy helplessness. What had started as an amateurish scientific expedition ended in a struggle for no more than survival. The fact that three of the crew did not survive the final act to take their curtain calls, gives testimony to the severity of their final challenge. (Pg. 153.)
This is a memorable and bewitching account that is analogous to the expedition reports of the polar explorers. It is a must read for anyone interested in the exploration of the American West, as well as those simply looking for a thrilling, true-life adventure story that resinates with spirit and courage of the men who set out to chart the unknown out of pure scientific curiosity.

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The Story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, by Noah Brooks.
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