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Down the Great Unknown

3.92  ·  Rating Details ·  1,023 Ratings  ·  128 Reviews

0n May 24, 1869, a one-armed Civil War veteran named John Wesley Powell and a ragtag band of nine mountain men embarked on the last great quest in the American West. No one had ever explored the fabled Grand Canyon; to adventurers of that era it was a region almost as mysterious as Atlantis -- and as perilous.

The ten men set out down the mighty Colorado River in wooden row

Paperback, 320 pages
Published April 22nd 2003 by HarperCollins (first published September 30th 2001)
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Jun 03, 2015 Grumpus rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I loved the author's newest book, The Rush: America's Fevered Quest for Fortune, 1848-1853 so I looked for other's he has written. I enjoy history written from journals and thought the topic of being the first to run the rapids through the Grand Canyon would be an excellent topic. Not to be.

The story was all over the place diverting to various places that went beyond supplying the pertinent information for the story to excess detail that need not be part of the book. I did not want a history of
Apr 21, 2015 Don rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I read the book in preparation for an upcoming trip to the Grand Canyon. I read it in my methodical style as I do such books constantly referring to maps and googling other references to increase my understanding. It has me super-excited about the trip!

It is a great book about an epic 1000 mile journey down the Green and Colorado Rivers through the Grand Canyon in 1869, led by a man-John Wesley Powell, who had one arm amputated during the Civil War. It is a gripping story with lessons on geology
Feb 16, 2017 Tom rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The story of Powell and his crew making their way through the Grand Canyon in boats in 1869 is beyond fascinating. And Dolnick is the perfect one to tell that story. (This is the second of his books I have read, the other being The Clockwork Universe - about the scientific revolution - also a wonderful book.)
Powell himself wrote eloquently of this adventure, but Dolnick brings an outsider's sensibility to bear on the thing. For example, several of the men kept diaries, so Dolnick can compare the
Apr 12, 2007 Zedder rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This is the weakest adventure/exploration-type book I've read so far and I don't recommend it. Most of it is pretty damn boring. It gets a little more interesting towards the end, but only for a little bit. The interesting bit concerns the situation at the end of their trip down the Colorado river through the Grand Canyon. No one had ever been all the way down it before, on boat or foot, so they had no idea what was in store for them. For most of the trip they had dealt with this by exploring th ...more
I picked this book up at the Grand Canyon after watching the IMAX movie that includes a dramatic reenactment of Powell's journey. A one-armed Civil War veteran led the first exploratory trip through the Grand Canyon? And some of the men took a land route right at the end and were never heard from again? Sounds as exciting as the Amazon river & rainforest adventures that I enjoy so much!

Parts of this were really interesting, but Dolnick's focus on including every detail written down by the va
That the author was so present in the telling of this story was both its best and worst feature. He brings context to events and circumstances, but he does so through odd illustrations. For instance, he describes a boatman stuck in a muddy whirlpool as being in the center of a massive glass of chocolate milk as it is stirred by a giant 8-year old. It was consistently distracting, but I think it enhanced my understanding of the challenges the expedition team faced in the process of exploring the ...more
Malin Friess
Mar 21, 2017 Malin Friess rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
In 1869 at the mouth of the Grand Canyon, 60 miles from Lee's Ferry the one armed Civil War Veteran and Colorado River expedition leader John Wesley Powell penned the most famous words ever written about the Grand Canyon:

"We are now ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown. Our boats...ride high and buoyant, for their loads are lighter than we could desire (they lost most of their food). We have but a month's rations remaining. The flour has been resifted through the mosquito nets; the s
Wade Williams
Jan 28, 2017 Wade Williams rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I really enjoyed this book. I read a lot of history, on varied subjects, and love all of it. I recognize though,that often the writing style is a bit "text bookish-ish" and am hesitant to recommend the book to anyone other than someone who is seeking information on the specific topic.

This book is different. The writing style is very accessible, and does a great job of pulling you into the story. And what a story. John Wesley Powell, floats the previously unexplored region of the Colorado River,s
Jeff Jellets
Spoiler Alert: There are whitewater rapids in the next chapter!

The story of John Wesley Powell's journey through the Grand Canyon is undoubtedly epic and an amazing testimony to the indomitable determination (and luck) of the rag-tag group of men who were first to brave the cliffs and rapids of the mighty Colorado River and the first to survey the full length of the Grand Canyon. Author Edward Dolnick provides an accessible narrative that captures not only the spirit of the adventure, but someth
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 star
One of the great true adventure stories of the past few centuries is surely John Wesley Powell's expedition down the unexplored Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon in 1869, a journey of some 1,000 miles in ninety-nine days. Ten poorly-prepared men set out in six ill-equipped wooden boats, but only six survived.

Powell, a multi-faceted one-armed Civil War veteran, was the leader of the group, and much like another of my favorite adventurer-heroes, Ernest Shackleton, probably singlehandedl
May 01, 2012 Josh rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Really!? That happened? Wow. Reading about Powell's trip reminds me of when I first read about Shackleton's Antarctic adventures. Wow. I enjoyed this book all the more because my family and I visited the Grand Canyon for the first time last month. And because I'm a kayaker; river stories are up my alley (down my canyon?).

I had considered reading Powell's book about this trip, but I'm glad I read this secondary source instead. Dolnick does a great job comparing what Powell wrote vs. what others
James (JD) Dittes
I just couldn't put this book down once I started it--shall I blame it on the rapids or the writer?

Most accounts of the Colorado River Exploring Expedition focus on Powell and his account of the trip, but Dolnick elevates two other accounts by crew members to tell the story of the trip. The focus is on the rapids and the barreling river, rather than on Powell. Even better, Dolnick regularly breaks into the narrative to offer modern takes on many of the rapids by experienced boatmen.

The science o
Kathleen Hulser
Sep 24, 2011 Kathleen Hulser rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Gripping tale fleshed out with highly useful commentary on shooting rapids, river craft, boater drownings and other material designed to make you realize how very extraordinary or foolhardy the expedition led by the one-armed Powell was. In 1869 they did not even face down river, as they rowed their absurdly heavy Whitehall boats towards the rapids. Powell would hold onto a strap to keep from being thrown, as he called out rock hazards. They lined and portaged the heavily loaded boats, as their ...more
If you enjoy true stories of courage and exploration, this book is for you. Major Powell and 9 others journeyed through the Grand Canyon in wooden boats, the first white men known to do so.
One man left the group at the first opportunity after one of their boats was destroyed early on. The rest faced extreme temperatures, rain, rapids, lost supplies, food that went rancid or moldy, and more rapids. Lining the boats or portaging them, was often necessary, but difficult work and time consuming.
I f
Daryl Conley
Aug 08, 2011 Daryl Conley rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'm not a river / rafting type and I'm not a non-fiction reader by nature, but I have to admit - I really liked this book. The author can be a bit long-winded at times to make his point clear, but often it is worth it in the end. The story is amazing. You'll be blown away at the sheer courage of the expedition members and the trials they suffered through. They were the FIRST to go down the Grand Canyon and no one thought it possible. They had the wrong boats, no experience, and no knowledge of w ...more
Richard Curry
Mar 20, 2015 Richard Curry rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book is part Civil War history (battle of Shiloh, where Powell became an amputee of one arm: yes a one-arm man led the expedition!), part explanation of the geology and theology 19th Century controversies and mindsets, part documentary, epic journey narrative, and scholarly history, based on original contemporaneous documents written by percipient witnesses, and other concurrent sources which are noted, for further reading. He declares it is non-fiction, and he has stayed true to original a ...more
Alisha Erin
Nov 01, 2016 Alisha Erin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2016
Dolnick can write a captivating story. I will admit, he tends to repetition and sometimes he went on and on and on in this book, but it was not nearly as bad as in 'The Rescue Artist.' I also found the Civil War parts only kind of interesting. On their own, worthwhile yes, but I was too interested in the GC to want to divert to the Civil War at all. I think it was relevant info, but should have been significantly reduced. Also his interpretation of Mountain Meadows Massacre was informed by Juani ...more
Apr 11, 2014 Randy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Living in northern Arizona, about one hundred miles from the Grand Canyon, ready to celebrate Prescott's sesquicentennial, and having read and enjoyed another of Edward Dolnick's books ("The Clockwork Universe," about Sir Isaac Newton), I decided to read this book. It is a very well documented story of John Wesley Powell's expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers and the hardships they endured with that adventure. I also enjoyed the many side stories that Mr. Dolnick included in the book. D ...more
Aug 05, 2011 Connie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I read this excellent book in conjunction with my trip to the Grand Canyon. Seeing the places described really helped bring the text to life. Dolnick is an excellent writer who knows how to conduct exhaustive research and put it together into an engaging narrative. This book wasn't dry. Instead, it used the words of John Wesley Powell and two of his expedition crew who kept journals to describe the awesome trip they took in order to map and explore the Colorado River. They were the first organiz ...more
On May 24, 1869, John Wesley Powell 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. T ...more
Feb 24, 2012 Cari rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, 2012
An enjoyable read, simultaneously gripping and informative. I picked up Down the Great Unknown after reading another of Dolnick's books (The Clockwork Universe) that I enjoyed immensely, and while this isn't quite in the same league as that one, it's still worth looking into. Dolnick's style isn't as dense as many nonfiction writers, so this is an easy read but doesn't skimp on the details, and even his tendency to put in anecdotes surrounding this period is entertaining. (Granted they are occas ...more
Jan 09, 2013 Andy rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
John Westley Powell was an idealistic, one-armed Civil War vet with the outlandish idea of rafting through the previously unexplored Grand Canyon. He and 9 others set out to do this in 1869. They really had no idea what they were getting into. They didn't bring life preservers (except for the disabled Powell) and brought wooden row-boats completely unsuited for the rapids ahead.

That seems like some pretty good elements for a great adventure story. And while the journey for Powell and his men was
Story of the 1,000 mile voyage down the Green and Colorado rivers in the summer of 1869. The ten men who undertook it were led by one-armed John Wesley Powell and were reduced to six by the end. They were the first to traverse the Grand Canyon. Inexperienced and badly outfitted they encountered over 400 separate rapids. They finished the journey as their remaining food- flour and dried apples- was running out. Three men who decided to leave the expedition less than 24 hours from its end walked o ...more
Sep 13, 2015 Sanjeev rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2015
Wesley Powell reminded me of Ernie Shackleton and his voyage - strewn with unbelievable people, an almost fool-hardy mission, terrible odds and certain death on a daily basis, yet, all escaped unscathed. Okay, all people who stayed with the expedition escaped.

Edward Dolnick’s narrative is very descriptive with enough background on the times, events and people involved. He has researched his material thoroughly and kudos for that. At times, I did feel that the description was a bit more extensiv
Jun 02, 2015 Mike rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is one of the real classic adventure stories of our nation. In many ways superior to Lewis and Clark because of the daily challenges of rapids, unknown canyons, lack of food, and lack of experience. This truly was a journey on a blank spot on the map and the way this band of men made their journey safely through the continents most challenging rapids would seem to be fiction - but it is true.

A one armed major more interested in geology than his men, independent men who bristle at command, b
Oct 18, 2011 Suzanne rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Bethy, Dad
Recommended to Suzanne by: January Challenge - New/Discovery
Shelves: history, non-fiction
Whew, that was an incredible read! I can't even imagine the courageous foolhardiness of John Wesley Powell and the nine other men who decided to travel the Green and Colorado Rivers. Mr. Dolnick obviously did a ton of research and did a masterful job of reconciling the various diaries and trip accounts. Not only was the book a great adventure, I learned something of geology, river running, and history.

I felt very emotional at the end when the crew finally made it back to 'civilization' and throu
Nov 15, 2008 Jeffrey rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
outrageously good. If you have an unhealthy obsession with the Grand Canyon, and your early years were spent devouring Gary Paulsen books about cantankerous mountain men, it doesn't get much better than a crew of cantankerous mountain men led by a one-armed civil war veteran floating through the Grand Canyon in wooden row-boats. This is the kind of history that would seem over-the-top and contrived if it were fiction.
Devastating flash floods, moldy flour, near-mutiny, deceitful Mormons -- it's
Dec 12, 2015 Michal rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'm torn on how to rate this book. Dolnick does a good job of explaining the context of river running and the context of the times these men lived in. I especially like how he is able to bring in relevant side stories without entirely losing the thread of the main tale. The two things that make me waver on an entirely positive review are (a) his penchant for drama (trying to use foreshadowing and attributing personality to the elements seem out of place in historical non-fiction) and (b) the boo ...more
Feb 25, 2010 Gerry rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
This book belongs to a small set of books I've been reading with my son on early river explorations (see River of Doubt, about Teddy Roosevelts' exploration of a Amazon tributary, or Blood River, a modern excursion down the Congo laced with great back round stories of early Congo exploration). Down the Great Unknown deals with the 1869 journey of discovery and tragedy on the Colorado River, specifically the stretch through the Grand Canyon. It was nothing like modern runs down this now tamed ri ...more
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Edward Dolnick is an American writer, formerly a science writer at the Boston Globe. He has been published in the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times Magazine, and the Washington Post, among other publications. His books include Madness on the Couch : Blaming the Victim in the Heyday of Psychoanalysis (1998) and Down the Great Unknown : John Wesley Powell's 1869 Journey of Discovery and Tragedy T ...more
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“The men had two favorite modes of speech, wild exaggeration and ludicrous understatement. Ideally, both were delivered deadpan. Time and again, the accounts overflow with an offhand vitality that reminds us that we are listening to Mark Twain's contemporaries.” 2 likes
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